Stunning lakes, inquisitive dingos and plenty of offroad excitement… just three reasons why Fraser Island is a must-see, writes Andrew Westbrook.

“Look, look, look,” screams the excited German girl riding shotgun. I slow to a halt on the hard sand and, as all behind me scramble for their cameras, follow her pointing finger out to the pounding surf to find the source of her delight. And there they are – a pair of humpback whales playfully splashing and diving just off the shore as they charge up the coast alongside us. Gawping with wonder at these majestic giants of the sea, we quickly reach the consensus that it’s going to be a good day.

Indeed, having already made stops to give way to a landing plane (the beach, which doubles as a road, also happens to triple as an airstrip), check out a massive manta ray that had washed up, and also watch a dingo dig up a fish, it has turned into quite an eventful drive, all in all.

We’re on Fraser Island. You may have heard of it. The number of backpackers who visit Australia each year and don’t make it to the world’s biggest sandpit is, on average, about six. Six, coincidentally, also happens to be the number of people who don’t rate it as one of the best things they’ve done Down Under. That’s a fact (I read it on Wikipedia).

Now, too much hype is normally a bad thing (anyone seen Avatar?), but this Queensland highlight has nothing to fear. I’ve been to Fraser before, twice in fact, and each time considered it one of the most enjoyable, and best value, things to do in Australia.

But I was intrigued to head back one more time because, not so long ago, the laws involving the island’s self-drive backpacker tours changed quite dramatically. Previously, you were pretty much given a few offroad driving tips, handed the keys to an 11-man 4WD truck and off you went, discovering awesome adventures around every corner, adventures which undeniably felt somehow more exciting due to going it alone without the supervision of anyone who knew remotely what they were doing.

Unfortunately, however, there were way too many horrific crashes over the years, resulting in way too many backpackers being airlifted to intensive care (or worse). As a result, safety changes have been brought in. Lead vehicles must now be driven by a guide, bags are no longer allowed on the roof and the number of people per vehicle has been reduced. So, I pondered, would exploring this World Heritage-listed fantasy island still be as much fun?

Our expedition begins, after the short ferry ride from Hervey Bay, with a drive across the 25km-wide lump of sand, cutting through the rainforest and eucalypts that sprout from the white ground.

It’s not long until we hit the island’s eastern shore, and 75 Mile Beach, which also happens to be Fraser’s main highway. Nothing quite beats the freedom of driving up the beach, with sand dunes rising on one side, waves crashing on the other and only the occasional fisherman to dodge. However we soon have our first stop, and our first chance to experience one of Fraser’s famous lakes. With waters full of deadly rip tides and even deadlier packs of marauding tiger sharks, swimming in this part of the South Pacific is a definite no-no, but that’s of no importance on Fraser, which has some of Australia’s most stunning freshwater lakes.

The first we visit is Lake Wabby. Nestled at the bottom of a steep sand dune, with schools of catfish playing in the shallows and cooling forests rising up the other three sides, Wabby is the deepest of Fraser’s lakes and definitely one of its most spectacular.

Arriving after a trudge through the shady eucalpts, we waste no time in clambering up the endless sandblow to survey the scene, before racing down into the refreshing green waters. We’ve got the place to ourselves and it feels like we’re a million miles from anywhere.

Fully refreshed and back at the truck, we head on up the beach until the rusting hulk of the Maheno wreck looms into view. The ship was blown ashore during a cyclone in 1935, and now remains as a permanent, slightly eerie, fixture on the beach. We busy ourselves with attempts at taking arty photos, before exploring further, stopping now and then for another swim or a wander, until the time comes to set up camp and take our positions around the fire.