22. Australian Road Trip: A Fraser Island Primer

Big Sandy

show route and directions
A markerFraser Island -
Fraser Island, QLD 4581, Australia
[get directions]

Hard to believe this island is made entirely of sand - it's a wonderous place with its freshwater lakes, miles of beach and luxuriant rainforests.

B markerRainbow Beach -
Rainbow Beach QLD 4581, Australia
[get directions]

Rainbow Beach - lesser known access point to Fraser Island, nicer too.

Fraser Island Facts and Figures

Fraser Island: over 123 kilometres in length and 22 kilometres at its widest point. With an area of 184 000 hectares, it is the largest sand island in the world.

Who would want to miss seeing a place like that? Not us, and Rainbow Beach, our new home for the next few days, is one of the two access points for the island. (Hervey Bay to the north is the other.)

Rainbow Beach

Looking south, beyond the distant headland -  Noosa.
Looking south, beyond the distant headland - Noosa.
Rude roots
Rude roots

Rainbow Beach

You are never far from wilderness in Australia, but the road to Rainbow Beach really feels like we have left civilization behind. Rainbow Beach is 265km north of Brisbane, 76km east of the country town of Gympie and less than a kilometre to the south west of Fraser Island. In fact, from Inskip Point at the northern tip of Rainbow Beach, there is just a short channel across to the island, which doesn’t look all that sandy at first glimpse, being as it is covered in thick bush, right down to the beach. Rainbow Beach township itself sits on a hill overlooking the eponymous beach, so named because of the multi-coloured sandy cliffs that fringe its entire length. The town is a modern little community with a shopping arcade, some cafés, a pub, a caravan park and several tourist offices where you can book tours or hire 4x4s for the Fraser Island experience.

Speed Limit 40KMH

Beaches are classified as public highways in Queensland
Beaches are classified as public highways in Queensland

In an ideal world, I would like to take my own 4x4 across to the island and spend a week or two camping at various remote locations along the endless beach. But, I don’t have a 4x4 and I am put off hiring one by the “Wall of Shame” in the main tourist office that is plastered with pictures of various vehicles that people have come to grief in while on the island. You see, this is a specialist place to drive, where all the roads are sand tracks and the beach itself is the main north-south thoroughfare. Get caught out in the soft sand or in a rising tide and you are, to put it in the Aussie vernacular – Rooted!

Mob of noisy buggers on Rainbow Beach

Fraser Island & Rainbow Beach

Map of Fraser Island showing points of interest. Rainbow Beach is at the southern tip of the island
Map of Fraser Island showing points of interest. Rainbow Beach is at the southern tip of the island

Just another day on the beach

We decide to spoil ourselves and take an organised, two day tour with overnight accommodation in the semi-luxurious Eurong Beach Resort. First, we have a day to spare so we spend it cycling along Rainbow Beach, which is also classed as a public highway – there are even speed limit signs stuck in the sand. At one place about 5km along, we have to wait while a convoy of 4x4s roar past in a cloud of spray as the tide comes in. It’s kind of cool to see all these vehicles on the beach, but also disconcerting and very un-ecofriendly, except that everyone is going on safari and it feels, like I said, ‘kind of cool’.

I go for a surf in the tumultuous sea later that day. The water is as warm as a bath but the rips and undertows soon have me 500 metres up the beach from where I went in. The pub is OK here – sitting under palm tree trees and sinking a couple of coldies after a hot day of cycling and surfing is my idea of heaven.

Fraser Island ferry 'terminal'
Fraser Island ferry 'terminal'
View from the bus as we hurtle down the beach
View from the bus as we hurtle down the beach
take off and sandy landing - beach as airstrip
take off and sandy landing - beach as airstrip

The Fraser Island Experience

Next Day: We are up early, and armed with our overnight bags and camera, head down to the bus stop for our tour. The bus is just like a small 30 seater, except that it is four wheel drive with high suspension and seats like an airplane with cross the shoulder straps to hold you in. The bus fills with tourists - mainly backpackers from all over the world and Aussie families, and off we go up to Inskip Point. The Ferry is a barge-like punt that just slides up to the sand and lowers a ramp. To get to it is the first test for a 4x4 driver. You have to gun it along the soft sand, no stopping, until you reach the ramp and you are on the punt. This would be the most embarrassing place to come unstuck as there are hoards of people and vehicles here waiting to board and they all look like experts. I’m glad we are in a bus.

Ten minutes later and we’re rumbling along a sandy bush track across the southern tip of Fraser Island. After a short while the track emerges onto the beach, all 120kms of it. The magnificent strand stretches away to the north, dissolving in a blur of sea spray from the crashing waves that thunder against the hard packed sand. We passengers just sit back and enjoy the ride. The driver is the epitome of cool - sitting up front in a fighter pilot’s seat, wearing shorts, Redback boots, T-shirt and baseball cap. With headphones on and his fingers controlling decent rock music through the tannoy system, he negotiates sand drifts, moving sea water, spray, driftwood and other vehicles – exciting stuff.

The bus stops at a light aircraft parked on the beach, (which is not only an official state highway but also an aerodrome). Driver and pilot talk then the pilot comes on board and asks if anyone wants a joyride over the Island. Two English lads on a whistlestop tour of Australia take up the $100 offer and leave the bus, to be picked up later, further along the beach – only in Oz.

Lovely Lake Wabby

Our guide drawing a map in the sand so we don't get lost.
Our guide drawing a map in the sand so we don't get lost.

There are numerous sights to see along the way. First stop is Lake Wabby, a dark green, fresh water pool in amongst sand dunes and forest (see photos). We all disembark and walk the three kilometres or so across the Arabian landscape to reach the lake where we swim and picnic. There are big march flies here, real biters, but they are easy to kill and if you throw the bodies into the lake, huge catfish come to the surface and gulp them. Back on board the bus and next stop, dozens of miles further on is Eli Creek. Crystal clear, fresh water bubbles out of the sand and meanders in a waste-deep creek for about half a mile through tropical bush until it reaches the sea. There is a boardwalk and trail that leads you to the source of the creek from where you can wade or swim back to the beach where the bus is parked.

A bit further on up the beach and we stop at the shipwreck of the SS Maheno, a rusty but picturesque steamship that has lived here, marooned in the sand, for decades. It is a photo op and then off again. At last we come to Indian Head, a feature, which we learn is the ‘Anchor’ of the island. The headland is a rocky outcrop, a couple of hundred feet high I guess, which all the sand of the island has adhered to and grown off. From the top we can see up and down the beach, and look back into the island where sand dunes, called ‘blows’, drift amongst the foliage that has sprouted from the golden earth.

The drive back to Eurong Resort is a bit more tense as the relentless tide is coming in. I’m sure the driver has everything under control and is only feigning the tension to add excitement value to the excursion. However, at one point the sea has completely blocked the beach and we have to cut inland along a very rough track to get around the hazard. This is fun as the bus has to get up speed to make it up the rutted, sandy track, over an outcrop of rock then back down to the beach on the other side. Its good, I’m loving it.

Along the way we spot a dingo (the island is notorious for its aggressive wild dingoes) and I look in envy at the occasional campsite set up in the small grassy dunes above high water mark.

Fraser Island Gallery

Wading down Eli Creek
Wading down Eli Creek
Eli Creek - there's the bus
Eli Creek - there's the bus
Salty Mick Says "Hi".
Salty Mick Says "Hi".
SS Maheno - rust never sleeps
SS Maheno - rust never sleeps
Looking south from Indian Head
Looking south from Indian Head
Scribbles in the sand - 4x4 artists
Scribbles in the sand - 4x4 artists

In the interior

Fresh water so clear that it is invisible
Fresh water so clear that it is invisible
White sand of Lake Mackenzie
White sand of Lake Mackenzie

Fly Killers and Invisible Creeks

Eurong Beach Resort is modern and comfortable with a great pub and restaurant. We get decidedly high on cold beers that night and engage in the local sport - killing march flies. I squish about 60 before I lose count.
Next day the bus takes us into the interior of the island. The area is a network of tracks, many one way, and in the centre of this big old sandy island there is a tall, luxurious, sub-tropical rainforest, complete with huge trees, vines, palms, ferns and the purest freshwater on earth. There is a creek that winds through the forest with water so clear that it looks like there is no water in it, invisible. The creek bed itself is pure white sand, in fact, scuff the surface anywhere on Fraser Island and you will hit sand. It feels like a phenomenon.

We stop for a picnic lunch at Lake Mackenzie in the middle of the island. The lake is milky-blue fresh water surrounded by glistening white sand and ringed by dark olive-green scrub – a landscape unique to this island. The drive back to the ferry is another hair-raising adventure as we tear through the forest with barely six inches to spare either side of the bus, then along the beach with the wild Pacific Ocean crashing at our hubcaps.

I hope I haven’t spoilt Fraser Island for potential visitors. I had no idea what it would be like before I went – a sand dune, with a rainforest on it; that is all I knew. I know more now.

Back at Rainbow Beach we chill out for another day and plan our route north. Our next milestone – The Tropic of Capricorn.

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