Exploring the critters of Australia's Fraser Island

    1 of 1 2 of 1

      Crikey! Queensland’s Fraser Island is one big sand pile. In fact, the 123-kilometre-long strand ranks as the biggest sand island in the world. For those familiar with B.C. sand islands, such as Savary near Powell River—surely one of Canada’s, if not the world’s, smallest examples—no visit to Australia’s east coast would be complete without a journey to Fraser. Quick access by ferry from the mainland makes for a relaxed day trip.

      For those with enough time, the Fraser Island Great Walk leads the length of the platypus-shaped island, with rudimentary campgrounds strung along the way. Much of the easy-to-moderate route traverses hard-packed beaches. Budget a week. Australians are big on long-distance walks, hardly surprising for a nation steeped in the Aboriginal tradition of walkabouts. Tens of thousands of backpackers each year journey to Fraser to experience the natural wonders of the island’s ecosystem; therefore, reservations for walkers’ camps are a must. Water is in short supply, and trekkers must be fully self-sufficient.

      One galling aspect of Fraser Island is that although surrounded by warm Pacific Ocean waters at the southern extremity of the Great Barrier Reef, swimming in the sea is emphatically discouraged. Tiger sharks lurk in the swells that pummel the shoreline. To stay out of reach of the sharks, the dark-hued manta rays float as far forward in the swells as possible. Profiles of their white-sided predator kin can be glimpsed offshore in the walls of breaking surf. Kite-shaped rays are easily spotted from elevated perches, such as the seat of a tour bus. That’s where the Georgia Straight met guide Murray Wessling last March. A resident of Fraser Island for 35 years, the former fisheries officer became a tour guide five years ago “because I wanted to make people happy rather than hassle them”.

      Wessling had a lifetime of harrowing experiences to relate, from surviving an adder bite to shark and jellyfish encounters. At one stop, he dipped his hand in the surf and drew out a tiny blue-bottle jellyfish, or Portuguese man-of-war. “These blokes are often confused with jellies,” he drawled. “Blue bottles are actually a colony of four kinds of highly modified marine invertebrates joined together as one. Despite their minute size, their stings cause painful welts that last for days. Be careful where you step. Even when dead, they’ll still burn you.” Wessling said he’d been stung so often that his skin was immune to the venom. To demonstrate, he held the “bluey” long enough for it to inflame his palm, then he deadpanned: “Despite what you may have heard, urinating on a sting actually makes it worse, not better.” Wessling’s firsthand knowledge, combined with cautions regarding potential dangers—such as snakes that look like fallen leaves and spring tides capable of overwhelming SUVs—would prove invaluable to first-time visitors who might otherwise be tempted to rent a four-wheel-drive vehicle and head off to Fraser Island on a camping trip, the favoured approach of many Australians.

      Aside from endless beaches and a plentiful food supply, Wessling cited equally compelling reasons why the indigenous Butchulla people named the island K’gari’, or paradise. As he drove uphill and inland from the beach along rutted sand tracks scoured by recent rains, a startling azure expanse rose into view. Perched among bleached columns of eucalyptus trees—Fraser is the only place on Earth where towering rain forest grows in sand—Lake McKenzie is the most impressive and easiest to reach of more than a hundred such dune lakes that freckle the island’s subtropical environment. To further heighten the effect, white silica sand collars the foreshore. You can shine up silver or gold jewellery with silica—instant lustre renewal. Rub some on your skin to achieve a tingly effect.

      Fraser’s wonderland extends beyond the lake to sacred streambed birthing places at Central Station, a former logging camp that now serves as a peaceful sanctuary for both trekkers and day-trippers keen to learn more about the island interplay between nature and humans. Water filtered through sand is some of the cleanest in the world, and here it provided an antiseptic medium in which the island’s indigenous women once delivered children. The last group of resident natives left Fraser for the mainland a century ago. Treaty negotiations have recently seen ownership of a portion of the island returned to the Butchulla. Newly installed bronze totems along Central Station’s boardwalk trail, sculpted by aboriginal artists, silently witness the reclamation.

      Ferries constantly shuttle across the Great Sandy Strait between the Queensland coast and Kingfisher Bay, the major port of call for Fraser Island tours as well as one of two island locations offering overnight accommodation. Passengers are welcome on the bridge to chat with the captain during the one-hour crossing. Crew members are prime sources of insider information on geographical details and the best chances of sighting marine wildlife such as humpback whales, considerable numbers of which frequent the strait from July to November. Seems like all creatures great and small gravitate to Fraser Island.

      ACCESS: Fraser Island lies 300 kilometres north of Brisbane on Queensland’s east coast. For details on day trips and extended island tours, visit www.fraserexplorertours.com, www.frasercoastholidays.info, and www.queenslandholidays.com.au. Daily ferry service to Fraser Island destinations, including Kingfisher Bay, departs from River Heads, Hervey Bay, and Wanggoolba Bay. For details, visit www.fraserislandbarges.com.au/.



      Graeme McIlveen

      Oct 19, 2010 at 3:38pm

      As a local from nearby Brisbane, I enjoyed reading about Fraser as a thoughtful Canadian visitor sees it. Yes, visit for a day or stay for a week. Swimming in the cool crystal clear fresh water lakes is definitely a must. The 'fearsome critters' are not so bad and Australians don't worry so much about them - you just need to be a little sensible. Bears and moose would frighten me more!