We began our four-day trek up the Sunshine Coast by taking a Queensland Rail Tilt train to Maryborough, 3 and a half hours north of Brisbane. Queensland’s Sunshine Coast is popular with tourists, divers, surfers, campers, and beach explorers. South of Brisbane is the flashier Gold Coast with high-rise condos, hotels, casinos, designer retail stores, and prices to match. We traveled 130 kilometers through bush, tropical gum forests, sugar cane fields, and paddocks. After arriving in Maryborough we transferred to a shuttle bus to Hervey Bay where we would begin a day tour of Fraser Island. The next morning, a bus picked us up at our beachfront apartment and drove us to a marina to boarded a ferry. There were about 200 tourists on the ferry as well as some 20 four-wheel drive tour buses and trucks. Four-wheel drive trucks are the only vehicles allowed on Fraser since all roads are deep sand. When we disembarked, we boarded a hybrid German-Australian tour bus, the largest 4 WD commercial vehicle in the world.
Fraser Island is the largest sand island in the world, stretching 150 kilometers. Millions of years ago the island was connected to the Australian / Antarctica continent. When the oceans rose, the continents split apart and lowland between the island and mainland flooded. Mangrove swamps cover the entire west coast; the east coast is a 120 kilometer sandy beach. More than 100 fresh water lakes are located between high dunes created by winds. Heaths along the coast are composed of salt resistant species. Plant species survive from nutrients provided by a fungus. When the fungus dies, it leaches into the sand and provides food for the island’s tropical flora.
Europeans discover Fraser Island
The first European to see Fraser Island was Captain James Cook who sailed along the coast in May, 1770. Cook spotted aboriginal natives watching them from a hill which was named Indian Hill. The first European to land on the island was Matthew Flinders who arrived in 1802. Flinders was the first European to circumnavigate Australia and to discover that Tasmania was an island. He also named Australia as a tribute to New Holland and New South Wales.
Fraser Island was named after Captain James Frazer and his pregnant wife, Eliza Fraser. The Frasers’ ship, the Stirling Castle, was scuttled in 1836 on the Great Barrier Reef on a journey from Sidney to Singapore. The crew of 18 took lifeboats to try to reach Brisbane. Eliza Fraser gave birth on a leaking lifeboat, but her child died. The surviving lifeboat reached the island and next few months were harrowing; everyone except Eliza died of thirst, malnutrition, or disease. Eliza was a hostage of indigenous people until she was rescued by a convict who had seen her with the native people.
Arriving Fraser Island
We docked at a small marina, a cement ramp and sandy parking lot, on the west coast of Fraser Island. We boarded our tour bus and drove onto a sandy road through scrub brush and mangroves. The first few minutes on our bus were jolting, bouncing over the rough road while our driver and tour guide, Sean, began telling us about the history, geology, and habitat on the island. Our first destination was Central Station, the remains of an 19th century logging settlement when Fraser Island was first developed as a source of timber.
Logging and sand mining
The first logging of Fraser Island was begun in 1863 by an American Jack Piggott. The island was a source for rare species such as Kauri pine, blackbutt gum trees, and a hardy Satinay or Fraser Island Turpentine tree. The turpentine tree is fire-resistant and impervious to insects and were used in shipbuilding. Satinay logs were shipped to Egypt to line the Suez Canal and to England to build new docks in London after WW II. Logging was an active industry on the island until the Australian government canceled all export licenses in 1991.
Fraser Island was also a source for silica used in construction. Several foreign and domestic companies mined silica from 1950 to 1977 until the government banned all mining for environmental reasons. Fraser Island was named a World Heritage Site in 1992; no trees or plants can now be taken off the island.
Central Station is now just a few buildings and foundations of old settlement. Sean briefed us on the arduous history of loggers who cut down the trees, towed them over sand with mule trains to the coast, and bound them for towing to the mainland. Hard, dangerous work under strenuous conditions. Some workers didn’t return to the island after their first two weeks duty. Companies had to build homes for loggers and their families and provide basic amenities to maintain their industry. An interpretation display showed photos of rugged loggers doing the physically demanding chores of cutting the trees and transporting them to the mainland.
One of the trees is a Kauri pine, prized for its vertical grain. Shipping companies wanted Kauri pine to make masts for ocean going vessels. Other logs have a horizontal grain which can break in high winds and rough seas.
The Australian military chose the colors of the kauri pine to design camouflage uniforms for their troops stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Our next destination was Lake Mackenzie, a fresh water perched lake which means the bottom is sealed by rotting vegetation preventing water from draining into sand. We had a half hour to cool off in the sweltering heat.
Near Lake mackenzie, Sean pointed out an interesting plant, dingo tales, which are gathered and shipped to florists for making arrangements. The dingo tails were soft as I brushed my hand over them.
After three hours driving over rough sandy roads through thick tropical vegetation, we finally emerged from 24 kilometers of thick tropical vegetation, we finally reached the Pacific Ocean, stopping at a beach resort, Urong. After a buffet lunch and cold beer, we boarded our bus to drive on the first hard surface road on the island, the wide sandy beach. The 75 mile long beach ‘highway‘ consisted of tour buses and four-wheel drive trucks cruising at 80 KPH along the hard surface.
An airline company uses the beach as a landing strip to provide tourists with 15 minute flights over Fraser island. We saw two planes taking off, landing, and flying over the sandblow dunes, circling over the ocean providing aerial views of Fraser Island and the mainland.
We made three stops driving north on the beach highway. The northern most point was Pinnacles, a narrow gorge with exposed ochre sandstone that indigenous Australians used to paint their bodies. We had been warned numerous times about dingoes on Fraser Island. They are a pure breed with having any trace of wild dog in their DNA. Within the last few years, there have been a few reports of dingoes attacking tourists and campers. There are only about 200 dingoes left on Fraser Island but we didn’t see one. Nevertheless, signs warned not to approach them if spotted.
We headed back south to view the rusted remains of a Scottish ship, the SS Maheno, firmly beached in the hard sand. The 5,000 ton, steel-hulled Maheno was built as a luxury passenger ship in 1905 and was commissioned into the Australian Navy as a hospital ship for transporting wounded Australian solders during WW I.
After the war, the ship was sold to Japanese scrap metal merchant and was being towed to Osaka in 1934 when it was caught in a cyclone. The tow line broke 80 kilometers off the Queensland coast and drifted ashore at Fraser Island. Despite repeated attempts to return the Maheno to the sea, the Japanese striped equipment and brass, stranding it on the coast.
The Maheno was used as a bombing target by the Royal Australian Air Force during World War II and more recently was by Australian commandoes for planting mines.
More than three quarters of the SS Maheno is buried under sand.
Long days journey back to the marina
After spending two hours cruising the beach ‘highway,’ we returned south to Urong to get on the road back to the marina. We’d already driven over the bone-jarring sandy roads, bouncing over steep holes and ruts, thankfully restrained by seat belts. We’d been jostled constantly when our sturdy bus slammed into holes or deep ruts.
The arduous return trip was made more frustrating by small Suzukis and Toyota 4WDs bogged down in the sand ahead of us. Our driver, Sean, and other drivers had to get out of their vehicles to push smaller trucks to the side so we could pass.
But Sean kept us entertained, spinning tales of life on Fraser Island by loggers, explorers, tourists, scientists, and adventure travelers. After a twelve hour day, Sean would be back tomorrow to take another bus load of tourists for an action packed and bone-jarring visit to Fraser Island.
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