I designated day 5 as a rest day, both because I had planned for an extra day somewhere along the line, and because my feet were quite, quite buggered. Despite it being a rest day, I wandered north up the beach for some 6.5km, but this time without a pack or shoes; it was then that I realised the best way to walk on the beach is with what the Aussies call 'beach shoes': bare feet.
As I walked along the beach, burden-free, I really began to appreciate the beach for what it is. The sights are strange to behold: fishermen down at the low tidemark, dragging a rotting fish head round and round on the sand, enticing worms to the surface which they then grab round the back of the neck and drop in a bucket for bait; couples digging holes in the sand for pipis, little triangular shellfish who dig into the sand, leaving a tell-tale and fatal little mound on the surface that enables fishermen to dig them up for bait; and, of course, there's the sea itself.
It has character, the sea. Since time immemorial authors have waxed lyrical about it (myself included), but they always talk about the ocean, the realm of Poseidon, the storms and the swells. But what I discovered on the beach on day 5 was the spectator sport that is Wave Watching, and it's right up there with synchronised swimming for raw emotion and power. After wandering the beach for days, I discovered six types of wave, each with its own crowd-pleasing characteristics and judge-tickling merits. The idea of Wave Watching is to try to guess the type of wave before it breaks, with extra points if they go a long way up the beach.
First up is the Normal Wave, the one that everyone is familiar with. Its approach to the beach is good, its speed constant, and it breaks harmlessly and gracefully on the waterline to a polite ripple of applause from the crowd. Not one of life's achievers, the Normal Wave is the mainstay of the Wave Watching scene.
Next up is the Leaping Wave. As a Normal Wave breaks on the beach, the Leaping Wave rolls in from behind, leaping over the stranded Normal Wave and making it all the way to the waterline and sometimes beyond, filling up any new 4WD tracks and breaking all previous records. The crowd loves it, the TV companies thrill to the escalating viewing figures, and if you're not careful you'll get soaked.
Type three is the Big Wave, one of the all time favourites, but it's a rare sight. Breaking with foam flecking and sand booming, the Big Wave doesn't necessarily make it a long way up the beach – in fact, he quite often performs quite poorly in this respect – but he's impressive, and the crowd is on its feet.
More common is the Stationary Wave. He's coming up the beach, preparing to break that waterline, and he meets another wave sliding back down the beach, taking the track out from underneath him. The result? He just sits there, not going forwards, and not going backwards. It's a disappointment, but it's all in the timing, and some waves have it, and some don't. Actually, the Stationary Wave is my favourite, because you can walk along it and get a free foot spa without the groin-soaking experience of a Leaping Wave.
The Backwards Wave is a real let down; like the Stationary Wave, he meets another wave coming backwards, but this time the sliding wave is a big one, and the new wave ends up being swept out to sea, often breaking backwards. Still, every sport has its losers, otherwise you wouldn't have winners.
The final category, the Head-on Wave, is one of life's bittersweet stories. After weeks, months, maybe even years of being built up by offshore winds, this wave is full of confidence and energy as he bounds up to the beach. Will he be a Big Wave? Or maybe he'll be lucky enough to be a Leaping Wave? But fate deals him a cruel hand; instead of finding a nice, smooth beach to break on, he meets head-on the freshwater Canute that is Eli Creek, and he's got no chance. Four million litres an hour smash him back, and after all that preparation, all the Head-on Wave can do is foam at the mouth. Eli wins every time, but the crowd loves a trier, and that's what counts.
About 3.5km north of Eli Creek lies the wreck of the Maheno. The Maheno was a luxury passenger ship that was sold off to the Japanese for scrap in 1935, but as it was being towed north towards its new home, a cyclone blew it onto the beach on Fraser Island where it still rests and rusts today. It's a weird sight that you can see for a good hour's walk to the north and south, and at low tide you can get right up to the wreck and, if you ignore the warning signs, walk round inside it.
The fishermen who had plied me with beer had their own unique take on events. They reckoned that the Japs beached the wreck intentionally so that they could then send people over to try to salvage it, who could make maps of the area in preparation for an invasion in the war that they knew was going to happen. This wonderful conspiracy theory was apparently backed up by the fact that 'the Japs had better maps of the east coast of Fraser Island than the Aussies during the war', a titbit that would be interesting to confirm or disprove. Still, one of the boys made a good point. 'It's not fuckin' hard to make a fuckin' map of this fuckin' beach,' he said so eloquently. 'It's just a big fuckin' straight line with a couple of fuckin' curves at each end.'
'Bloody oath,' I muttered in agreement, as I raised my wide-mouthed can to the sky. Sometimes you can't beat the Aussie bloke for perception and articulation, so why try?
A couple of kilometres north of the Maheno are the Pinnacles, the northernmost point that I reached on the island. As a destination, if a tramp such as this can be said to have a destination, the Pinnacles were a marvel. Fraser Island is famous not only for its fairly unique environment – rainforest thriving on nothing but sand – but also for its actual sand, which has built up over such a long time that it gives geologists the same feelings that Pirelli calendars give car mechanics. For these reasons Fraser Island is a World Heritage area1 and the layered coloured sands of the Pinnacles are a vivid reminder of its deserved standing among natural phenomena. Imagine a combination of Purnululu and Nambung, and you're not far off the rainbow-coloured spires of the Pinnacles; stick in a blue sky peppered with surreal cloud formations, and it's a postcard photographer's delight. It certainly made a worthy and fitting destination for my rest day's walk.
The Pinnacles have a lovely Dreaming story associated with them, too. The Butchulla people, the Aboriginal inhabitants of Fraser Island, who call Fraser Island k'gari (pronounced 'gurri'), tell of a girl who left her man to go off with the rainbow man. Now the man she jilted was a bit of a hero when it came to using the boomerang and spear, so he decided to hunt down his ex and kill her for shaming him. He eventually found her on k'gari and threw his boomerang at her. The rainbow man, however, threw himself in front of her in an act of selfless love, and the boomerang hit him and shattered him into a million pieces that fell onto the dunes of k'gari. And that's why the sands of Fraser Island are coloured, whatever the geologists say.
1 World Heritage areas, like the Grand Canyon, the Taj Mahal and the Egyptian pyramids, are protected for future generations to enjoy by the United Nations World Heritage Committee; they are deemed to be places that, if altered, would be an irreplaceable loss to the planet. Australia is particularly rich in World Heritage sites; there's the Great Barrier Reef, Kakadu, Uluru, Tasmania's western wilderness, the wet tropics of northern Queensland, Shark Bay, Fraser Island, Lord Howe Island and the Willandra Lakes, and the list is growing all the time.