Published: September 2010
Fraser Island
Aboriginal gods wanted a paradise on Earth. So they created Fraser Island.
By Roff Smith

It wasn't enough simply to create the world; the Aboriginal god Beeral wanted it to be beautiful as well. And so he sent two trusted messengers, Yindingie and his spirit helper K'gari, to render the raw material of creation into a paradise. They did such a splendid job that by the time they were finished, K'gari longed to stay in this wonderful place forever. She lay down in the warm waters of a particularly beautiful bay, and there she went to sleep.

While she slept, Yindingie transformed her body into a long, slender island of crystalline sand, the largest such island in all the world. He clothed her with the most luxuriant of rain forests, painted her soft, sandy skin a rainbow of colors, and fashioned a chain of jewel-like lakes to be her eyes into heaven. He filled the air with colorful birds, and then, so she would never be lonely, he set a tribe of Aborigines on the island—the Butchulla people, who passed down the story of its creation and in whose language K'gari came to be the word for "paradise."

A lot of water has washed its shores since then. Today paradise goes by the name of Fraser Island, renamed by newcomers after a Scottish sea captain and his wife were famously marooned here among the Aborigines in 1836. But by any name or reckoning, it remains a place apart, with an uncanny ability to weave itself into the dreams of all who draw near.

Fraser Island's storied landscapes have inspired many of Australia's greatest writers and artists, and its delicate ecosystems fired passions in one of Australia's first great grassroots environmental campaigns in the 1970s, stopping the mining of its mineral-rich sands and bringing an eventual end to logging on the island. And for succeeding generations of locals and visitors alike, it has been a prism through which to see and appreciate the often nuanced beauty of the Australian bush.

For all the paintings, poetry, and prose Fraser Island has inspired, this is not an easy place to categorize. One moment you're hiking through a cathedral rain forest, all giant ferns and piccabeen palms, and the next you're in fragrant eucalyptus woodland, gazing through a break in the trees at a sea of golden dunes—and beyond them, in the soft, summery haze, rolling coastal heaths bright with wildflowers. Changes in landscape that logic tells you should be hundreds of miles apart happen here one after the other, as swiftly and magically as a twist of a kaleidoscope barrel.

The greatest wonder of all, perhaps, is that most everything here grows on nothing more substantial than sand held in place by humble fungi. No dreamscape could be woven of slenderer thread.

"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.

In 1836 the Stirling Castle, commanded by Captain James Fraser, set sail from Sydney to Singapore with 18 crew and passengers, whose number included the captain's wife, Eliza. Some days later, as the ship threaded its way through the labyrinthine passages of the Great Barrier Reef, it holed itself on the coral and began slowly sinking. Passengers and crew bundled themselves into two lifeboats and set off down the coast toward a settlement at Moreton Bay (now Brisbane), hundreds of miles to the south. It was a harrowing journey, not least for Eliza, who reportedly was heavily pregnant at the time and wound up giving birth in the badly leaking longboat; the infant died shortly afterward.

Things grew worse for the embattled survivors in the longboat carrying Captain and Mrs. Fraser. As their flimsy craft grew more and more unseaworthy, the other boat abandoned them and sailed on. Finally, more than a month after the shipwreck, they were forced to beach themselves on what was then known as the Great Sandy Island.

What happened next is unclear. Some accounts say the survivors bartered with the Butchulla people, giving up their clothing in exchange for food. Others claim the Aborigines stripped the castaways naked and treated them as slaves. Either way, it seems likely that hunger, disease, and exhaustion finished off most of the survivors, including Captain Fraser.

For her part, Eliza later claimed that she had been forced to work as a drudge around the Aborigines' camp, gathering firewood and digging up roots. Word of her plight eventually reached the authorities at Moreton Bay. A rescue party was sent out, and an Irish convict named John Graham, who had previously lived in the bush as an escapee and who spoke the Aboriginal language, ultimately negotiated her release.

The rest of the story follows in the finest tabloid tradition. Within months of her rescue, Eliza met and married another sea captain, moved to England, and went on to become a sideshow attraction in London's Hyde Park. There she spun increasingly wild tales of murder, torture, white slavery, and cannibalism to spellbound audiences at sixpence a head.

Alas for Eliza, nothing fades quicker than yesterday's news, and she soon lapsed into obscurity. She is said to have moved to New Zealand and was killed in a carriage accident during a visit to Melbourne in 1858.

Sidney Nolan was captivated by the operatic quality of Eliza Fraser's tale and the rich symbolism of Europeans, stripped of their civilizing veneer, grubbing for survival in an alien landscape. So the artist hopped on a timber barge and went to see Fraser Island for himself.

"The psyche of the place has bitten into me deeply," he wrote to a friend. Its spell would remain on him for the rest of his life, inspiring two series of paintings and dozens of canvases. Nolan in turn passed on his fascination to his friend Patrick White, a Nobel Prize-winning author who visited the island in the 1960s and early 1970s. White used its primal wilderness as the setting for his 1973 novel The Eye of the Storm and again in A Fringe of Leaves, a fictionalized retel­ling of Eliza's saga.

In 1770 Captain Cook had been unimpressed by the scrubby, sandy bluffs visible from his ship. Little more than 200 years later artists and writers, scientists and statesmen saw such value in Fraser Island that in 1992 it was declared a World Heritage site. Having helped transform Australians' sense of wild beauty, the island now draws boatloads of admirers—an outcome wise old Beeral might have hoped for when he sent Yindingie and K'gari to beautify the world those many eons ago.