Fraser Island Paradise is such an overworked and over rated term used in glossy tourist brochures the world over but on the Fraser Coast, our claim on paradise is lodged in the sands of time. “K’gari” is the name given by the Butchulla Aborigines to their Fraser Island home. It means paradise.
Many places around the Fraser Coast have Aboriginal names. Tiaro means “withered tree” while the Wongi waterholes mean “deep water”. Simple and descriptive, places were named with little exaggeration, so to call Fraser Island paradise was simply because it is.
Did you know … Fraser Island legend tells of K’gari, the helper of Yendingie, sent by god Beiral to create the lands and forests for his people. K’gari persuaded him to let her stay – not as a spirit but as a beautiful island with mirror lakes for her to see into the sky.
Building the sandmass—wind, waves and changing sea levels Fraser Island
Over the past two million years, ocean currents and waves have swept sand north from the continental shelf of New South Wales and southern Queensland. Sand accumulates and covers the bedrock to form dunes parallel to the coast, leaving only peaks uncovered—today’s headlands.
Strong onshore winds blow some loose sand inland into high parabolic (hairpin-shaped) dunes, which spread to engulf everything in their paths and form a sequence of overlapping dunes.
Fraser Island and Cooloola are remnants of old sandmasses that once stretched 30km east. Major dune-building has continued in episodes as sea levels rose and fell, forming a sequence of at least 8 overlapping dune systems of different ages. Some are more than 700,000 years old—the world’s oldest recorded sequence. These processes continue shaping the sandmasses.
Sandblows Fraser Island
Sandblows form when strong onshore winds break through the vegetation cover, driving sand from the eroding dunes. Sandblows engulf forests in their path, at a rates of up to 1 metre each year. New sandblows can also form when the stabilising plant cover is damaged by fire and wind, walkers or vehicles.
Coffee rock Fraser Island
Scattered along the beaches are outcrops of soft, dark-brown ‘coffee rock’, made up of sand grains weakly cemented together by organic matter (plant remains). Coffee rock is a remnant of a time when the sandmass stretched further to sea—and the currently exposed coffee rock was further inland and a part of the sandmass soil layers.
Coloured sands Fraser Island
Underlying parts of the windblown sandmasses of Fraser Island and Cooloola are coloured sands—the visible parts of older sand that has bound with clay into a weakly consolidated mass. These yellow, brown and red colours were created as iron-rich minerals stained the sand a complex array of tones and hues over thousands of years.
Spectacular sculptures emerge where wind and rain erode the sandmass, exposing this soft older core. The Pinnacles and Red Canyon are striking examples.
Lakes in porous sands Fraser Island
Amazingly, each of the freshwater dune lakes in the Great Sandy National Park is unique in shape and colour. More than 40 dune lakes occur here—over half of the known world total. Lake Boomanjin, the world’s largest perched lake at 200ha and Boomerang Lakes, some of the world’s highest at 120m above sea level are on Fraser Island.
Perched lakes such as Birrabeen and Lake McKenzie on Fraser Island and Lake Poona in Cooloola are the most common type of lake in Great Sandy National Park.
These lakes develop when a saucer-shaped ‘hard pan’ of organic debris, sand and peat forms in a depression between dunes enabling run-off and rainwater to collect and slowly filter to the watertable below.
Barrage lakes form when a mobile sand dune dams a watercourse, usually in younger dunes close to the coast. Interested visitors can walk to Lake Wabby on Fraser Island, from the eastern beach.
Window lakes, generally found at low elevations, form where the ground surface drops below the watertable level and fills with groundwater. Some window lakes are barraged by sand dunes.
All the freshwater lakes are low in nutrients and support few plants and animals. Most lakes have only two or three fish species.
Eli and Wanggoolba Creeks are noted for their flow of crystal clear water—mainly localised outflows of groundwater from the sandmass.
They contrast with the golden-brown, tannin stained creeks and seepages that flow into Lake Booomanjin.
How are forests created on bare sand? Fraser Island
Most plants growing on sand draw mineral nourishment from two unlikely sources.
They strip the fine mineral coating from grains of beach sand turning the yellowish grains white and also absorb small amounts of atmospheric trace minerals, washed into the sand by rain.
Decaying plants return these minerals to the sand. Over time, minerals are concentrated in the sandmass, providing nutrients to support a succession of forest types, from coastal pioneers and shrubby woodlands to tall rainforests.
As each successive dune forms, a thicker, deeper nutrient layer develops, able to support taller, more complex forest.
But on Great Sandy’s older dunes the nutrient layer has been leached by water beyond the reach of even deep tree roots. The tall forests are replaced by stunted woodlands, shrubs and low heaths.
This phenomenon—’retrogressive succession’—is of international scientific interest.
Older dunes generally lie to the west on Fraser Island, overlaid partly by progressively younger dunes to the east.
Beaches—home in shifting sand Fraser Island
Life is abundant—pipis (shellfish) and moon snails live in the shifting intertidal sand; sand-bubbler crab colonies leave patterns of tiny sand balls; ghost crabs scuttle across the sand at night.
Watch out for bluebottles with long blue stingers, sometimes washed ashore following strong winds. Flotsam, such as jellyfish is food for scavenging crabs and birds, adding nutrients to the sand.
Pioneers and coastal forest—holding dunes together Fraser Island
Holding the coastal foredunes together are salt-tolerant pioneer plants: pigface, with fleshy angular leaves and purple flowers, goatsfoot vine, with purple trumpet flowers, and beach spinifex, that creeps over the dunes and traps sand swept from the beach by the wind.
Pioneer plant species begin nutrient and soil development. Their roots host bacteria that convert airborne nitrogen into nitrates that enrich the soil.
Small, hardy trees such as beach casuarina, coastal banksia and pandanus are a more permanent stabilising force on the foredunes. They protect the wattles, hopbush, tuckeroo and stunted eucalyptus trees from harsh salt-laden winds.
Abundant banksia flowers provide plentiful food for the insects and nectar-feeding birds in these coastal forests.
Mixed forest Fraser Island
Protected from the harshest salt-laden winds, and growing where richer sand begins to develop, trees in the mixed forests and woodlands are larger than those of the coastal forests, although more stunted than the same species in the tall eucalypt forests.
Fires clear the understorey of foxtail sedge, bracken, blady grass, and fallen leaves and twigs, and provide an ashbed for new seedling growth. Over time, trees develop hollows that shelter nesting birds and nocturnal gliding possums. Ant nests are conspicuous on the forest floor, and more than 300 species of ants have been recorded in Great Sandy.
Tall eucalypts Fraser Island
Protecting the forest core here are tall eucalypt trees, including smooth-barked forest red gums and scribbly gums. These tall trees contrast with tessellated barked bloodwoods, string-barked satinays, and blackbutts, with their rough-barked bases and smooth, light upper limbs.
Tall eucalypt forest grows on the ridges on the high middle dunes in the centre of the sandmass. It surrounds the central forest core, protecting the rainforest from the drying winds and salt.
After fire, eucalypts of the tall forest regenerate from seeds released into the ash bed. The burnt trees also sprout new leaves from special buds protected under thick bark, and from lignotubers—woody tissue attached to the root system—below the ground.
Blackbutt trees were the mainstay of the timber industry on Fraser Island. Visitors can see remnant stumps of former giants and large, shield-shaped scars near the base of some trees, where Indigenous people removed the bark for their gunyahs (shelters).
Rainforests Fraser Island
The slopes and valleys of the middle, high dunes have the best protection from winds, receive the highest rainfall and have the deepest accessible soils.
They are dominated by huge brush box, with bark ‘stockings’ on their lower trunks and smooth red limbs, and the tall, straight-trunked, stringy-barked satinay, whose long roots reach rich nutrients buried deep in the dunes.
In other areas, lichen-covered trunks of giant kauri and hoop pine emerge above lilly-pilly, quandong, brush box, and strangler figs, draped in vines, orchids, ferns and mosses.
Walk slowly to see colourful fungi sprouting on rotting trees, their fine threads slowly decomposing the wood.
These rainforests are known as vine forests. Along their drier margins, the low vine forests of small-leafed grey myrtle (‘carrol’ scrubs) can be seen on walks from Central Station.
Hollows in older trees offer nesting sites for mammals and for birds including king parrots, yellow-tailed black cockatoos and sulphur-crested cockatoos, often heard screeching from treetops. Brushtail possums are active at night, as are sugar gliders and flying-foxes.
Woodlands Fraser Island
Wallum communities dominate the older western dune systems, where the main nutrient layer has leached down beyond the reach of tree roots. Only shrubs and smaller trees can grow on this relatively infertile upper sand layer. In seasonally waterlogged areas, paperbark and wet heathlands grow in dense stands.
Scribbly gum, pink bloodwood, wallum banksia (with serrated leaves) and black casuarinas (with needle-like leaf stems) grow as low trees above the heathy understorey.
Look closely at the hard wallum banksia seed cases, which will only open after the heat and smoke of fire, releasing seeds that take advantage of the lack of competition after a fire. Most of Great Sandy’s plant communities respond to the frequency, season and intensity of fires.
Heaths and swamps Fraser Island
Swampy, treeless, grassy plains, fringed by paperbarks, colourful heath and swamp banksias, feed tea-coloured water to creeks and lakes. These are wallum heathlands.
Frequent fire maintains grassy heathlands by inhibiting tree growth. This preserves habitat and food for fairy wrens and ground-dwelling birds such as quails and ground parrots. Heaths and swamps are home to ‘acid’ frogs, which are able to tolerate the mildly acidic waters, the harmless freshwater snake, and several crustaceans.
Mangroves—forests on intertidal mudflats Fraser Island
Swarms of biting insects and the occasional waft of decomposition mean mangroves are not always pleasant places to visit. But the shelter of their roots and the deep layers of decomposing leaf litter make mangroves ideal nurseries and feeding grounds for much marine life in Great Sandy. Mangroves are also important in the food webs of nearby heathlands. Great Sandy’s mudflats and sandflats are major feeding grounds for migratory shorebirds such as bar-tailed godwits on their flights from the northern to southern hemispheres.
People of Great Sandy: First Inhabitants Fraser Island
Archaeological evidence suggests Aboriginal people have lived in the Great Sandy area for at least 5000 years, but they may have been here far longer. Butchulla people inhabited Fraser Island and the adjacent mainland living a complex, self-sufficient way of life intimately connected with the seasons, the land, and life on it.
The abundance of marine life along the coast provided the Butchulla with many foods, including fish and shellfish. Food also came from the forests, along with bark for canoes and shelters, vines for nets, and grasses and piccabeen palm fronds for baskets.
Today, K’gari (Fraser Island) contains heritage sites of spiritual, social and archaeological significance. Middens, artefact scatters, scarred trees and campsites bear witness to the lifestyle of the Butchulla people.
Aboriginal life was disrupted soon after European settlement in the 1840s. Dispossession of land and reduced access to native plants and animals caused disruption to beliefs and practices, and disease, alcohol and opium destroyed the traditional way of life. Clearing of land for pasture and the advent of timber harvesting in the 1860s hastened the demise of local lifestyles.
By the late 1800s, most remaining Aborigines from the region were relocated to a mission settlement on Fraser Island. A succession of missions followed until the final Fraser Island mission was disbanded in 1904, when most
Aboriginal inhabitants were sent to various Queensland missions, including Yarrabah near Cairns. Many local place names are Aboriginal. Today, descendants live in the area and are striving to share their knowledge of a once widespread way of life.
Changing European uses Fraser Island
The first written record of the region is from Cook’s discovery voyage of Australia’s east coast in 1770. However, references to the area in old Portuguese navigation charts, and lead weights mined in France between 1410 and 1627AD, found on one of Fraser’s beaches, suggest Europeans may have visited the region well before Cook.
Early impressions of the region were not positive. Matthew Flinders, the first English explorer to set foot on Fraser Island in 1802, noted: ‘Nothing can be imagined more barren than this peninsula’.
That perception changed in 1842, when pioneer Andrew Petrie reported good pastoral lands and excellent forests in the area. This attracted settlers, who grazed horses, sheep and cattle at Cooloola and Fraser Island.
Logging of valuable kauri pines began on Fraser Island in 1863 and Cooloola in 1866. After the Gympie gold rush of 1867 demand for timber boomed and logging expanded to become the region’s major industry for more than a century.
Small-scale mining for heavy minerals, mainly rutile and zircon, began with mining leases granted on Fraser Island in 1949. Sandmining exploration increased in the 1960s, attracting opposition from conservation-minded individuals and community groups.
Their efforts eventually ended sandmining in Great Sandy in 1976, while logging stopped in late 1991. National parks were declared in the northern part of Fraser Island in 1971 with more additions in later years. 1992 saw the significant listing of Fraser Island as a World Heritage Area.
Residents have used the area for recreation since the 1870s. Tourism grew slowly. The first commercial tours and accommodation on Fraser Island not starting until the 1930s. This changed with the controversies surrounding sandmining in the 1970s and cessation of logging in the early 1990s, which dramatically increased visitor interest. The 1992 World Heritage listing of Fraser Island increased international visitation.
The challenge for today’s management is to balance the conservation of the region’s natural and cultural assets with increasing opportunities for people to enjoy the magnificent values of Fraser Island, World Heritage Area.
A History of Aborigines of Fraser Island
Aborigines have occupied all of Australia, including what is now Fraser Island, for more than 50,000 years. Since Fraser Island became an island with rising sea levels over 6,000 years ago, it has been a very productive territory and home to thousands at a time.
Since the 1850s, following European settlement of the adjacent mainland, the history has been tragically affected by massacres, introduced diseases and drugs and loss of culture. Everyone needs to appreciate the impact on the world’s oldest continuous culture.
Scientists have established that Aborigines occupied Australia at least 50,000 years ago. Occupation of Fraser Island would have occurred from the very earliest times because the Great Sandy Region has always been adjacent to the coast.
Sea Levels Affected Aboriginal Territories
Until 10,000 years before present (BP) Fraser Island was a part of the mainland. The coastline was then at the very edge of the continental shelf some 25 kilometres east of the present eastern beach.
All of Hervey Bay was dry land. The Woody Island syncline deflected the Mary River, forcing it to flow south east down what is now the Great Sandy Strait. The Mary River and its tributaries carved deep valleys into the landscape.
About 10,000 BP the last Ice Age began to wane, causing the sea levels, estimated to have been about 120 metres lower than present, to start to slowly rise. The sea drowned much of the territory of coastal Aboriginal people just as it drowned Atlantis.
Sea levels rose at a rate less than that which it is anticipated will be induced by the current climate change. As the coastline retreated, so the Aborigines followed it back.
Groups such as the Ngulungbara, who were forced back to Sandy Cape, would have seen about ninety percent of their territory (including Breaksea Spit) submerged. As the sea levels rose, the velocity of the Mary River and its tributaries slowed down causing rapid sedimentation build up in their valleys, thus creating wide flood plains.
At the time of first contact with Europeans three Aboriginal groups occupied different parts of Fraser Island. The Ngulungbara occupied the northern end of Fraser Island, the Badjala (or Butchalla, Batjala, Badtala) occupied the central part of Fraser Island and the adjacent mainland on the opposite side of Great Sandy Strait, and the Dulingbara spread across southern Fraser Island and on to Northern Cooloola. Watson said they all spoke the same language which was a variant of Kabi-Kabi.
There were great seasonal migrations by the Aborigines between the island and the mainland. Fraser Island was more densely populated during the winter months when fish, particularly the sea mullet, were most plentiful.
With the change of seasons, the summer territories on the mainland were reoccupied. An estimated Aboriginal population of 2,000-3,000 used Fraser Island during the mullet season. Bark canoes were used to cross Great Sandy Strait. Most canoes were made of a single sheet of bark which was sealed at each end with wax and resin.
The rising sea levels submerged many former occupation sites and stream side sites were silted over. More than 200 shell middens have been recorded on the east coast of Fraser Island. All are less than 5,000 years old. They are composed almost exclusively of eugaries (Plebidonax deltoides).
Many archaeological sites along the west coast of Fraser Island have also been recorded. Middens along the sheltered shores include mainly oyster shells (Ostreidae sp.), whelks (Pyrazus ebeninus) and a variety of crustacea. Such marine food sources would not have previously existed in these vicinities.
First European Contacts
There is evidence that Europeans may have made contact with Fraser Island Aborigines more than 500 years ago. Lead, identified as having come from the Iberian Peninsula (Spain), was found in an old buried shore line near Hook Point on Fraser Island, amongst pumice released in about 1500. It may have come from the Christado de Mendonca 1521-22 expedition. His three Portuguese caravelles set off from Malacca (Sumatra), which was then Portuguese territory, to explore what was then nominally Spanish territory in what is now Eastern Australia. Records of Portuguese exploration were lost in the great Lisbon fires of 1755, but maps of Portuguese origin showing Fraser Island as an island survived in Britain and France.
Two clay pipes discovered in middens near Indian Head were of the type used by 17th century Dutch navigators for trading. These suggest some contact between Dutch sailors and Aborigines in this period, although there is no direct evidence that the contact occurred on Fraser Island as the pipes could have been traded.
In 1770 Captain Cook was the first recorded European to sight Fraser Island. Passing northward at a distance of five miles offshore through his telescope Cook “saw several people upon the shore” on a headland (Indian Head). A number of Aborigines had assembled on what they knew as Takky wooroo for a better view of the “Endeavour”. Since at that stage Europeans regarded all “savages” as “Indians”, Cook forthwith named the locality Indian Head.
In 1799 Matthew Flinders noted of his journey up the east coast of Fraser Island: “… Nothing can be imagined more barren than this peninsula, but the smoke which arose in many parts corroborated (estimates of a ‘more numerous population of Indians than is usual to the Southward’) and bespoke that fresh water was not scarce in this Sandy Country: Our course at night was directed by the fires on shore…”
During his second visit in 1802 Flinders landed near Sandy Cape with Port Jackson Aboriginal, Bongoree. This is the first recorded interaction between Aborigines and Europeans. Flinders recorded of his meeting: “These people go entirely naked, and otherwise much resemble the inhabitants of Port Jackson in personal appearance, but they were much more fleshy, perhaps from being able to obtain a better supply of food with scoop nets which are now known on the southern parts of the coast.”
Following the establishment of the Moreton Bay Penal Settlement in 1824, many convicts escaped and lived with Aborigines in the Great Sandy Region. David Bracefell escaped three times and each time on returning he was so brutally punished that he absconded again. He also became a “bunda” named “Wandi”, meaning “The Great Talker”. He spent a year living on Fraser Island and later reported that 2,000 to 3,000 had assembled on the Ocean Beach near Indian Head during the mullet season.
Impact following the Settlement of the Wide Bay District
Fraser Island Aborigines gained international notoriety through the stories of Eliza Fraser who survived the ship wreck “Stirling Castle” in 1836 with some others. Survivors were fed by the Aborigines and assisted back towards Brisbane and civilization. Eliza told stories of Aboriginal cruelty, savagery and brutality. She made much money by such tales but, although the truth of her stories has been refuted by many, they had the effect of creating a paranoia of Aborigines amongst the white settlers. One of Eliza Fraser’s legacies was that there would be many massacres of the very people who had helped her.
In 1842 Colonial authorities decided to close the convict settlement in Brisbane and open up what is now Queensland for free settlement. This led Andrew Petrie and others to undertake an exploration of the Wide Bay area. They travelled through Great Sandy Strait, discovered the enormous stands of timber on Fraser Island (Kgari) and travelled up the Mary River (Moonaboola). This expedition was followed almost immediately by selection of grazing holdings at Tiaro and soon afterwards the establishment of Maryborough, which rapidly grew to become a port, administrative centre, a base for Queensland’s infamous Native Police and major centre in Queensland settlement.
Soon after the establishment of Maryborough, Great Sandy Strait became an international shipping lane. Sailing vessels crossed the Wide Bay Bar and hauled into the lee of Fraser Island to take on water at Waterspout Creek (South White Cliffs) rather than sail around Breaksea Spit (Thorvour). During this period sailors caused many Aborigines to become addicted to opium and also introduced many pernicious diseases, including venereal diseases. Maritime traffic increased dramatically following the discovery of gold in Gympie in 1867. So many people rushed to the goldfield that a Customs House was established in Maryborough and a Quarantine Station at North White Cliffs (Ballargan).
Massacres of Aborigines were occurring quite openly and regularly in and around Fraser Island and Maryborough. In most cases “white volunteers” were assisted or led by the murderous Maryborough based Native Police in these sorties. Many massacres of Aborigines which resulted from a number of confrontations have been documented in a paper by Raymond Evans and Jan Walker (Occasional Papers in Anthropology No 8 University of Queensland, 1977). They noted: “Following these engagements, the Aborigines withdrew to Fraser Island which, according to the whites, they seemed to be using as a convenient natural fortress, for the avoidance of European reprisal raids.” This led to considerable planning by white settlers to invade Fraser Island and remove “35 named Aborigines accused by European settlers of ‘murder and felony’ ”.
On Christmas Eve 1851 Commandant Walker, his officers and 24 of his infamous Native Police, supported by some local mounted squatters and sailors sworn in as “special constables”, set out to arrest some Aborigines for which there were warrants. They spent eight days on Fraser Island carrying out what was euphemistically described as “examinations” of Aborigines. Subsequent reports indicate that this was a pretence for a series of massacres which occurred between Christmas Eve and 3 January. Aboriginal oral history reports the biggest massacre was at Indian Head. It may have been seen as a little “silly season” sport for the squatters or a little hunting expedition over the Christmas holiday season. Evans and Walker note that the official sketchy report strains credulity because the commandant let the Native Police out alone “to pursue hostile blacks” simply because he was too footsore to accompany them. The “Moreton Bay Courier” subsequently described this as a “jaunt” covered with “extraordinary secrecy” and that “rumours are afloat that natives were driven in to the sea, and there kept as long as daylight or life lasted…”
There were further tragic incursions into the depleted and demoralized Fraser Island Aboriginal population. In 1857 Europeans grabbed two young albino Aboriginal girls whom they claimed were white girls who had survived the wreck of the “Seabelle”. However, they could not speak English and they had no experience of European culture. They were sent to Sydney and confined to institutions where they died within a short time.
In 1860 the whole of Fraser Island was gazetted as an Aboriginal Reserve but this was soon rescinded in 1863 and shrunk to include only the central section of the island after commercial timber-getting began. When timber getters wanted to log this Reserve in 1905, almost all of the remaining Aborigines were removed from the island.
In 1870 the Sandy Cape light station was erected. There was a significant resident population living near the station when Miss Serena Lovell was teaching there in 1891. In 1872 Rev Fuller established a mission at Ballargan but this was closed down within two years so the government could convert the Mission site to a Quarantine station for ships bringing miners to the goldfield. With the gold rush ended by 1897 the Government briefly revived Ballargan.
On Good Friday 1897 Aborigines drove off a party of Maryborough excursionists who claimed that the beach had been “a favourite resort for pleasure parties for over twenty years” and a popular “watering place since before Queensland got separation”. A public protest meeting in Maryborough drew 300 to 400 people. Within months, parochial pressure caused the mission to be shifted to a less desirable site at Bogimbah Creek.
At Bogimbah Creek Settlement Aborigines lived in conditions comparable with the Jewish concentration camps of World War II. Over a hundred died of malnutrition, dysentery, syphilis, influenza and tuberculosis. Anglican missionaries took over the Mestons’ State control in February 1900 but in 1904 they abandoned the Bogimbah Creek mission. Rather than release remaining inmates, 117 were tricked and taken to Yarrabah near Cairns. Others were sent to Woodford and then to Cherbourg. Out of more than 2,000 Fraser Island Aborigines fifty years earlier, only a handful escaped. This tragedy prompted one Maryborough resident of the time to write an “enraged memorial”. “Isn’t this one of the blackest pages in the history of the British Empire?”