Shaped like a well-worn thigh boot, Fraser Island, lying off the Queensland coast, is an island built of sand. There are beaches and dunes of golden sand along its shored, and in places, the 77 miles (124km) long island has cliffs of yellow, red and brown formed of sand and carved by the elements into spires and pinnacles.
Yet behind the beaches and cliffs grows an astonishingly varied canopy of vegetation. Sand heaped up to 785ft (240m) high supports dense and sometimes luxuriant forest. Moisture-loving piccabeen palms and paperback trees grow where the ground is almost waterlogged. Elsewhere are cypress pines and tall blackbutts, and stands of hoop pines and kauri pines that were much sought by 19th-century loggers.
Fraser Island began to take shape millions of years ago when mountains on the mainland to the south were eroded by wind and rain. Fine debris was swept into the ocean, carried northwards by currents and gradually accumulated on the ocean floor. Then, during the Ice age falls in sea level, the accumulating sand became dry land and blown into massive dunes. During rises in sea level, ocean currents bring in more sand. After the Ice Aged, plants began to grow on the virgin sand, the seeds and spores carried there by birds and the wind. When they died back they formed a layer of humus in which larger plants could put down roots, stabilising the dunes.
Now the island’s high rainfall – over 60m (1500mm) a year – encourages a cycle of growth and decay on the sands. Arrow-straight satinay trees, found in few places in the world, grow here – their trunks were used to line the Suez Canal in the 1920s. Scribbly gum trees – named after the marks left on their bark by burrowing insects – dominate the island’s shrubby heathlands.
Fraser Island takes its name from the woman who brought it to the world’s attention. In 1836 a group of ship recked Europeans struggled ashore from one of their ship’s small boats. Among the party were the ship’s captain and his wife Eliza Fraser, but by the time that rescue arrived two months later, several of the party, including the captain, were dead. Mrs Fraser alleged that her husband had been murdered by the island’s Aborigines, the Butchulla people. In London she told increasingly lurid tales of her time on the island, describing them to the public, for a fee of sixpence, in a tent in Hyde Park. She related how she had been speared and tortured and how the ship’s mate had been roasted alive over a slow fire. Mrs Fraser’s accounts of her experiences have been the subject of a film and several books, including Patrick White’s fictional account.
Not long afterwards, Fraser’s fame also spread as a source of magnificent softwoods. Loggers moved in, set up sawmills and streamlined them to move out the timber. The Aborigines started to suffer from European diseases, the effects of opium and alcohol, and malnutrition as their food supplies were disrupted by land clearance. In 1904 the few remaining Butchalla people were moved to the mainland.
Among Fraser’s forests and scrublands are more than 40 lakes. Although it is made up of sand, the island is far from being a giant, free-draining sandcastle. Under the island, the sand has cemented together with hummus and minerals to form a water-tight pan that traps the island’s plentiful rainfall. Here and there the ground surface drops below this water table to form crystal-clear lakes, such as Lake Wabby. Forested dunes surround the lake on three sides, while the fourth is a huge wall of wind-blown sand which is advancing into the water.