Photo Report: Driving a Toyota Hilux on K’gari Fraser Island, Australia

Toyota Hilux on K’Gari Fraser Island

As of 2015, the Toyota Hilux was the best-selling vehicle in an estimated 42 countries in the world, by far the most crowned nameplate on the planet. Stay tuned for an update article coming soon featuring H1 2017 sales. In 2016, the Hilux became the first commercial vehicle to top the Australian annual sales charts, and it is in the lead again so far in 2017. It was high time for BSCB to test-drive this worldwide best-seller, and Toyota Australia kindly loaned us a Hilux Double Cab TD SR5 4×4 2.8L for one week. We decided to take it to spectacular Fraser Island, or K’gari in local Butchulla Aboriginal language (pronounced “Gurri”) which means paradise. But first to find a name for our Hilux. The last loaner we had was a Haval H9 we nicknamed Ivanhoe, so this one needs to start in J. The search quickly narrowed down to Joey, meaning a baby kangaroo, apt for this agile and shining new Hilux.

It all started in Sydney…Fraser Island location in AustraliaFraser Island map

We took hold of the Hilux at Toyota’s Sydney headquarters, and from here to Fraser Island it’s a 15h, 1.250km-long trip traversing countryside New South Wales and Queensland. The return voyage ended up adding 2.639 km to Joey’s odo, all done in four days. K’Gari Fraser Island is the largest sand island in the world at 1.840 km2. Yep, that means there isn’t a single rock on the island! It is located 250 km north of Brisbane on the Australian east coast, has a length of 120 km (75 mi) for a width of around 24 km (15 mi). It houses over 100 freshwater lakes that are some of the cleanest in the world. Joey couldn’t resist a splash in one of the freshwater rivers running down into the ocean:

K’Gari Fraser Island has been inhabited by humans for at least 5.000 years and is the home of roughly 200 inhabitants today. It was formerly known as the Great Sandy Island in the late 18th and early 19th century and owes its current name to Eliza Fraser who created what may well be one of the first instances of what we call today “fake news”… Eliza Fraser was the wife of Captain James Fraser, master of the Stirling Castle that struck a reef north of the island in 1836. They landed with the crew on a longboat, then attempting to trek south. Eliza claimed she was captured by the Badtjala people who she wrongly accused of being cannibals. Many other survivors of the same shipwreck later disputed her claims. However, Fraser’s fictional report of her ill-treatment on the island eventually led to the massacre and dispossession of the island’s tribe. The 1976 film “Eliza Fraser” sustained the legend and was at the time the most expensive Australian film ever made.

Access to the barge to Fraser Island (Inskip Point)

As we had booked accomodation in Happy Valley, about half-way up the eastern coast of the island (see map above), we decided to enter Fraser Island from the south, taking the barge from Rainbow beach and Inskip Point. We thought it would be a small yet proper harbour with, well, a sealed street leading to it. None of this in this part of Australia! To reach the barge we first had to cross a pretty deep sand field. My co-driver David and I have no prior experience of sand driving – one of the reasons we wanted to take the Hilux here – so we had just previously lowered the pressure of our tyres slightly, thinking it would be enough with the help of the low range 4WD gear. How naive were we.

Maxtrax recovery tracks

Only a few metres and we got bogged down. After watching us for a few minutes trying to extricate ourselves and just as we were starting to think that Fraser Island would remain unreachable for this trip, two good samaritans (as only they come by in Australia) got us out of here with a pair of bright orange Maxtrax recovery tracks such as the one pictured above. A must-buy for any trip where you are planning to drive in the sand. They also had a valve that automatically lowered our tyres to 100kpa (or 15 psi). Perfect. We were now set.

It turns out, getting bogged down in Inskip Point is at the same time so frequent and so surprising that there is a Facebook Page dedicated to it! Yessir! It’s called “I got bogged at Inskip Point”, has almost 100.000 followers  and features numerous videos of cars getting… well, bogged down. We are now part of an exclusive club!

Joey and the barge to Fraser Island in Inskip Point
Joey on the barge towards Hook Point on Fraser Island

We are the only vehicle on the southern barge to Fraser, with a German backpacker giving us our ticket. Payment is by credit card with the captain perched atop a steep ladder and our National Park entrance fee is only available to purchase online. Thankfully the beaches on Fraser have very good wifi access (!). Upon landing on Hook Point is the real test of our sand driving and the lowered pressure are working a treat: it’s like we’re flying above the sand… Off we go on the exactly named 75 mile Beach. The entire eastern coast of the island is indeed a “beach track” open to vehicles. Only 4WDs are allowed on the island however.

Dingos on Fraser Island

Fraser Island invariably triggers one reaction among Australians: “don’t feed the dingos!” Dingos are a type of free-ranging dogs native to Australia. They are the largest terrestrial predator in Australia and have a prominent role in Aboriginal culture. Dingoes of Fraser Island, estimated to be around 180 to 220, are considered some of the last remaining pure dingoes in the country. As a result and to prevent cross-breeding, dogs are now allowed on the island. Since the 2001 killing of a boy by several dingoes on the island, strict measures have been taken regimenting human interaction with the animals (see card above). You can be heavily fined for feeding dingoes or even leaving food and rubbish out which may attract them.

GPS on the beach40 km/h speed limit sign along the 75 mile Beach

The 75 mile Beach is in effect a sort of sand highway, so much so that speed limit signs have been installed on the side of the beach! As far as I was concerned this was a first for me. It’s rather simple: where freshwater rivulets or rivers cross the beach towards the ocean creating creases, the speed limit goes down to 40 km/h. Otherwise it’s 80 km/h. Seems like a pretty high speed for driving on the sand but, as we’ll explain further down, high(ish) speed on sand isn’t actually a bad thing, rather much needed help. Another peculiarity of the 75 mile Beach “highway” is that the southern part of it towards Hook Point which is where the barge lands isn’t passable at high tide. To add fun to the game, the tides actually vary greatly from day to day, so we ended up being glued to the Fraser Island tide webpage for a good part of our stay on the island and opted to drive when the tide was going down rather than up, “just in case”…

Air Fraser Island plane. Picture wikipedia

One of the other “dangers” of driving on this part of the island is that it also serves as a landing strip for Air Fraser Island planes – these are not seaplanes – which offer touristic overviews of the Island. During my first trip to the island back in 2003, one of these planes landed just next to us and it was a mighty unforgettable sight. We did not have that luck this time but did see a couple of planes take off further along the beach. So in a word, when driving on the 75 mile Beach, you have to pay attention above more so than right or left…

Joey posing next to the shipwreck of the S.S. Maheno

An iconic sight of Fraser Island is the shipwreck of the S.S. Maheno, also located along the east coast of the island. It became beached in 1935 while being towed to Osaka to be broken up. But it doesn’t stop there… During the Second World War, the S.S. Maheno wreck served as target bombing practice for the Royal Australian Air Force. Today, almost three and a half storeys are buried under the sand. Speaking of which, now onto sand driving…

Sand driving on the way back to the bargeOne of Fraser Island inland sand tracks. And yes this is a two-way track! 

Driving on sand turned out to be much easier than expected once our tyre pressure was significantly lowered. That is, if you follow one simple rule: don’t drive slow! Completely counter-intuitive, driving kind of fast on sand is key to avoid getting bogged down. This explains why the speed limit is as high as 80 km/h on some parts of the 75 Mile Beach. On average, driving at around 40 km/h constantly will do the trick. To me, it felt like driving on semi-solid mud, to my co-driver David who also flies planes, the way the car follows the sand tracks and ruts more than obeying your steering reminded him of how a plane feels in windy conditions. A scary part though was driving on one of the inland sand tracks that didn’t allow space for more than one vehicle even though it was a two-way track!

Here’s Joey driving through the last bit of sand we had for him, after arriving back to Inskip Point, before a (very quick) review of the vehicle below. This time we didn’t get bogged in Iskip Point! Too bad for their Facebook Page…

A happy crew!

Sand driving ability: this is why we came to Fraser Island and we weren’t disappointed, once a few basics were applied on our side. Nothing can stop the Hilux outside the beaten tracks and this test drive proved it again.

Interior comfort is top notch, the pickup feels robust to drive yet is very manoeuvrable.

2.8L TD Engine has all the grunt that is needed for this type of trip, be it on sand or on asphalt.

Commands are all very intuitive apart from one (see below)…

Fuel consumption is correct given the size of the vehicle

The main and surprising source of grunts was the GPS: disconcerting at best, frustrating at worst, it’s convoluted to operate, and thus dangerous because requiring complete attention on the screen. Names of hotels cannot be picked up unless you are “near”, the GPS continues to calculate the route once arrived at destination… The list goes on.

A pet hate of mine: for this type of price (AU$ 59.459 driveaway), you’d expect not just the driver seat to be electric but the passenger one as well. It is manual. Feels a tad cheap.

It’s good bye for now Joey!

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