Australia's Top Tourism Treasures - Fraser Island

Fraser Island, Queensland

Continual shaping and reshaping are the essence of Fraser Island. For more than 700,000 years, fast-flowing rivers in New South Wales have cut into the sandstone of the Great Dividing Range and carried the debris to the Pacific shore to be swept north by wind and wave. The immense sand mass of Fraser Island, 185 miles (300 km) north of Brisbane, is where most of these grains come to rest. Having lived a stone's throw from Fraser, I can certainly testify that it is one of the most unforgettable islands on the planet.

At 75 miles long, up to nine miles wide, and rising to 800 feet, Fraser is the largest sand island in the world. Yet despite its sandy underbelly, it is far from being a barren expanse of dunes.

Rather, it is covered with a variety of sand-adapted vegetation, ranging from dune grasses and creepers to flower-rich heathlands, eucalypt and banksia woodlands, and even majestic rain forest, this being one of the few places in the world where rain forest grows on sand. Inland, rain-fed, sand-bottomed lakes cradle pristine water, and springs bubble up from a vast aquifer far below the dunes, sending pristine creeks east and west to the coasts. Much of this landscape is protected by Great Sandy National Park, which encompasses the northern half of the island and part of the mainland near Cooloola.

Bird life is abundant on Fraser, with more than 200 species ranging from the myriad honeyeaters and fairy wrens of the heathlands to the majestic white-breasted sea eagles that circle above the spray-smudged eastern beach and the migratory wading birds for whom the intertidal flats of the western shore are a favored stopover. Large mammals are fewer, but most visitors will experience the thrill of observing a dingo sauntering along the beach. There are walking trails to suit all levels of fitness, lake swimming year-round, and, during the August to October migration season, plentiful opportunities for whale watching.

There are 40 perched lakes on Fraser, most of which are rimmed by beaches of bleached white sand that is almost pure quartz, and the water they have collected over thousands of years is remarkably clean. Some lakes are tea-colored by tannins from fringing paperbark (melaleuca) trees; this is called black water and contrasts sharply with the bright white sand.

The waters are low in nutrients and support only isolated populations of tiny fish, which probably arrived as eggs on the feet of birds. The most common are the rainbow fish, no more than an inch long, that flit and dart across the sandy beds. More obvious are the numerous short-necked freshwater turtles, which range from hatchlings hardly bigger than an apricot pit to adult females the size of dinner plates. Watch for their heads breaking the surface for air.

In late spring, the females climb the banks to lay their eggs under the sand. Provided that they do not become a meal for a keen-nosed dingo or goanna, the eggs hatch underground 11 to 12 weeks later; the baby turtles then scramble to the surface and scamper to the nearest water. At Lake Allom, about halfway up the island, turtles are so plentiful that you can observe them easily from the shallows or take to the water yourself and swim among them.

Continued in: Australia's Top Tourism Treasures - Fraser Island & The Great Barrier Reef

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