An Island Paradise of Sand
BY AWAKE! WRITER IN AUSTRALIA
IN 1770, British explorer Captain James Cook sailed up the east coast of Australia. A little over a hundred miles [150 km] north of the present-day city of Brisbane, he passed a large, sandy coastal island that would, in time, attract 300,000 visitors annually. Cook, however, paid little attention to it. In fact, he and others assumed that it was a peninsula, not an island. A few years later, explorer Matthew Flinders actually came ashore. “Nothing [could be] more barren than this peninsula,” he wrote.
Had Cook and Flinders ventured beyond the miles of golden beaches and dunes, they would have formed a very different opinion. They would have encountered a world of pristine rain forests, crystal-clear freshwater lakes, cliffs of spectacularly colored sands, and hundreds of species of animals. Now called Fraser Island, this largest sand island in the world is so remarkable that it was placed on the World Heritage List in 1992.a
Born in the Mountains
Fraser Island is 75 miles [120 km] long and up to 15 miles [25 km] wide. It covers an area of 395,200 acres [160,000 ha]. Massive sand hills rise almost 790 feet [240 m] above sea level, making the island the tallest of its kind in the world. What forces formed this remarkable landmass?
Evidence suggests that the countless tons of sand that formed the island came from the Great Dividing Range, a mountain system that extends the full length of Australia’s east coast. Over time, heavy rains scoured rock fragments from these mountains and washed them into rivers and out to sea. Oceanic currents churned the fragments into fine sand, which was gradually swept north along the seabed. Blocked by headlands and rocky outcrops rising from the ocean floor, the grains accumulated, and Fraser Island was born.
Since then, the Pacific Ocean has continued to dump fresh sand along the beaches. There, wind blows the sand inland, forming dunes. The dunes, in turn, creep along at the rate of three feet [1 m] a year, engulfing everything in their path.
Freshwater Lakes and Rare Forests
Surprisingly, 40 freshwater lakes are captured in the hollows of sand dunes across the island. Some of these bodies of water are known as perched lakes because they sit in large depressions on top of towering sand dunes. What prevents the water from seeping away? An organic liner, or peat caulking, in the form of partially decomposed leaves, bark, and branches.
The island also has window lakes, which form when depressions in the sand dip below the level of the groundwater table. Fresh water seeps into the hollows, creating crystal-clear, sand-filtered pools that are, in effect, windows in the water table.
The island’s lakes are replenished by 60 inches [150 cm] of rain a year. Water not trapped by lakes or soaked up by sand forms creeks that run into the sea. One stream is estimated to empty well over a million gallons [5 million L] of water an hour into the Pacific Ocean.
The abundance of water makes Fraser Island verdant. Normally, rain forests will not form in nutrient-deficient sand. But Fraser Island is one of the few places on earth where rain forests flourish on a sand base. Indeed, at one time the forest was so dense that for more than 100 years, it echoed to the chop of the lumberjack’s ax. Blackbutt, kauri, and tallowwood trees appealed to woodsmen. Said one in 1929: “The traveller strikes a living wall of giant timber trees up to 150 [feet] [45 m] high . . . These great monarchs of the forest are from six to ten feet [2 to 3 m] in diameter.” Some trees, such as the satinay tree and the turpentine tree, ended up in the pile walls of the Suez Canal. Today, however, the trees of Fraser Island grow old in peace.
Paradise With a Tragic Past
The island’s name is born of tragedy. In 1836, Captain James Fraser and his wife, Eliza, survived the shipwreck of the brig Stirling Castle and were cast ashore on the island. An indigenous tribe apparently killed the captain, but Eliza was later rescued. Marking the tragedy, the island’s name was changed from Great Sandy Island to Fraser Island.
Tragedy also befell the native peoples. At one time, up to 2,000 Aborigines lived on Fraser Island. They were described as well built and strong. They called their home K’gari, or Paradise. An Aboriginal legend about the creation of this island describes it as the most beautiful place ever made. Sadly, European diseases decimated the people. In addition, by the start of the 20th century, most of the remaining Aborigines had been relocated to settlements on the mainland.
A Welcome Haven
Today the island is a haven for wildlife. Among its most famous inhabitants are dingoes—Australia’s wild dogs. Isolated from domestic dogs on the mainland, the dingoes on Fraser Island are considered to be the purest strain in eastern Australia. They may look like domestic dogs, but they are not and thus should be treated with caution and respect.
More than 300 kinds of birds have been observed on the island. Brahminy kites and white-bellied sea eagles patrol the beaches, while iridescent-blue forest kingfishers dart about the lakes. Migratory visitors include Mongolian sand plovers that breed in Siberia and fly south for the winter. They rest briefly on Fraser Island before completing their journey. Additionally, 30,000 or more gray-headed flying foxes, really bats about the size of a raven, seasonally descend on the island, hungry for the nectar of eucalyptus blossoms.
The waters around Fraser Island also swarm with life, including humpback whales en route from the icy Antarctic to the Great Barrier Reef, where they calve and mate. On their return journey, the whales put on a spectacular show by launching their great bulk into the air and crashing down in an explosion of spray that can be seen for miles—a truly majestic salute to an amazing island!
a The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization adds to its World Heritage list cultural and natural sites that are physically, biologically, geologically, or scientifically of outstanding value.
[Maps on page 14]
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[Pictures on page 15]
At right, top to bottom:
The mouth of Kurrnung Creek
Forty freshwater lakes, including perched and window lakes, dot Fraser Island
A rare phenomenon—rain forests that grow in sand
All photos: Courtesy of Tourism Queensland
[Pictures on page 16, 17]
Dingo and koala
Courtesy of Tourism Queensland
[Picture on page 16, 17]
Seventy-Five [120 km] Mile Beach on Fraser Island is one of the longest beaches in the world
[Picture on page 17]
White-bellied sea eagle
[Picture on page 17]
[Picture on page 17]
[Picture on page 17]
Humpback whale during a pause en route to Antarctica
[Picture Credit Lines on page 17]
Eagle: ©GBRMPA; all other photos except pelicans: Courtesy of Tourism Queensland