The Butchulla name for this island of sand is K’gari after the spirit who helped Yindingie, messenger of the great god Beeral, create the land. As a reward, Beeral changed her into an idyllic island with trees, flowers and lakes; and birds, animals and people to keep her company.
A few weeks before my visit, the national park that covers most of what is still called Fraser Island, was renamed K’gari, after many years of Butchulla campaigning.
When we arrive on the island after crossing the Great Sandy Straits by barge, we transfer to a big blue 40-seater 4WD bus and into the very capable hands of Steve. We drive along bitumen for five seconds and then we are on a deep-sandy track he calls the big dipper for reasons that become immediately obvious. We are thrown about as we jounce over hillocks, and I wonder what I’ve let myself in for: whiplash seems a distinct possibility.
The island is home to forty perched dune lakes. These lakes are formed when leaves, bark and dead plants gradually build up and harden in depressions created by the wind. They are filled by the rain. Boorangoora is one such lake.
Boorangoora (Lake McKenzie)
A track of deep sand with the imprint of many feet leads down to the beach, past the odd flower and big trees. The lake is busy. People are scrubbing themselves with the fine sand which exfoliates, rejuvenates and cleans your jewellery. I have changed dutifully into my swimmers, but I only submerge to my fetlocks because it’s too cold, and I’m beyond the urge to rejuvenate. The lake is certainly beautiful with very blue water and very white sand, but I’m not used to my beaches adorned with so many people.
Wanggoolba Creek was a Butchulla woman’s area and birthing place where men were excluded. It became the centre of logging operations for a hundred years: valuable kauri pines (the inspiration for the design of camouflage patterns so the story goes) from 1863, and a logging boom during the Gympie gold rush in 1867. Men everywhere. The floors of the Sydney Opera house are made from Fraser Island box wood, and Fraser Island turpentine became popular once it was rebranded satinay. Relics of timber-cutting camps, sawmills, tramways, jetties, wharves and towns remain today. Central Station was once home to around 30 houses and a school was also built for the children of the loggers. Today the picnic area reflects the island’s forestry past. The mature Kauri Pines, Bunya Pines, Satinays and Flooded Gums were planted 95 years ago to create a botanical garden, displaying available timbers.
Central Station / Wanggoolba Creek
The clearing we park in is amongst tall trees festooned with staghorns, and other display trees. After a potted history of forestry we walk along a track through the rainforest beside Wanggoolba Creek. I can’t get used to the whiteness of the sand and the clarity of the water, so clear that it’s almost an absence. I hate hurrying when I walk and it’s sacrilege to hurry along this beautiful track, but we have a timeframe, and hurry I must, watching my hurrying feet. There is no time to stand and stare.
Lake Wabby, a barrage lake, was formed by the moving sands of the Hammerstone Sandblow. Driven along by south-easterly winds the sand moved fast, buried coastal vegetation, and blocked off part of a creek to form the lake. As the landscape continues to change the lake could well disappear: the giant sand dune that borders it is slowly moving in. Lake Wabby is also classified as a window lake, formed when a depression exposes part of the water table. Unlike the other lakes, it supports several varieties of fish: catfish, rainbow fish and the rare honey blue-eye.
It’s quite late in the day by the time we reach the Lake Wabby bus-park, and the sandy hike in and out, nearly 5 kilometres, turns out to be beyond my capacity. However, I amble along through the bush, taking pleasure in birdsong, silence, glimpses of the ocean, small plant details, and orchid-spotting. I make a mental note to fitten up.
As apex predator, dingos are a vital part of the island’s ecosystem. Because the island dogs have rarely interbred with domestic or feral dogs they also maintain something of the pure dingo strain. However, they can become a problem and attack if they get used to being fed by humans. For the safety of both humans and dingos all interaction is banned.
Everywhere you go there are warnings about dingos. I begin my second morning with a walk down to the beach. I dutifully collect my dingo stick from the bucket: if you see a dingo, you raise it above your head as the kid in “The gods must be crazy” does to deter hyenas. My shadow brandishes the stick, but unfortunately I don’t see any dingos.
Today offers a different experience. No bouncing along through deep sand. No Mexican standoffs as two pairs of 4WDs confront each other on a one way track. No banging of occasional branches against the side of the bus. Just a smooth ride along 75 Mile Beach, splashing through water, obeying the speed signs – the beach is in fact a designated highway – and keeping off the runway areas for small planes. Scattered beside the highway are beach camps, one sporting an aboriginal flag. Sometimes at high tide we have to leave the beach to get around a headland, but the return journey is at low tide and we scoot unhindered along on the edge of the Pacific Ocean.
From the air
For $80 I spend 15 minutes flying over the island, in the seat beside the pilot. As I mount – “hand here, held this way; other hand on the wing; foot on this peg; now swing your bottom onto the seat” – he sweeps the sand off my shoes with a dustpan brush. We take off along the beach. I am slightly preoccupied by the need not to grab the handles in front of me or to brace myself against the pedals at my feet – they are actually the pilot’s co-controls. The early morning sun is a nuisance with its glorious glare. But there is the island beneath me, thickly wooded, lakes and dunes embedded in forest. When we swing out over the ocean there are three whales lying just below the surface.
For the Butchulla people the Pinnacles are a sacred women’s place. Their story tells of Wuru who was promised to an older man Winyer but fell in love with Wiberigan, the rainbow. The older man threatened revenge and seeing Wuru alone one day he chased her and threw his boomerang at her. Wiberigan stood in front of her and the boomerang shattered the rainbow which spilled its colour into the sand cliffs.
The parallel whitefella story says that the coloured sand cliffs formed over hundreds of thousands of years: minerals have leached through the sand creating seventy different colours, mostly reds and yellows.
I rejoin the bus further along the beach, in time to visit the Pinnacles. You follow a sandy track a short distance and are surrounded by sand cliffs, sculpted by wind and water into pillars and delicate patterns.
The Champagne Pools are the only safe place for salt-water swimming along this splendid 75 miles of coast. The sea apparently seethes with sharks.
I’m not a fan of nomenclature like this. Champagne Pools indeed! They are ocean pools, which is quite romantic enough. The car park is crowded and the boardwalk intermittently so. I sit on the stairs above the pools and survey the coast north and south and the crowds down by the pool. Soon the blazing sun drives me to seek shade – I haven’t changed into my swimmers – and I sit on a sand bank, having first checked for funnel web spider holes, and moved away from the entrance to a sand tunnel whose inhabitant I do not want to meet.
Captain Cook named the headland at the northern end of 75 mile beach Indian Head because he saw aboriginal people assembled there: “Indian” being a generic term at the time for indigenous people. The outcrop, rare rock on this island of sand, consists of rhyolite that was originally created by volcanic activity somewhere between 50 and 80 million years ago.
It’s morning and I feel a bit more frisky than I did yesterday. I’m not deterred by the deep sand at the beginning of the track up Indian Head, although I’m not speedy either. Soon I’m walking along a track between low bushes, keeping a weather eye open for snakes. The views are magnificent, along the beach in both directions as I walk higher, and inland over bush and sand blows. Eventually I emerge onto a rocky slope and head towards the top. I’m averse to pushing my way into crowds, so I don’t see the manta rays below the edge, but I do see a whale-blow. I’m fascinated by the rock formations and by the views straight down to the clear waters of the ocean. As I walk back down to the beach a young man with four children in tow assesses me as needing help and offers me a strong hand, thus saving me from the indignity of bumming it, which is always my fallback position on a steep bit. I arrive back at the beach ahead of the crowd and sit on a convenient rock, listening to the sounds of the sea and feeling the sun on my skin.
Eli Creek is the largest of the freshwater streams on the eastern coast of Fraser Island, with over four million litres of water flowing from its mouth onto the beach and into the ocean every hour.
Eli Creek is a gathering place for swimmers and picnickers, buses, 4WDs and small planes. A boardwalk takes you up the creek, looking down into the extremely clear water, and up a steep lightly vegetated dune. Seven tyres are produced from the back of the bus so you can float down lazily if you want to: I’m satisfied to stand in the water admiring ripples.
“SS Maheno” was an ocean liner crossing between New Zealand and Australia from 1905. Accommodation for first class passengers included a dining room, smoking room, and music room with a Bechstein grand piano. She was lit by electricity, and had a refrigerated cargo hold. During World War 1 she became a hospital ship, carrying casualties from Gallipoli, and later from the western front. In 1935 she was sold to a Japanese shipbreaker, and while shewas being towed to Japan a cyclone hit, the towline broke, and she ended up on 75 mile beach.
What’s the matter with me?? All the amazing landscapes I’ve seen, and yet my camera is captivated by a rusty shipwreck! I prowl up and down the wreckage getting as close as I can, and longing to get closer: shapes, colours, texture, intriguing detail, all against the background blue of sea and sky. Hard to imagine more grandeur in its Bechstein grand piano days.
Back to the mainland
Towards dusk we board the barge to take us back to Hervey Bay. The shadows lengthen, the sun sinks below the horizon and too soon I’m back in my hotel.
Facts and figures
I toured the island with Fraser Explorer 2 Day Tour: it cost me $405 for hotel transfer, the barge, the bus, the commentary, meals and accommodation; and an extra $80 for a 15-minute flight.
Aboriginal people have been visiting the island for 30 000 years.
It is the largest sand island in the world: 124 kilometres long, 24 kilometres wide.
It was declared a world heritage site in 1992 because of a “diverse range of features that are of exceptional natural beauty”; and because it is an “outstanding example of significant ongoing geological …. and biological processes.”
It attracts 500,000 visitors each year.
It has a variety of ecosystems: heath, woodland, rainforest (where it really shouldn’t be), open forest
It has 1400 kilometres of sandy tracks.
There are signs that the Portuguese visited: ballast weights from 16th century Spain have been discovered and there are Portuguese words in the Aborginal language.
Wildlife includes dingos, whales, sharks, rays, six deadly snakes, funnel webs.
Fraser Island is named after Eliza Fraser, Scottish woman shipwrecked in 1836: she claimed that Aboriginal people captured her, when in fact she was taken in by the Butchulla people. She repaid them by spreading stories back in England that they were cannibals. Patrick White’s “A fringe of leaves” is based on her life.