Australia’s Fraser Island is known to its traditional aboriginal owners as paradise, and it’s easy to see why: centuries-old forests, crystal-clear lakes, and wildlife galore make this overgrown sandbar a nirvana for nature lovers.
I am surrounded by the world’s only rain forest planted in sand. All around me are ancient ferns and towering vine-draped trees that rise up to a thick green canopy 40 meters above our heads. Craning my neck toward the morning sun’s filtered light, I can’t help but think how amazing it is that all this grows here—or that anything grows here at all.
“Here” is Fraser Island, set just off the Queensland coast north of Brisbane. A World Heritage Site encompassing 1,840 square kilometers—roughly two and a half times the size of Singapore—it is the largest sand island in the world, formed over the past 800,000 years by sand traveling from the tablelands of New South Wales through a network of inland rivers and ocean currents until being deposited here atop a base of volcanic bedrock. Thanks to mycorrhizal fungi that help feed nutrients to plants, the island has grown into a biological wonder, an exotic ecosystem of wildlife and wetlands, rain forests and mangroves, colossal dunes and freshwater lakes. “Think of it as a large sand pit, mate, or as a big piece of blotting paper,” says Glen, my enthusiastic tour guide. “Fraser Island is like a sponge. The rain soaks into the ground and it doesn’t come out for anywhere from five to 200 years.”
First charted in 1770, the island is named for shipwreck survivor Eliza Fraser, who was traveling with her husband, a Scottish sea captain, aboard his Singapore-bound brig when it ran aground on a nearby reef in 1836. But the island’s traditional owners, the Butchalla people, call their home K’gari—“paradise”—after the legend of a goddess who, having helped to create the earth, decided it was so beautiful that she never wanted to leave, and so was transformed into an island on its surface.
My own adventure to get here begins at Rainbow Beach, the tiny mainland town from where Fraser Island Discovery, the tour company I’m traveling with, starts its trips. Backing the white shore, its rainbow-colored cliffs look as if painted from the palette of a crazy artist, their bright hues—formed by mineral oxides and leached vegetable dyes—stacked atop one another in bands of rusty orange, vermillion, and tangerine. We quickly pose in front for some pictures before catching the barge that takes us across a thin estuary called the Great Sandy Strait and lands us on the island 10 minutes later.
From the minute we roll off the barge, it’s a rollercoaster ride. Equipped with special tires, our giant gray bus jerks and jolts as it makes its way over tree roots and steep sand banks, and I feel as shook up as a cocktail by the time we get to 75 Mile Beach on the east coast. I’m surprised to learn that this 120-kilometer stretch of sand is registered as a national highway, with an 80 kmh speed limit; it also doubles as a runway for small sightseeing planes. I keep my eyes peeled for one of the island’s iconic wild dingoes but only manage to spot little red-capped plovers, some intrepid beachgoers, and more than a few cars stuck in the deep sand, with people on all fours trying to dig them out under a clear blue sky.
The bus finally comes to a stop and we all clamber out, happy to have our feet back on solid ground. The first thing Glen points out is the muddy-brown stones scattered around the beach. These, he tells us, are coffee rocks, a kind of sedimentary rock made of sand grains cemented together by the detritus of decomposed plants. It doesn’t take long to see that everything on Fraser Island revolves around the sand. As we set out across the dunes behind the beach, Glen tells us not to be fooled by their size; despite reaching heights of upward of 200 meters, they’re constantly shifting. Some, known as sandblows, creep inland over time as they’re pushed along by strong winds off the Pacific, burying vegetation along the way and stopping only once they reach the shelter of the deep forest. Even the creeks we pass, flowing with the purest water, have beds of white sand.
Shortly after stopping for a light creek-side snack of coffee and lamingtons (a classic Australian dessert of sponge cakes coated in chocolate and coconut) we reach Eurong, Fraser Island’s main village. Comprising a few cabins, campgrounds, and a handful of small stores, it’s not much more than a place for overnight visitors to stay. We do, however, spot numerous signs cautioning us to be “dingo smart”—Fraser’s wild dogs are considered to be one of the purest strains of dingo in Australia, but get too close, and the fox-faced animals are likely to attack.