With nothing much to see in Eurong, we continue into the forest, so dense and enveloping that the beach seems suddenly far away. We meander through stands of scribbly gums—so-called because their creamy bark is etched with scribble-like furrows created by moth larvae—and under satinay trees that rise high as cathedrals. Known for their extremely hard and termite-resistant timber, these trees along with bushy kauri pines and brush boxes were logged on the island for roughly a century until deforestation activity was put to a stop in 1991. “This was the heart of a lucrative logging industry,” Glen tells us, pointing out the ax marks still visible on some of the trunks. “The wood of these trees was used in the building of the Suez Canal and the rebuilding of the London docks.” Our path leads right up to the old logging station, which has since been converted into a campground and restaurant where we stop for an alfresco lunch. As we eat, an audience of big yellow-and-black goannas lurks expectantly around us waiting for a scrap of food to fall. Kookaburras cackle in the branches above.
Sated, we’re urged back on our feet by Glen and set off along a snaking boardwalk to Pile Valley, where the forest thickens with satinay trees that have been growing there for a millenia or more. Our route follows a creek that harbors fish, turtles, and eels, while the impossibly long fronds of rare king ferns growing along its banks dip into the translucent waters. “The water is so pure that indigenous women used to give birth here,” Glen tells us. “And did you notice that it’s silent? There are no rocks and no bubbling noises, as the water just flows on sand.”
It’s an eerie, primordial world of orange fungi sprouting from rotting tree trunks and rocks, strangler figs draped in vines, and gossamer spider webs spun into architectural masterpieces. Orchids entwine gigantic tree trunks that have twisted at strange angles to reach whatever light penetrates the canopy. We spot swamp wallabies, tree frogs, and occasionally glimpse the flash of a yellow-tailed black cockatoo—one of more than 350 bird species on the island—high in the trees.
For more than 11 kilometers we weave our way through this mystical forest until finally it clears, and we arrive at Lake McKenzie, a popular postcard image. Fringed by sugar-white silica sand and craggy trees, this sapphire expanse of crystal-clear water is one of the 40 “perched” lakes on the island. According to Butchalla lore, they are the eyes of the goddess K’gari, but Glen explains them prosaically as rainwater catchments that form in sand dunes above the water table. Sediment and decaying debris at the bottom keep the water from seeping out but also make it too acidic for most aquatic life. For people, though, the waters are said to have beautifying effects. “You’ll look 10 years younger after a swim here,” Glen says with a smile. That’s all the encouragement I need to plunge in, immediately feeling reenergized and almost weightless in the lake’s cool waters.
With the tide rising along 75 Mile Beach, Glen tells us it’s time to go. As we head back to the coast and begin driving down that great sandy highway, I finally spot a pair of furry dingoes sunning themselves on the sand beside a dead turtle. Glen stops the bus a reasonable distance away to give us the chance to take photos. It’s our last still moment witnessing the improbable beauty of this place before we continue on our way back to the mainland, our tire tracks in the sand vanishing with the breeze.
Fraser Island Discovery (one-day tours from US$140 per person) packs daytrips to the island with rain-forest walks and freshwater swims, as well as a visit to the 1935 shipwreck of the S.S. Maheno and, on its two-day itineraries, a night’s stay at a timber-cabin retreat.
This article originally appeared in the June/July print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Shifting Sands”)