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 double 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, just a few months 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 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.

And that’s pretty much how the three days progress. At one point, after following the humpbacks up the beach, we clamber up Indian Head, the remnants of a long-extinct volcano which now forms the island’s only rocky headland.

From our vantage point we look down on the transparent waters to see yet more migrating whales frolicking in the distance, while the shallows are filled with manta rays and a worrying amount of circling sharks.

Several times our trusty guide, who consistently reminds us he is there to advise rather than lead, pulls up and shows us where to dig for mussels, which we later use as bait for fishing in the waves while the sun sets on another day.

Into our third day, and with our trip approaching its end, we’ve got time for just one more stop before heading to the ferry. The headline-grabbing Lake McKenzie is closed during our visit, to help it recover from the inevitable pollution created by tourists, so we drive instead to Lake Boomanjin.

The world’s largest perched lake, which still possesses the perfectly white silica sand and transparent waters seen in a million McKenzie postcards, Boomanjin is no poor substitute. Plus, once again, we practically have the place to ourselves as we laze around and reflect on our long weekend.

Fraser Island is a truly magical place, full of offroad excitement, inquisitive dingos and the sort of gorgeous swimming spots that demand the immediate stripping off as much clothing as deemed decent.

And while the compulsory presence of a guide now dims the trip’s sense of outright adventure ever-so-slightly, that is overwhelmingly outweighed by the benefits that having an expert on hand inevitably brings – from the knowledge of the island’s creatures, plants and best spots, to the simple reassurance that getting stuck in the sand is not going to ruin your trip.

For many years now, Fraser Island has enjoyed the word-of-mouth status of being one of the absolute must-sees of Australia’s east coast trail. It’s a status that has quite rightly not changed one bit.

The damage & the details: A three-day guided self-drive tour of Fraser Island, including two nights accommodation in Hervey Bay, costs $369 with Nomads (Freephone: 1800 666 237, www.nomadshostels.com)