Sharon Smallwood's comprehensive guide to the delights of Queensland's great sand island, by yacht and 4WD.
In the decade and a-half since I came to Australia I‘ve been lucky enough to visit Fraser Island many times. Phrases like “largest sand island in the world” and “whale-watching capital of Australia” first drew me to this heritage-listed location while backpacking in my twenties.
My introduction to the region, traditionally known as K’gari (meaning ‘Paradise’), was by 4W Drive. Crammed into a Toyota Landcruiser with ten other twenty-somethings, I saw the famous coloured sand cliffs go hurtling by at 80 kph. My boating experience was limited to the barge crossing and a memorable whale-watching trip out of Hervey Bay. Nonetheless I was captivated by the raw beauty of a place that is undeniably unique. I was destined to return.
Some years and a lifetime of changes later, I set sail from Sydney with my soon-to-be-husband Julian on the Compass 29 Orion, our first boat. Cruising the waterways of the Great Sandy Strait was high on my list of priorities. It was an eventful first voyage.
Wide Bay Bar
The notorious Wide Bay Bar sandbank must be crossed when entering or exiting the Sandy Strait at its southernmost extent. A rising tide is necessary to transit the bar, which has a formidable reputation for rogue waves. Any bar crossing with a section nicknamed “the mad mile” deserves respect, hence we duly plotted contemporary waypoints (as directed by ‘Beacon to Beacon’ and the Volunteer Coastguard at Tin Can Bay).
Orion had ploughed through a whole night and day from the Gold Coast Seaway. It was a slow trip and we were well behind schedule for an optimum arrival. “Do you think we’ll make it by 10pm?” asked Julian wistfully. “You’ll have to go to Double Island Point”, came the Coastguard’s reply. Oh joy!
Double Island Point is described by Alan Lucas as one of the worst anchorages on the entire east coast. In a south-easterly wind the swell wraps around the headland causing an uncomfortable roll. We set our homemade flopper-stopper and prepared for a rough night.
Six hours later we got up to a grumpy grey sky. Before too long it was pouring with rain. Anchored beside us were two other unfortunate souls who had shared the same fate. One of our neighbours had sustained damage and was taking on water. The Volunteer Coastguard readied its rescue craft and called us all to action. Now was the time to weigh anchor and make our move.
Our convoy headed for Waypoint 1, lined up the leading lights as best we could and began our approach on the given bearing. Visibility was poor. By Waypoint 2 the sounder had risen but much of the mad mile was still to come. Waves broke to port, the engine failed on the damaged boat ahead and it drifted, mid-way between Waypoints 2 and 3.
I climbed below to radio an offer of assistance but was instantly distracted by our own crisis. Something was burning. There was a distinctly electrical smell and all around me the cabin filled with smoke. I immediately yanked out anything connected to a 12-volt socket.
The smoke cleared and I uncovered the source. The inverter on the power supply for Julian’s laptop had overheated and fallen into the food locker (of course!). Here it was merrily melting the plastic wrap on a loaf of bread.
Crisis over we contacted the Coastguard who confirmed our size and engine capacity as insufficient to provide a tow. The boat in distress was advised to anchor at once and wait for the A-Team to arrive. Meanwhile we motored through the short chop to Waypoint 3 and finally Inskip Point.
Bumping the bottom
I am pleased to say subsequent crossings of the Wide Bay Bar have proved far less dramatic, though the same sense of trepidation prevails each time we approach.
Sandbanks and shallows are prominent features of the Sandy Strait, so during our first cruise to Fraser Island we gained true proficiency in the art of running aground.
Having rounded Inskip Point, we followed the channel markers into appropriately named Pelican Bay. We aimed to anchor in the designated spot behind Pannikin Island but thanks to the blinding rain were forced to stop short of the jetty instead. After catching up on some much-needed sleep we found we were sitting in the mud.
Herein lies the beauty of small boats. On this occasion we were able to turn the bow into the wind, which obligingly blew us off.
A day later and none-the-wiser, we weighed anchor, hoisted the sails and promptly ran aground. My log entry on the subject states: “Julian hates sailing”. For the record, this announcement was made while mopping up small rivers of hot chocolate, spilled on impact.
Many methods were employed in our efforts to re-float, some of which proved more comical than effective. I especially enjoyed the part where Julian swung out over the water from the end of the boom.
What eventually got us going was our tender. Driving it into Orion’s bow with the outboard at full throttle pushed us off the bank.
Just a few minutes later all was forgotten and I was revelling in a flat-water spinnaker run. For once there was no ocean swell, the boat was level and we were carrying our colourful kite. “Let’s get some photos”, I suggested.
Julian jumped into the dinghy, camera in hand, only to be thwarted by the outboard, which now refused to start. Meanwhile I sailed off alone. Glancing back I realised our mission had gone awry and let fly the sheets to stop the boat. Julian resurrected the outboard and arrived astern looking terribly flustered.
I persuaded my loved one to give it another try. He wasn’t keen, but as the log also states: “I know best”. After our photo shoot the tender and mother ship re-united and Julian hopped back aboard mere moments away from another kiss with a sandbank. Miraculously we transited the shallowest zone at Sheridan Flats with no further mishaps.
Calm water sailing aside, the beauty of the Sandy Strait from a boating perspective lies in its plethora of anchorages. Spread across a distance of more than 40 nautical miles are numerous bolt holes and tranquil places to drop the pick.
From south to north the first anchorage alongside Fraser Island is Brown’s Gutter. Given its barred entrance and suitability for deep keelers only on a rising tide, we have tended to bypass this spot for the less restricted hidey-holes of Garry’s Anchorage and Fig Tree Creek.
Garry’s Anchorage is very sheltered and consequently popular with cruising boats despite its somewhat well-deserved reputation for plagues of biting insects. Though Alan Lucas’ cruising guide insists the sand flies are no worse here than anywhere else, our logbooks disagree.
Fig Tree Creek, being slightly more open to the breeze, often proves more hospitable, so we have always favoured it aboard our current boat, the Peterson 44 cutter Brilliant II. It is a beautiful location with birds singing in the trees and small armies of soldier and fiddler crabs marching across the mudflats at low tide.
In north or westerly winds the inter-tidal mudflats and mangrove islets of Sheridan Flats offer decent alternatives to the Mary and Susan Rivers. Hang around here long enough and you’re almost certain to see dugongs feeding on the seagrass beds.
The flood tides meet in the vicinity of Sheridan Flats. Between Moonbeam and Turkey Islands are the shallowest depths in the well-beaconed navigable channel where port and starboard markers read as if travelling south.
Beyond Sheridan Flats are the delightful anchorages of South White Cliffs, Ungowa and North White Cliffs, all of which are snug in sou’easters. On-shore cliffs of sand defy nature by supporting the growth of epic forests. For more than 80 years Fraser Island was logged for its precious timbers and Ungowa was once the site of the forestry headquarters. The old timber jetty, ramp and ruined houses are all that now remain of the log-loading facility in Deep Creek. It should be noted that the jetty is condemned and therefore off limits to dinghies.
Dingoes frequently patrol this area, particularly near the campground at Ungowa. It is an offence to feed these wild animals as human interaction serves only to encourage dependency. This in turn leads to aggressive behaviour, for which dingoes are sometimes regrettably destroyed.
Perhaps the highlight of the Sandy Strait is Kingfisher Bay, with its world-class eco resort. An unobtrusive roof design mimics the island’s rolling sand dunes in the muted colours of its trees. Anchorage is possible either side of the jetty, which acts as a thoroughfare for vehicle and passenger barges to and from Urangan and River Heads. South of the jetty is a submarine cable, the position of which is marked by a sign on the beach.
Kingfisher Bay’s resort is particularly boat friendly. Skippers and crews of visiting yachts are welcome to use the pool, toilets, showers and bistro at the Sand Bar. The resort has a further choice of restaurants and a general store. Limited provisions are available though more expensive than on the mainland. Tour bookings, car hire, Internet and payphones are all found on site.
Several walking tracks depart from Kingfisher Bay, most notably the 23.5km round trip to Lake McKenzie; no small feat but well worth it if you are physically fit and want a real dose of the island ambience.
Above Kingfisher Bay is Big Woody Island with alternative anchorages for north or westerly winds.
At its northern extent the Sandy Strait joins the vast expanse of Hervey Bay. On the Fraser coast mudflats and opaque waters soon give way to the sandblows, dunes and snow-white beaches of beautiful Platypus Bay. Here translucent seas in shades of brilliant blue lap the shores.
Our early cruises to Fraser Island were limited to the Sandy Strait but in recent years, with Brilliant II, we’ve been biased towards Platypus Bay. Tales of uncommonly clear water and close encounters with migrating whales proved totally true. Brilliant II was once rewarded with a visit from two juvenile humpbacks, which swam in her bow wave as dolphins do.
The anchorages of Platypus Bay are idyllic; Moon Point, Wathumba Creek and Rooney Point all boast stunning scenery. Only once did our choice of location not work out, the result of a freak sou’westerly, to which Platypus Bay is completely exposed.
Friends have taken advantage of exceptionally calm conditions to anchor off Sandy Cape at Fraser Island’s northern tip. A walking track from the beach here leads to the lighthouse atop Flinders Sandblow.
Below sea level the shallow Breaksea Spit extends northwards for a further 17 nautical miles. This navigational hazard is every bit as treacherous as its southern counterpart the Wide Bay Bar, with both having claimed the lives of skippers and their ships.
Seeing it all
Before leaving this region behind, I sought ultimately to combine the best bits of each trip in one grand finale. My visits by boat had taken in the Sandy Strait or Platypus Bay, but missed the central forests and perched lakes. Likewise 4W Drive trips typically concentrated on the eastern beach, bypassing the attractions of the western shores.
Hence the crew of Brilliant II divided. Julian sailed single-handed from Port Bundaberg to Kingfisher Bay where I re-joined him with our “land yacht”, transported by ferry from River Heads.
We spent an unforgettable Christmas anchoring in the lee of the island and driving to places with names like the Cathedrals, Champagne Pools and Indian Head.
We fished for ocean species in the gutters of the eastern beach and dined on flathead caught at Kingfisher Bay. We sailed, swam, walked and drove the off-road tracks.
At last I felt we had really absorbed the full Fraser experience.
For up-to-the-minute info on conditions at the Wide Bay Bar contact The Volunteer Coastguard at Tin Can Bay, Call Sign VMR 417, VHF channels 16, 80, and 82, Ph: (07) 5486 4290.
CHARTS, CRUISING GUIDES AND TOURIST INFO
* Charts include: AUS 365 (Cape Moreton to Sandy Cape), AUS 817 (Hervey Bay) and two excellent Queensland Transport Charts (divided into Great Sandy Strait South and North).
* For Cruising Guides see: Cruising the Coral Coast, by Alan Lucas and Queensland Transport's detailed Beacon to Beacon.
* For info on the island's various attractions read Explore Fraser Island, by David and Julie Hinchliffe, available from Great Sandy Publications, www.greatsandy.com.au.
* To take a virtual tour of the resort or see what tours are on offer visit www.kingfisherbay.com.
Marinas in the area (from south to north):
* Tin Can Bay Marina (Tin Can Bay), VHF 73, Ph: (07) 5486 4299, www.tincanbaymarina.com.au.
* Mary River Marina (Maryborough), Ph: (07) 4123 1405, www.maryrivermarina.com.au.
* The Boat Club Marina (Hervey Bay), VHF 77, Ph: (07) 4128 9643, www.boatclub.com.au.
* Great Sandy Straits Marina (Hervey Bay), VHF 82, Ph: (07) 4125 3822, www.gssm.net.au.
* Fisherman's Wharf Marina (Hervey Bay), Ph: (07) 4128 9744.
* Bundaberg Port Marina (Bundaberg), VHF 81, Ph: (07) 4159 5066, www.bundabergportmarina.com.au.
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