Fraser Island, Part 2: Our First Two Days on the Island

Having arrived in Hervey Bay the previous night, the main setting-off point for Fraser Island adventures, Ethan and I woke up at 5 am on April 1st to begin our long-awaited adventure. Our first stop was Aussie Trax – the rental company from whom we were renting our 4WD vehicle (as you cannot drive on Fraser without one). We had to be there at 6 am to watch a safety video covering the tricks and hazards of driving on the island and on the beaches (mainly because of the tides). Afterwards, they brought our car around – a little 2 passenger Suzuki Jimny which had obviously seen better days. The back was loaded up with our camping equipment – tent, mattresses, stove, propane, and an eskie (Aussie slang for a cooler). The night before we had gone grocery shopping for supplies, which we transferred to the eskie. We moved the rest of our bags and left everything we didn’t need in our other rental car, which was to be locked up safely in a garage by Aussie Trax. We were supposed to leave on the second ferry of the morning, leaving at 8:00 am, but we took a little longer than we though moving things around, and so we moved it to the (next) 9:30 am one. We still had to drive about 25 minutes to the actual ferry landing at Rivers Head, and we just barely made it onto the ferry, literally at the last minute (this being due to the fact that we still had to pay for our camping permits, which I thought were included in our Aussie Trax package). But we made it!

Fraser Island

The ferry ride over took 45 minutes, and we docked in Kingfisher Bay, one of the main resort areas with a restaurant, souvenir shop, spa, cafe, and hotel, and it even had paved roads. We immediately left the area, needless to say. As we left Kingfisher Bay Resort, the road turned to deep sand (and me, who had never been 4WD’ing before, was somewhat apprehensive) and then we were in the rainforest that blankets the interior of the island. It was so beautiful, with huge satinay gums, kauri pines, and piccabeen palms.

driving through the inland rainforest

I had dreamed of going to Fraser Island ever since watching a Steve Irwin special on it. It just looked so wild, pristine, beautiful, with roaming dingoes and goannas. Steve Irwin, of course, had unrestricted access to the entire island, but our bits were restricted to 75 Mile Beach, and most of the inland roads. The eastern side of the Island is closed to driving (unless you have a private vehicle and you are willing to risk losing it in the soft sands to the sea). I was a bit worried about the island being crowded, as our time on the island coincided with Easter weekend, but it turned out to not be so bad.

Fraser Island is the largest sand island in the world (120 km long and 15 km wide). It was first inhabited at least 5,000 years ago by Aboriginal Australians, and was called K’Gari by them. Their population was estimated to be about 600, which swelled up to 3,000 in the winter months when the ocean became more productive. The sea provided abundant food, from molluscs to fish (which were speared from boats, or caught in stone traps at low tide), to seasonal animals like dugongs and sea turtles. Inland, turtles, eels, and birds were caught. Plants like yams and fern roots were collected by the women. The island was first intruded upon by Europeans in 1802, when a brief exploratory party landed on the east coast for a day and collected plant specimens, water, and wood. Then, in 1836, the survivors of a wrecked ship (the Stirling Castle) took refuge on the island – the captain of the ship, his wife, and some officers. The captain died (possibly of natural causes) on the island. The captain’s wife, Eliza Fraser, was later rescued by a search party. She then took to travelling Australia and Britain, telling her embellished survival stories, earning fame and money. She made it seem that the Aboriginals murdered her husband, the Captain, which inspired widespread hostility towards the natives of the island. The island was then named after the Frasers.

European settlement began in the 1840s, which was met with resistance by the natives. However, they stood no chance against the European’s weapons and diseases, as well as lost food sources. By the 1890s, the indigenous population had been reduced by half. The word got out that the island was heavily forested with coveted timber trees (kauri pine and satinay gum), which, coincided with a boom in demand for timber on the mainland, meant that for the next century, heavy logging would change the island forever. There was even mining that took place on the island in the mid 1900s. Tourism began in the 1970s, and the island was declared a national park in 1992.

Fraser island is indeed an amazing place in so many ways. With a huge array of habitats, from rainforest, eucalypt forest, swamp, to sand dunes, coastal mangroves and beaches, and freshwater lakes and creeks. This diversity in turn supports a wide range of biodiversity – 47 mammal, 354 bird, and 79 reptile species. The marine waters surrounding Fraser are highly productive, and inhabited by sea turtles, dolphins, whales and sharks – frequent sightings of tiger and bull sharks means swimming in the ocean is prohibited, unfortunately. There are even a few wild horses, “brumbies”, descendants leftover from those brought by the early loggers. There is also the rare, critically endangered ground parrot (already extinct in parts of its historic range). The dingoes on the island are genetically the “purest” in the world – and to keep it that way, domestic dogs are not allowed to be brought on the island. As a side note, until relatively recently, dingoes were not considered to be dangerous to humans. But in 2001, a boy wandered away from his family and was found dead, with indications of a dingo attack. As a result, thirty-one dingoes on the island were killed. It gave more credibility to the infamous and most highly-publicized Australian case of the Chamberlains, i.e. “The dingo took my baby!” (this happened at Ayers Rock). A variety of signs around the island warn children to not be left alone under any circumstances.

watch out for dingoes!

Anyways, our first stop on this amazing island happened to be the number one tourist destination on the whole island – Lake McKenzie. With its idyllic white sand beach (nearly pure silica with which you can supposedly wash your hair, teeth, body, whatever), and clear turquoise shallows giving way to deeper blue depths, its easy to understand why…although the water was a lot colder than I expected! Lake McKenzie, along with many of Fraser Island’s 40 lakes, are perched – a rather rare form of lake with no inlet or outlet, that simply is collected rainwater sitting in a depression on top of impervious organic matter.

Ethan at Lake McKenzie

We swam for about as long as I could stand the cold, and then took a cat nap on the beach. The sky had been overcast all morning, however while we were napping I felt the sun come out once in a while. We woke up a little while later, and it didn’t take long before we realized that the following day we would be suffering in pain from our exposed and now sun-burnt skin!

We returned to our car and made some sandwiches for lunch and then continued on our way. We had the itinerary that Aussie Trax had given us, which would take us to all the main tourist attractions, but we weren’t too keen on following it exactly. So we decided to drive to and along the famous 75 Mile Beach, passing through more beautiful rainforest on the way. We were driving and we saw our first dingo on the beach! It was so exciting to see my first dingo!! She was just trotting along on the beach, and we slowed down to take some pictures. They are naturally sleek-looking canines, and some people think that this means they are hungry, poor, starving animals, which leads them to throw them food. This, in turn, causes dingos to associate humans with food which leads to many problems. A dingo can become dependent on human feeding, which causes it to seek out and approach humans…which might make for some aggressive encounters. These dingoes are then killed by the rangers because at this point they are considered a danger. It’s a sad story, and a sad end to such beautiful animals.

our first dingo!

75 Mile Beach (which is actually 58 miles long!) is the more-or-less straight eastern coast of Fraser Island, which acts as the main highway for driving up and down the island. We came out at Eurong Resort point, near the bottom of the accessable part of the island, and started driving north. Since it was around 4 pm, we decided to start looking for a place to set up camp. We found a spot that we thought looked ideal, perfectly situated behind a dune and a fair distance from other campers. However, there was a nice little deep sand pit that we would have to get over, and as we tackled it in our little car, we immediately got stuck. The group of camping backpackers down the beach immediately noticed our trouble and ran over to try to help us get up over the dune…to no avail. It became apparent that the front two tires weren’t spinning…which could only mean one thing – our 4WD was not (or had stopped) working! WTF, mate!

4WD fail

So with the help of the backpackers, we backed out to find a more accesable location. We were extremely worried, however – without 4WD there was nowhere on the island we could explore. But we resolved to not let it ruin our time, and would take care of it in the morning. So we eventually found a spot that we could park the car and camp next to, which turned out to be quite a nice location in itself. Because of the complications with the car, we ended up setting up right as it got dark. A few dingoes came through the camp, one of which gave me quite a fright as I was getting something out of the tent, came out, and immediately was face to snout with a wiley-looking dingo. Needless to say, I was quite startled. I yelled at him, which he was slow to respond to, so I threw the only thing I had in my hand – a beer can….which worked quite well. But we had quite a pleasant night, with a delicious dinner. We fell to sleep and awoke to the sound of the ocean waves. The stars were incredible – the relative distance from any light pollution illuminated hidden stars and we could even see a faint glow of the Milky Way! Orion was in the sky, as was the ever-present, infamous Southern Cross (which I’ve seen countless tattoos of on countless Aussie guys).

We woke up at first light in the morning to drive to the nearest resort area – Happy Valley, to call Aussie Trax. They told us to sit tight for a couple of hours as they tried to send the island’s mechanic out to us. There wasn’t much for us to do, so we took advantage of the bathroom facilities, ate some food, and tried to figure out what to do in the meantime. For some reason, we decided to try again, this time trying to get the 4WD on while in neutral. And…it worked! We were overjoyed. We called Aussie Trax back and told them to forget about it. However, due to the tides, we couldn’t go back on the beach until 11 am. Luckily, there was a track leading inland which looped around, and was supposed to take 4 hours to complete – the Northern Lakes track. It was perfect, because it was about 7 am at that point. We decided to head off on it, after refueling. It was a beautiful drive. There were several smaller lakes and we chose to stop and hike to one of them – Lake Coloomba (I’m sure I spelled that wrong). We didn’t really know what to expect…it was a 2.2 km hike through a forest that looked deceptively similar to some in coastal NC. It could have been Holly Shelter! We finally got to the lake, which in itself was somewhat disappointing as it was blockaded by tall water plants. But it was still very pretty.

looks like Holly Shelter!

Lake Coolombaloomlaboom

On our way back, we came around and corner and there was a dingo standing there innocently, pretending to not see us. He was standing right off to the side of the path, and so we grabbed some big sticks in case he was looking for trouble. We quickly slipped by without incident, although he didn’t give any ground as we passed. That was a little adrenalin rush, for sure. So we continued on our way. At one point, Ethan turned around and said “The dingo is behind us”, and I thought he was kidding for a second, until I turned around, and sure enough, the very same dingo was actually trotting after us! Ethan gave a big manly roar, which stopped the beasty in his tracks. He stood his ground, however, and so I, in the tradition of my mom, got a big stick and threw it in his direction. This made him back up a little. Then as we tentatively observed eachother, he seemed to reconsider, and snuck off into the bushes on the side of the path. Needless to say, on the whole way back we were slightly paranoid, glancing over our shoulders and carrying big sticks in case of a reappearance. But we made it back to the car without incident and continued on our way down the track.

our dingo stalker

The track was indeed very long, I think it was 28 km, and the max speed on the inland tracks was 30 kmh. It was slow going, however, because in many places it was bumpy, hole-ridden, or deep sand. About 3 hours into the track, we came upon a stop for viewing the Knifeblade Sandblow, the island’s largest. Upon parking, Ethan instantly spotted our first lace monitor lizard!!! I was so excited! It was a beautiful, nice size. I took a picture from afar, and then we tried to get closer, but he was warmed up and sped away and started climbing a tree, clinging to the trunk and watching us closely.

beautiful Varanus varius

We then walked the 500 m to the lookout, and it was so surreal, seeing this immense sand dune surrounded by rainforest and leading out to the ocean. It was a beautiful vista.

Knifeblade Sandblow

We took a few pictures, contemplated the vastness of the sandblow, and how long it would have taken to form…and then left to continue on our way. About 10 minutes later, as we were turning around a bend, we encountered a car trying to come the other way. Since they were coming uphill and we were headed downhill, they were obliged to back up and make way for us. Unfortunately, it was a spot of deep sand, and we immediately got stuck as we tried to pass them. All of a sudden, we were blocking 4 cars which seemed to come out of nowhere (we had not encountered anyone else on the way). It shouldn’t have been a problem, however, and it became evident that once again, we had lost 4WD on the car. However, the nice Aussies all jumped out of their cars to come over to help – they let some air out of our tires and gave a big push, which was enough. But we got stuck 5 minutes down the road again. Luckily (for us), trapping the same 3 cars (all belonging in one group) behind us. They were all big, private SUVs with hardy 4WDs, and they attached our car to theirs (which actually got stuck and then had to be atttached to another one), and they pulled us out of our sand trap. At some point, one of the door side panels decided to fall off in the process. Luckily the car behind us noticed it and we grabbed it. The car was just falling apart at hour hands!

stuck.........again

Luckily for all of us, we were really close to the end of the track, which came out onto the beach, and doesn’t require 4WD for the most part. So we bid them farewell, thanking them effusely for their awesome help…and made our way to the closest resort area – Cathedral Beach. Unfortunately, we got stuck trying to get up into there, as well. Another Aussie pulled us up and out onto the top of the ramp, where we had to awkwardly leave the car somewhat blocking the road, for fear of getting it stuck again. We walked into the actual Cathedral Beach area, and called Aussie Trax. I was pretty upset, for good reason…fed up with Aussie Trax and our troublesome car. They told us that they would not be able to send out a mechanic for another 2 hours because of the distance. So we waited. We ate some chips and icecream from the shop there, and then decided to wait for the mechanic by the car. Ethan took advantage of the time to re-attach the door panel, as well. Several cars passed by, asking if we needed any help. It got to be a bit awkward. One guy that seemed to work at the place seemed somewhat annoyed, and on his second passing, told us he wanted to tow us into the resort area. We had said no before, because we were expecting the mechanic, who was becoming late…so we agreed. Once we got back into the area, Ethan called Aussie Trax again, and negotiated that we got one more night/day for our troubles….score! Then…the mechanic finally showed up with another Jimny, which we traded out our lame one with. This one was somewhat nicer on the inside, which was nice. Unfortunately, it had its own problems, and took several turns of the ignition before finally starting up, each and every time. BUT, the most important part – the 4WD worked! It was glorious! We could tackle just about anything Fraser Island had to throw at us and it was the best feeling – complete freedom to explore once more.

By the time we got our replacement, it was after 3 pm. We decided that the best thing to do would be to drive as far north as we could (we wanted to visit all the northern end of the island had to offer the next day) and camp, with an early start. So we drove north. Along the way was the famous Maheno shipwreck, which was built in Scotland in 1904 and was the world’s first ‘triple screw steamer’ (whatever that is!), designed for trans-Tasman passenger transport. During a cyclone in 1935, the ship was beached on Fraser Island. It served as a bombing target during WWII for the Royal Australian Air Force. But the remains are relatively well preserved (although seriously rusted). It is an amazing sight to see!

We continued north up the beach, and found our campsite for the night, this time before it got dark so that we could set up camp and cook while it was still light. We had a full plan for tomorrow, so we were sure to get plenty of rest that night – even though by that time, our sunburns were at the peak of pain! It was painful laying on the hard ground, but after such an eventful, and at times stressful day, it was not a problem getting to sleep, lulled by the sound of the surf.

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