Tuesday, August 18, 2009
Fraser Island and Kingfisher Bay Resort
To date I have visited Fraser Island six times in the last three and a half years. Each time I have stayed in one of the accommodations offered by the Kingfisher Bay Resort. I have stayed in the hotel twice, the villas three times, and done the two day Cool Dingo Backpacker Tour once. So you could say I am a fan of both the island and the resort and think that Fraser Island is a must do if you are in the Queensland area on holiday. The resort is a full resort so the only thing I don't necessarily like about it is the price. However, the rates are not out of line for Australian resorts and the services that they offer, but it is still a significant amount of money to consider.
The island is located about 300 km north of Brisbane and is a four hour drive by car. It is the largest sand island in the world at around 75 miles long. While you may imagine a bare, desert island, it actually contains a very diverse set of ecosystems from dry eucalyptus forests to subtropical rainforests and unique coastal wallums. It is absolutely amazing to realize that absolutely everything including trees to rival some of the California Redwoods is growing in sand and sand alone.
The island has been World Heritage Listed so development is now restricted with Kingfisher Bay Resort being the most recent development on the island. The Kingfisher Bay Resort was developed at the same time the island was obtaining its World Heritage Listing in the 1990's so the resort has a very eco-tourism focus which is evident in its unique architecture that aims to blend into the surroundings and its education focus with a staff of rangers that lead a wide range of walks and talks on and about the island's unique environment, fauna, and flora. The island is particularly known for its very diverse bird life which attracts Twitchers to the island in large numbers during "Bird Week."
The island is also the home to the purest bloodline of dingos since they have not been able to mix with dogs as dingos have in most places on the mainland. It is a great treat to see a dingo on the island, but it is important to keep in mind that they are wild animals and not pets. There is a constant tension with dingos on the island since human feedings have lead some of them to become less wary of people which has then lead to several unfortunate attacks. It is important that visitors understand that feeding dingos is illegal and harmful since if they lose their fear of humans, it is likely they will have to be euthanized in the future. The EPA has a page on how to be dingo safe.
Kingfisher Bay Resort has a very serene setting that looks out over the Great Sandy Straights on the west side of the island. It is easily reached by ferry from Urangan Boat Harbour in Hervey Bay. There is almost no surf other than a the occasional boat wake. The tides are significant so the beach is alive with interesting sand critters at low tide including blue soldier crabs, bubbler crabs, sea worms, and snails. The only danger in the water is stepping on the small stingrays that like to lie across the sand in the shallow waters of high tide so kayaking, swimming, snorkeling, fishing, and sailing are all popular activities with resort guests. The resort is one of the few places on the east coast of Australia where you can see a sunset over water.
Since the island is very large and the points of interest are somewhat spread out, it is necessary to have a vehicle to go from point to point, but outside of Kingfisher Bay and Eurong there are no paved roads so I recommend a 4x4 bus tour like the Kingfisher Bay Beauty Spots Tour which covers most of the islands highlights in one day. It should be noted that any ride on the Fraser Island tracks can be very rough and bumpy so I would not recommend this to anyone with serious back pain or other mobility issues.
If you are a more adventurous person and an experienced 4x4 driver, you can also rent a 4x4 through Aussie Trax though this often results in people spending a lot of their day stuck in the sand. Generally, more experienced sand drivers will come along and help or if you get really stuck Aussie Trax is happy to send out someone. However, mobile service on the island is limited so first you have to get in touch with Aussie Trax. It is also possible to barge your own 4x4 to the island, but considering the extremely rough track conditions and risk of salt damage, I wouldn't recommend this unless you are a serious 4x4 enthusiast, camper, and don't mind possibly damaging your vehicle.
The Beauty Spots tour takes visitors to the highlights of the island though the exact itinerary depends on the tides which determine access to Seventy Five Mile Beach on the eastern side of the island. The ranger tour guides are very good and give a running commentary throughout the day of the history and highlights of each location.
The tour includes a stop at beautiful Lake Mackenzie where the almost pure silica sand can be used to clean jewelry and exfoliate skin. The lake itself is crystal clear and perfect for a relaxing swim on a hot summer day. Central Station was the nexus of logging prior to the World Heritage listing, and still has some huge trees that somehow avoided the ax. Plus there is a board walk along Wanggoolba Creek which is eerily silent because there are no rocks to create the typical babbling noise.
Seventy Five Mile Beach is beautiful with the large crashing surf that is characteristic of most of the Queensland coast south of the Town of 1770, but tiger sharks are known to breed just off the beach so there is no safe swimming or surfing. Along the beach there are a number of interesting stops. The coloured sands at The Pinnacles are quite impressive. Iron oxides and decomposing vegetation have dyed the sand a rainbow of oranges, yellows, reds, and browns that have all been exposed on a cliff face eroded away by the constant ocean winds.
The Maheno ship wreck is the rusted out hull of a early 20th century passenger liner that was also used as a hospital ship in WWI. She was sold to Japan for scraps in 1935, but a cyclone caused her to be beached on Fraser Island and the attempts to get her off the beach all failed. In the WWII the Maheno wreck was used for Australian military training both as bombing target practice and commando ship invasion maneuvers. The bus also stops at Eli Creek which is the largest creek on the island and can pour up to four million litres of fresh water into the ocean every hour. The creek is refreshingly cool and only about waist deep at its deepest point in normal conditions. There is a boardwalk that goes several hundred meters up the creek, and it is quite fun to then float back to the beach. The creek can be a hazard to unwary 4x4 drivers however, because its swift moving waters can create significant sand ledges that must be driven over carefully at low speed.
In good weather visitors are offered a supplemental plane fight in a 6 passenger plane that takes off directly from Seventy Five Mile Beach. Naturally, this costs extra but I thought the novelty of taking off and landing on sand was completely worth the price, never mind the fifteen minute flight around the island. If taking off on sand doesn't excite you that much, I would highly recommend the flight on a sunny, clear day just because it is probably the best way to get a real perspective of how big the island really is. Plus you can often see large animals in the ocean like tiger sharks, hump back whales, sea turtles, or large sting rays. On a cloudy day the plane flight is not at impressive because your visibility is impaired.
The best time to visit the island is from August through October which is Whale Season in Platypus Bay which is on the northern end of the western side of the island, a quick boat ride from Kingfisher Bay Resort. At this time of year the humpback whales are migrating south back towards the waters around Antarctica from their birthing grounds up in the warm waters of the Great Barrier Reef. It is unknown exactly why, but many of the whales stop in Platypus bay for a week or two along the way. There is a theory that it is a good resting stopover point for the newly born whales, but older males will stop in groups as well as the mothers and babies. Since the whales are basically just hanging out while in the bay, they are much more interactive than whales on most whale watches where the whales are busy doing important whale stuff. In Platypus Bay the whales are curious and the more ridiculous the people on the whale watching boat are acting, the more likely the whales are to come over and check you out, wave at you, and maybe even show off their breaching skills. However, if you run into a group of boring, non-interactive whales, it is generally only a few minutes until the captain can find a new pod because there are whales just about everywhere.
Generally during Whale Season Kingfisher Bay Resort has a special whale package offer. I have done the Kingfisher tour twice and have been extremely happy each time with the number of whales seen and the quality of the interaction. However, even if you can't get over to Fraser Island, you can take a wide range of whale tours from Hervey Bay and I suspect most of them are just as good. On my last visit outside of whale season I sailed on Shayla for a dolphin cruise and I am seriously considering booking her for my next cruise because she only takes around 25 guests out of Hervey Bay.
Even if Kingfisher Bay Resort is not appealing or too cost prohibitive for you, I highly recommend a trip to Fraser Island. There are 4x4 day trips that are quite popular though I would not recommend the one that leaves and returns out of Brisbane as I have heard it is too long of a day (8 hours of driving on Queensland roads in addition to the bumpy sand driving). Camping is extremely popular on the island in the summer months and there are a number of camp grounds with different levels of facilities. Because of the World Heritage status other accommodations are somewhat limited. There are two groups of accommodation on Seventy Five Mile Beach on the eastern side: Happy Valley and Eurong Resort. I am not very familiar with Happy Valley, but I believe that it is one of the older holiday areas of the island with an assortment of cottages available to rent. Eurong resort was the first proper resort on the island, and it has a bit of a 1970's feel to it though it has recently been acquired by Kingfisher Bay and is undergoing some modernizations.
Kingfisher also offers the Cool Dingo Tours which are designed for backpackers but are able to cover more of the islands attractions in one of the 4x4 buses since they are two or three day tours.