Magical Mysterious Island
Text and photos by Toby Saltzman
Going troppo in Oz means reveling in a sublime,
tropically induced state of mind. Australia abounds with heavenly
places to lose yourself in, such as the Daintree Rainforest, the phantasmagoric
coves of the Great Barrier Reef and the Jurassic heights of Tasmania's
Central Plateau. Lesser known, by virtue of its isolation at the southern
tip of the Great Barrier Reef, is Fraser Island. A captivating wilderness
of rare beauty, it is as much a learning center as a paradise.
through the mangrove
bay of Fraser Island at high tide.
From a distance, Fraser Island wafts like a mirage, unreal until
the catamaran nears and you see dense green foliage sprouting from
white, sugar-like sand. No wonder the Badtjala Aborigines, who lived
here some 40,000 years ago, called it "Kgari" - Beautiful Paradise
- believing it was the spirit incarnate of the goddess K'gari, who
helped their god, Beiral, create the land.
Created by winds blowing grains of sand over time onto three rocky
outcrops, Fraser Island is the largest sand island in the world:
120 kilometers long, 184,000 hectares overall.
It is unique because of its astonishing composition of diverse coastal
forests, primeval rain forests, sandy beaches and fresh-water lakes.
Like Daintree, the Reef and the Plateau, Fraser Island is designated
a World Heritage Site.
Bay Resort melds into
Fraser Island's landscape
After stepping ashore, we followed a wood-plank path through primitive
wallum trees and scrub to the inconspicuous entrance of Kingfisher
Bay Resort. Inside, we were surprised by the combination of luxurious
ambience and the intelligent approach of its ranger-naturalists
who were eagerly waiting to initiate us into the subtropical environment.
Momentarily we balked, enticed by the lofty lounge, flooded with
sunlight streaming through the ceiling-high glass walls that revealed
the skyscape, landscape and an enormous free form pool.
But this was Fraser Island, where going troppo had a more exotic
allure. As we piled into a mammoth four-wheel drive, our ranger
Steve warned: "Hang on! You're in for a bumpy ride."
Virtually indestructible, the vehicle had enormous wheels - each
with independent suspension - which heaved in different directions,
bouncing us rudely over the terrain. The concept of sand island
hit home: no solid surfaces, no roads, just deep, sandy paths cut
willy-nilly through dense forests by loggers long ago.
"There's more sand here than on the Sahara Desert," said Steve. "The
island has three significant aspects: the beach, the rainforest and
the lakes. It's like an old quilt of vegetation your grandmother tossed
on the road." Each patch is a world of its own.
View of Fraser
landscape from the suite at
Kingfisher Bay Resort.
"Imagine planting a tree in pure sand. Sand can't normally support
dense vegetation. But here, spores and seeds carried from the mainland
by wind and birds created blankets of humus capable of supporting
tall trees, rainforests and wildflowers."
Fraser Island may be the epitome of nature's efficiency. "Plants
survive in this infertile sand by recycling nutrients: when a leaf
or branch falls or a plant dies, fungi, bacteria and insects break
it down to nutrients which are quickly absorbed by plant roots."
Some tree trunks support leafy pouches called birdsnest ferns, or
epiphyte staghorns, created by spores that collect leaves, fungi
and water, to mimic total environments like the forest floor.
In a small clearing amid towering Banksias whose rubbery leaves
obliterated the sun, we left the van, our feet sinking in sand,
to approach a break in the forest wall and a stunning view of a
sand blow. "This is evolution in motion," said Steve, explaining
that the undulating dunes at the crest of the island were growing
with grain upon infinitesimal grain of sand blown from the mainland.
trees grow in
Fraser Island's pure white sand
Steve led us on a fascinating tree-trek. Starting the growth line
were tall Casuarina trees. Their thin, droopy branches suck nitrogen
from the air, then drop roots into in the soil to increase nutrients
for other plants. Farther inland were giant ferns, tall grasstrees
- like spears sprouting tufts of grass - then myriad eucalyptus.
The scribbly gums had grafitti-like marks on their bark, while the
tall palms were really macrosamra, a rare species millions of years
Back in the van, we drove through forests of rare satinays, hoop
pines and kauri pines with trunks bearing twining emerald creepers,
lime birds nest ferns or brilliant dangling orchids. In the past,
these trees brought Fraser Island fame and misfortune. The pines
made sturdy lumber. The satinays, which grow six metres thick and
some sixty to ninety metres tall, proved perfect for ships and pylons.
But in the 1840s, as Europeans began colonizing the island, the
invaded Aboriginal villages, virtually eliminating the population
to create a lumber camp, then a sand-mine for heat- resistant mineral
alloys. Certain areas were denuded - some 20,000 satinays were felled
to build the Suez Canal. Logging on the island ceased only in 1990.
"Let's hit Seventy-five Mile Beach!" shouted Steve. In a quick
turn, we drove to a gorgeous stretch of sand. Australia's third-largest
beach is a haven for RV campers and day-trippers. Near the Pinnacles
(a bank of high sand dunes with hues of red, yellow ochre and orange
minerals) a lone dingo came loping out of the bush. Then we stopped
to plunge, fully clothed, in a stream cooled by waterfalls.
A rare sandblow
on Fraser Island,
the world's largest sand island
That night we dined on fresh barramundi, washed down with Australian
wine, served al fresco at Kingfisher Bay Resort. I must admit that
I was less amused later on, as I walked to my room beneath starry
skies in the uninvited company of a dingo, who eyed me with a docile
Early next morning we visited Wanggoolba Creek, the steamy sanctuary
of the island's primeval rainforest. Fragrant and overwhelmingly
green, it occupies a shady world barely tickled by sunbeams.
A wooden platform threaded among awesome trees with buttressed
roots growing in the water. We marveled at some of the world's rarest
species, such as the angiopteris fern, thriving much as it did 50
million years ago. In the pure water of the creek, against the white
sand banks, every leaf, every root was a treasure to behold.
Hot, mesmerized and exhilarated, we were totally troppo by the
time we reached Lake McKenzie. It is one of Fraser Island's 40 "perched"
lakes, created when rainwater filled hardened, saucer-like sand
dunes. The water, perhaps the purest on earth, has so few nutrients
that few fish survive here. Deliriously we splashed about, cupped
our hands to sip the water and finally flopped on the beach in mindless
submission to the sun.
in the pure waters of
"perched" Lake McKenzie
We never did see brumbies or dugongs. And we just missed pods of
migrating hump-back whales. But we did share the incredible sensation
of discovery while canoeing in a mangrove bay during rising tide.
Tony Charters, the resort's resident environmentalist, discovered
a new primeval species of flowering mangrove.
Getting to Fraser Island:
Fraser Island is accessible from Hervey Bay by catamaran or launch.
Hervey Bay is a one-hour flight or a three-and-one-half-hour drive
from Brisbane. The award-winning Kingfisher Bay Resort, designed
to integrate inconspicuously with the landscape, reflects the undulating
motion of the sand dunes. The main building, a masterpiece of timber
and corrugated steel, houses the lobby, reading loft, conference
facilities and restaurants. The comfortable low-rise residences
have balconies overlooking the landscape. The resort's environmentalist
and rangers offer free, daily escorted nature walks to find birds,
animals and bushtucker (wilderness food). Fraser Island is subtropical
year round. Casual clothes, sandshoes, hats, insect repellent and
high sun protection are essential.
Kingfisher Bay Resort & Village, PMB 1, URANGAN, HERVEY BAY Queensland
Toll Free: 1-800-072-555
International Telephone: + 61 7-4120-3333 International Fax: + 61
To reach the Australia Tourist Commission from Canada or the United
Phone: 1-800- DOWN UNDER