The first day on the island, I took it easy. The secret of a long tramp is not to rush it; as you get further into the expedition, the pack gets lighter, you get fitter, you get used to sleeping on the ground and it generally gets easier to walk all day. However, the first days are always tough, and this was no exception. From the ferry, the only track leading into the island is the road, and with Fraser Island being entirely made out of sand (with only three small outcrops of bedrock on the whole island), the road walking is very hard, as you're basically traipsing through dune systems. The 8km walk to Central Station – a grand-sounding name for nothing more than a ranger station, toilet block and campground – took me a good couple of hours, and I just collapsed into my tent on arrival. I have to admit I was a little worried; if all the walking was going to be this tough, this was going to be a very long visit.
The area I walked through, though, was indicative of interesting times to come. Starting from the mangrove mudflats, the road winds its way through eucalyptus, banksia and cypress pine forests, without a doubt my favourite tramping environment after spinifex outback. There's banksia with its odd, brushy seed cones (hence its nickname 'the loo brush tree') and strange, serrated leaves; the gum trees with their distinctive and refreshing smell, striking white trunks and, at this time of year, peeling bark; the pine needles strewn across the ground, creating a fertile mulch from which wattles and bushes of all sorts of shapes and sizes grow... and all this in an environment that looks parched, nutrient-free and downright oppressive. It's a great example of nature reclaiming the land in a far more effective way than man ever could.
By the time I arrived at Central Station, the gum forests had given way to closed-canopy sub-tropical rainforest, something that I hadn't explored a great deal before visiting Fraser Island. I saw plenty of tropical rainforest in northern Queensland and the islands of the South Pacific, and mounds of temperate rainforest in New Zealand, but the sub-tropical variety is different again, being a real mixture of tropical and temperate; the canopy isn't as closed and outrageously full as in the tropics, where vegetation hangs from just about everywhere, but sub-tropical rainforest still has all the huge fern palms and lush greenery that isn't so common in temperate zones. The area around Central Station is beautiful, with the wonderfully cool and clear Wanggoolba Creek flowing over its sandy bed, past rare ferns (found only in this one spot in the world) and through a canopy where the sun only manages to penetrate as shards, picking out trees and vines with the accuracy of a stage spotlight. After setting up camp, I wandered off on a 4km track to Pile Valley, noting with some relief that the walking tracks in the forest are firm and easy to walk on; it's hard to imagine that everything's sand, because the forest has laid down such a thick layer of what we would call soil (albeit sandy soil) that it feels no different to walk on than normal earth.
Pile Valley is home to a strand of satinay trees, kings of the forest with their perfectly straight, 70m (210 ft) trunks soaring up above the canopy. Back in the bad old days when Fraser Island was a logging site, satinay trees were cut down for use in marine building, because they have such a high sap content that they're resistant to rotting from sea water, a bit like teak. Fraser's satinay was used to line the Suez Canal in the 1920s, and luckily there are quite a few trees left for tourists like me to stare at.
That night was bloody freezing, my first taste of the somewhat unpredictable nature of Fraser's weather. Clear skies mean cold weather, and I had to wear everything I owned to stop my teeth from chattering. Luckily the family next to me in the campground had built up a fire, so I warmed myself by that, chatting away to the kids and parents and gladly accepting a couple of beers to while away the night. The first night in the bush is always fairly strenuous – roll mats aren't mattresses, and inflatable pillows are, literally, a pain in the neck – but the next day I was up with the worms, and ready to take off south through the bush.