Aussie East Coast Road Trip Part 2: Stunning K’Gari Island

Itinerary: 

  • Days 1-4: Sydney
  • Days 5-9: Tasmania (Strahan, Launceston, Bicheno)
  • Days 10-15: Sydney to Noosa Road Trip (Blue Mountains, Hunter Valley, Port Macquarie)
  • Days 16-18: K’gari Island
  • Days 19-25: Noosa to Ciarns Road Trip (Byron Bay, Bundaberg, Rockhampton, Airlie Beach, Townsville)
  • Days 26-29: Cairns and Great Barrier Reef
  • Days 30-33: Melbourne
  • Days 34-41: Alice Springs & Uluru
  • Days 42-43: Back to Sydney then flying home

RTW Trip 2014: Peru→ Chile → Argentina → Antarctica → Argentina → Uruguay → Argentina→  Chile→ England → Morocco → Spain → France → Belgium → Netherlands → Germany → Czech Republic → Austria → Hungary → Croatia → Italy → Thailand → United States → Thailand → Laos → Vietnam → Cambodia → Australia → Taiwan

Dates: October 23-December 3, 2014

Our Odyssey: 

The aboriginal people of Australia make up the oldest surviving culture and way of life in the world- they’ve been living in Australia for the past 50,000 years, probably longer. That’s why, when coming to this continent, Tim and I were very curious to learn about the culture and people, as well as the history of their treatment by the Europeans that resulted in their native population going from about 300,000 to 50,000 by the end of the nineteenth century. Those who remain today were not even counted in Australia’s national census until 1967. The sad history is quite similar to American settlers treatment of the Native Americans.

We’ve been surprised since being in Australia how little we actually heard about any of this. We’d read about what was essentially the extinction of this group of people in Tasmania, and about the interactions of the Europeans with the aboriginals when they came to Australia in the late 1700s, but in all of the tours we had taken so far, and all of the information offered to us in visitor centers, we had heard very little, if anything, about the aboriginal people.

This is why our visit to K’Gari Island, the world’s largest all-sand island and commonly referred to by the European name Fraser Island, was more than just a place to take pretty pictures. During this three day, two night camping trip we booked through Drop Bear Adventures (recommended to us by our friend Robby), we finally learned about a group of indigenous people- the Buthchulla people- and their relationship to the island and what happened when the Europeans arrived.

The tour began on a Friday morning, meeting at the Drop Bear office in downtown Noosa in Queensland. We had driven up from Port Macquarie in New South Wales the day before, checked into our camp site, and woke up bright and early to be at the office by the meeting time of 6:45am.

A note on Noosa- this town is impossible to navigate, even with Google Maps leading the way. There are roundabouts everywhere, and no grid system, making it very easy to disorient yourself as you try to make your way. Even though we left a half hour in advance for a drive that should have taken us 10 minutes, we got so lost we ended up running late. By the time we arrived at the office, the clock in the campervan read 6:55am.

I ran into the office, slighly out of breath, and told the woman behind the counter that we were here to check in for our tour that departed that day. She calmly replied that we were a bit early and that check in would not start until 6:30am. To this I responded dumbly, “Is it not 7am right now?”. Nope, it was 6am. Apparently we changed timezones when we crossed north into Queensland, even though we were pretty much directly north and had also gone slightly east- if anything, it should have been an hour later. Tim and I were relieved that at least the time changed to be earlier and not later; otherwise we would have been over an hour late.

Now, we thought it was pretty silly that the whole state of Queensland is in a different time zone one hour behind New South Wales, especially since you normally get later time zones as you head east. But here in Australia, I guess time zones can change north to south. In Queensland’s case, it is a result of not adjusting time for daylight savings. It’s the same time year round regardless of where the sun actually is. Consequently, the sun is up at 4am and it’s dark at 6pm. We later learned that every state/territory in Australia has its own time zone, and this includes half times. That means it can be 11am in New South Wales, and 10:30 somewhere else. I’ll be honest, I think this is rather silly- why some states must adjust to the half hour based on the sun while another can disregard it entirely, I don’t know.

Anyway, having arrived at the office with plenty of time to spare, we went back to our van and took a little nap.

After checking in at the proper time, along with about 25 others going on the trip, we all watched a safety video about the island. Since there are no paved roads on the island (again, it is all sand), you must drive four-wheel drive vehicles only, and this can be dangerous if people drive recklessly. Additionally, the island is home to what are considered the wildest dingos in Australia. Dingos look a lot like domesticated dogs, but are actually quite dangerous. They forage for food and will break into tents and attack people and actually steal children in order to get a meal.

After the video, our guide Dave told us not to let it scare us, and that we were in good hands. I quickly learned that not all tour operators visiting this island prioritize safety and there had been recent accidents due to reckless driving with the vehicles flipping resulting in fatalities. It was very sad to hear about, and I was glad we were with a company that reiterated safety again and again.

When the briefing ended, everyone divided up into four different vehicles. Tim was the driver for ours, which I was grateful for since I know he is a good driver and has a lot of experience with four-wheel drive. From Noosa we drove north to Rainbow Beach, where we actually drove onto the sandy beach and from there onto a ferry over to the island. There was no platform or pavement connecting the beach to the ferry- it was literally just driving off of the beach and onto the ferry.

Once we got to the island, we drove down the beach about a half hour to our campsite. After a quick lunch and changing into swim suits, we hopped back in the cars and drove, with Dave always leading the way, to the trail head of a 3km walk to Wabby Lake. The trail opens up to what looks like a mini-desert of sand dunes that then descend down to the lake. This lake lays below the water line, so fresh water actually seeps into the lake from under the ground. Surrounded by tea trees, the water is infused with tea tree oil, giving it a very pleasant smell. We got to spend a few hours swimming, and Dave also gave a boomerang lesson to those who were interested.

On the walk back to the vehicles through the trail, Dave shared with us a lot of information about the unique plants found on the island. One in particular, the strangler fern, really fascinated me. This fern grows from a seed that is dropped by bird poop, and wherever it lands, it grows. The best place for it to land is on another tree, where it latches on and grows its roots down until it reaches ground. Once rooted in, the fern grows around the tree, essentially strangling it. As the fern grows and thrives, the tree slowly dies.

That evening back at the campsite we had an Aussie-style BBQ. I am not sure what exactly in particular makes it Aussie, because it seemed like every great BBQ I’ve ever been to- delicious and filling (even if the steak was a little tough). We were also able to see the moon rising through the trees out over the water, and it was the largest blood moon I have ever seen, and it reflected perfectly in the ocean. Having gotten very little sleep the night before with our timezone mishap, we were beat and went to bed relatively early.

The next morning we were up early for a full day of touring the island in the 4x4s. Our first stop was to a sandblow (sand dune that is constantly moving due to erosian), the landscape of which was barren and otherworldly- a bit like how you might imagine the moon. We hiked up one of the dunes to a lookout point that stretched not only over the expanse of desert-like sand terrain, but all the way out to the ocean. Everyone then met back up with Dave by a little creek for a lesson in traditional aboriginal body painting. The soft sandstone along the creek was oxidized, meaning it had basically rusted. When mixed with water, it dissolves into a paint-like liquid used for body painting. One common Butchulla symbol is toto paint three simple bands around the arm or leg. Each band stands for one commandment of Butchulla life- 1. What is good for the land must come first. 2. If you have plenty, you must share. 3. Do not take or touch anything that does not belong to you.

Many people started with the three bands and then used the paint to draw random pictures on each other. The orange dye made everyone resemble Oomp-loompas by the time we were done.

The next stop of the day was to the Maheno shipwreck- the first shipwreck I have ever seen in person! The site is very eerie and haunting, but the story is less so. In 1905 the Maheno was a luxury boat that would carry people to and from New Zealand. It was then commissioned for use as a hospital during WWI. After the war it was sold for scrap metal to a Japanese shipping company. When towing the ship to Japan, she came apart from the towing boat and floated to the shore of K’gari. When they found the ship two days later, so much sand had already overtaken her that they were unable to tow her back out. The ship has rested there ever since, deteriorating rather quickly from the impact of the saltwater, wind and sand. It was a gorgeous site to see.

After leaving the shipwreck behind, we made our way to the oldest sand dunes on earth, the Pinnacles, dating back 700,000 years. We only stayed at this small spot briefly before driving to Indian Head Point. The drive to the next stop was fairly short, so I tried my hand at driving the SUV across the sand and through puddles. I’m glad I tried it, but you won’t see me rushing to drive on soft sand again anytime soon. It is a bit like driving in snow, which I can do enough of in Wisconsin.

Our visit to Indian Head was the most meaningful of the day for me. This bluff overlooks stunning beaches on either end, providing panoramic views over the ocean. We were able to see sharks and manta rays swimming by in the waters from atop the headland. But what made this site meaningful was finally hearing both the Butchulla legend of how the island came to be as well as what took place at this site when the Europeans arrived.

According to Butchulla legend, the great god in the sky formed the people but the people had no land, so he sent a messanger from the sky to create the water and the land. When he got to the part of mainland Australia just north of where the island is today, he had a helper with him- a white spirit named K’Gari. K’Gari fell in love with the land and begged to be able to stay, but since she was a spirit she would not be allowed. To enable her to stay on the earth she was turned into the island. This is why it is called K’Gari. The Butchulla people believed they were placed on the island in order to protect her.

The European name for the island, Fraser Island, has a more sinister origin. Eliza Fraser and her husband were a Scottish couple who were on a ship that wrecked along the coast. She survived, but her husband died of starvation. When she returned home, she claimed that her and her husband were captured by the aboriginals and that they tortured them both and killed her husband. It is now known that this story was exaggerated if not altogether fabricated to help her sell her story and make some profit from it. At the time, however, it fostered hatred and violence to the aboriginal people among the Europeans settling in the area, and one day they gathered together all of the aboriginals who were still living on the island and forced each of them to jump off the cliff into the water below. This is how nearly all of the Butchulla people were wiped out by the arrival of the Europeans.

While this was obviously heavy to learn about, we were so grateful that Dave shared this history with us. This was the first time we heard an Australian tour guide openly address some of the realities of what happened to the indigenous tribes when Europeans arrived. If anything, this made us appreciate the sites we were seeing even more now that we understood the relationship the people had with this island and their drive to protect its beauty.

And our next stop was beautiful indeed. The so-called Champagne Pools are natural rocky pools that fill with water that splashed in from the waves of the ocean. It is exactly the type of backdrop you would expect to see Ariel from The Little Mermaid in front of. We spent about an hour wading in the pools here before heading to our last destination of the day, Eli Creek. This creek flows out of the forest and towards the beach and is like a natural lazy river you can just float in. It was a little chilly by this time of the afternoon, but even so it was fun to float down the water crocodile-style (wading through on your stomach and arms).

On the drive back to the campsite, we stopped for a few minutes to pick eugaries (like clams) from the sand to have as an appetizer with our dinner. They were easy to find due to the little bulge they would leave in the wet sand, and Tim and I grabbed at least 15 each to contribute to the group. It was a lot of fun foraging for our food! Then, when we got back in our SUVs, we spotted our first dingo. Dingos are beautiful and sleek creatures, but have a gleam in their eyes that gives away their more devious intentions (namely eating anything they can find, including maybe you, and definitely your baby).

Back at camp, Dave boiled our eugaries into a soup before a stir-fry dinner. After dinner we played card games with some of the new friends we had made in our group that day- three Canadian girls fom Newfoundland, a German guy and a British couple. It was a lot of fun!

The next morning was again an early one to get to Lake McKenzie, a gorgeous emerald-colored rain water lake, this one too infused with tea tree oil. Dave knew of a less-visited, secluded beach a bit further down the path from the main beach, and we all had fun swimming and relaxing on the sand. The sand here is the finest you can find- if it were to catch on fire or be struck by lightening, it would turn to glass. It is so fine that NASA used sand from this beach to make the lenses of their telescopes.

Our last stop on the island was to an area known as Central Station. This was the center of the logging industry when the island was first settled by the Europeans. It was also the site of a school and accomodations for the aboriginals who were “allowed” to live on their island in exchange for their labor in the logging industry. It must have been tough for a Butchulla person to make that decision, believing that they must stay with their land and protect it, but are essentially forced to participate in its destruction. Today, though, all logging is ceased and the area is surrounded with gorgeous rainforest.

One notable plant we learned about is a fern species that is the oldest on earth- it predates trees, and an individual plant can live up to 5,000 years!

Back where we parked the SUVs we saw more dingos poking around in search of food- they are a little unnerving to watch, but it seems that as long as you leave them alone and don’t entice them with food, they will leave you alone in return (generally, anyway- attacks do happen).

After our lunch at this spot it was time to part ways with most of the group. Half were taking the ferry to Hervey Bay, and the other half were going back to Noosa, and it was time for the Hervey Bay folks to head to their ferry. One the way back to Noosa we drove down Rainbow Beach and through Cooloola National Park back on the mainland.

It was truly an amazing weekend, and while I was happy to finally get a shower and sleep in a “bed” (even if it was in a van), I was also sad to leave this gorgeous place behind. Even with many experiences still ahead of us in Australia, I knew this weekend would be a highlight of our time here.

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