Fraser Island: A place to experience

By Ken Eastwood | February 27, 2015

Twenty years ago, the world’s largest sand island was inscribed on the World Heritage List, turning this local secret into one of Australia’s must-sees.

YOU COULD BE FORGIVEN for thinking there were two Fraser Islands off the coast of Queensland. One is a spectacular World Heritage area, with pristine lakes, rare rainforests growing on sand, and exuberant wildlife, including whales, dugong, freshwater turtles, the country’s purest wild dingoes and half of Australia’s bird species. The other is a hoon’s paradise – a lawless area where you can fang along the beach in a four-wheel-drive while someone hangs on to a boogie board tied to the back, fish and drink to your heart’s content, drive up a creek to wash your car, then take a photo of yourself illegally feeding a dingo a sausage.

Nowhere is this dichotomy more apparent than at Sandy Cape, Fraser’s remote northern tip. Only well-prepared four-wheel-drivers can reach this point, and the camping area, with no facilities, is completely hemmed-in at high tide. Beautiful curling waves lap the base of a towering white dune that’s been patterned by the wind and is topped by a lone she-oak.

The water is a stunningly clear aquamarine pool, with green turtles just metres from shore and a party of five dolphins shooting through the shallows. Stretching out to the horizon is a line of breakers. Breaksea Spit, Fraser Island’s advancing underwater progression, continues for 35km from this point. The world’s largest sand island is actually moving 2cm north each year as sand is swept from the south and added to the north.

On the sand, a red crab takes up a ninja stance – one claw out-thrust attacking, one defending – to protect its cape from large human intruders. But its defences are useless against the middle-aged yobbos in four utes who come wheeling out of an illegal camp, music blaring and engines roaring as they tear up the sand with circle work.

But these are not the only breed of Fraser Island fans here – people who have only ever known Fraser as a valued World Heritage area are also visiting this morning. Four polite teenagers from Gatton, who had decided to come here for a peaceful Schoolies Week instead of the noise of the Gold Coast, were fishing quietly alongside each other.

“I’ve been coming up here all my life,” says farmhand Matthew Crust. “Every year. And I’m 17 now. I love the fishing, the four-wheel-driving, just getting away.”

John Stewart, senior ranger with the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service (QPWS) on Fraser Island, grew up in Brisbane and, as a teenager, used to come out with his family.

“This is the place you came to yahoo and do whatever you wanted with no restrictions,” he says. “I remember HQ Monaros [cars] ripping up the sand – it was yahoo central.” But, like many, he has noticed changes in how people use the island since World Heritage listing in 1992.

“It’s a fun, safe and beautiful place and one of our jewels of the world. I think it’s a shame when people come up here for a piss-up and to do donuts on the beach – they miss out on 700,000 years of geological history.”

Wildlife on Fraser Island

FOR THOUSANDS OF YEARS, the 2000–9000 Butchulla people who lived here called the 123km-long island K’gari. It means “paradise” or “beautiful place”. From the air, it makes for a picturesque view, textured with 1200km of white sandy tracks and dotted with emerald and sapphire lakes fringed by white sand. The 43 sandblows – where the wind-blown sand is overtaking the vegetation westward – are like creamy spots on its eastern flanks.

At its centre, the island rises slightly, reaching its highest point at 244m Mt Bowarrady. There are six main distinguishable dune ridges running north–south, the oldest in the west being some 700,000 years old, and the youngest in the east about 40,000 years. The sheltered waters of the surrounding Great Sandy Marine Park support thriving populations of marine creatures, many of which are easily seen from the air.

“Fraser Island lies at a 45° angle from the coast, which means it goes out to the north-east almost to the continental shelf, forming Hervey Bay,” says Wally Franklin, one of the heads of the Oceania Project that has been studying whales in Hervey Bay since 1992. “It is the most prominent feature on the east coast of Australia apart from the Great Barrier Reef. We see Indo-Pacific dolphins, Bryde’s whales, melon-head whales, false killer whales, several species of dolphin – in-shore bottlenose and pelagic bottlenose – so there’s quite a rich cetacean fauna.

”Wally’s work has also confirmed the importance of Hervey Bay to Australia’s 14,000 east coast humpback whales. It’s estimated about half of the population stops off at Hervey Bay from July to November each year, on their way south from the breeding grounds to feeding areas in Antarctica.

But at the north of the island, an animal lesser known in these waters, the loggerhead turtle, is now receiving human assistance. Sweltering under a makeshift shade-cloth shelter in the humid conditions, Murray and Denise Johnson are on their hands and knees digging up 170 loggerhead turtle eggs laid the night before.

Long-term lovers of Fraser – after honeymooning here in 1964 – they are now QPWS volunteers, and during their 2–4-week stints on the island do more than four hours work each day weeding, maintaining the grounds and helping with turtle monitoring in exchange for free accommodation and access. To protect the eggs of the endangered turtle from being dug up and eaten by dingoes or goannas, they move them and rebury them under an aluminium mesh cage.

They ensure they are marked so the eggs can be placed in exactly the same alignment. “One batch can take you one and a half to two hours by the time you dig it up and move it and rebury it,” Murray says. “We hope we’re making a difference,” says Denise.

On the watch for Fraser Island dingoes

IN RECENT TIMES, the most controversial hands-on management has involved the dingoes. Like most national parks staff, John Stewart feels skewered. Dingoes have nipped, hurt and even killed humans on Fraser Island (the last death was a nine-year-old boy in 2001), and so as well as studying the dingo population, the rangers occasionally destroy troublesome individuals: an average of about four a year.

They spend hours visiting campsites (1200 last April alone) and anglers, advising tourists how to secure food, behave near dingoes and protect children. They issue fines for serious breaches, and last year helped prosecute Jennifer Parkhurst, vice-president of Save Fraser Island Dingoes, who copped a hefty $40,000 fine for “interfering with a natural resource” and feeding and habituating dingoes over an extended period. For this, the national parks staff are often abused and accused of mistreating starving dingoes.

“I’m sick of it,” says Linda Behrendorff, the ranger in charge of natural resource management, who has worked on Fraser for 12 years. “I can’t even wear my uniform down to Woolies in town without being vilified. It makes me angry.”

Linda is in charge of a research program putting satellite collars on 20 island dingoes to study their movements. They use soft-jawed traps to catch the animals.

“We get the RSPCA and the ethics committee involved and I put my fingers in the traps and show them that it doesn’t hurt the animal.”

Linda says that the research has indicated there may be more than the previous estimates of 130–200 dingoes on the island, and that the animals have enough food without human assistance.

“One particular female in an area in the north, inland of Dundubara, she hasn’t gone to the beach, she hasn’t gone to a camp, she hasn’t come in contact with humans – she doesn’t need humans at all. She’s getting what she needs. By normal records, she doesn’t exist – so how many dingoes are on the island? Once you overlay all the [information from] collars on the island you find gaps, so it makes us think there are other packs out there.”

Linda continues to despair that despite the warning signs and the “dingoes are dangerous” leaflets handed out, many visitors still entice dingoes closer for a better photo. “They are amazing animals,” she says, “but these are not a domestic dog. They’re a wild animal and they need to be treated that way.”

Recipient of the 2010 fine, Jennifer Parkhurst, who is also a member of the National Dingo Preservation and Recovery Program, says the rangers have demonised the animals.

“They are a very placid dog. They are altruistic and affectionate,” she says. “We get something like 300,000 people a year visiting the island and we’ve only had two serious attacks in 10 years – I think that’s a very low rate. I spent seven years with them in the bush, on my own, with alpha males and puppies. I never felt threatened or that my life was in danger.”

Jennifer says that dingoes were considered camp dogs by Aboriginal people. Later, the Fraser Island foresters and residents fed them. “Dingoes still seek human company, but they’ve instigated this policy that there should be no human interaction whatsoever, but the dingoes don’t understand that.”

She describes the nipping behaviour as boisterous play, exhibited by juvenile dingoes. The pack of dingoes that Jennifer spent the most time with, habituated to humans, were put down by national parks staff after a number of aggressive incidents, including an attack on a three-year-old girl.

Aboriginal significance along the Fraser Island Great Walk

THE BUTCHULLA PEOPLE call the dingoes “wongaree” (sometimes pronounced “wongadee”). “Some were camp dogs, some were rogues, some were wild,” says indigenous ranger and traditional owner Darren Blake. “If they went bad, we’d knock ’em over the head and cook ’em and eat ’em,” says his colleague Conway Burns. “Nothing was wasted.”

Conway and Darren are in charge of a trial QPWS program that has the joint goal of bringing more Butchulla people onto their country, and to maintain the Fraser Island Great Walk track.

“At the moment it’s called the great swim,” Conway says with a laugh, as they realign the sodden track around lakes that expanded in the big rains of early 2011. “What we’re doing here is good for the country, good for the people.”

The walk itself is about 90km long, running from Dilli Village to Happy Valley, via such iconic spots as Lake McKenzie, Lake Wabby and the Valley of the Giants. But there are also 90km of other tracks to maintain, so there’s no shortage of work. Conway, Darren and other Butchulla volunteers, such as Malcolm ‘Smiley’ Burns, work hard and fast, and are happy to be out on their country, reconnecting with the land.

“This is a significant site for us,” says Darren, beside Lake Boomanjin. “That’s why we don’t go swimming in the lake – we show respect,” Smiley chips in.

The team works for 7–8 days straight, then has a ‘culture day’ to maintain significant sites or look for new ones. They are uncovering plenty of old signs in the bush – indicators of scar trees and other symbols from the Butchulla of old.

“There’s a lot of scars on tallowwood,” Conway says. “There are markings on scribbly gums and smooth-barked apple. There are two markings at Boomanjin to tell women to keep away.”

He says Lake Wabby was a men’s initiation area. “There was an area where the women could see where the men came out after ceremony – to see that their sons had become men.”

Today, Lake Wabby, 11m deep and tucked in beside the Hammerstone Sandblow, is one of the most stunning spots visited by crowds. And further up 75 Mile Beach (or the “back beach” as the Hervey Bay locals call it) is perhaps the most iconic historic spot – the rusting derelict of the Maheno. For a grand old liner, the Maheno has been treated with little respect. It was used for bombing practise in WWII, and one of its huge anchors now lies unnoticed in a garden bed beside the diesel pump at Eurong.

Although some visitors may know the Maheno washed ashore in a cyclone in 1935 while being towed to Japan for scrap, few realise that at that stage it was still completely fitted out.

“Everything was there – the menus were still on the table,” says John Wilkin, a Hervey Bay local who has been coming to Fraser since the early 1950s. The beached ship was so beautiful inside that a wedding for Beatrice McLean and Dudley Weatherly was held in the music room. Dudley was one of the customs officers assigned to look after the ship while it was determined what to do with it. The 30 guests climbed 9m rope ladders to get on board and, with the 16° list of the ship, the bride, groom and preacher had to lean to maintain their balance.

In classic Aussie style, Hervey Bay locals bribed the customs officers with bottles of rum to look the other way, and all items of worth disappeared. “Crockery and everything,” says John’s wife Glenda. “We’ve got the chandelier at home. Mum used to say her house was just about made out of the Maheno stuff.”

Ask around town and it isn’t hard to find others who will own up to having furniture from the Maheno, glass windows, or even the ship’s safe. But the biggest mystery – and the biggest joke – is that the Maheno’s grand piano disappeared without a trace one night. Taking a grand piano off a sand island in 1936, supposedly without anyone knowing, was a feat even the WWII commandos who later trained on Fraser would have been lucky to achieve.

Fraser’s history means it certainly can’t be described as “pristine”. It’s been grazed, logged, mined and bombed, and had wild brumbies and T-model Fords bashing their way across the soft coffee rock, and tramlines and bullock tracks carved through its dark forests. About four years ago cane toads arrived. During the 1950s, the logging settlement of Central Station (now just a picnic area) had 100 residents.

The beauty of Fraser Island

But the island still remains definitively beautiful. May Jensen, who grew up in the Central Station and worked on the island for 32 years – most recently at Eurong Beach Resort – until she moved to France in 2010, says “I don’t think there’s a spot I do not like. The lakes, the beaches, the rainforest – all of it. I think it’s nature’s paradise over here, it really is,” May says. “Fraser Island kind of gets under your skin. If you haven’t been here, you can’t really explain it, but I just say come here and you’ll understand.”

She says World Heritage listing made many more people aware of how special it was. “The Reef, Ayers Rock, Fraser Island is part of what you ‘have to do’. It’s just on the list now, whereas when I was growing up, no-one even knew where it was.”

David Anderson, president of the Fraser Island Association that represents the 120 or so residents, says Fraser’s magic worked on him from 1957, when he stayed with his forester father at Central Station.

“It just captured me from that age,” he says. “We just ran riot around the place. No worries about dingoes then – we didn’t even think about it. It was just a magic place for a kid to grow up.”

He came back, eventually bringing his own children to the island several times a year. “Now I’ve got a grandchild over here. I used to have a pretty stressful job and as soon as I got here, on the beach, I could feel myself relaxing – just letting it go.”

David says Fraser used to be a place where lawlessness was the rule. “The end of the sandmining and logging [in 1992] put a focus on Fraser Island that it didn’t have before. It used to be a secret place. You didn’t have to worry about the coppers – you could drink/drive to your heart’s content, drive whatever speed you wanted. There are still people who are carrying out that, who think they can still do anything.”

At the beautiful spot where Eli Creek constantly pours 4.2 million litres of crystal-clear water out to the ocean each hour – refreshingly cold and purified after some 75 years of passing through sand – rock music blares from one of many lined-up utes. A group has plonked their chairs in the middle of the creek, where they sink beers, while others kick a footy over the top of them, occasionally hitting cars.

And just 100m upstream, under the pedestrian walkway, two tiny welcome swallow chicks tweet from a nest, and fish swim through the gin-clear creek. In some places, the difference between the ‘two Fraser Islands’ is little more than 100m.

The full story can be found in Australian Geographic #107.