Looking for an adventurous island getaway that’s fit for the whole family in 2021? The largest sand island in the world is full of surprises, writes James Shackell.
The Cessna Skyhawk skidded over the sand and picked up speed, rising slowly off the beach. Crosswinds whipped off the Coral Sea, just outside my starboard window, kicking up spindrifts and buffeting the little plane, making it lurch sideways through the air. The thin metal floor vibrated under my feet.
I’m a nervous flyer at the best of times, and this didn’t feel like the best of times. I imagined I could hear every rivet and bolt shrieking, ready to wobble off. “Now look to the left,” our pilot yelled, banking sharply.
Outside the glass was the green bulk of K’gari—Fraser Island—the world’s largest sand island. A thin wedge of land, 123 kilometres long, overrun with scribbly gum, wild brush box, mangrove swamp, Kauri pines and Satinay trees. Huge pockets of yellow-white sand dotted the forest like giant golf bunkers. I’d come to Fraser Island expecting some vague image of tropical paradise. But what I found was way more interesting.
Everything on Fraser Island comes back to sand. The island has been gradually forming, one grain at a time, for about 750,000 years. Scientists have calculated the total volume of sand above sea level at roughly 113 cubic kilometres. Each particle has travelled all the way from the Hawkesbury, Hunter and Clarence river catchments in NSW, dragged up Queensland’s coast by strong offshore currents.
When the sand hits Double Island Point, a rocky spit on the southern mainland, it gets washed onto Fraser’s volcanic bedrock, where it accumulates over time. Unlike most dunes, the sand here can even support plant life, thanks to a naturally occurring mycorrhizal fungus, which provides the trees with nitrogen and other nutrients. Even one of the beaches here—75 Mile Beach—doubles as a commercial airport, one of only two in the world. These are the things I know about sand.
Fraser Island is one of Australia’s great conservation success stories. In fact, it was the first place included in the Australia Heritage Commission’s Register of the National Estate. For 50,000 years, it’s been home to the Indigenous Butchulla people. You can see signs dotted around the island, painted with messages from Butchulla elder, Uncle Malcolm Burns: “Good day. Welcome! The Butchulla people, Traditional Owners of K’gari, welcome you to Country. May all our good spirits be around you throughout the day. Wherever you go, leave only footprints.”
Unfortunately, early settlers left much more than footprints. Fraser Island was logged pretty intensively for about 100 years. Its ancient Satinay trees were cut down and sent to Egypt to build the Suez Canal, and American mining companies stripped the island’s natural zircon and monazite in the 1960s. But thanks to the efforts of groups like the Fraser Island Defenders Organisation (FIDO), visitors can now enjoy a natural cul-de-sac, cut off from the mainland and protected by international law. Fraser Island is a reminder that wilderness is worth fighting for.
The funny thing is, Fraser Island’s best beach isn’t really a beach at all. Lake McKenzie is a perched lake, which means it’s cut off from the ocean, high above the water table. Every drop here fell from the sky. The sand is sugary soft silica, and impossibly white. The water is that slightly unreal, electric, swimming-pool blue, fading to inky brown in the distance. In fact, the sand makes Lake McKenzie so pure and sterile that it can sustain very little actual life. The most common organisms are kids and young families, who splash in the shallows and build sand castles on the beach. When our group stumbled down the track and out onto the sand, we sort-of stopped dead, brains short-circuiting, overwhelmed with natural beauty.
One of Fraser Island’s big drawcards is versatility. It’s one of those rare ‘something for everyone’ destinations that actually lives up to the label. Whether you’re into wildlife, adventure sports, four-wheel-driving, Indigenous culture, amazing food, or just somewhere to keep the kids happy, you’ll find it here. The island is crisscrossed with hiking trails, swimming holes and picnic spots. There’s a Junior Ranger program for the little ones. You can join four-wheel drive tours, Segway tours, kayak excursions, whale watching trips, after-dark wildlife walks, and bush-tucker tastings with a Butchulla ranger.
And of course there are the scenic flights with Air Fraser Island, which take off from 75 Mile Beach (the only ‘road rule’ is: cars give way to planes). If you’re looking for a quiet spot to soak it all in, try Eli Creek. It’s the largest freshwater creek on the eastern side of the island, which pumps four million litres of crystal clear water into the ocean every hour. Or head further up the beach to the wreck of the S.S. Maheno: a rusting steamer hulk that washed ashore in the 1930s.
Fraser Island became a World Heritage Site in 1992, and today it’s known more for natural beauty and eco-tourism than anything else. It’s the closest thing you’ll find to pristine wilderness. There are over 2000 botanical varieties here, 22 kinds of snake, and more than half of Australia’s native bird species, plus echidnas, bandicoots, goannas and monitor lizards. Between July and November, barnacle-covered humpback whales nurse their calves in shallow bays off the eastern coast.
And as for the wongari (dingoes): yes, they live here, and you need to treat them with respect. Every visitor should read up on basic dingo safety. Remember, this was their island first. If you really want to get the most out of Fraser Island, don’t miss a Butchulla bush-tucker tour. You’ll be amazed how many useful, edible things exist within 50 metres of your front door.
There are no paved roads on Fraser Island. This isn’t where you bring your Mazda 2 rental car (not unless you have spectacular insurance, anyway). The only way to get around here is four-wheel drive. Most of the tracks through the rainforest are rutted, bumpy, and covered in leaves and fallen logs. But this is where the real adventure happens. Hiring a four-wheel drive will let you see more of the island, and it’s how to reach the best walking trails, like Valley of the Giants. Trekking through rainforest with damp oxygen flooding your lungs and nothing but silence all around, walking beneath towering Satinay trees, with trunks four metres across, losing yourself in the wilderness, untouched for thousands of years—those are the Fraser Island memories that stick with you.
Queensland is good to go, and you can experience the best of Fraser Island with Intrepid Travel. Visit IntrepidTravel.com for more information.
James Shackell is a freelance journalist with words in The Huffington Post, Red Bull, Canadian Traveler and Smith Journal. One day, he'll be bumped to business class, and you'll never hear the end of it.