It’s a Robinson Crusoe moment. I’m alone on a tropical shore watching a sea eagle preening his feathers. Suddenly I notice fresh footsteps in the sand and am thrilled and a little alarmed. Deep, loping, with strong claw-marks, these are dingo paw-prints, to be sure.
The dingoes of Fraser Island are born to be wild and it is a bad idea to offer them a bite of your sandwich. They tend to ask for more. So alongside the postcards of smiley-faced dingoes there are leaflets on how to deal with them in snarling mode.
But the island’s main attraction is mineral, rather than animal. Shifting, drifting, ever on the move, this vast, enchanted island is almost entirely made of sand. And not just any old silica: this extraordinary quartz is the stuff of geologists’ dreams.
A World Heritage wilderness, Fraser Island is the most spectacular of a chain of islands that stretches from Queensland’s Gold Coast to the Great Barrier Reef. Originally formed by rivers scouring the ancient southern continent, the sand has been swept north by currents and winds. The oldest dunes formed here over 700,000 years ago.
As the ferry chugs towards the island, a surprisingly high and complex coastline emerges from the waves. Another surprise is the colour. This is no simple dash of ochre: the unique landscape supports a glorious palette of wildlife. Buzzing over it in a small plane we saw turquoise lakes, emerald rainforests and the silver belly of a whale rolling in a sapphire sea.
All the ferries arrive at Kingfisher Bay Resort, the main base for exploring the island. An award-winning eco-resort, its breezy architecture blends into trees and creeks that run down to an unspoilt shore.
After an unexpectedly chilly night, in which I donned my entire wardrobe, we woke to a perfect dawn. Sunlight was filtering through a golden mist and there were the ravishing sounds of birds returning to life. Two squabbling honey eaters came fluttering onto our balcony, their wings translucent in the winter sun.
There are over 300 species of birds on the island and Ivor Davies, the resort’s eccentric general manager, points out some of them on a guided walk. “I can’t remember the last time I used an alarm clock,” he says, whistling to a little shrike thrush running past our feet. “‘Pink-pink-pink!’ and it’s four in the morning – it’s the eastern yellow robin. Then you’ll hear noises from the bush. An eastern whip bird – it’s an hour before dawn and the rhythm of the morning has begun.”
The island also supports an amazing variety of habitats and we saw most of them on a full day’s safari. The roads are tracks in the sand, so if you bring over your own car it must be a 4x4.
Ten minutes into our trip I was thoroughly glad of two things. Firstly, that I was not navigating. Getting lost among identical tracks in the woods is fine for fairy tales but not conducive to a happy marriage. Secondly that it was winter. At the height of the summer holidays there are prangs and delays as hot, exasperated drivers sink into the unforgiving grains. What bliss to have our personal driver, empty roads and a picnic hamper in the boot.
What were we interested in, asked Natalie Farrugia, our ranger for the day. Giant trees of the rainforest? Perhaps a swim in a lake? Bush-tucker tasting? A champagne cruise in the sunset? We just said yes to everything, hoping we could keep up.
First stop was the extraordinary Lake Mckenzie. How can I describe this otherworldly place? It looks as if a blue moon has slid to earth and there found blissful repose. While Natalie explained the rare phenomenon of lakes perching on sand I watched a Japanese girl wade into the water and go into a trance.
In the central regions vegetation has long stabilised the dunes and in a few miles you can travel from the baking stillness of the bush to the limpid coolness of a rainforest. Near an old logging station we stopped to watch a brilliant azure kingfisher perched on a branch. He totally ignored us, secure in his world of green shadows and silent streams.
Back to the sunlight and on to the great eastern dunes. At Lake Wabby a bunch of people were screeching with laughter, rolling down the hot dunes and crashing into the lake below. Part of me wanted to join in but, being somewhat attached to my ligaments, the rest of me decided against it.
Natalie led the way up a massive sand-blow. It was wonderful but perhaps it would have been easier, I told myself, if I was wearing natty little shorts like Natalie. And natty little desert boots. And, let’s face it, if I had spent the occasional hour at a gym. It was a relief to reach a shady valley scattered with white orchids. Among the flowering wattle bushes tiny bees were scrambling over mountains of pollen. I sympathised because I knew how it felt.
But now we could hear the inviting boom of the sea and after a final scramble we had a hearty picnic on Seventy Five Mile beach. It was somewhat surreal, eating off china and a white linen cloth, while the great waves hurtled in and the empty beach stretched away beyond the horizon.
And at last I saw a dingo. That night, after tasting sautéed crocodile spiced up with rainforest myrtle (try it at home sometime) I saw some shadows leap on to a wall. It was a couple of dingoes, sniffing the air. But as I stood transfixed with delight a ranger came out and shooed them away.
I felt sorry to leave the island. And although I brought a little of it with me, in my memories and in the cuffs of my jeans, I know my journey was nothing. The sands are the real travellers of the piece, and they are on a journey that will last a few more million years.
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