Princess K’Gari - Olivier Vachez

Discovering a fascinating island on the eastern seabord of Australia

It is 6pm and night has fallen on the 10th of June.

I am camping on the shore of Lake McKenzie, on Fraser Island, the largest sand island in the world.

Fraser is situated a few kilometres from the eastern seaboard of Australia, 400 kilometres north of Brisbane.

To reach Lake McKenzie, I walked 11 kilometres from the west coast of Fraser Island. The barge, which travels between the continent and the island 3 times a day, dropped me there a few hours earlier.

That night beside the lake the temperature was cool, 13°C.

Winter is upon the southern hemisphere. In Queensland, during the cooler months, temperatures vary between 8°c and 10°c at night and 20 to 23°c during the day. No rain, as winter is traditionally dry in the sub-tropical and tropical regions of Australia.

A few moments before nightfall, silence around the lake is almost complete, briefly interrupted by a few birds. Their calls, rather than spoiling the silence, accentuate it... total peace.

Fraser Island: 123 km long, 14 to 22 km wide. An area of 162,000 to 184,000 hectares, according to the tides.

Fraser Island being made entirely of sand, one may wonder where so much of that material came from. This sand mass is an accumulation of eroded rock from the New England/Great Dividing Range region of NSW, carried out to sea by rivers about 400 million years ago, then swept northwards by coastal currents to form Moreton, Bribie and Fraser Islands. The sand that makes up the Great Sandy National Park comes from that same process of erosion. About 40 different types of sand compose the soil of Fraser Island. Among them, the oceanic sand (usually yellow/gold in colour due to sea minerals and micro nutrients attached to sand granules). Each silica grain is enveloped by a thin film of iron oxide and feldspars. Feldspar retains miniscule amounts of potash and phosphates. Salt spray supplies additional micro nutrients, or the ‘Coffee rock’ which is sand cemented into tightly packed formations with humus found along the beaches. Also there is the white sand surrounding the lakes. This sand is virtually pure silica, up to 25m deep and is very low in nutrient levels.

Perched, window and barrage lakes.

Situated at 100 metres in altitude, Lake Mackenzie covers an area of 150 hectares. It has been formed by the wind which blew a depression in the sand. Leaves, barks, and other vegetable matter from the surrounding vegetation accumulated there. The sediments cemented together and formed an impervious layer. Then rainwater created a lake 5 meters deep.

Lake McKenzie, crystal clear water, white sand…

40 lakes sprinkle Fraser Island. They account for half of the world’s sand lakes. Some are defined as “perched”, meaning they are not connected to underground waters, namely the water table. Lake Mackenzie is a perched lake. Window lakes are formed where the water table comes to the surface. Finally, a third type of lake is found on the island. These are the barrage lakes. In that case, the wind, by pushing sand against the current of a creek, created a lake.

Wanggoolba Creek and its rainforest.

Lake Wabby, one of the barrage lakes on Fraser Island.

The vegetation

Numerous communities of plants are found on the island. Amazing diversity in regards to the sandy soil on which they strive. On the coastal dunes, the leaves and the fruits of the Angular Pigface, Carpobrotus glaucesens, were eaten by the aborigines. The Pandanus, Pandanus tectorius, can grow to a fair size. The seed of that tree was also appreciated as food by the aborigines.

Angular Pigface.

Pandanus.

A bit more inland, sheltered from the wind and marine salts, larger plants were able to establish. There banksias such as Banksia aemula, or the Grass-Tree, Xanthorrea latifolia, and many more grow.

We are in Australia, and the landscape would not be complete without Eucalyptus.

But one of the peculiarities of Fraser Island, making it a place unique in the world, is the presence of lush rainforests growing on high sand dunes. These rainforests have no reason to envy other tropical rainforests anywhere in the world. They consist of dense canopies, giant ferns, vines, strangler fig trees, orchids, epiphytes, towering trees… Stangler fig tree.

There are also a good numbers of fungi species. These help the rainforest develop and grow. They rapidly recycle dead vegetation, allowing the forest to regenerate quickly despite the lack of nutriments in the soil. Here are some specimens of fungi.

Encounter with the dingoes of Fraser Island

After a night’s camping beside Lake McKenzie, I started walking again, this time towards Central Station. On the way, a further 5 km, I had a break at Basin Lake, another perched lake. Having planned to spend the night there, and before I set off again, I managed to secure one of my backpacks in a tree, a few metres above the ground. It is a precaution to take if you want to find your gear in one piece on your return. Indeed, the backpack containing food, could have been ripped to pieces by the dingo, the mighty wild Australian dog. With the increasing number of people visiting the island, encounters with the dingo are on the rise. Out of ignorance, some bush walkers, campers or visitors feed the dingoes. The animals have ended up associating human beings with easy to obtain food. It is therefore absolutely forbidden to interfere with the animals on the island. The national park’s service will fine anyone caught feeding a dingo or leaving food available for dingoes to find. A fine of $3000 exists for anyone caught (1). The aim is to stop the animals from becoming dependent on people and also to prevent any possible danger. A few years ago a 9 year old boy was attacked by a pack of dingoes and killed. The dingo is therefore potentially dangerous for human beings. Following that tragedy, and over a two years period, 45 dingoes were shot by the national park service. They were the animals being the most aggressive towards people.

Once my backpack was safe and secure, I started walking again towards Wanggoolba Creek. Shortly before I arrived there, I came face to face with two dingoes, an adult and a young female of about one year old. The female was the boldest of the two, showing a great interest in the other backpack I was still carrying with me, especially when I took out my camera. The animal probably thought I was going to give her something to eat.

The boldest of the two dingoes I came across that day. Maybe a future alpha female (dominant female).

The other animal which stayed behind during the whole encounter.

The pictures are blurred. I didn’t have the time to adjust the camera as I had to keep an eye on my backpack and that female which was not shy enough for my liking.

The dingoes of Fraser Island are considered to be the purest dingoes in Australia. In autumn, from March to May, the adults compete to mate. A pack will fight to the death to protect its territory. Some dingoes will also try to dominate humans by snarling, nipping or biting. In winter, from June to August, the whole pack looks after the pups. From September to November, during the spring, the pups learn survival skills from their parents and other members of the pack. From December to February, the young dingoes learn the pack’s rules through play, showing aggressive behaviour to gain dominance. The young dingoes will try to dominate people, especially children. Children entangled in dingo play can be mauled or killed. The average number of dingoes found in a pack is 12. There is a strict hierarchy among each member of the pack as well as a defined hunting territory. The pack leaders (one Alpha male and female) are healthier and well fed. Their subordinate dogs are thinner and leaner and they must submit to the dominant pair. They will couch, cough and fold their tails between their legs to gain access to available food. The dominant pair breeds once each year and the other pack members help to raise the pups. The habits of the dingoes are quite similar to the wolves’ (Canis lupus). However, the wolf very rarely attacks humans, while the dingo (Canis lupus dingo), is not shy and will come close to people. After this encounter, I kept on walking towards Central Station. There, beautiful Wangoolba Creek runs through the rainforest.

Central Station was a hub of the logging industry up to the 1950’s. Huge damage has been caused to the island’s environment due to logging and mining from the time of its discovery by Europeans in the early 1800’s. Fortunately, since 1992, Fraser has been protected from all industries except tourism. It’s also in 1992 that Fraser Island was added to the UNESCO World Heritage list, alongside Colorado’s Grand Canyon, the pyramids of Egypt and the Louvre Museum.

Basin Lake

A lot smaller than Lake McKenzie, it is quite easy to walk around Basin Lake in less than half an hour. The lakes of Fraser Island are hosts to several species of amphibians and fresh water turtles. On their banks grows a carnivorous plant, the Spoon-leaf Sundew, Drosera lovellae

The plant attracts insects with a scented liquid. Being sticky, the liquid traps the insects which cannot free themselves. Once the insect is dead, the plant will digest it.

During the night, while camping on the banks of Basin Lake, I was woken up by a howling pack of dingoes. Dingoes howl to keep in touch with the pack. They don’t bark which is another common trait with the wolf. It is always pleasant to be woken up in such a way.

Beside the dingoes, several other types of animals cover the forests and the dunes of the island. At least two species of kangaroos live on the island, the swamp wallaby, Wallabia bicolour, and the Eastern Grey Kangaroo, Macropus giganteus. The Eastern Grey is rarely seen, being not a permanent resident of the island. A kangaroo is a pretty good swimmer and, from time to time, it won’t hesitate to cross the channel separating Fraser Island from the Australian continent. Quite a few reptiles inhabit the island as well. Forty-six species are officially registered. Among them are a number of snakes including the Carpet Python, Morelia spilota, the Death Adder, Acanthopis antarticus and the Red-Bellied Black Snake, Pseudechis porphyriacus. Note, that the last two are quite venomous but non-aggressive and will stay away from people. Also present is the large lizard species the Lace Monitor, Varanus Varius.

Lace Monitor (Varanus varius)

The waters surrounding Fraser Island shelter a rich animal life. Dugongs, sharks, 5 species of dolphins, 4 of marine turtles and the Humpback Whales, Megapteria novaeanglia, which, from the end of July to November, take a rest here during their migration.

Humpback Whale “breaching” and Fraser Island in the background

A lot of birds inhabit the forests of Fraser Island in total about 350 species. There are also quite a few migratory species which, like the Humpback Whales, will use the area as a resting place during their migration.

Mongolian Plover, Charadrius mongolus. It migrates from Siberia and spends the summer in Asia and Australia.

Bushwalking.

The island can be visited in a 4X4 vehicle, but the softest and most interesting way to explore it is to do it walking. You then experience nature as a whole, while your breathing regulates itself to the rhythm of your footsteps. Your spirit and the surrounding smells and noises become one. You are in symbiosis with the present moment, and, despite the weight of your backpack, you feel lighter. Then, only the moment counts. Those sensations cannot be felt when you travel in a car with air-conditioning. Walking is the most ecologically friendly means of transport and the most economical. In comparison, a car is totally inefficient, in terms of energy consumed and the distance travelled. Walking, it’s the use of a free energy in an ecological economy. Fraser Island is a hymn to nature. And the best way to realise it is to explore it by foot, where 4X4 vehicles don’t go. That way, trees, flowers, animals will accept you more readily. If you feel bushwalking is the way to go, there is the possibility to do several days walks with Footprints on Fraser, a tour operator specialised in that kind of expedition. Different to the walk I did by myself, Footprints on Fraser uses the camp sites managed by the Island’s national parks’ service. When camping, I isolated myself to find the inspiration to write this article. Bill Henderson, manager of Footprints on Fraser, takes great pleasure in sharing the spirit of the Island with his clients. See footprintsonfraser.com.au

Bill Henderson, on the left, and one of his guests at the foot of a Tallow wood, Eucalyptus microcorys, Valley of the Giants, Fraser Island.

After one night spent by Basin Lake, I took the direction of the mouth of Wanggoolba Creek (7km), where I caught another barge to get back on the continent. In two days and two nights, I only had a glimpse of the complexity of the ecology of Fraser Island. Yet, even a short stay allows you to take the measure of this area where a multitude of fascinating life forms have established themselves, way before human beings first appeared on earth.

To conclude, here is how the Butchulla people, traditional custodians of the area, explain how the island was created. The name they gave to the island is “Princess K’Gari” (2), meaning paradise. According to the legend, K’gari is the name of the feminine spirit which helped Yindigie, the messenger of the god Beeral, to create the world. To reward her for her help, Beeral changed K’Gari into a beautiful island, covered with trees, flowers and lakes. And, so that she would not feel lonely, he also created birds, animals and human beings.

Life, as a whole, was far from easy for the aboriginal people of Australia. Yet, because of the respect they had for their environment, and with little technology, they managed to live in a harsh environment for at least 50,000 years. Without considering the earth as sacred, they would not have survived.

Notes : (1) On some of the island’s camp sites, the national park service has installed shelters where campers can leave their food away from the dingoes.

(2) There is no concept of king, queen, princess in aboriginal tradition. Europeans added the term “Princess” to the name of the island.