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Freak of Nature: Fraser Island

Published 01 June 2012   

In 1991, my father took the family to Fraser Island, the largest sand island in the world. Twenty years later I’m heading to Fraser again, this time with my eight-year-old nephew on his very first visit to the 123km-long stretch of land sculptured by wind, waves and rain into what scientists describe as an ecological freak of nature.

Text by Ian Neubauer

It’s a 300km drive to Hervey Bay, where a motorised catamaran takes us across the Great Sandy Strait, a nursing ground for dugong, dolphins and humpback whales, and a resting place for an estimated 40,000 trans-equatorial shorebirds that migrate up and down the coastline every year.

Half an hour later we arrive at Kingfisher Bay Resort, an eco-property nestled behind a maze of salt-water ponds with three pools and all the trappings of a four-star resort, an ideal place to unwind after a long day on the road, and after checking into our room, we make a beeline for the beach.

“There is a natural gravitation that brings people back,” says Kingfisher’s general manger, Tony Barradale. “And the delightful thing is that the island hasn’t changed. We get 400,000 visitors a year, more than Kakadu but less than the Great Barrier Reef. I don’t mean to belittle it, but you can see coral reefs in many parts of the world. There’s no other island in the world like this.”

There are virtually no paved roads on Fraser, so a four-wheel drive vehicle is the only way to get around and for those on limited budgets or averse to difficult driving conditions, organised tours present a suitable alternative. We set out from Kingfisher in an all-terrain minibus with a crew of 24 Australian and European holidaymakers and in a minute we’re crawling up a steep sandy track, immersed in sunlit woodlands spotted with bristling banksia pods.

Our driver and guide, Hervey Bay resident Allan Souter, explains how Fraser’s rich vegetation came to be. “There is no soil on this island, it’s 100% sand, so none of these plants should be able to grow here. Mother nature is very kind to these plants,” he says, revealing a deep-seated environmental consciousness that is omnipresent on the island. “But when we try to change her, things tend to go pear-shaped.”

Our first stop is Lake McKenzie, the jewel of Fraser’s network of 100-plus freshwater lakes. Fed by a massive underground water table, Fraser’s lakes are amongst the cleanest in the world. Some are honey- and tea-coloured, others emerald green or red-brown, all of them ringed by sandy white beaches. The water coalesces into a dozen shades of blue and is warm enough to swim in all year around.

Wading in the clean waters. A 1,000-year-old satinay tree: 4W Drivng at Euronga Beach.

The tour continues and our guide regales us again, this time with the history of logging on the island. Trees were felled on Fraser until 1991 — the year it was nominated for World Heritage listing. The most sought-after species was the satinay tree, prized for its striped bark that’s resistant to corrosion. Satinay was used to rebuild the London Docks after the Blitz and 20,000 were shipped to Egypt to prop up the Suez Canal.

“Mother nature is very kind to these plants, but when we try to change her, things tend to go pear-shaped.”

Our next stop is Central Station, a former logging camp now occupied by Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service. A walking track leads into a gully called Wanggoolba Creek, home to some of the oldest rainforests on the face of the planet. We see prehistoric ten-metre-wide king ferns and a 1,000-year-old satinay that reaches 60 metres into the sky. Broccoli-like epiphytes cling to towering hoop pines next to brush box trees being strangled by parasitic fig vines. The next leg of the trip takes us along Seventy-Five Mile Beach, identified on state maps as a bona fide highway. Police have been known to lay speed traps here and subject drivers to random breath tests during peak periods. Vehicles must also give way to small aeroplanes that land on the beach, like the propeller-powered eight-seater that takes us on a short joyflight.

Fraser’s freakish geography is best appreciated from the air — a patchwork of jungle, shifting sand dunes and multi-coloured lakes that would have left Charles Darwin scratching his head. But the highlight of the day is yet to come, when we career over the ocean to spot some whales. In no time we catch sight of a majestic humpback that looks up curiously as we swoop overhead. “This job never gets boring because the shape of the beach is constantly changing,” says our pilot. “Last week I took a group up and we didn’t see any whales, but on the way back we flew over the biggest hammerhead shark you’ve ever seen.”

By the time we return to Kingfisher I’m feeling wrecked, head buzzing from sensory overload. Our guide bids us a cheery farewell, though not before leaving us with this little pearl. “When Fraser began opening to tourism, we asked the descendents of the Butchalla people, the Aboriginals who once lived here, what they called the island. They said it was called K’gari, paradise.”

It’s our last day at Fraser and we’ve been invited to sail the Great Sandy Strait on a 10-metre catamaran. The Shayla is a purpose-built whale-watching boat that can drift within an arm’s length of frolicking humpbacks. Skipper Brent Milne guarantees whale sightings between August and November, when humpbacks stop for a break on the way back to Antarctica. It’s unlikely we’ll see the mammals today, though conditions are perfect for a leisurely sail. It’s the middle of winter but a pleasant 22 degrees, the sun is shining and there’s but a touch of wind. There is nothing to do but sit back and chill as the vessel cuts along water still as a lagoon. We bypass Little Woody Island, where a quarantine station and little-known leper colony once stood. White-bellied sea eagles kite around tiny Duck Island as a pelican lands on its stony beach. Fraser and surrounds boast 354 species of birds, including honeyeaters, osprey and noisy cockatoos.

We drop anchor at Big Woody Island, where Brent sets out morning tea. He talks about what it’s like growing up in the area, and what a great place it is to bring up his kids. “When I was young I was always keen to travel and see the world. But take a look around,” he says, casting his eyes seaward. “There’s nowhere else I’d rather live.”

Travel Facts:
How To Get There
Virgin Blue offer daily connections to Hervey Bay from Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane. Passenger ferries and vehicle barges depart Harvey Bay.

Where To Stay
Kingfisher Bay Resort (+617 4120 3333) offers hotels rooms and villas. Eurong Beach Resort ( +617 4127 9122).

What To Do
Daylong 4WD expeditions are provided by Kingfisher Bay Resort. Aussie Trax (+617 424 4422) has 4WD self-drive vehicles. The Shayla (+617 4125 3727) offers half-day whale watching cruises.

When To Go
Fraser suffers a mild winter from June to September; the wettest months are January to March. Humpback whales visit the Great Sandy Strait from August to November.