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Shipwrecked on Australia's Fraser Island

By the time James Cook reached the Queensland coast, he was rapidly running out of crew members to name features after. He’d already got down to the cabin boy, who gave his name to the Carlo Sandblow. So, when he reached what he thought was a great sandy peninsula, he called it, with a lamentable lack of imagination, the Great Sandy Peninsula. Subsequent explorers found it was actually an island, so they renamed it the Great Sandy Island.


At about 75 miles long, Fraser Island, as it’s known today, is the largest sand island in the world. In spite of substantial logging operations in the past, it remains pretty well as it was when James Cook passed by it, except that the Butchulla people no longer live here.


It’s composed of nothing but sand, originally brought down the Hunter, Hawkesbury and Clarence Rivers, in faraway New South Wales, and deposited here thousands of years ago by ocean currents.


You need to take a ferry, known locally as a ‘barge’, to cross … guess what? … the Great Sandy Strait. Only 4-wheel-drive vehicles are allowed on the island, and even then, you need to obtain permits, so it’s easier to sign up for an organised tour.


The island's main highway is the magnificent beach which runs the length of the eastern coast ,,, part of that road/beach is also the airfield!


But it’s not all driving along a lovely firm beach. At Eurong, many tours turn inland to drive over a rough track to the forest to Lake Mackenzie. There are over 100 freshwater lakes on the island, and that’s the second largest concentration of lakes in Australia; Tasmania has the largest. They’re also claimed to be among the clearest and cleanest lakes in the world.


Mackenzie isn’t the biggest, but probably the best known lake. It takes its name from the owner of a former logging company nearby, whose men used to use it as a recreational area. The sand around the lake is almost pure silica, looking more like snow than sand.


There are also several creeks on the island; difficult to photograph, for the water is so clear, the pictures will look more like a path through the trees. And, not only are they difficult to see it, but impossible to hear as well. There are no rocks in the bottom to make noise, so the waters flow absolutely silently.


One of the silent creeks, Eli Creek, is a place for swimming … or at least bathing. The beach, sadly, in spite of its magnificence, is no place for such activity. If the sharks and jellyfish don’t get you, the currents will. But, you can just into the clear waters of the creek, and swim, or just let the current carry you, down to a pool on the beach. It seems even the creek is reluctant to enter the sea, too.


But, especially if you have children with you, you have to keep an eye open for dingoes. Most guides advise to keep your children by you at all times.


The Fraser Island dingo is the purest there is, and they don’t want the bloodline contaminated. For this reason, domestic dogs aren’t allowed on the island. There aren’t as many as there used to be; which is good news for visitors, but maybe not so good for dingoes.


So who was Fraser, after whom the island was named?


Eliza Fraser was the wife of Captain James Fraser, Master of the Stirling Castle,  which ran aground on the Great Barrier Reef in 1836. The crew took to the lifeboats, and the captain’s boat, leaking badly, became separated from the other. The boats were making for Moreton (now Brisbane), but Fraser’s boat, becoming more and more unseaworthy, came ashore on the Great Sandy Island … carrying one more passenger than it set out with, for Eliza had given birth on the boat. Sadly, the infant died shortly afterwards.


What happened next is unclear. The survivors certainly met the Butchulla people, and lived among them for a short while, but many of them died; whether from disease, starvation or at the hands of the Butchulla isn’t known.


After six weeks, a rescue party arrived, presumably alerted by the crew of the other lifeboat. It was led by former convict and escapee John Graham, who knew the bush, and spoke the Aborigines’ language.


Shortly after her rescue, Eliza married another mariner, and moved to England, where she became an attraction, recounting her story. However, these stories became more lurid and far-fetched as time wore on. She told of white slavery, cannibalism, torture and murder, so nobody really knew what to believe.


We saw more tangible evidence of another shipwreck. The Maheno was a luxury liner, which usually operated between Australia and New Zealand, except for an interval in the First World War, when she served as a hospital ship in the English Channel. In 1935, she was declared obsolete, and was being towed to a breakers’ yard in Melbourne, when she broke loose from the tug in a tropical cyclone, and beached on Fraser Island.


And, she’s still there today, although in a rather sorry condition, after having been used as a bombing target by the RAAF, and for explosives and demolition training by the Australian Special Forces.


But, she’s still recognisable as a ship, and is an essential call for most tours.





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