That time I almost died on Fraser Island.

I WAS DRUNK.

Now, now… before you call my Mom or leave angry comments, let me finish… I WAS DRUNK but I wasn’t driving! This car accident had absolutely nothing to do with me whatsoever, but I’m also willing to say that I came out of the crash UNHARMED because of one simple fact; I was drunk.

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My buddy Ben and I were traveling along the coast of Australia. We had gone Scuba Diving in the Whitsunday Islands and were slowly making our way back down the coast to Sydney. We heard about this cool place called Frazer Island, an island with no roads, just sand. Fraser Island had some cool shipwrecks, waterfalls, and everybody’s second-favorite Australian quotable, the dingo. Are you kidding me? I’m SO IN.

Ben and I ended up signing up for the “jeep safari” of Fraser Island. This was a “drive-yourself” tour with 11 people. While the rest of our group was inside the building watching some training video on the island and the proper methods of avoiding a dingo attack, Ben and I were outside packing our massive jeep. We were able to pack most of the camping items on the roof and most of the “more important” stuff (sleeping bags, boxes of wine referred to as “goon,” cases of beer, handles of booze, etc.) under the seats in the back. We were so proud of our pack job we took this picture.

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Everybody was allowed to drive the jeep if they wanted to. The only thing is, the jeep was a stick shift. In fact, most cars in Australia are stick shifts. I don’t exactly have the best track record with manuals (although I have driven one across the country with Ward) so I decided I would “take one for the team” and forgo my turn as driver and declared myself “the Designated Drinker.”

There are no roads on Fraser Island, just trails of sand (and “Yes” we quoted Doc Brown constantly). We drove slowly through bumpy terrain, into clearings and over rocks to a number of beautiful locations. Nothing too dangerous, just fun in the sun and sand. So I kept drinking, slapping the bag of “goon” and preparing snacks… like a boss.

When you’re tired of driving slowly around the interior of Fraser Island, you can drive at the edge of beach, by the surf. Sculpted tight by the pressure of vehicles and the blowing winds, the ground is solid enough to open up the jeeps to 65 or 70 km/h (40-45 mph) . A few legs of our trip required driving on the beach and the gentlemen drivers didn’t hesitate to try out the truck’s V8 engine.

Then it was her turn.

She said she was uncomfortable driving when they offered it to her the first time. They said they’d ask her again after we visited the battleship. By that time, everybody else had gone, except for her and me. I’d been drinking all day so the answer was clear… IF she wanted to drive, now was the time. One of the guys volunteered to drive, but after a little egging on from the other girls, she acquiesced and climbed into the driver’s seat (on the right side!) and fired it up.

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Three girls sat in the front seat with the remaining eight of us in the back on bench seats, seated across from each other. I sat closest to the front, behind the passenger. Ben sat on the same side, closest to the door. With everybody in, we closed the back doors and they clicked shut. [This picture was taken earlier in the day.]

I don’t know why I had a state of heightened awareness. Maybe it was because she was nervous to drive. Maybe it was premonition. I think it may have been because I was drunk. Whatever it was, my eyes were fixated out the front window. I wanted to see everything that happened while this girl was driving.

Everything was going fine until,

“Hey, give it a little speed!”

FUCK. THAT. GUY.

I don’t remember who said it but somebody egged her to step on the gas… So she did. (The more I think about it, the more I think it was Ben.)

Sand is much weaker than cement and cannot withstand quick changes in direction from a thousand-pound jeep. Everything must be done slowly to not disrupt the surface tension and rigidity of the hard packed sand.

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On Fraser Island, the winds blow the sand into small dunes, some stretching nearly all the way to the water. I saw a large one coming and (it is now clear) she did not see it until it was too late. She turned the wheel and I felt a little jolt in the back of the jeep. Instead of slowing down, she turned the wheel back the other way, hoping to “even it out.” Instead, I felt the truck dip.

I grabbed my knees when I saw the ocean. It was straight out of the airplane safety manual. I immediately put my head down and interlocked my arms under my knees, tucking into a tight ball. How the hell was I supposed to know what to “properly” do in a rollover crash? I was outside packing the damn truck during the instruction video! Besides, if nothing happened, I could always blame it on the goon…

The passenger-side wheels caught the sand first, digging in strong. The jeep immediately started into the barrel roll, tossing me backwards. The girls in the front were screaming while the back turned into a chaos of bodies, camping gear and booze, but I remained tight in my safety position. After two and a half rolls, we came to a stop, upside down in the breaking surf. And just like that, I was stone cold sober.

The girls in the front seat quickly climbed out their windows before the water started flooding in. I was buried at the bottom of the pile in the backseat yet still hanging upside by my seatbelt. After a verbal check that everybody was alright, Ben tried to open the door but couldn’t. It was locked and had to be opened from the outside.

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Ben pounded on the door as the water level rose inside the jeep. The water came up to my eyebrows before receding away. This was the living embodiment of my worst nightmare… all because I didn’t want to drive a stick shift!

After what felt like hours (but less than a minute), the back door was pried open by some locals who witnessed the whole thing. One by one, they unclipped their seat belts and climbed out. I was the last one to get help and the water was rising. When I was finally able to unclip my own seat belt, I fell to the ground (ceiling?) and everything under the bench (i.e. boxes of booze) came crashing down on me. I panicked for a minute, before Ben helped dig me out.

The female driver had to be helicoptered off the island. So did the girl who sat across from me. She broke her wrist reaching for the ceiling during the tumble. (We saw them a few days later and they were both fine.) The rest of us were pretty shaken up about the whole thing, numbly collecting our damp camping supplies and sandy belongings.

Ben and I waded out into the surf to retrieve parts of the truck that had been carried away. The windshield. A rearview mirror. Someone’s sleeping bag. The waters off Fraser Island have an abundance of sharks and jellyfish, so much so that swimming with a “sting suit” is required. We didn’t have our sting suits on. We simply waded out in our clothes, laughing at the irony of living through a car accident only to die from a jellyfish sting. We didn’t care.

But nobody died. We all made it, including the driver! The lesson was loud and clear; If it doesn’t feel right, don’t do it.

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We got a little help in flipping the jeep back over, and just as we did… this rainbow happened.

Say what you will, I think it was a sign.

CHE

P.S. I still have the side mirror from the Jeep and pull it out every once in a while to reminisce about how fragile life is… mostly when I’m drunk.

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