K’gari Island - The aboriginal name for

Fraser Island


Eliza Fraser landed here in 1836 and her story makes for quite a saga.

She was immortalised by Patrick White who won a Nobel Prize for literature and an Archibald prize winner Sidney Nolan for a painting.

Her husband was a sea captain of a British brig – a sailing vessel with 2 square masts - named Stirling Castle - travelling from Sydney to Singapore when it was wrecked on Swain Reef Group 240 km north east of Gladstone. Two lifeboats with 18 people were launched. One boat missed Moreton Bay and reached the Tweed River and the other, with the captain, made it to K’gari Island later named Great Sandy Island and finally Fraser Island. Of this group, the captain and another died at the hand of hostile aborigines and two drowned trying to swim to the mainland. Eliza sought refuge among the Badtjala people and after a few months, with the help of escaped convicts (called “bunders”) made her way to Brisbane

The Kabi tribe were divided into 19 clans on an area including also Cooloola and inland to the Blackall ranges. They had quite defined areas, but as they did not peg out 24 perch allotments the colonial administration decided that it was “terra nullius” and hence there was nothing to stop it from declaring it “crown land”. Some historians claimed that the local tribes were fierce and hostile and ate the flesh of those killed in combat and those who died at an early age, as a ritual act. Other historians seem to have embraced a political correctness attitude and shy away from such description. Various testimonies suggest that whilst crew members were treated harshly by some clans, others offered them food and finally passed them on to colonial officials. Because of her “ghostly” white appearance the aborigines thought Eliza to be a re-incarnation of one of their own and was therefore treated quite well. Her eventful ordeal provided imaginative material to inspire folklore of her mishap, suffering and endurance.

Within half a century the estimated 2 000 aborigines were no longer living on the island as they were displaced by the growing timber industry. According to some sources a number of them were pushed down the cliff face at Indian Head and others were transferred to settlements on the mainland. Their jailers did not appreciate how clannish the locals were and by forcing many clans to live together, which was against their culture, and with the additional danger of contact with the Caucasians’ smallpox, soon very few of them were left. Various local settlements were abandoned and those remaining were resettled in Yarrabah (near Cairns – more than 1500 km away, and eventually to Cherbourg, closer to Brisbane).  I am amazed that some people are not willing to utter a word of apology.

Since the wreck of the Stirling Castle Fraser Island has been transformed. It is accessible by four wheel drive. Our Fraser Island odyssey began by driving to Inskip Point (Cooloola) past Rainbow Beach and then taking a ferry across from the mainland. From Hook Point on the southern tip we drove on the Seventy Five Mile beach to our camp-site about half way up. There is accommodation at Happy Valley and Eurong, but ours was a camp site close to the beach. You can also reach the island from Urangan in Hervey Bay and go to the Kingfisher Bay Resort - a beautifully designed and comfortable place.

After meandering all day around the island we returned to our tent and wondered what the groove was that went right around it and what was the imprint of feet just outside the groove. It looked just like a small version of a crocodile, but you don’t expect a croc on Fraser Island, so it had to be something else, maybe a goanna or monitor. Just as well we zipped up the tent and it could not get to our rations. We finally got here with a friend, Fred Williams, an amateur historian, who loves this place and produced a little book about the Island’s history Written in Sand”. We broke camp on the high side of the sandy beach close to vegetation, with fresh water available just inches below the sand.

The island is about 120 km long and 20 km wide. It is the largest sand island in the world and the sand goes to a depth of 600 metres. A four wheel drive vehicle took us everywhere on the east coast and inland. On one of our camping trips we came across a large quantity of pipis (also called eugaries).  When a vehicle drives over the sand at half-tide, an edge of pipi shell appears above the sand and you can easily prize it out. We collected a bucket and a half of them, cooked some, used others for bait and tipped most of them back into the water as we were leaving the next day. We overcooked them and they became quite tough. We found out later that if you boil them for a short time they make an excellent soup. We did not do so well at fishing, but we saw others catching dart, tailor and whiting. At night we could see half a dozen fishing boats (allegedly) fishing for Spanish mackerel, good for pet food.


On most of my travels to this island there were no regulations in place protecting the environment. The early settlers proceeded to cut down the valuable beech, kauri trees and hoop pines. Later a substantial sand mining extraction industry began. An organisation lead by John Sinclair FIDO (Fraser Island Defence Organisation) tried to have sandmining banned and Sinclair’s efforts were opposed by a conservative state government. Sinclair, a state school teacher, was transferred to a school far away from Maryborough to thwart his efforts to stop mining. Ironically, a Federal conservative government led by PM Malcolm Fraser banned the export of rutile from the island and so killed this industry and brought the declaration of most of the island to a National Park closer. Strangely, he baulked at stopping the Tasmanian Government from damming the Franklin River, but that was done when Bob Hawk came to power.

One of the great attractions lies in the island’s lakes. Lake McKenzie can attract thousands of visitors in a day. It has blindingly white sands (silica). The beach around this lake must be the most beautiful inland one in this country.

When I first visited the island, brumbies and dingos were present. Vegetation is pretty sparse and the grasses consumed by brumbies contained a lot of sand which settled down in their stomach. It was decided to put them out of their misery and when I enquired about their absence I was advised that they were removed “horizontally”. Dingos were culled and in many places fences were erected to keep them out of the tourist areas and visitors were prohibited from feeding them or indeed leaving leftovers around their campsites. Many dingo friends feel that these arrangements are too harsh and because of shortage of feed dingos will die out. Dingos are pretty animals and the only surviving native dogs, but they can be very cruel and are held responsible for a number of smaller animals being extinct on our continent as well as the damage they inflict on sheep and cattle.

One of our first activities was to go to “the races”. Lake Bowarrady a pretty little lake in the north is known for tiny tortoises. Each of us captured two or three tortoises, placed them about 30 metres away from the lake shore, made our bets and let them loose. They immediately raced away for their beloved water and we barracked for our little beauties and then collected our winnings. After such strenuous effort we retired to our camp and proceeded to play cards (and – no – we are not teetotal – a beer), but there was an unpleasant element present, namely flies of a particular kind – March flies. Large, cumbersome and rather slow, so that we could easily defeat them. But were they March flies or Marsh flies? Our later study revealed that they were March flies and it is quite true (we were there in the last days of March and into April – but no – this is not an April joke) they did disappear after the end of March.

How the island came about, makes for an interesting story. All the islands starting just north of the Gold Coast are completely sandy and they were created by courtesy of New South Wales. The soil is washed down the rivers in NSW and only the grainy sand part of the soil starts travelling around the coast in the north westerly direction. You can see that current on weather maps with the arrows showing how it moves invariably around the coastline towards the north-west. When the winds got a bit cranky and turned towards the land a dune was created which pushed the sand inland and choked a lot of the vegetation. When the push of the wind and tides diminishes and allows the sand to settle, the vegetation starts to push through. All this can take centuries to happen.

Poor Lake Wabby is in trouble. A large sand dune is marching at a metres a year towards and over the lake. It is the only lake on the island where I saw some fish.

Spelling of names of features on this island seems to be a work in progress. You can expect a different spelling for Lake Boemingen (which gave me the best photography of my various trips.) The colour of the water is one of rainbow, only in a shallow band, then it is black and producing great reflections. The lakes have water running into them but there is no evidence of outflow. It is as if there were a plug on the bottom of these lakes. Some of them are up to 70 metres above sea level and are called “perched lakes”. An unconfirmed report states that the chemistry of the water is exactly the same as the water in Toowoomba, some couple of hundred kilometres sway.

There is more to see: Indian Head for its rare rocky outcrop from which the locals watched Capt. Cook go past and where they held corroborees, attested to by large middens (left-over shells after feasts). Ely Creek for its strong flow of water, where you can safely float for a few hundred meters without a fear of drowning; The Cathedral for its coloured sand and a shipwreck slowly disintegrating.

The area near McKenzie’s Jetty on the west coast was once the site of a sawmill, later the training ground for Z Special Commando Units (also referred to as Z Force) which was to attack  Japanese ships in Singapore Harbour.  MV Krait was the ship that took them to Singapore, where they transferred to smaller vessels and attached limpet mines to Japanese ships, sank 4 of them of 39.000 tons and all arrived safely back in Australia. A second expedition, although it also sank Japanese ships, lost 11 men (including the leader) in action and another 10 were beheaded by the Japanese.  The Z Special Commando also practised bombing on a wreck near Eli Creek called Maheno.

The ship Maheno was a luxury liner of over 5000 ton and 400 feet long, working as a hospital ship during WW1 and was involved in the Gallipoli campaign. After the war it carried on as a passenger ship between Australia and New Zealand crossing the “ditch” many a time. It was sold for scrap in 1935 and whilst being towed to Japan a tow rope broke, could not be re-attached and the Maheno became beached and its wreck has become a great attraction, especially for children. Authorities warn that it is becoming dangerous for climbers.

 There are many magic places on this island. Central Station, previously a Forestry Department station, is surrounded by mighty trees. What about a hoop pine standing on nothing but 600 metres of sand? And directly next to it is Woongoolbver Creek, with its quiet flow, surrounded by ferns, palms and white sand. Sadly, the latest version of nature preservation dogmas does not allow the picking up of fallen branches of palms and trees and these now cover the water, so that the recommended barefoot walk in the creek is out. An interesting point here is that the flow of the water is completely soundless.

If you climb Mt Coot-tha in Brisbane and look towards the sea, there are sand hills visible on the islands which are strung from the Gold Coast past Brisbane enclosing Morton Bay all the way to Caloundra and Noosa and on to Cooloola and Fraser.

Do yourself a favour and go to Fraser – even the lazy way - to Kingfisher Bay.

A question.

How is it that 150 years ago the island sustained 2000-3000 people and now it can’t even sustain brumbies, let alone the staff of the holiday resorts, whose supplies are brought from the mainland?

November 2013