Fraser Island – A Paradise Made of Sand
By all logic, this island really shouldn't exist.
It is the largest sand island in the world (122 km long) and there is a lush, majestic rainforest growing out of all that sand. Have you ever tried to grow anything in sand? It’s virtually impossible.
The only reason the forest exists is due to the abundance of fungi in the sand that make nutrients available and allow the plant life to grow. This surreally beautiful island, located off the East Coast of Australia, has no shortage of natural wonders – deep blue freshwater lakes, colourful cliffs and long unspoiled beaches. It’s pretty amazing – and it’s a fascinating place to explore on a day trip from Hervey Bay.
The Fraser Island Tour
There were two choices for the Fraser Island tour – a Standard One Day Tour and a Premium One Day Tour. The only difference between the two tours is that the more expensive one had a smaller bus and better quality food. The cheaper option was 179 AUD and the premium tour was 205 AUD, so we chose the cheaper one. I’m glad we did, as it was an excellent experience and I didn’t feel like we were missing out.
The journey began with a pickup from our hotel at 7:25 am, too early in the morning for poor night owl Lee. After picking up other guests from their hotels we got on the ferry. I was worried that it might make me sick (I am prone to seasickness) but it was a smooth ride.
We were delighted to find that there was a kitty who lived on the boat. We tried to give it cuddles, but it was pretty aloof (as most cats are).
A Smooth Ride With Steve
Our tour guide was Steve, a proper Aussie bloke with the hat and accent to match, not to mention a thick late-Movember moustache.
Driving the bus on the uneven sandy track through the forest was bumpier than the boat. The bus swayed back and forth as the wheels spun around, seeking traction in the loose sand. However, Steve navigated the vessel with skill, while simultaneously giving a running commentary on the history of the island.
At one point as we rumbled down the bumpy track Steve explained why driving a bus through the sand was easier than driving a small car.
“The bigger the vehicle, the smoother the ride.” He said.
“I betcha that’s his chat up line with the ladies.” Lee whispered to me.
Be Dingo Safe
Fraser Island is home to around 200-300 dingoes, so there is a chance that you might spot one of these wild dog-like creatures. Unfortunately, dingoes have become unhealthy and dangerous because people have been feeding them over the years. This teaches them to associate humans with food, so they approach people for food which can sometimes lead to agitated dingoes and attacks.
Sadly, once this happens the park staff have little choice but to shoot the offending dingo, which makes the population even smaller. So, for the health of the dingos and for your own safety – don’t leave food lying around and don’t try to feed a dingo if you see one.
If you see a dingo and it is threatening you, the best thing to do is to put your arms up in the air so that you look bigger, then back away slowly towards a large group of people. Do not turn around and run – when you turn your back they will see you as prey and chase you down. Also, if you do feel threatened by a dingo you can always shout “Dingo!” and within minutes you will be surrounded by a large crowd of people who want to take a photo.
As well as giving us plenty of safety information about dingoes, Steve also warned us to watch out for poisonous snakes and funnel web spiders in the rainforest. We were told not to swim on the Pacific Ocean side of the island, as it is a “shark highway.”
Australia is like a female assassin in a James Bond film, gorgeous but constantly trying to kill you.
A History of Logging
On our first stop we saw some logging artefacts that were left behind by the workers who were once based in these incredible forests. Fraser Island became famous for Fraser Island Turpentine, which is a very special type of tree that has bark which is marine resistant. It’s unique properties made it desirable for using in docks around the world.
We hiked into the forest and found a freshwater creek. This sand island is like a sponge soaked through with freshwater. You may get eaten by a dingo or poisoned by a spider but you will never die of thirst.
As we walked through the rainforest, we spotted a huge snake lounging by the side of the trail. We took photos from a distance – not wanting to get too close.
A Spontaneous Flight
After we drove across the sand, a pilot got on board and asked us if we wanted to go on an optional sightseeing flight over the island. A few years ago when we were younger travellers on a smaller budget we might have automatically said no. However, Lee encouraged me to go for it as it was a good opportunity and we could afford it. I spontaneously decided to hop on the flight and a few minutes later I was taking off into the air.
I’m glad I went for it, even through the swooping of the plane made me a little bit queasy. I’d never been in such a small plane and I was buzzing on the thrill of soaring high above the island while tucked into a tiny cockpit. I felt each climb and turn as the horizon tilted back and forth outside the window.
We flew over Butterfly Lake, a huge freshwater lake shaped like – you guessed it – a butterfly. The pilot’s voice in the gravelly headphones sounded far away, even though he was right next to me. He said Butterfly Lake couldn’t be seen any other way, as there was no road or track leading to it.
We also flew over an area where the sand had drifted, burying the vegetation and causing it to dry up. It was a tiny desert in the centre of the lush, green island. I was fascinated, but I was also trying to keep my breakfast down. I eyed the air-sickness bag that was stuffed into the back of my seat, but fortunately I didn’t have to use it.
The Wreck of the SS Maheno
Once we landed back on the beach we explored the ruins of a shipwreck, half sunken into the sand. The 5,000 ton steel hulled SS Maheno was an ocean liner that belonged to the Union Company of New Zealand.
It was washed ashore on Fraser Island back in 1935 by a cyclone and the rusted wreck is still embedded there. The disintegrating hull looks surreal on the long, perfect beach – like it was placed there as a movie prop.
Our next stop was Eli Creek, a cool and refreshing freshwater creek that meandered through the lush green forest. You could choose to walk along the wooden walkway on the creek’s edge, or swim down the creek. Knowing me and Lee, you can probably guess which one either of us chose.
Sloshing up the creek was difficult, but the same strong current that pushed me back made the return journey very easy. I simply had to float on my stomach, my head above the water, as I effortlessly glided through the clear water.
After visiting the creek, we headed to lunch. As it was a buffet style lunch, I felt like I needed to get my money’s worth and went up twice. The food was healthy, varied and tasty. If the delicious food we had at the lunch buffet on the cheaper tour was considered “not as good” then I can’t imagine how nice the food on the premium tour must have been!
Fraser Island in Aboriginal Legend
When we got back on the bus and continued exploring Steve told us about the Aboriginal dreamtime story about the origin of Fraser Island. According to legend, humans had been created but they needed a place to live. So, the god Beiral sent a messenger Yendingie and the goddess K’gari down from heaven. They created the rivers, sea, mountains and land. However, K’gari fell in love with earth and didn’t want to leave.
So, Yendingie told her to lie down in the ocean and she would be transformed into the beautiful Fraser Island. That’s why the aboriginal name for Fraser Island is K’gari. It was inhabited by the Butchulla people for 5,000 years. When the European settlers arrived in the area this was a disaster for the aboriginal people and their numbers plunged.
These says the Butchulla people have native title rights on the land (granted in 2014), which means that they have the exclusive right to hunt, fish and take water from the island. It is estimated that there are around 500 important archeological sites with indigenous artefacts around the island. He also told us that whenever an aboriginal descendent arrives on Fraser Island, the first thing they do is to kneel down and kiss the ground.
So When Did the Name Fraser Island Come In?
The name Fraser Island originated with Eliza Fraser, who was shipwrecked on the island with her husband Captain James Fraser in 1836. They had set sail from Sydney to Singapore on a ship called the Stirling Castle, but it was damaged by coral when crossing the Great Barrier Reef.
The crew transferred to lifeboats and set a course south, as they were attempting to reach the area where modern-day Brisbane is now. Eliza was pregnant and gave birth in the leaking lifeboat, but her infant son died not long after birth. Eventually the sodden crew reached the Great Sandy Island, only to die of exhaustion, hunger, disease, battles with the native population or a combination of all of the above. Eliza was one of the last survivors and lived among the local people.
She was rescued 6 weeks later by a convict named John Graham. Eliza came back to England and realised that she could make a fortune by becoming a sideshow attraction and telling horrific stories of her capture.
She told stories about “Fraser’s Island” that would make your stomach turn – of cannibalism, murder and torture. It’s not clear how much was true and how much was exaggerated by Eliza to make more money – she knew that the more sensationalist her tales were the more attention she would get.
Our final stop on the island was Lake McKenzie, which is like no other lake I have ever swam in. The sands around it are made from pure, white silica. I grabbed some and let it sift through my fingers, each grain a perfectly formed tiny white globe. It is considered a “perched lake” because it sits on top of the sand, 100 metres above sea level. It contains only rainwater held there by the sand and is not fed by groundwater or streams.
It’s waters have a high acidity level, which is why you will see barely any algae or plants growing on the lake bottom. It’s as clear as a swimming pool.
As you swim out a few metres away from the shore, the sand abruptly drops off and the lake gets incredibly deep. I dared myself to swim out past the end of the sand, where the water changed from light turquoise to a deep indigo blue. The water became suddenly cold and I could feel the chilling nothingness beneath me. I quickly swam back to the shore.
As we were leaving Lake McKenzie, Steve announced that there was a young dingo visible by the side of the road near the bus. Everyone lifted their heads and stood up to see, leaning towards the left size of the bus – if we were a boat we would have capsized. Lee announced that he could see the dingo and pointed.
My eyes scanned the underbrush desperately. I saw nothing. I only had about an eight second window as we drove past and during that short chance I failed to spot the sandy-coloured creature in its forest habitat.
I felt pretty frustrated and disappointed that I had missed my chance to see a dingo, but then I saw the grin on Lee’s face and I was happy for him. At least if only one of us got to see one of these wild dogs, it was him – as he is ultimately even a bigger dog lover than I am.
Sun-warmed and exhausted, we rode back to the ferry – the bus swaying back and forth on the sandy track. We said goodbye to Steve and boarded the ferry back to the mainland, trying once again in vain to win over the ferry cat.
For a strange and impossible island surrounded by sharks and filled with animals and insects that could potentially kill us, Fraser Island turned out to be pretty wonderful.
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