Girl power: Girls Got Grit women's four-wheel-driving on Fraser Island

On spectacular Fraser Island, Kylie McLaughlin becomes the Prado Princess during a girls' four-wheel-drive experience.

If your idea of a good weekend is kicking back at a resort pool drinking out of umbrella-stuffed coconuts, then look away. Although the latter is definitely part of this trip, Girls Got Grit is an adventure holiday in paradise under the guise of a weekend driving course.

In a situation where men might be inclined to take charge, this is a getaway designed to empower women by putting them behind the wheel and teaching them how to handle a four-wheel-drive vehicle on Fraser Island's sandy terrain.

But don't let all that "learning" put you off. In between the thrill of battling arduous sandhills, creeks and bogs, a dozen of us girls-that-got-grit get to spend time in Fraser Island's casual accommodation, Kingfisher Bay Resort. This is a good thing because Fraser is a popular island for camping, which I, for one, am not largely known for enjoying.

I am, however, renowned for eating and, handily, the resort is home to three top-notch restaurants, has a glorious-looking pool and spacious rooms with a great view of the bush-surrounded beach nearby.

For those uninitiated, Fraser is not just another island off Australia's north-eastern coast – it's the largest sand island in the world. It's a stunning and unusual place, surrounded by long uninterrupted stretches of sandy white beaches with dense rainforest covering the island's interior. There are over 100  freshwater lakes, some perfect for swimming.

We cruise down the beach, tearing through rivulets of water, bypassing several of the island's famous dingoes and finally reach the stunning Maheno​ shipwreck.

However, our sugar-fuelled journey does not commence on Fraser, but in Brisbane, from where we take in the best of the Sunshine Coast's novelty tourist hotspots (featuring the big Ned Kelly, the Big Pineapple, Vic Heslop's Shark Show) and the four-hour drive passes quickly. At Hervey Bay we settle into Coast Restaurant and Bar to sample the freshest scallops in Australia and lap up rays of brilliant Queensland sunshine while gearing into long weekend mode.

Weather permitting, the hop from Hervey Bay to Fraser Island can be done via ferry or jetski. We'd all been eager to jetski but strong winds mean we had to settle for the ferry. Any feelings of disappointment (or, in my case, relief) are cast aside when we're treated to a red-carpet arrival at Kingfisher Bay's jetty, featuring Moet, an enormous spread of cheese, fruit, and front-row seats to watch the sun as it sets magnificently over mainland Queensland.

After some R&R, we're ushered into the Seabelle, one of resort's three restaurants, and reputedly the island's best. Inspired by Australian bush-tucker, the three-course meal is astonishingly good, with ingredients sourced from the resort's garden, and the flavours strong, fresh and unexpected. 

The business end of the trip starts the next morning after a short ranger-led exploration of the native flora. Dave Darmody, a former primary school teacher who runs the Offroad Academy and the mastermind behind this particular course, explains some of the basics of four-wheel-driving on Fraser. His instructions are paired with tales of those who notoriously "leave their brains on the mainland" when visiting the island, resulting in hair-raising stories of boggings and cars being washed away in rising tides. We listen. Closely.

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Fraser's notorious "dingo problem" is also addressed, and is hard to avoid – but not because of the dingoes themselves. Signs warning visitors on the dangers of feeding and taking photographs with the purest of its species cover the island, but it's clear not everyone is getting the message, making a potential problem worse; the latest trend of backpackers taking "dingo selfies" being the best example.

Before the practical side of the tuition starts,  we're allowed to select our "beast". My choice of the Toyota Prado earns me the nickname of the "Prado Princess" and if the shoe fits – make sure it's a stiletto. The Prado is the Posh Spice of the four-wheel-drive world – flash, high-tech, and a sleek black – but most importantly, it's automatic and super-comfortable. Appropriately, I don lipstick, smooth my hair, and somewhat nervously, grab the keys.

As it turns out, I don't need 'em as the Prado's engine roars into life at the press of a button. The dash is intimidating and there's an extra gearstick, and without Darmody's morning lecture options such as "vehicle stability" and "traction control" would be completely meaningless. Flicking these high-tech features into action gets us into four-wheel-drive mode, and we're away.

Our Jurassic Park-style convoy spends a few hours driving around the purpose-built training area near the resort, ploughing through "wombat holes", steep hills, sharp turns, getting bogged and unbogged.

After lunch,we're ready to hit the road and the confidence we quickly gain is largely due to the training we've received, the fact we are driving in a convoy and guidance is on hand every inch of the way. Without the dangers of attempting to drive the island inexperienced and alone, it takes any real pressure off and we relax and have fun.

As we head further inland, our phone reception disappears and we're down to walkie-talkies, so we can relay any questions to Darmody or call for help if we run into any trouble.

The convoy heads to Lake McKenzie,  the most famous of Fraser's freshwater lakes, which is an arresting iridescent blue, ringed in white sand, and an irresistible swimming stop, as backpackers have discovered. Light rain suddenly sets in, making the sandy roads taking us to our next stop, the fairy rainforest of Central Station, firmer and easier to drive.

We're running a bit late returning to the resort, which means we encounter a new challenge – four-wheel-driving in the dark. We've definitely earned our enormous "bush-tucker" barbecue at the resort. From our private, outdoor dining area, which is atmospherically candlelit, we observe the guests at a wedding reception behind us, who are dancing along to the Spice Girls. With the girl power going on in this room, it kind of feels appropriate.

Come Sunday, we'd each had some experience climbing steep sandhills, navigating huge ruts, narrowing roads, tree branches and opposing traffic, and we were now ready to cross the island to 75 Mile Beach – the 24-kilometre-wide empty beach with an upper speed limit of 70kmh.

We cruise down the beach, tearing through rivulets of water, bypassing several of the island's famous dingoes and finally reach the stunning Maheno ​ shipwreck, atmospherically set against raging, shark-infested waters and angry-looking skies, a sight to behold.

Refuelling on more cake and caffeine for the return trip via Eli Creek, it was time to take the wheel for the toughest road of all – the return home.

Then it happened – the vehicle in front with the moniker "Crusty Cruiser" gets bogged.

Three chivalrous European lads make a dash to assist but are confronted by a group of indignant girls, newly-empowered with the skills to get out of a situation such as this. Tails between their legs, the boys beat a hasty retreat.

Fraser's beaches may reputably be amongst Australia's most dangerous, but we managed to avoid any real trouble, as well as steering clear of the island's tempestuous dingoes, its bar of ill-repute and a notoriously sleazy park ranger. As we escorted our sore posteriers and weary arms home, a member of the group casually remarked on how she somehow felt much more confident –which, I believe, was exactly the point.

TRIP NOTES

More information

http://www.nprsr.qld.gov.au/parks/fraser/about.html

www.kingfisherbay.com, www.australianoffroadacademy.com.au

Getting there

Fraser Island is a four hour drive from Brisbane, and an hour's ferry trip from Hervey Bay. Flights from Melbourne fly to Hervey Bay via Brisbane or Sydney, and daily from Sydney direct, see qantas.com and virginaustralia.com.

Australian Offroad Academy will arrange your transfers to and from Hervey Bay, australianoffroadacademy.com.au/#!ladies-weekends/c14mp . Cost is $635pp twin share and includes ferry transfers to and from the island, accommodation and all meals. The next trips will be running July 24-26 and October 9-11, 2015.

The writer travelled as a guest of Tourism and Events Queensland, Australian Offroad Academy and Kingfisher Bay Resort.

See also: Review: Kingfisher Bay Resort
See also: The world's best road trips, named by the experts

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