With a length of 123km, Fraser Island (or K’gari) is the world’s largest sand island, but this dry fact does little to prepare you for the experience. Accumulated from sediments swept north from New South Wales over the last two million years, the scenery ranges from silent forests and beaches sculpted by wind and surf to crystal-clear streams and dark, tannin-stained lakes. The east coast forms a 90km razor-edge from which Fraser’s tremendous scale can be absorbed as you travel its length; with the sea as a constant, the dunes along the edge seem to evolve before your eyes – in places low and soft, elsewhere hard and worn into intriguing canyons. By contrast, slower progress through the forests of the island’s interior creates more subtle impressions of its age and permanence – a primal world predating European settlement – brought into question only when the view opens suddenly onto a lake or a bald blow. In 1992, the entire island was recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, with all but a few pockets of freehold land and the tiny township of Eurong being national park.
To the Kabi Aborigines, Fraser Island is K’gari, a beautiful woman so taken with the Earth that she stayed behind after creation, her eyes becoming lakes that mirrored the sky and teemed with wildlife so that she wouldn’t be lonely. The story behind the European name is far less enchanting. In 1836, survivors of the wreck of the Stirling Castle, including the captain’s wife Eliza Fraser, landed at Waddy Point. Though runaway convicts had already been welcomed into Kabi life, the castaways suffered “dreadful slavery, cruel toil and excruciating tortures”, and two months after the captain’s death Eliza was presented as a prize during a corroboree at Lake Cootharaba. She was rescued at this dramatic point by former convict John Graham, who had lived with the Kabi and was part of a search party alerted by three other survivors from the Stirling Castle. The exact details of Eliza’s captivity remain obscure as she produced several conflicting accounts, but her role as an “anti-Crusoe” inspired the work of novelist Patrick White and artist Sidney Nolan.