Wednesday 20th April 2016
Today we took a day trip to Fraser Island, the world’s biggest sand island. The Traditional Owners of the island are The Butchulla people, who call it K’Gari (which roughly translates as ‘paradise’) and it’s easy to see why.
The European invader-settlers turned Fraser Island into a logging industry, profiting from the existing natural resources and introducing a variety of new trees that thrived in the island’s rainforests.
Since 1991, the island has been a world heritage site, preserving the natural environment, including the trees the Europeans introduced. It was too late to preserve the indigenous communities whose people were decimated through conflict and disease. Those who survived invasion were shipped off the island to the mainland in 1901.
Today we journeyed in the opposite direction, from mainland to island, and were the last couple to board one of two tourist buses. As there was only one seat remaining, our driver, Mike, offered a woman travelling alone the opportunity to join him in the cab. This freed up a double seat for us to sit together.
“It’s just because you’re not as attractive,” he said to me, setting the tone for a jokey, blokey narration that would be keeping us company for the next 12 hours.
On the barge From Hervey Bay to Fraser Island, Captin Neil took over the compere role, telling us there were dolphins in the water to the right of the vessel. Over the next few minutes every passenger on board moved to one side of the boat to catch sight of the dolphins and try and take a picture.
“Oh look over there folks,” said Neil over the loudspeakers, “there’s a turtle on the left of the vessel”. He then paused long enough for about half of the passengers to dash from starboard to port, before quipping: “Not really, I just wanted to even up the boat a bit!”
When we arrived at Fraser Island, we were loaded into huge four-wheel drive vehicles that looked like garbage trucks, but were furnished with comfy seats, air conditioning and a TV screen showing live footage of the road ahead.
When I say “road”, I mean sand, a natural material which has many wonderful uses. Surfacing roads is not one of them. And so we travelled at great speed along the narrow, uneven “road” as our bodies bounced in several different directions at once—up and down; left and right; back and forth.
“What day is it?” asked Mike, who seemed to be having the time of his life. “It’s Wednesday, Ladies Day. What this means is if we get stuck in the sand, all the ladies will get off, make their way safely round to the back of vehicle………and push. Then fellas, your job is to follow the ladies off the bus, round the back of the vehicle, with your cameras where you’re going to get some fantastic pictures.”
And so it continued for thirty minutes, with Mike joking and jolting us across the island to our first destination.
“Hold on,” he said. “This last bit is narrow, steep and rough. Now if going down this narrow, steep, rough slope worries you, can you do me a favour? Could you just close your eyes, because that’s exactly what I’ll be doing?! Here we go……..”
Our first stop was Lake McKenzie, a body of water filled entirely with rainfall. The fine white silica sand around the lake merged in a watery spectrum of beautiful blues: from crystal clear, to warm Mediterranean to deep, dark ocean blue.
We walked far enough around the lake to find a quiet spot where the dragonflies were playing and dived, splashed and snorkeled in the lake, before rubbing our entire bodies in the moist sand, that was as good as any exfoliating scrub you’ll find in the High Street (even if it didn’t have cumquat and jojoba in it).
We could happily have stayed at the lake all day, but that’s not how coach tours work. So we were back on the bus, too soon, bouncing our way around the island again.”
“This is why we have the seatbelts,” said Mike on the mic. “It’s not in case of accidents, it’s to hold you in your seats and stop you banging your heads on the ceiling”.
There were six stops on the tour: the lake; the pinnacles, which are pyramids of multi-coloured sand, formed over thousands of years; a creek; a ship wreck; a rainforest walk and a resort hotel where we indulged in the “as much as you can eat” buffet.
Our brief walk into the rain forest started at Central Station, once the heart of the logging industry and the terminus of a train line, which once carried steam trains. Unfortunately, the sparks from the engines could start fires that burnt down the wood they were built to transport, so the track was replaced and left no trace.
The small stretch of forest we explored ran alongside a sandy-bottomed creek, where the water was so clear, you could see right through it, making the creek invisible. It was a still, magical, beautiful spot and we longed to stay here and explore the island on our own, enjoying the silence. But that wasn’t what today was about.
“Come on, wake up,” chirped Mike. “You’re so quiet. Ask me anything you want to. I promise you, if I don’t know the answer, I’ll come up with a pretty convincing story.”
In the afternoon, we sped along 75-Mile Beach, which is both a shoreline and a highway, sandwiched between the dunes and the waves. There is something unavoidably meditative about the magical monotony of a never-changing landscape. We caught a few moments of this meditative state as we covered mile after mile after mile of coastline, staring up at the occasional Whistling Kite, soaring above us.
And of course Mike was on hand to ensure we didn’t spend too long in the land of peaceful contemplation.
“We do have speed humps on this road,” he announced, “we call them sunbathers”!
One of the tourist attractions on 75-Mile Beach is Eli Creek, where visitors are dared to jump into the cold waters and let the rapids carry them downstream and out into the warm, salty sea (where we were warned to beware of the tidal rips and the tiger sharks).
“You can get changed into your swimwear on the coach if you like,” Mike assured us. “Oh and a quick reminder about security, all your possessions are safe on board because we have security cameras running the whole time. You should see what we watch on the other channel of that TV!”
We decided to brave the rapids of Eli Creek. It sounded like great fun, so we slipped into our swimwear and travelled 200 metres along a board walk to the entry point where I lunged bravely into the water to find it was so deep that it nearly covered my ankles.
I made a brave effort to evoke the spirit of the dolphins and swim the entire length of the creek, while Jakkie walked alongside me, we wondering why she’d bothered to bring her Go-Pro and handily informing me I looked more like a beached whale trying to make its way back to the ocean.
“Do you mind,” I protested, “I’m getting in tune with my inner dolphin,” but I was fooling nobody.
On the coach back to the barge, I imagined the Butchulla elders watching our every move and wondered what they would make of our trip to their country.
Mike was a great tour guide. I’ve peppered this post with his constant jokes and in the process have presented a two-dimensional caricature of a charming, skilled and knowledgeable man who kept his party effortlessly entertained, informed and on course for over 12 hours.
What was missing for me was any substantial acknowledgment of the Butchulla people’s ongoing story.
In 2009 they made a native title claim to Fraser Island and after a long legal battler were recognized as the traditional owners of the island in 2014.
Kevin Smith, CEO of Queensland South Native Title Services, told ABC at the time:
“The Butchulla people have got a tradition of fighting for this country that is their island paradise, K’Gari…..A decision like this…is empowering psychologically, emotionally and it also can be healing. When your old people have been removed….to say the legal system has acknowledged us, it can also have a healing effect.”
According to the Queensland Government, the Butchulla people want their messages—of care and respect for the land—to reach all people visiting the island. They have written this ‘welcome to country’ to all visitors:
Galangoor djali! Galangoor.
Butchulla bilam, midiru K’gari galangoor nyin djaa.
Ngalmu galangoor Biral and Biralgan bula nyin djali!
Wanya nyin yangu, wanai djinang djaa.
The message translates as: “Good day. Welcome! Butchulla people, Traditional Owners of K’gari, welcome you to country. May all our good spirits be around you throughout the day. Wherever you go leave only footprints.”
As we took the barge back to the mainland, we sailed into the setting sun, which was slowly descending over Hervey Bay, where our Dreamtime (our RV/motorhome) awaited. Behind us, a nearly full moon began its ascent into the night sky over the paradise called K’Gari, which is better known as Fraser Island.
Even within the context of a voyeuristic day trip, we experienced many moments of magic today—snorkeling in a beautiful freshwater lake; cruising along 75-Mile Beach; experiencing the peace of the rainforest creek and finally crossing the sea with the sunset ahead of us and the moon rising behind us.
By the time we reached land, the sun had set but the smile on Mike’s face hadn’t.
“Just a reminder, can you please make sure none of your belongings have bounced out of your bag,” he said as we drove towards our campsite. “We’ve got enough hats, towels, sunglasses and sun cream, thank you very much. But if you leave anything valuable behind, like a camera, don’t worry we’ll sell it on Gumtree, because it’s cheaper than E-Bay”.
We dutifully collected our belongings (including a couple of leftovers from the “eat-all-you-can buffet”) and jumped off the bus. And off drove Mike, a cheerful cross between Clive James and Harold Bishop, ready to come back and tell the same set of jokes, to a different set of tourists, another day.