Australias sandy Fraser Island an ecotourism Eden

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The sunlight filtering through a thick canopy of satinay trees forms a dappled pattern on the sandy base of Fraser Island. The satinays straight, majestic trunks -impervious to water and wood-boring insects -- were used in the construction of the Suez Canal and the London docklands.

The trees are only one of the many special things about Fraser Island, which is off the coast of Queensland, Australia, and is the worlds largest sand island and a listed Unesco World Heritage area.

Over 80 miles in length, the islands sand mass has been accumulating for an estimated 800,000 years and supports an astonishing variety of flora and fauna.

Rain forest, huge stands of kauri pines and brushbox trees, mangroves and heathlands with wildflowers that form a carpet of color in spring are interspersed with clear, freshwater streams and large lakes.

In fact, Fraser Island contains 42 of the 80 perched lakes in the world. (A perched lake is isolated above the groundwater table by a layer of rock or organic material.)

The islands sands range in color from white to shades of orange and yellow.

The animal life is equally diverse, The rough Pacific Ocean waters around Indian Head Point on Fraser Island are home to sharks, dolphins and sea turtles. Photo by Roger Allnuttwith numerous small mammals and the purest breed of dingos in eastern Australia, while overhead, some 230 species of birds in the sky include oyster catchers, gulls, kites, sea eagles and peregrine falcons.

No wonder the name of the island in the language of the indigenous Badtjala people -- who have lived here for more than 5,000 years -- means paradise.

Fraser Island has so much to offer that visitors will likely only scratch the surface, strolling through ancient forests, clambering over the huge sand dunes that continue to form and reshape or cooling down in the freshwater streams.

Island hopping

Fraser Island is four-wheel-drive territory. In fact, its impossible to drive on the island without such a vehicle, and permits are required. Although a number of companies now offer bus tours of the island, self-drive tours remain popular.

A network of sandy roads -- actually, tracks made by loggers who operated here until 1991 -crisscross the island, but care is required as it is easy to get bogged down, especially where the sand is soft.

For a visitor with only a short time to see the island, area tour operators, such as Fraser Island Excursions and the Day Tour Co., as well as local hotels, offer a range of one- to three-day excursions.

These tours, offering varying degrees of luxury and comfort, cover the main highlights, and the generally excellent commentary adds an extra dimension to a visit.

Sights of main interest include large sand dunes, such as the Stonetool Sandblow; deep, green Lake Wabby; the incredibly white sands and tranquil waters of Lake McKenzie (well worth a dip); and the trails around Central Station, once the focal point of island logging operations.

The eastern side of the island comprises a long beach that is, in fact, a designated roadway. Police can book you for speeding or drunk driving on the strand.

And keep an eye out for pedestrians and sunbathers who may not hear you approaching, as well other vehicles, such as the planes that often land on the beach.

Short charter flights and helicopter rides are available for a different perspective of the island and the surrounding waters from firms such as Air Fraser Island, Suncoast Helicopters and M.I. Helicopters.

Waves lap at the beached, rusting wreck of the good ship Maheno, The 60-year-old beached shipwreck of the Maheno is a top attraction on Fraser Island. Photo by Roger Allnuttwhich foundered here in 1935 and is dramatic testimony to the dangers of treacherous local waters.

Swimming is strongly discouraged, and many who have ignored the warnings have lost their lives -- not only to the strong rip tides but to the numerous sharks.

Not far from the shipwreck, the huge cliffs of the Pinnacles offer a changing array of colors in the sunlight, while farther north, Indian Head juts into the ocean.

The turbulent waters around the headland are home to many marine creatures, and visitors will often see not only sharks but also dolphins and sea turtles.

From August to October, Fraser Island is also the base of operations for large numbers of humpback whale-watching cruises. These majestic marine mammals make a stop in the waters of Hervey Bay as part of their annual migration to Antarctica. 

Where to stay

In terms of accommodations, camping is very popular on Fraser Island, as there is no shortage of fresh water, and there are also a few small resorts that offer cabins. 

Eurong Beach Resort, located close to the beach on the eastern side of the island, offers good accommodations to suit all budgets, a modern restaurant, bars, a bakery, a cafe for snacks and a well-stocked store.

For guests looking for a touch of luxury, Kingfisher Bay Resort -- on the western side of island -- is the place to be. The self-described four-star complex blends into its natural surroundings, offering ecotourism experiences and traditional hotel rooms, stand-alone villas or wilderness lodges.

In terms of activities, Kingfisher Bay proffers ranger-guided tours and nature walks, water sport activities, bird-watching, star-gazing and fishing clinics. Guests desirous of relaxation can indulge in natural spa therapies.

Another outstanding resort feature is the food. The talented young chefs at fine-dining restaurant Seabelle have made a specialty of combining fresh ingredients -- the fish and beef are superb -- with traditional bush foods, including quandong fruit, bunya nuts, lemon myrtle, native ginger and wattleseed. Australian wines provide the perfect accompaniment.

Kingfisher Bay Resort pays travel agents a 10% commission on bookings.

To contact the reporter who wrote this article, send e-mail to [email protected].

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