Fraser Island, the world’s largest sand island is located about 250 km north of Brisbane off the east coast of Australia in the state of Queensland. The island stretches 124 km in length and 21 km in width and is since 1992 a UNESCO World Heritage-listed site. Tourists flock here every year to discover the island’s mix of hundreds of kilometres of sandy beaches, deep rainforests and fascinating wildlife. But above all, you come here to feel the adrenaline pumping when you push the gas pedal over the hard-packed sand banks in a four-wheel drive jeep. There are neither paved roads nor stop-lights here. Instead, the beach is the road. The landscape shifts between desert-like sandy plains and compact vegetation. Here and there lie crystal clear freshwater lakes, scattered like small jewels. Ancient tree trunks stretch towards the skies and high sand dunes stick up in the middle of dense rainforests that grow right out of the sand. If it is something the island lacks, it is not nature experiences. After a visit to Fraser Island, it is not difficult to understand why the indigenous Butchulla called the island K’gari, paradise.
Over thousands of years, Fraser Island has been shaped by wind, water and sand. The long sandy beaches are constantly washed by heavy waves from the Pacific Ocean, with winds whipping and moving the sandy land masses. Meandering roads cuts through the island and challenges visitors. Getting through is not that easy. If you prefer to lace up your boots and travel on foot, there are hiking trails in varying degrees of difficulty that takes anything from five minutes to five days. The island’s flora and fauna are unique with many rare bird species and Australia’s most purebred wild dingo can be seen roaming around. Previously, large parts of the island’s forests were harvested, and a railway was built for transporting timber which was then removed during the 1990s. Today, the northern half of the island is protected by being a part of Great Sandy National Park. Despite this, tourism is hard to the island, and if you come here during peak season it may feel crowded.
Driving on the island is a part of the adventure. It is a battle against the laws of nature, a quest that sometimes may seem impossible. The sand inland is soft and loose and tires on smaller cars can easily get stuck even though they are equipped with four-wheel drive. In addition, one must be aware of the treacherous tide that makes it impossible for vehicles to pass between certain times and the salty water can destroy the undercarriage. And it’s more than wild animals and saltwater puddles you should watch out for. The beach on Seventy-Five Mile Beach works not only as a busy natural highway but also as a runway for planes.
Sights and experiences
Discover and explore
A visit to Fraser Island should take its time. It is advisable to set aside two, three days to be able to explore as much as possible. The island may look relatively small on the map, but driving requires time, especially if you are going on a road that prevents the car to go faster than 20 kilometres per hour. And once you reach the lakes and beaches, you want to be able to relax. Sometimes you get stuck waiting for the tide to pass before you can drive any further. Do not stress. And do not leave the camera untouched.
The island has many places to visit. As a rule of thumb, you can say that it is twice as fast to reach the sites located along Seventy-Five Mile Beach than those located inland. Therefore, try planning your route so that you get to see more than zigzagging sandy roads. Central Station is in the middle of the island’s lush rainforest and was built as a central point during the timber industry era. Here are information signs that tell you about the island’s history, and hiking trails of varying degrees of difficulty starts from here.
Seventy-Five Mile Beach is a wide, far-stretched sandy beach on the island’s east coast which is ideal for driving. Here, the sand is mostly hard and compact giving you a chance to reach the speed limit of 80 kilometres per hour. Watch out for hollows that can be deep and destroy the steering. And keep an eye out for planes that want to go in for landing next to you. If this driving style is new to you, you can always take a lesson in how to drive off-road on sand (wotif.com/things-to-do/fraser-island-off-road-vehicle-training-adventure-with-lunch.a455090.activity-details). Or, if you want to use all your energy for looking at the scenario, you can always go on a guided daytrip (wotif.com/things-to-do/fraser-island-day-tour.a184668.activity-details).
Lake McKenzie is the island’s most popular lake, with a white grainy sandy beach and water shifting from turquoise to midnight blue. Travel magazine-beautiful, but unfortunately often full of picnicking tourists who run out of their camera batteries. If there are too many people here, you can instead head to Lake Birrabeen.
Among hundred-meter-high sand dunes resembling an endless desert, lake Wabby emerges as an emerald oasis. Eucalyptus trees thrives around the lake, growing dense. Drive to Cornwells Break Road and walk from there. Stop at the vantage point, then continue all the way down to the lake. The hike takes just under one hour one way.
The rusty wreck of SS Maheno is located on Seventy-Five Mile Beach. Maheno was previously a passenger ship cruising between Australia and New Zealand in the early 1900s. During World War I, the ship was used as a medical vessel. When the ship was towed in 1935, it came loose during a storm and stranded on Seventy-Five Mile Beach, where it remains today. Five kilometres north of Maheno, along Seventy-Five Mile Beach you’ll find The Pinnacle’s high sand cliffs standing tall, shifting in a variety of shades of red and gold. The rocks have been formed over thousands of years and their colour comes from the minerals in the sand. Best seen during dusk as the soft light conjures up even more shades of colour.
A few kilometres north of Happy Valley lies Eli Creek. Over four million litres of clear and refreshing water from freshwater lakes flows every hour through the creek which is lined with gnarled trees and wide ferns. A wooden walkway lies just next to it, allowing you to easily follow the creek inland, until you jump into the water only to let the stream take you back out to sea.
Champagne Pools are located on Fraser’s north-eastern tip. It is the only place on the island where you can bathe in saltwater. Sharp rocks protrude and form shallow pools that shut out marine wildlife. The name comes from the foam formed in the water, resembling champagne bubbles.
If you want to try other water activities, you can follow an organizer and do things such as kayaking (wotif.com/things-to-do/dolphin-view-kayaking-great-beach-drive-1-2-day-adventure.a474039.activity-details) or eco-sailing, both with a chance to see dolphins and other marine animals (wotif.com/things-to-do/half-day-fraser-island-hervey-bay-eco-sailing-adventure.a418965.activity-details). Otherwise, there is Jet ski (wotif.com/things-to-do/exclusive-fraser-island-jet-ski-adventure-with-lunch.a392438.activity-details) or skydiving (wotif.com/things-to-do/fraser-island-rainbow-beach-tandem-skydive.a473215.activity-details) for those who prefer.
Just south from the Champagne Pools is Indian Heads cliffs, a great vantage point to gaze out over the Indian Ocean. If you are lucky you can also see sharks, rays, dolphins and in the right season whales.
Wathumba Swamp is distant, but well worth the effort for seeing another side of Fraser Island. Here it is quiet and calm, and you can see small turtles swimming around in the lukewarm waters. Many boat owners choose to camp here. Mangrove trees attract a lot of mosquitoes, so a bottle of insect spray is to recommend.
To get here
Hervey Bay is a dormant little city that you visit for two reasons, to take the ferry to Fraser Island or to participate in whale watching. The city is one of the country’s foremost places to spot humpbacks as they swim past Hervey Bay during their migration back to Antarctica. Travellers on the road to Fraser usually make a shorter stop in Hervey Bay with an overnight stay at a local hostel to recharge their batteries for an island trip.
Mango Tourist Hostel (hotelscombined.com/Hotel/Mango_Tourist_Hostel.htm) in Hervey Bay is run by a couple who knows all about Fraser Island. They will happily give you tips or help you tailor your trip. Mango is a smaller and different accommodation with a homely feeling located near the beach.
Two ferries run regularly from River Heads to Fraser Island. River Heads is a 15-minutes’ drive from Hervey Bay. Fraser Venture Barge (fraserislandferry.com.au/barges/fraser-venture-barge.html) arrives at Wanggoolba Creek on the west side of the island and the trip takes about 40 minutes. Kingfisher Bay Ferry (fraserislandferry.com.au/barges/kingfisher-bay-ferry.html) transports pedestrians from River Heads to Kingfisher Bay Resort, which lies a bit further away, taking approximately 50 minutes. Make sure to be there early to make it on the ferry. It is a queuing system, and everyone might not fit.
To get around
There are four options for exploring Fraser. Among backpackers it is common to go on a so-called tag-along tour. This means that up to five cars follow an experienced guide that shows the way in a big jeep. The rest of the cars are driven by the travellers themselves. It is a good opportunity to meet people if you travel on your own but can be a hassle if you do not agree with others in the group. Several companies arrange these types of trips, including Fraser’s on Rainbow Beach (frasersonrainbow.com/fraser-island-tag-along). If you want to avoid having to worry about driving, a guided tour with Sunrover Expeditions (wotif.com/things-to-do/full-day-fraser-island-4×4-adventure-tour.a255688.activity-details) might suit you better. They stop at several places of interest and snorkelling, and lunch are included.
For total freedom rent a car for yourself. Aussie Trax (fraserisland4wd.com.au) provides Suzuki Jimny’s smaller type of four-wheel drive cars for two, but also Toyota Land Cruiser and Hilux. If you want to rent a Suzuki, then keep in mind that they do not tolerate much rough off-road driving and that inexperienced drivers may find it difficult to make their way across the sandy roads in these cars. You can rent a car yourself or through an organizer before you leave the mainland, easiest is to do it in Hervey Bay because there are so many companies in the city who specialize in tailoring trips to Fraser.
If you want to get even closer to nature, you can choose the fourth option, to hike the 90 km long Fraser Island Great Walk. The hike runs between Dilli Village and Happy Valley and is divided into shorter sections. The entire journey takes between six and eight days and will take you through diverse landscapes to spectacular locations. The hike is classified as light to medium (nprsr.qld.gov.au/parks/great-walks-fraser-island/index.html).
To move on
Once back in Hervey Bay you can choose to either stay another night in the city or drive further up or down along the east coast (wotif.com/Car-Hire). Greyhound buses operates the coastline with several stops along the way. There are also domestic flights from Hervey Bay with Virgin Australia or Qantas to, among others, Sydney and Brisbane (wotif.com/Flights).
Good to know
Visit the information centre in Hervey Bay to get more information about the island. They are happy to recommend different places on the island. The address is 227 Maryborough-Hervey Bay Road. If you prefer to discover Hervey Bay and Fraser Island along with a tour operator, there are plenty of activities and travel packages to choose between on Wotif’s website (wotif.com/discover/australia/queensland/hervey-bay.d6053026).
Warnings and preparations
A four-wheel drive car is a must in order to get out on the island. Take out an extra insurance if you rent your own car. Many insurance policies do not apply to the undercarriage, and there is a great risk that it is precisely the part of the car that gets damaged when the roads occasional consists more of roots and loose sand than something that resembles an actual road. Rather drive too slow than too fast. Several tourists have died in traffic accidents on the island.
Permits for vehicles and camping must be obtained in advance. The easiest way is to do it online (parks.nprsr.qld.gov.au/permits).
Purchase all the supplies you might need for your stay before leaving the mainland. Once in place there are only a few smaller shops selling goods for double the price of what you will pay on the mainland. Shop in Hervey Bay where there are several major grocery stores. Don’t forget to bring plenty of water. More than you think. There is nothing worse than getting stuck somewhere out in the wilderness when it is over 40 degrees Celsius hot and the water bottles are empty.
Telephone coverage on the island is often inadequate. Don’t expect that you can use your phone even if you have an Australian SIM card. Be sensible and do not go out on roads if you think you will get stuck. Make sure you have a shovel with you in case you do, so you can dig out the car.
Dingoes are generally not dangerous, even if there are signs warning you of them. But be aware, at a possible face-to face meeting you should just stand still, and do not forget that they are wild animals and not tame. They will soon tire of you and walk away.
Petrol on the island is expensive but a necessary evil if you are going to get around by car. Petrol stations are located at Cathedral Beach, Happy Valley, Kingfisher Bay, Eurong and Orchid Beach. Do not leave the refuelling to the last minute, instead make sure you have more than enough fuel to get by. One station may be temporarily closed and the next one is good distance away.
A great way to experience the island is by camping. Then you get as close to nature as you can, and you will be able to gaze at the starry skies. You can put up your own tent directly at some areas of the eastern Beach. Make sure you have all necessary equipment. If you lack something, it will cost you dearly as the price tag is soaring high on the island. In addition, there is no toilet or shower available if you choose to camp on the beach. Therefore, some people choose to camp in actual campsites through QLD NPRSR that are scattered around the island (nprsr.qld.gov.au/parks/fraser/camping). No matter where you choose to camp, camping permits are required and they must be obtained in advance (parks.nprsr.qld.gov.au/permits).
For those who want more comfort, there are several cabins to rent with varying prices (hotelscombined.com/Place/Fraser_Island.htm). Fraser Island Retreat (hotelscombined.com/Hotel/Fraser_Island_Retreat.htm) is located in Happy Valley, right on the eastern shore. Parking is available on site and an electric fence keeps the dingoes away. There are nine small, affordable wooden cabins in two sizes, where up to four people can fit in the smaller cabins and five in the cabins of the larger model. In the area there is also a camping kitchen equipped with grill, gas stove, microwave, fridge, cookware and cutlery.
If you would you like to stay a bit more secluded and privately, Fraser Island Beach Houses might suit you better (hotelscombined.com/Hotel/Fraser_Island_Beach_Houses.htm). They have fresh two- and three-bedroom cottages with space for families, groups or love couples only a few hundred meters from Eurong. All cottages have a private balcony, TV, washing machines and fully equipped kitchens with dishwasher, fridge and microwave. Private parking space is also available and gas grills outdoors. For those who want something extra after a full day in a bumpy car, there is a swimming pool with an associated spa area and a playground for children.
A weekend at Fraser Island with your own rental car
Friday morning – Relax at azure-coloured lakes
Go up in the early morning to get out to the island in time to avoid the worst congestion. Take the ferry that runs in the morning from Rivers Head. Drive to Central Station and follow signs for either Lake McKenzie for a cool dip in one of the island’s most beautiful lakes, or drive towards Lake Birrabeen to have the beach mostly to yourself. Stay for as long as you wish and enjoy a packed lunch to one of the island’s most appreciated views.
Friday afternoon – Accelerating on the beach
Drive towards Eurong and while you wait for the tide to turn, buy any last things you might need. Then turn onto Seventy-Five Mile Beach and accelerate. The island’s eastern beach and highway is perfect for accelerating but watch out for saltwater. Put up a tent or rent a cottage at Happy Valley. Grill something for dinner and then gently drive along the winding forest road towards Lake Gorawongera for an evening dip.
Saturday morning – Historic shipwreck
Change into swimwear right after breakfast and drive back onto Seventy-Five Mile Beach. Head north and stop at Eli Creek. Walk along the clear stream and jump in when the walkway ends. Relax and let the stream carry you back to sea. Then drive north to see The Pinnacle’s colourful sand cliffs and continue to the great shipwreck of SS Maheno.
Saturday afternoon – Sea and rocks
Get back in the car and drive towards Indian Head where you’ll enjoy the view and the sea breeze. Go down to the Champagne pools and swim among the rocks. Drive towards Wathumba Swamp and look for turtles. Drive south along Seventy-Five Mile Beach and camp at the beach in Dundubara. Count the stars in the skies and watch out for dingoes.
Sunday morning – An oasis among the dunes
Drive south and make a turn back inland. Park your car, lace up your walking shoes, bring the water bottle and do the steep walk from Cornwell Break Road down towards Lake Wabby. Wander over the dunes, down to the lake for a final dip before your departure. Then drive out on the island’s western side to wait for the ferry that will take you back to River Heads.