Fraser Island


I have long wondered whether explorers should be allowed to name what they discover. The talents of adventurers so rarely include wordsmithing. For example, in Australia if it isn’t named after Lachlan MacQuarie then it is probably named after something obvious.

Captain Cook may have been handy with an astrolabe and a compass, but he wasn’t nearly as skilled in naming what he saw. When he encountered the stark majesty of Australia’s vast coral reefs, he named them “The Great Barrier Reef.” He saw no beauty, only a barrier. At the very southern tip of these reefs lies an island that Cook named the “Great Sandy Island” but is now known as Fraser Island, which is the largest sand island in the world and was recently named a world heritage site. Its current name derives from the fame of Eliza Fraser, a survivor of a shipwreck off its coast, who may or may not have elaborated significantly on her ordeal.

  When I visited Fraser Island, I underwent a much smaller ordeal, so I won’t have to exaggerate like Ms. Fraser did. All I have to do is tell you the truth about ‘Crazy Steve’ who loved driving insanely fast across Fraser Island’s Seventy-Five Mile Beach. (Side note: the “Seventy-Five Mile Beach” is not seventy-five miles long.) Pavement is a luxury on Fraser Island, and ‘Crazy Steve’s’ four-wheel drive bus vibrated like a stagecoach on the brink of flying apart as it hurtled down the sand.

This is the sort of thing that is never mentioned in the brochures. They also didn’t mention that the beach doubles as a runway. With drivers like Steve, it must be stated explicitly by the island’s authorities that ground vehicles must yield to landing planes.

‘Crazy Steve’ chose that time to tell us that he raced cars as his other job. I don’t recall where Steve’s nickname came from, but I do recall that he enjoyed his sobriquet immensely. He wanted to be known as ‘Crazy Steve’.

As we flew across the vast sand, I saw nothing but the horizon. To the right, an endless parade of white tipped waves marched into the shore. To the left stood rainbow-colored dunes. Both extended as long as the sky. However, to call them rainbow-colored does limit the rainbow to three shades: light pink, dark brown and light brown. However, colored sand of any variety speckled with lush vegetation is a wondrous sight to see.

My moment of reverie was jolted back into the present by one of those soft spots of sand that effectively serve like driving over a speed bump at 60 miles an hour. ‘Crazy Steve’ then screeched our bus to a halt and shuffled everyone off just to point at the sand below our feet.

For a moment, Steve said nothing and reveled in our puzzlement. “Anyone thirsty?”

He went on to explain that locals never take any water with them; they only need to dig a small hole in the sand to access water fresher than any bottled water ever could be. To prove it, he knelt and dug a little hole in the beach only about half a foot down and sure enough it filled with water.

I tasted it. Steve was right; it tasted like a spring. In many ways Fraser Island seems to be unconnected to the rest of the earth. Some of those ways are literal. According to studies, its water table may have insulated itself from the outside world for hundreds of years.  

There was no time for any other sort of dilly-dally. Steve rushed us all back onto the bus, shifted its gears, and appeared to be reversing us into the sea. Just as I started to wonder if there were extra features of this bus that hadn’t been mentioned, Steve changed gears again and roared forward as fast as tires can spin over sand. When we ran out of beach, Steve sped us over the dunes that separated the coastline from the interior.

As we bumped down the trail toward the island’s center, the tree cover became thicker and darker. The interior overflowed with ancient miracles that stubbornly exist in defiance of logic. I was dumbfounded to see the forests that towered into the sky with only the sand for roots…

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