"I like to think of this island as a living organism in its own right, like the Great Barrier Reef," says Peter Meyer, a naturalist who has been living and working as a guide on Fraser Island for the past 15 years. "But here, instead of coral polyps, it's mycorrhizal fungi and their symbiotic relationship with plants that's the basis for everything. By liberating the nutrients in the sand, they make it possible for all these amazing things to grow. Without the fungi, this would be just another sandbar."
Make that a very big sandbar: more than 75 miles long, about 15 miles wide, and with dunes soaring to 800 feet. Sand has been accumulating along this stretch of the Queensland coast for some 750,000 years, in part because volcanic bedrock here provides a natural catchment for sediment moved up the eastern seaboard by a powerful longshore current.
English navigator James Cook, who sailed along this coast in 1770, was the first European known to have sighted Fraser Island. The globe-trotting Yorkshireman didn't think much of it, dismissing it with a few cursory lines in his journal. Likewise explorer Matthew Flinders, who landed here some 30 years later. Wilderness in those days was a commodity to be tamed and brought to profitable service, not admired for its own sake.
From that perspective, the interior of the island pleased Edward Armitage, an early 20th-century timber merchant. It is from his pen that we have some of the first descriptions of Fraser's magnificent rain forests, as he lamented that many of "these great Monarchs of the forest" were too big for the sawmills of the day.
The future soon supplied bigger machinery, and for more than a century the forests here were heavily logged. The dense timber was shipped around the world and used for such empire-building projects as lining the Suez Canal and, after World War II, for rebuilding London's Tilbury Docks.
A rare early tourist appeared on the scene in the late 1940s. Sidney Nolan, one of Australia's greatest 20th-century painters, had been traveling through Queensland, looking for inspiration in the landscape. He found it in the nearly forgotten story of shipwreck and survival that a century earlier had given Fraser Island its name.