Shipwrecks and sandcastles on Australia's Fraser Island

Marianne Rogerson feels the sand between her toes on a family adventure to Australia’s Fraser Island.

Queensland's Fraser Island is the largest sand island in the world.


When shipwreck survivor Eliza Fraser was swept ashore on a rugged Australian beach in 1836, little did she know that the sandy island she had washed up on would soon be named after her.


And what an island to be named in your honour.


Located offshore from Hervey Bay in Queensland, Fraser Island is the world’s largest sand island and one of eleven World Heritage sites in Australia.


The traditional owners of the land, the Butchulla people, have their own name for Fraser Island: K’Gari (pronounced Gari), which means Paradise. And it certainly dishes up a healthy serving of beauty.


The island, which measures 120km by 25km, is home to long stretches of beach, glistening freshwater lakes, lush mangroves and 354 species of bird. It is also one of the only places in the world you will find rainforest growing in sand dunes.


Fortunately, our arrival on Fraser Island is a little less dramatic than that of Eliza Fraser. Far from being washed up on a sandy outcrop, we cruise in aboard the ferry from Hervey Bay, our hair ruffling in the breeze on the alfresco roof deck. We arrive directly into Kingfisher Bay Resort, our eco-friendly base on the island.


Designed to integrate with and have minimal impact on its natural environment, Kingfisher Bay Resort attracts more than 145,000 visitors every year, drawn in by the natural bush surroundings and incredible attractions of Fraser Island. There is a wide range of accommodation to choose from, think executive villas (where Harry and Meghan famously stayed during their recent Australia tour), villas, houses and hotel rooms.


The villas are the optimal choice for families. Available with one- to three-bedrooms and incorporating fully fitted kitchens, laundry facilities and separate lounge and dining areas, they offer plenty of space and privacy. We settle for a Family Resort Room, which comprises two adjoining hotel rooms, each with ensuite and is perfectly adequate for our three-night stay.


All buildings at the resort are built below the treeline and are limited to two storeys, while the stilted foundations allow the island wildlife to go about their daily business uninterrupted. We relish the sound of the cicada orchestra that bursts forth from the lagoon at night and love watching the kookaburras swooping between the trees from our table on the breakfast deck.

The only local wildlife you won’t encounter in the resort is the infamous dingo, thanks to a protective fence encircling the resort to keep its guests safe.


We spend some time exploring the resort’s nature trails and lounging by the swimming pool before heading to the Sunset Bar to enjoy happy hour as the sun lazily slips out of view. As we slope off to sample the local delights of signature restaurant Seabelle, the kids set off with their torches to join a night time nature walk, this evening’s Eco Rangers activity.


But we haven’t come all the way to Fraser Island to sip cocktails at sunset and indulge in fine dining cuisine, as lovely as this is. There is a whole island to explore and so we sign up to the 4WD Beauty Spots tour with Fraser Explorer Tours, which sets off from the resort every morning.


Our 4WD bus takes us on a turbulent rollercoaster of a ride through the maze of potholed tracks that snake through the interior of Fraser Island, before depositing us on spectacular 75 Mile Beach.


Named as one of the best coastal drives in the world, this famous beach may sound like the perfect place for some family fun in the sun, but its main function is actually as a highway. Swimming is definitely not recommended here due to dangerous currents and predatory sharks. Nor is building sandcastles, due to fast moving traffic. But cruising along the coastline with the waves lapping at your wheels and the beach stretching as far as you can see in either direction is certainly a memorable experience.


The more surprising function of 75 Mile Beach is as an airstrip. And at 75 miles long, it is the longest airstrip in the world. It is also one of only two places on Earth where you can take off from a plane on the beach. (The other being Barra Island in Scotland).


So when our bus pulls up alongside an eight-seater plane and the pilots invite us to take a 15-minute sightseeing tour over the island, we jump at the offer. After an exhilarating take off, we scan the ocean below us for sharks and whales before sweeping inland and admiring the rainforest and the glistening blue lakes from above.


The most famous of all the 75 Mile Beach attractions is rather surprisingly a rusting shipwreck. I’ll admit to being rather sceptical as to how exciting a washed up hunk of metal can be, but once we learn of her romantic and turbulent history, we too are keen to marvel at this former doyenne of the seas and try to envisage her during her glory days.


Originally a luxurious ocean liner, SS Maheno was the first turbine steamer to cross the Pacific and one of the fastest ships of her day. Her fancy dining room, complete with grand piano, was frequented by passengers traveling from Sydney to Auckland.


During World War I she was used as a hospital ship before returning to being an ocean liner, until she grew too old and was decommissioned in 1935. She was bought by a Japanese shipyard, who sold her propellers to pay for her, and so her last voyage from Sydney to Osaka was taken under tow. When a cyclone caused her towline to snap, she was swept ashore on Fraser Island, where she remains to this day.


During World War II, the Australian Air Force used SS Maheno for bombing practice and she is now broken in two as she lies rusting on the shore. As her name means ‘island’ in Maori it seems fate played a hand in her resting place, where she can remain glorious and famous - rather than rusting away in a Japanese shipyard.


The undoubted highlight of Fraser Island is Lake McKenzie, the feature of many a Fraser Island postcard and fridge magnet. As the island’s finest example of a ‘perched’ lake, the water here is entirely made up of rainwater. With only around 80 of these perched lakes in the world, 40 can be found right here on Fraser Island.


With the underlying lakebed acting like the backing on a mirror and reflecting the colour of the sky, Lake McKenzie is famed for its vibrant blue water, made all the more spectacular by the brilliant white sand that lines its shores.


With the surrounding ocean rife with dangerous marine life and dreaded rip tides, this is where tourists flock to for swimming on Fraser Island, and we waste no time running into the crystal blue water for a splash around, building sandcastles on its soft sandy beach and taking a leisurely stroll along the shoreline. The perfect ending to a hot day’s sightseeing.


The next morning we are up bright and early to head out into Hervey Bay in search of migrating whales. Having just been named the world’s first Whale Heritage Site, Hervey Bay is renowned as the best place in the world for sustainable whale watching, and boats leave every morning from the Kingfisher Bay Resort jetty during whale watching season (July to November).


Humpback whales make their yearly migration from Antarctica to Queensland to have their babies, as the water is too cold for the young in the icy Antarctic waters (making humpback whales officially Queenslanders according to our skipper aboard the Hervey Bay Whale Watch tour!)


The relatively calm Hervey Bay provides good shelter for the whales, and so it is a popular stop-off point before they continue their journey. As they head south towards the end of the season, mothers and their calves often spend several days here, fattening up the calves and teaching them the life skills needed for their long trip south. This offers excellent opportunities to view these magnificent sea creatures up close in their natural habitat, and we are excited to set off out into the bay to find them.


We are not disappointed. Within minutes of arriving in Hervey Bay, a mother and her calf are spotted off the starboard side and are soon circling our boat and diving underneath us, allowing us to admire their magnitude at almost-touching distance. We spend more than an hour following them into the bay, clicking away with our cameras and cheering them on every time the curious whales swoop in for a closer look at us.


Just when we think it can’t get any better, a large male appears and treats us to an incredible breaching display, leaving us in no doubt of his strength and might. We gaze on in awe as he launches himself out of the water, twists onto his back and crashes back down with an almighty splash, sending water flying in all directions, before slapping his tail and fins on the surface and doing it all over again.


Travel stats

The Rogerson family visited Fraser Island in October, during the Australian spring. Temperatures are attractive all year round, hovering between 14 and 25degC in the winter and between 23 and 30 degC in the summer.


Whale watching season runs from July to November; the best time to see mothers and calves is between August and September.


Brisbane International Airport is a four hour drive from Hervey Bay. Hervey Bay/Fraser Coast is the domestic airport for Fraser Island.


This feature first appeared in the Winter 2019/2020 issue of Asia Family Traveller. Never miss an issue by subscribing here.