Discover the many secrets Fraser Island has to offer.
I’m supposed to be enjoying the scenery. Instead I’m cupping my hands greedily and considering that this is possibly the purest water I’ve ever tasted. In the dappled shade of spiky pandanus palms and melaleucas with flaking bark, Eli Creek seems to have a slight blue tinge. But I know that’s just an illusion. Forget triple filtered – this water has spent 70 years filtering through sand so fine it looks like talc before reaching the water table and re-emerging on Fraser Island’s east coast.
As I float downstream, the sound of flowing water combines with the canopy overhead to completely shut out the rest of the world. And yet just 100 metres away, the knee-deep creek emerges onto a pounding surf beach where 4WDs and sunbathers are spread out across Australia’s most picturesque highway.
Fraser Island’s 75 Mile Beach disappears completely at high tide, but when the water recedes it morphs into a surprisingly busy road with speed limits and even booze buses during the summer holidays.
The world’s largest sand island is known to the traditional Butchulla owners as K’gari (pronounced ‘gurry’) and named after a white princess spirit who was called down from the sky by the Rainbow Serpent. After helping to create the world, she lay down to rest and the Rainbow Serpent covered her in trees to keep her warm, added lakes as her eyes and then made people and animals so she’d never be lonely.
The word K’gari also has another meaning: ‘Paradise.’ Compared to Eli, Wanggoolba Creek is a mere trickle and the water is so clear it’s almost invisible over the sandy bottom. Tall trees block out the sun and ancient king ferns with fronds up to five metres across stretch over the shallow waterway.
Wayne, an easygoing larrikin who doubles as driver and guide with Fraser Explorer Tours, calls them “dinosaur food” because they’re largely unchanged since they first appeared on Gondwana 300 million years ago.
Vines looping down from the canopy confirm we’re in the rainforest of the island’s interior and when we stop there’s barely a sound. Yet this spot was once the epicentre of the region’s logging industry.
Nearby Central Station was home to more than 200 people at its peak and the site is strewn with giant fungus-covered trunks. Each tree once stretched about 50 metres into the air, but early Europeans saw only a resource to be harvested. Kauri pines made excellent ships’ masts and oily, silica-rich satinay trees were in such demand for their resistance to marine borers that they were used in the Suez Canal and rebuilding of London’s Royal Docks after the Second World War.
Useful though they may have been, the majestic trees that remain look far better in their current setting. The rainforest has rebounded since logging ceased in the 1990s, and the deeply rutted sand roads used by forestry trucks now carry tourists rather than trees.
Some 400,000 visitors arrive on the island each year and Wayne estimates that 399,000 of those stop at Lake McKenzie. When we arrive, one glance is enough to tell me why. This is a place so absurdly picturesque that it almost doesn’t seem real; blindingly white sand crunches underfoot and slopes down to inviting turquoise shallows. As it gets deeper, the water turns a more intense shade of blue.
It would be easy to spend days here, but soon we’re back in the car and tackling ‘the roller coaster’, a particularly bumpy stretch of track just outside Kingfisher Bay Resort. The low-rise eco resort hidden in the trees on the island’s western side was built in 1992, just as Fraser Island gained UNESCO World Heritage listing.
Airy timber structures are built on stilts so the island’s sands can move undisturbed beneath them and all the plants were removed from the site during building then replanted afterwards. Because Fraser Island is only connected to the mainland by ferry, there’s an on-site ‘poo farm’ where the island’s waste is treated and turned into fertiliser for the herb garden that supplies the resort’s kitchens.
At the fine-dining Seabelle restaurant there’s a strong focus on native ingredients, and the Bush Tucker Talk & Taste offers a chance to learn more about them. It doesn’t take long for my first lesson: less is more. I suspect I’m not the first one to learn this from experience but the chef does an admirable job of keeping a straight face as mine reacts to the spicy explosion of a pepperberry and face-squishing tartness of lemon aspen in quick succession.
He explains these ingredients are best used in moderation, and then proves it with a parcel of paperbark that opens to reveal barramundi and macadamia nuts spiced with lemon aspen and wild lime. The bark lends the firm flesh a subtle smokiness and the accompanying salsa is sweetened with plump muntries. It’s a satisfying way to end the night and when I get back to my room I fall asleep to a chorus of frogs chirping through my screen door.
The morning brings a different set of sounds as a kookaburra’s exuberant laugh is joined by the chiming of eastern yellow robins and keen whistle of a male whipbird followed by the machine-gun chatter of a prospective mate.
A dingo fence keeps Fraser Island’s most notorious residents out of the complex, but today I’m on the lookout for some offshore visitors instead. From July to November each year, humpback whales stop in the sheltered waters of Hervey Bay on their migration up (and down) Australia’s east coast.
The island acts as a giant windbreak so there’s no swell as we head out to the Great Sandy Strait where Sam, a sandy-blond youth who’d look at home on the pages of Tracks magazine, tells me that if we’re lucky we might experience a mugging. “That’s a good thing in Hervey Bay,” he says. “You still leave with your wallet.” Mugging describes the behaviour of curious whales that approach a boat and swim around it, and it doesn’t take long before we spot two obliging juveniles that lift their heads above the water (a ‘spy hop’) and roll over to expose their white bellies.
Not to be left out, a nearby pod of dolphins frolics and dances as the sun glitters off the water and turns it into the world’s biggest mirror ball. The whales disappear for five minutes at a time and choosing a space by the railing is like purchasing a lottery ticket as our eyes scan the water looking for a giant shadow emerging from the depths.
When my turn comes, I can make out the individual grooves and barnacles on each whale’s head and see an enormous eye examining me just as closely. I wasn’t planning on being the attraction today, but with a grin, I allowed myself to be mugged as I fill my lungs with clean sea air and enjoy one more surprise in paradise.
Fraser Island is 250 kilometres north of Brisbane and ferries leave from River Heads or Inskip Point. The nearest airport is at Hervey Bay, 20 minutes’ drive from River Heads. Once there, travel is only possible via 4WD so you’ll need your own vehicle and experience driving on sand, or you can sign up for a tour.
For more information visit visitfrasercoast.com