Exploring the Top Attractions of Fraser Island
The largest sand island on the planet, World Heritage-listed Fraser Island is one of Australia's most rewarding four-wheel-drive adventures. Most of the 123 km-long island, which lies off Australia's east coast between Bundaberg and Brisbane, belongs to Great Sandy National Park, a protected area of diverse habitats and dazzling beauty. Subtropical rainforest, seemingly endless beaches, mangroves, lagoons, towering sand dunes, and crystal clear freshwater lakes are just some of the features nature lovers can explore.
Once home to the Butchulla indigenous people, Fraser Island was formed over many millions of years as sediment eroded from the Great Dividing Range. Prevailing southeasterly trade winds and rivers swept the sand to the sea, dumping it in dunes up to 250 m high. Today, visitors can see the evidence of an island still evolving: in the shifting sand dunes, the sea-sculpted shores, and rain and wind-lashed coastal cliffs.
The spirit of adventure is palpable on this windswept island. Miles of dune-backed beaches rim the coast, creating a sandy highway for self-drive visitors and tour vehicles. Stories of rental vehicles swept away in rising seas are a somber warning for drivers to heed the tides. But for many visitors, this merely adds to the excitement.
Exploring Fraser Island
Scenic drives are a great way to see more of the island in less time, but drivers should note that the island lacks any sealed roads; 4WD vehicles are essential. Furthermore, the soft sand tracks in the island's interior require high-clearance 4WD vehicles with low range capacity.
Another rewarding way to explore the island is on foot. Hiking trails thread through the wilderness, providing an up-close perspective on the island's diverse flora and fauna. A particularly challenging, but beautiful hike is the 90 km Fraser Island Great Walk, which takes in some of the island's top attractions. Mountain bikers can ride along the eastern beach, however the soft sand elsewhere on the island should be avoided.
Besides off-road driving, hiking, and biking, top things to do on the island include fishing off the eastern beach, swimming, birding, mountain biking, and camping. For those not planning on pitching a tent, the limited accommodation options for tourists range from the well-known Kingfisher Bay Resort on the island's west coast, to apartments, and a small beach resort.
Although tour companies offer day trips to the island, a visit of at least two to three days is recommended to appreciate the contrasting features and cover the island's main attractions.
75 Mile Beach
Driving along the sweeping wave-thrashed shore of 75 Mile Beach is a fitting introduction to one of the most unique 4WD safaris in the world. Skirting the east coast of Fraser Island, the road is a National Highway and also serves as a landing strip for light aircraft. Along its roughly 120 km stretch, visitors can see the rusted hull of the Maheno shipwreck; the multicolored cliffs of the Cathedrals; and the bubbly rock pools, called Champagne Pools. Look for the occasional shark fin slicing through the sea - a warning to unsuspecting swimmers that tiger sharks prowl these waters. Dangerous surf and strong riptides are a further deterrent for those seeking a relaxing dip.
About 10 km north of the tiny settlement of Happy Valley, the Maheno shipwreck, once a trans-Tasman liner, is a popular attraction along 75 Mile Beach. In 1935, a cyclone swept the boat ashore while it was being towed from Sydney to Osaka. The eight crew on board camped on the beach for a couple of days until help arrived, but the ship could not be refloated and attempts to sell the vessel were unsuccessful. Today, its rusted skeleton is a haunting landmark along this wind-whipped stretch of coast.
Fraser Island's fascinating plant life has adapted to thrive in its sandy soils. Along the coast, salt-tolerant plants such as beach spinifex and purple trumpet flowers anchor the dunes. In the subtropical rainforest near Central Station, tall brushbox, giant kauri, and hoop pine dominate. Ferns, strangler figs, climbing vines, and orchids add texture and color. This area is also home to the impressive king fern, which grows and sprouts the largest fronds in the world.
In the island's interior, smooth-barked forest red gums and scribbly gums grow in the tall eucalypt forests. Also found here are bloodwoods, string-barked satinays, and much-coveted blackbutts, which were the mainstay of the thriving timber industry.
Fraser Island's rich variety of fauna reflects its diverse habitats. On land, visitors may spot: dingoes, reputedly Australia's purest strain; sugar gliders; brushtail possums; flying foxes; snakes; and sand monitors among others. Birding is also superb. More than 354 species have been spotted on the island, including pied oystercatchers, white-bellied sea-eagles, brahminy kites, yellow-tailed black-cockatoos, and king-parrots. Off the coast, there are humpback whales, dolphins, dugongs, stingrays, turtles, and sharks (particularly tiger sharks). After strong winds and wild seas, blue bottles with long stingers sometimes wash ashore.
Fraser Island is dotted with more than 200 freshwater lakes and creeks, some of which are perfect for a refreshing swim. The lakes are a fascinating reflection of the geology, and three different types are found on the island: perched, window, and barrage lakes. Perched lakes are filled solely by rainwater. An impermeable layer at the base of the lake prevents the water from draining completely through the soil. Window lakes form in low-lying areas when the ground level dips below the water table, while barrage lakes occur when large sandblows or shifting dunes, trap the water from natural springs.
One of Fraser's most-visited attractions, stunning Lake McKenzie (Boorangoora), offers a striking combination of sublime white sand and cool, clear waters in vivid shades of blue. The sand here is actually silky-soft silica, which filters the rainwater of this perched lake, making it so pure that it supports little aquatic life. Many visitors come here to sprawl on the satiny shores and swan about in the crystal clear water. Lake McKenzie is also a popular camping spot. On the eastern side of the island, Lake Boomanjin is the world's largest perched lake. Tannins leached from the vegetation impart a brownish color to the water.
Lake Wabby is both a window lake and Fraser's only barrage lake. The towering Hammerstone Sandblow bordering its blue-green waters is engulfing the lake by about a meter per year, a testament to the constantly evolving landscape. This is Fraser's deepest lake and the only one to support a few varieties of fish. It's also a sacred men's site to the Butchulla tribe. From here, Lake Wabby Track leads to a lookout with superb views of the wind-sculpted landscape and the water it is quickly smothering.
Once the center of logging operations, Central Station now displays exhibits on island history and ecology, and marks the starting point of some picturesque hikes. Wanggoolba Creek, with its crystal clear waters weaves through subtropical rainforest here, and a boardwalk follows the fern-fringed creek through picabeen palms, vines, and strangler figs. Hikers can continue on a trail through forests of tall eucalypts to the shores of beautiful Basin Lake.
Eli Creek is a popular picnic and swimming spot along 75 Mile Beach. Deceptively powerful, the creek pours about 4 million liters of fresh water into the sea every hour. A pandanus-fringed boardwalk along the creek leads to a bridge where children like to splash about and float down its fast-flowing waters. Keep an eye out for jungle perch, eels, and frogs. Drivers should take care when crossing the creek in a vehicle as it often carves deep channels along the beach.
On 75 Mile Beach, about 18 km south of Indian Head, the island's most easterly point, the Cathedrals are multi-colored sandstone formations sculpted by the wind and rain. Red, yellow, and orange hues predominate thanks to iron oxides in the sand. The Cathedrals provide a great photo opportunity - especially in the soft glow of dawn.
Fraser Island Great Walk
The 90 km Fraser Island Great Walk traces the tracks of old logging routes and the island's first human inhabitants, the Butchulla people. The trail passes some of Fraser's most popular tourist attractions such as crystal-clear Lake McKenzie, the subtropical rainforest and historic exhibits of Central Station, Wanggoolba Creek, and dune-backed Lake Wabby. The trail runs between the settlements of Dilli Village and Happy Valley.
Tips and Tactics
The following Tips and Tactics will help maximize the potential for fun when visiting Fraser Island:
- Purchase vehicle and camping permits before heading to the island.
- For driving safety tips see the Department of National Parks driving guide.
- Fuel and supplies are expensive on the island; visitors are advised to stock up on the mainland.
- Never feed wildlife - especially dingoes - and always keep children in close proximity.
- Ocean swimming is not recommended on the island due to strong surf, dangerous riptides, and sharks.
- Avoid standing on rocks along the beach. Rough surf can sweep unsuspecting onlookers away.
When to Visit
Fraser Island is popular year round. The climate is maritime subtropical, with rain (up to 1,800 mm annually) falling mainly between December and May. July is the coldest month (14-21°C); in summer, the temperature rarely rises above 30°C.
Travelers can access Fraser Island by ferry and boat services from Rainbow Beach, Hervey Bay, and River Heads.
Vehicle barges, which also accept walk-on passengers, depart from:
- Inskip Point, a 15-minute drive from Rainbow Beach
- River Heads (east of Maryborough) to Kingfisher Bay and Wanggoolba Creek
Commercial tours depart from Rainbow Beach, Hervey Bay, the Sunshine Coast, and Brisbane.
Passenger flights depart daily from Hervey Bay to Fraser Island. Flights are also available from Maroochydore.