If a bunch of ladies decide to have a fun weekend away they wouldn’t normally choose to drive 4X4s.  But maybe they should…

In truth, it was a bit of a cop-out to take the Toyota FJ Cruiser on a training weekend to Fraser Island, where a bunch of newbie four-wheel-drivers were being shown how to master offroad skills — from deep sand to deep holes, to extracting one’s vehicle from its inevitable bogging. But the fact is, the multiple self-care talents of the mighty FJ made my 20-something co-driver Elle Hunt and me love the vehicle more with each passing hour, as we lapped up the fun and challenging driving, gobsmacking natural beauty and way too much delicious food across the Girls Got Grit weekend — all without a single bogging for the FJ.

Aside from our unshakably zen instructor Dave Darmody (owner of Australian Offroad Academy, father of two young daughters and inventor of the Girls Got Grit program), this was an all-woman weekend, and we came ready to shake, rattle and roll. Twelve female journalists, along with our hard-working media handlers Hannah Statham and Jodi Clark, were all escaping city life and weekend domestic chores in favour of the pristine glory of Fraser Island, the vast World Heritage-listed sand island just off Hervey Bay, Queensland. The idea that we could learn four-wheel driving skills in this sandy slice of paradise made the prospect of recovery straps and Maxtrax traction boards less daunting.

We drove our convoy onto the Kingfisher Bay Resort barge (you have to reverse on, but don’t let that put you off … it’s easier than you might think, even in a hulking great 4WD) and enjoyed the late-afternoon cruise across to Fraser. Once there, we were given our room keys and then slipped right into the paradise zone, with drinks and nibbles at Kingfisher Bay’s Jetty Hut. Watching the sun sink into the water, we resolved to get an early night so that we could be fresh for class the next morning. We did manage to fit in a delicious dinner at the resort’s top restaurant, Seabelle, featuring a bush-tucker inspired menu. Shout-out to my barramundi cooked in paperbark with a lillypilly and muntharry berry, ginger and red onion chutney. (On seeing the menu as we organised this trip, Practical Motoring technical editor Robert Pepper enviously suggested the program should be called Girls Got Gourmet.)

Media mavens enjoying lunch at Coast in Hervey Bay. Yeah…not seeing the ‘grit’ here ladies! –Ed

After an early-morning guided walk with a ranger to take in some of the amazing native plants and excitedly spot dingo tracks on the beach, we had a quick breakfast in the Maheno restaurant and assembled for our pre-training briefing with Dave. 

Here’s the thing about Dave: he is one of those special people who can impart complex information in a way that makes it sound simple, and from the get-go you feel you are in the safest of hands with this guy. You’re there to learn new skills and while you’ll never be in danger (and he’s very big on safety with some chilling tales of those who are not), but you will be challenged and you will have a heap of fun doing things you possibly thought were beyond you. It won’t surprise you to learn that Dave was a primary-school teacher before he set up Australian Offroad Academy, and still does relief teaching.

At the post-breakfast briefing in the resort’s loft area, Dave told us about the island’s famous apex predator, the dingo, describing them as “magic little creatures” and noting that “we don’t have a dingo problem, we have a people problem!” Australian Offroad Academy is Australia’s only eco-accredited driver training program. “There are some other thoughtful and careful eco-accredited tourism programs, but we have our training package accredited,” he explained. “It means a lot to me. We need to take care of where we drive so that they can take their kids there in a few years time.”

“I’m about empowering people to visit special places independently,” he added. “That’s nothing against the bus tours, but to see the island at your pace, take three or four days … becoming a part of it rather than being bustled through it. The Girls Got Grit weekend has two meanings: grit in that it’s going to take a bit of determination, and also, yeah, you’re going to get dirty.”

Dave gave us an overview of the day ahead, and ran through a lot of the sand-track rules, etiquette and some early tips, encouraging us to keep asking questions. He pointed out that a lot of people end up with great 4WDs but don’t use them properly: “Cars have an amazing amount of technology and if you use it, it will let you go amazing places. If you try to drive despite it, then it will stop you because it doesn’t know what you’re doing.”

A final tip before we headed out on the sand tracks: “The basic rule is buses have right of way … there are lots of little landing bays and it’s always better to drive into a bay rather than reverse into it and you’ll see why. You really need those front wheels to bite into the sand bank and lift you up. If you miss the bay, reverse back past it and drive into it, rather than attempting to reverse into it.”

Then it was up the hill for our tyres tutorial. “It might be a little dull,” said Dave, “but tyres are super important, not just on sand, but on every terrain including bitumen. Putting the most appropriate tyres on your 4WD or car or motorbike means the steering wheel does what you need it to do. For offroading, we have a policy in our company: we take our tyres as low as we need to go, but no further. I’m not throwing a blanket number out, because there are a whole lot of variables in play. And very even pressure is crucial. It’s not hit and miss: we measure!” (See what I mean about safe hands?)

Dave showed us the various gadgets to reduce tyre pressure, and how to do it. And after careful instruction from him, we all had to let down at least two tyres each. He’s right, it is a little dull, but after Dave talked us through how tyres operate, in the sand and elsewhere, I finally understood what different pressures do. Also, memo to new 4WD owners: you’ve spent that much on your vehicle, are you really going to skimp on getting stronger light-truck (LT) construction tyres for it? Ask Dave, he’ll convince you.

Tyre pressures. Important for any vehicle in any situation, critical for sand driving in 4X4s. Credit: Krista Eppelstun.

Then it was time for the real 4WD fun. “We’re heading into a training area that we’ve purpose built and sculpted out of the landscape,” Dave explained. “We’ve gone to great lengths to avoid pulling out trees, though we’ve had to pull out a few.” Again, he made sure we were thinking sensibly, despite the rising excitement of getting into offroad territory. “There will be times when we need you to help each other out,” said Dave. “Spot each other. We don’t want to reverse by feel. We’re all in unfamiliar territory.” Except you, Dave. This is your natural habitat.

The course is one of the brilliant aspects of Dave’s training. You’re there in a controlled, staged set-up, learning new skills and also learning what your vehicle can do. My Toyota FJ Cruiser (see separate review) had more bells and whistles than most of the vehicles in the group that weekend. Said Dave: “We’ve got such a range of cars here today. It’s very cool. You’re going to get to see different manufacturers’ ideas of how a four-wheel drive should perform, on the same track. You’ll get the opportunity to drive different cars.  A lot of four-wheel-driving is letting the vehicle do its thing.  In many cases we tend to hold the car back.”

Off we went. FJ fan Dave targeted my car for the first run around the track, through an impressively big hole. He patiently explained to me what to do, and how. And then I innocently asked, “What if I just drive around it?” I wasn’t being smart, I genuinely thought that might have been the object of the test! But no, I was forgetting we were here to get down and dirty. Dave said I could drive around it, sure, but then he’d ask me to do it again and drive through it. So up the hill the FJ and I went — I was a little light on the accelerator and barely crawling — and through the hole and out the other side. It didn’t miss a beat and the girls all cheered so wildly you would have thought I’d traversed a raging rapid. We were off. We had each other’s backs. None of us knew each other before the weekend but there we were on that first morning, looking out for each other and having fun. The next time, Dave told me to drive the car with a bit more purpose, rather than letting it crawl in auto. He was right: a little more speed gave me more control.

Dave said that the track training also “helps dispel some of the myths that boyfriends and husbands might have from watching four-wheel-drive DVDs”. We drove around and around the track with growing confidence, trying the various vehicles, going up and down jump-ups and holes and across lumps and bumps. The wombat-hole track was the deepest challenge, designed to make the cars get “crossed up”, with diagonally opposed wheels looking for traction and not being able to find it. Most of the cars had technology to help you overcome that situation, you just had to know how and when to use it, which Dave showed us.

We all got stuck here and there (even the FJ, briefly) and Dave explained and showed us how to master it and get going again. He took us through the cars’ various off-road settings, when to take it out of 4WD, when to go into low range, and when to lock the diff — and how, and why. He never forgets the why.

The morning flew by and then Dave unveiled his next secret skill: a purpose-built coffee cart, with a choice of coffee pods and tea, set-up in the back of his Mazda BT-50 ute. Time for a caffeine hit and some more questions in the morning sun.

4WD expert and barista Dave Darmody doing what he does best. Credit: Krista Eppelstun.

After that, there was one final learning exercise that Dave wanted to take us through before we headed out to drive the inland tracks with him. It was how to recover a car using recovery gear, the super-strong tow straps commonly known as “snatch straps”, a moniker Dave abhors because it suggests speed, and this needs to be a slow and careful exercise. It’s a complex operation and really requires a lot of caution, and Dave shared with us some horrific tales of people who’d approached recovery operations recklessly, six deaths in the past ten years, apparently. With Dave, it was slow, steady and safe, and after explaining what he was doing, and demonstrating how to safely attach the recovery ropes, getting the gritty girls to attach them, too, the vehicle we’d purposely stranded at the top of the jump-up was pulled free.

After a quick lunch back at Kingfisher Bay Resort, we headed out on the inland tracks. Dave had told us that the descent out of the resort was steep, and that he’d seen people pulled over at the bottom of it, white as sheets and wondering if all the tracks ahead were as terrifying. They’re not, he assured us. But that hill certainly is, I can tell you. I squibbed it and let Elle the Fearless tackle our first drive down that hill, and she did it with great panache. I may or may not have been laughing maniacally.

And we were off. Driving across the island in convoy. With many of the tracks two-way but only one-vehicle width, Dave managed to charm every single oncoming driver into pulling over to let our convoy pass. We were bound for Lake McKenzie, the bright blue “perched lake” that features on many Fraser Island postcards and is just as surrealy blue in real life. It was raining, but we didn’t care — the cars were eating up that sand (well, the FJ was … we had to stop a few times for other minor bogs among the rest of the fleet). We had the music cranked up and were having a ball. At Lake Mckenzie, at first we all thought it was a little chilly to get in … but three of us decided we couldn’t not go in (having piked on the hill, I am proud to say I was one of the first in the water!), and soon all of the gritty gals were in splashing about in that pristine wonder-lake. Bliss.

Credit: Krista Eppelstun.

Slightly soggy, we took off for Central Station, where there’s a camping area, and a spectacular short boardwalk stroll through the rainforest, above the white sands and crystal-clear water of Wanggoolba Creek. A quick afternoon tea and we jumped back in our vehicles and headed back to the resort for the night. Dave pointed out that this was a slightly compressed version of the Girls Got Grit weekend: paying customers will head to Eurong Resort for the second night, to be right on the beach for first thing Sunday, enabling them to see a few more sights around the eastern side than we did.

The next morning, we headed out early to cross the island and get to Seventy-Five Mile Beach, armed with Dave’s etiquette tips: “On the beach, when two cars are coming towards each other, and the beach is narrow, we will indicate. That’s a bit of etiquette that’s dropping away because when the beach gets a bit skinny, and hazy in the late afternoon, it really helps.” For our drive, however, the beach was nice and wide. There was a little rain and it was such a different experience to driving on the inland tracks, and it could be easy to relax. But Dave ensured that we didn’t assume that beach driving was a doddle, giving us a thorough briefing on the dangers of washouts, swales and people basking on the beach … all obstacles that can have catastrophic endings. You really have to stay super alert and keep your eyes scanning the beach ahead.

We were also scanning for dingoes. Dave had warned us that we might not get to see dingoes, but I’m glad to say he was wrong on that score, and also the first to spot them, way in the distance. He was spot on, there’s something magic about them, as they trot with an almost mechanical gait at incredible speed up the beach. Beautiful! We were all thrilled.

Credit: Krista Eppelstun.

A spot of arvo tea by the shipwreck of the Maheno, another Fraser landmark, and it was time to head back to the resort and board the barge back to the mainland. We were driving, warned Dave, across “probably the roughest track on Fraser … it’s not hard, it’s not a track where anyone’s going to break things, it’s just a technically more difficult track. There are tree roots and logs and holes and things like that — great fun!”

And so it was. I let Elle take the wheel for the remainder of the drive and she navigated those lumps and bumps like an old hand, even though she’d never driven a 4WD before that weekend. I point out, again, that we were in the FJ and nothing could stop us. We had to pull over a couple of times and wait while others in our convoy were bogged. I’d like to say we got out, walked back and helped them. But we didn’t. And anyway, they were having fun and learning skills that we didn’t get to. (That’s one way of excusing it…)

The weekend was two days of fun – you had to be there to get the two-way radio hilarity, of which there was plenty – friendship and a whole lot of learning. Girls Got Grit would be the perfect girlfriends’ group getaway, for a significant birthday or maybe a hens’ night. For about the same amount you’d spend on, say, a big night out at a fancy restaurant, a stretch limo and a city hotel, you would get to spend a couple of days exploring a World Heritage wonder and learning new driving skills that will put the guys in the shade next time you go off-road, or even on!  As to whether Dave would consider adding Guys Got Grit to his packages, you’d have to ask him. He has lots of driver training courses where men are welcome, but for this bespoke weekend on Fraser, my hunch is that he’ll stick with women for now: we’re better students, we’re more gentle on the cars and we’re the queens of the killer nickname (don’t worry Dave: what happens on GGG stays with the GGG girls).


Jane Nicholls was the guest of Queensland Tourism and Kingfisher Bay Resort.

Credit: Krista Eppelstun.

 The Girls Got Grit packages start at $635 twin share (not including flights to Hervey Bay), or $857 for a single.

The Australian Offroad Academy also offers other single-day packages to Fraser Island, a great way to get a longer visit off to a safe and sure start.

Some images supplied by Krista Eppelstun.

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Amazed they could still do this after all that grub! Credit: Krista Eppelstun.

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About Author

Jane Nicholls

Jane Nicholls is a journalist, happily out on the freelancing road after years on the full-time media highway, including editing WHO and four years in New York as PEOPLE’s editor-at-large. In her extreme youth, she worked on Overlander 4WD, but she leaves the auto obsessiveness to her husband. Her daughters Grace and Rosie enjoy playing Spotto for the yellow car, and fighting for the front seat. Her Schnoodle Jack prefers the middle-back seat and hopes the car is taking him to the beach—not to the vet.

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