Australia's island paradise with a dark and curious history

Chloe Cann
Fraser Island is a Unesco World Heritage-listed landmass formed entirely of sand - bjuerges

An island of sand and lush rainforest beauty sounds like just the ticket for newlyweds – and now parents to be – Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex, and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, as they pause to take a breath during their whirlwind tour of Oceania, their first ever as a royal couple.

Their 16-day adventure to the Antipodes includes stops in a number of familiar spots – from the Kiwi capital of Wellington to Auckland, New Zealand’s most populous city, and Australia’s holiday heavyweights Sydney and Melbourne.

But the island where they will be touching down tomorrow is an altogether more curious destination. Not that they are going there for pure R&R (that will surely come ahead of the birth of their expected child next spring).

Lying just off the southeastern coast of Queensland, Fraser Island is a Unesco World Heritage-listed landmass formed entirely of sand. And at more than 75 miles long and 15 miles wide (nearly the same size as Tenerife) it is the largest of its kind in the world.

According to local legend, the island is the body of K’gari (pronounced gurri), a spirit from the sky who fell in love with the beautiful bay made by Yindinji, a messenger sent to create land on Earth. The island’s trees and shrubs became her clothes, its lakes her eyes and its streams her voice. And to ensure K’gari, meaning paradise, would never be lonely Yindinji populated the land with creatures and people. 

The Duke and Duchess of Sussex in Sydney on their tour of Australia Credit: Getty

The Butchulla people’s Dreamtime story of creation is by far the sweeter half of the island’s history an on arival the royal pair will hear more about it directly from representatives of the Butchulla People who will join the Premier of Queensland and invite thm to take part in a traditional Welcome to Country Smoking Ceremony.

The second act of the history of this island is an altogether more sobering affair that began one night in May 1836, when a cargo ship ran aground on a coral reef. Though on passage to Singapore from Sydney, the brig had in fact begun its journey in Scotland, and some of the surviving Scottish crew (including Captain James Fraser and his wife Eliza), somehow ended up on K’gari. Captian Fraser died shortly after making landfall, while Eliza survived.

Beyond those few concrete details the picture becomes rather hazier: Eliza was “rescued” some three months later, and upon her return to the UK she told many a tale of enslavement, embarrassment and hardship at the hands of the Butchulla. Hailed as a hero by the British, the island was given her name. And not long after, the Butchulla people, who had inhabited the island for at least 5,000 years, were shot, dispossessed or died of diseases brought over by the Europeans.              

Butterfly Lake, Fraser Island Credit: istock

There are few descendants of the six aboriginal clans surviving today, not one inhabiting the island permanently. But a small slither of the Butchulla’s ancestral legacy lives on – as the Duke and duchess will discover. “What is good for the land comes first” is one of the three laws of the original custodians of the land. And as part of their visit, Harry and Meghan will unveil a plaque that names Fraser part of the Queen’s Commonwealth Canopy – an initiative that seeks to earmark and preserve pristine indigenous forest. 

The fantastical flora that inhabits this island of natural curiosities is certainly worthy of protection. I have never set foot anywhere quite like it: crystalline lakes of navy bordered with Listerine blue lie hidden in the folds of centuries-old sand dunes; dense tropical rainforest, where trees more than 160-feet tall stand rooted in nothing but swathes of silica; mile upon mile of wind-sculpted sand cliffs striated in every shade of ochre rise up from the beach, like a scene from a Wild West film; and fast-flowing freshwater creeks miraculously materialise out of the scrub, carrying  water so clear and pure that it can be heard, but is hard to see. This is no biodiversity hotspot – it’s a living, breathing Eden, some 750,000 years in the making.

An equally fantastical array of fearsome fauna threatens these parts too (Snakes! Sharks! Dingoes! More snakes!) yet I spot none of it while careening around the island. My only encounters with the native wildlife are of the audible variety. The shrill, staccato chatter of whistling kites; the slow ‘sizzle’ sound of crickets, like power lines in summer’s heat; and the croaky bleat of Cooloola Sedge Frogs.

Fraser Island is home to four species of 'acid frogs' Credit: istock

The cornucopia of habitats on Fraser cradles all manner of creatures, however, with more than 350 species of birds, 48 species of mammals, 79 species of reptiles and 18 species of frogs spotted here. The wider Fraser Coast area also lays claim to the title of whale watching capital of the world, its calm, sheltered waters providing refuge for thousands of migrating humpbacks each year.

To view everything in one large gulp visitors can take a scenic flight straight from the sand on 75 Mile Beach, Air Fraser’s mobile ‘runway’ marked by nothing other than two cones and a propped-up sign reading “caution aircraft landing”. It’s one of only two places in the world where you can take off and land on a beach (the other being Scotland’s Isle of Barra).

From 4,000 feet in the air the thickets of rainforest resemble a sea of broccoli florets, the occasional white thread of sand track snaking through the greenery below, while the hulking great four-wheel drives that patrol the shoreline suddenly look like tiny toy cars you could pinch with your forefingers. Who needs a drone when you can gawp at the milky white crests of waves barreling towards the shore live from above.

While taking off or landing on a beach might not seem a particularly wild prospect in principle, it becomes more so once you factor in the parade of four-wheel drives speeding along the sand in both directions, just inches away from the frothy surf. Watching them stream along through the film of sandy heat haze on the horizon is almost as surreal a scene as a still from Mad Max.

“It’s a gazetted highway,” explains Gary, our guide from Kingfisher Bay Resort. “You’ve gotta look both ways before you cross.” The island’s sand ‘roads’ are patrolled by the Queensland police, and those caught speeding or driving under the influence can be fined, just like anywhere else in the state. 

Four-wheel drives are the only vehicles that can tackle Fraser’s all-sand terrain – and not just any old model will cut the mustard here – but instead I cruise the island in a souped up, custom-designed, four-wheel drive coach, on Kingfisher Bay’s Beauty Spots tour.

At first sight the coach looks as ordinary as any other, but it bounces over deep grooves and speeds and shudders through tracks in the sand like nobody’s business, with occasional puffs from the pneumatics part of the soundtrack. 

Independent travellers can pitch up with their vehicle and a tent – providing they’ve applied for all the necessary permits. And many locals do just that, coming over with friends or family for a fishing trip, or simply a chance to unplug from the modern world and remember what being in the wilderness feels like.

The island’s big enough, and quiet enough, that you can tuck away into the bush and barely pass another soul. But for those with limited time, limited experience driving on sand, and limited knowledge of the island, staying at one of the handful of local resorts and taking organised tours with the professionals is by far the more compelling, and safer, alternative. 

Thankfully, the Kingfisher Bay Resort doesn’t feel divorced from Fraser’s untamed charm. The resort’s low-rise structures – many of which were made from recycled timber – are scattered widely and hidden below the tree line; so much so that when you arrive at the jetty there’s barely a building visible through the thick forest beyond the beach. Spiky leafed pandanus trees and wildflowers envelop the pool and restaurant area, tiny, colourful birds flit between the resort’s lofty lobby and the great outdoors, and wallum, or heathland, skirts Kingfisher’s edges.

They say it takes a foolish man to build his house upon the sand, but to have Fraser’s raw landscape at your toes seems a wise investment to me. 

Lake McKenzie, Fraser Island Credit: istock

Getting there

Singapore Airlines (singaporeair.com) flies from London to Brisbane with return fares from £770. Emirates (emirates.com) and Etihad Airways (etihad.com) fly the same route from £769 and £821 respectively. 

From Brisbane, Qantas (qantas.com) operates direct flights to Hervey Bay on the Queensland mainland. From there, Air Fraser Island (airfraserisland.com.au) operates services to Fraser Island and also offers scenic flights from £54 per person. 

Fraser Island can also be reached by ferry from River Heads, a short drive from Hervey Bay. 

Staying there

Kingfisher Bay Resort (kingfisherbay.com) has rooms from £92 per night. An adventure package (two nights’ plus a full-day guided tour) starts at £243pp sharing. 

Kingfisher Bay Resort

Local culture

Butchulla Aboriginal Corporation (facebook.com/ButchullaAboriginalCorporation)

More information

australia.com.