Some forms of transport I’d prefer to a very small include but are not limited to: a unicycle, a reindeer sled, an Uber driver with a 3.1 rating.
Yet, here I am, clutching my metaphorical pearls as our tiny propeller plane — captained by a pilot at least a decade younger than my 29 years — drops lower and lower over a beach with no runway in sight. Before I know it, we’re inches from the ground and I instinctively tense my muscles. Then I realise that we’ve landed. Right there on the sand. Like that’s a thing planes can do.
This is my introduction to Fraser Island.
Of course, my fear is unfounded. The very capable crew of Air Fraser Island land on Seventy-Five Mile Beach – effectively a highway made of sand – every single day.
I arrive on the first day of summer, and the Queensland heat clings to me. The short flight from Hervey Bay is low and snags every air pocket, but the added height offers the perspective needed to understand the sheer scale of the world’s largest sand island, which stretches around 120km along the southern coast of Queensland. (For reference, that’s about the distance from Sydney to the Blue Mountains. It’s huge.)
We loop around the disarmingly blue Lake McKenzie, barely managing to fit its jagged edges into a photo frame from the air, before flying above the sand dunes that wall Lake Wabby. Sand, by nature, is constantly shifting. One day, in 100 years or so, this lake will cease to exist as the dune continues its resolute march westward and settles into the waters. It’s the island’s first reminder that the slow force of nature can’t be tamed.
While it’s popular on the international backpacker circuit and with families, and was recently named Australia’s cheapest beachside destination, Fraser Island is hardly a go-to for young Australians. It’s a shame, as the island – known as ‘K’gari’, or ‘Paradise’ to the traditional owners of the land, the Butchella people – is everything that’s great about Australian nature. It’s wild, remote and exceptionally beautiful, with criss-crossed sand tracks linking its dozens of freshwater lakes and rainforests.
About those tracks; Fraser Island is strictly 4WD territory, so it’s out of the plane and into the back of a truck with our driver Dave from Fraser Experience Tours. For a city gal like me, four-wheel driving feels like a series of tiny mishaps. I drive on tarmac and highways, but sand has a tendency to leave the wheels fanning out under you, making it more of a deliberate slip than a steer.
Thankfully, Dave has been driving these “roads” for years, and can expertly read the terrain. I soon learn that the key to enjoying it is just giving in and holding on, using core muscles you didn’t even know you had to stay upright. Whatever obliques are, I think I have them now.
We make tracks down the beach, past the popular Eli Creek swimming spot where a constant stream of fresh water leaks into the ocean, allowing people to hold onto an inflatable and coast leisurely downstream. We arrive at the SS Maheno shipwreck, a considerable heap of rust that drifted onto Seventy-Mile Beach during a storm when it was being towed to Japan to be sold for scrap. I suppose, given the views and all, it preferred to stay on the beach.
I’m generally indifferent to shipwrecks, but the Maheno is legitimately mind-blowing in both its scale and in the realisation that something so still is, in fact, sinking quite rapidly. Entire levels of this large vessel have disappeared beneath the ground, and portholes are eerily half-submerged in the sand. Like Lake Wabby, the SS Maheno, too, is in the long process of surrendering to nature.
On the way back from the shipwreck, Dave points at an approaching car.
“There’s Bill. And Roger. They’re cops,” he says.
“How many cops are there on the island?” I ask.
“Two,” he replies.
We drive back to Happy Valley, one of the two villages with asphalt roads on the whole island, the other being Kingfisher Bay Resort on the other side. There are four or five small strips of tar before we slip quietly back onto the sand, and into the jungle. As the car slowly winds its way along the narrow path, we pass through countless terrains – from coastal scrub into extremely tall rainforests, where the competition for sunlight is fierce and ferns carpet the earth below.
After a long and bumpy ride, slices of bright blue start to peek through the curtain of green on our left. We’re let out of the 4WD to finish the walk through the bush to Lake McKenzie (Boorangoora)’s “second beach” – apparently much quieter than the popular one with the carpark.
The shock of blue lake we saw from the plane is no less sensational from ground level. We pause, silent, to take it in. Indeed, no one else is there on the second beach. Just us. The white silica sand feels like caster sugar under my feet, and I wade into the water – effectively a giant pond made from rainwater. It’s so clear and calm that I can look down and count my toes, even when the bottom sinks away beneath them. The sticky Queensland heat comes unstuck, and I lean back.
Floating in the lake with the bush beyond my feet and the empty sky above, I try to keep my ears above water level to hear the cicadas buzzing – their hum falling and rising like the rhythm of breath – before they finally submerge and I, too, let nature take over.
On Fraser Island, you’re likely to see more than a few dingoes – plenty of these wild dogs call it home. Be aware of dingo danger and don’t feed them or go too close. It’s much better (and safer) to admire them from afar.
While arriving to Fraser Island by air is unreal, the ferry ride back to Hervey Bay, if timed right, allows you to sink a sundowner on the top deck while watching the huge island retreat in the distance. It’s very nice.
If, like me, you are the ultimate “say yes” person, stop in to Aquavue Watersports, borrow a pair of slick ’80s sunglasses and do a jetski safari back towards the island. Explore the remote, mangrove-fringed beaches of Fraser Island’s Moon Point, or – like us, slowed down due to the choppy conditions – zoom around the Great Sandy Strait during low tide to see Pelican Bank, a strip of sand covered with the namesake birds and surrounded by shallow, turquoise water.
Eat & Drink
While food options on the island are quite limited, the nearby Hervey Bay punches above it’s weight when it comes to food-friendliness.
Coast Restaurant‘s star is seafood so fresh you can hardly distinguish its flavour from the ocean breeze. Made to share and with a focus on local and seasonal produce, the dishes don’t skimp on flavour or finesse. The slow-roasted lamb shoulder with tomato relish pulls apart easily and is perfect for a group, while the steamed buns – with a choice of pork belly with hoisin sauce of buttermilk fried chicken – will kickstart your appetite.
For breakfast, Eat at Dan and Steph’s (the winners of the fourth season of My Kitchen Rules) is found further along the Esplanade. It has inventive breakfast options, fresh baked goods, healthy juices, loaded doughnuts and great views of the water to boot.
A relaxed lunch at The Vinyard will see your seafood – think local scallops cured with citrus, fennel and chilli, oysters with wasabi lime granita and fish roe, and whole grilled local king prawns marinated in lemongrass and ginger – served with a perfectly-matched wine from their extensive list. If you’re unsure of what to order, just let the staff decide for you. They know what’s up.
The Oceans Resort in Hervey Bay is just a short ferry ride away from Fraser Island. With two swimming pools and spacious rooms with more than adequate air-con, it’s just the place to kick back on the balcony and read a book looking out over the impressive Urangan Pier and the swaying palms.
Taryn Stenvei was a guest of Tourism and Events Queensland.
(All images unless otherwise credited: author’s own)
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