Guide | Fraser Island
In a land of spiritual places, Fraser Island, Queensland is one of the most special feeling sites we've visited while in Australia. It has a long history as a sacred place for the traditional owner's of the land, the Butchulla people. Now like most of Australia, there's both an Aboriginal history and the contemporary story of European settlement that fight to characterize the past several decades on the continent. If Australia has a unique culture to speak of, I see it based in the stories of its indigenous population. Following our time on Fraser it became clear that tourists often only hear the tourism board-approved versions of why something is significant, but it often does not represent the full story.
The Butchulla people believe Fraser Island was formed when a spirit was sent to create Earth and loved what she saw so much that she decided to stay and was turned into a beautiful sand island they call K'gari. The Butchulla themselves were created and tasked with caring for the land. Fraser, or K'gari, is the largest sand island in the world. It's also the largest island on Australia's east coast. And it really is massive--we spent three days cruising around and didn't even make a dent in it. The main highway down the island is 75 Mile Beach, appropriately named for the island's distance. By the feel of it, Fraser might as well be uninhabited. You'll likely lose cell reception before even getting there and very few permanent buildings stand, let alone stores or even flushing toilets. Visitors by and large camp around the island and a 4WD is absolutely necessary to get around.
It's a bit of a tradition for families to spend school holidays camping on Fraser. We were there for Christmas and there were tons of Aussie families parked around the island in massive tent villages, swimming in the cold fresh water creeks and drinking Great Northerns in the hot Australian sun. While it's completely doable to rent a car and camp on the island yourself, the majority of travelers book with a tour company. The general trip is a three-day two-night 4WD tour. You'll be in a group of other travelers for the duration of your time on the island and be split up into different 4WD vehicles for a tagalong tour. The guide will take you to the island's best spots and you'll camp each night. It's a great way to see the island in a safe and painless way. We were happy to have gone the tour route because A) Driving on sand is way harder than it looks and B) We don't know anything about camping. Also, I'm afraid of the dark. Overall, it's definitely a worthwhile trip, but there are a few things you should now if you're heading there. Keep reading for our top picks of super useful Fraser Island information.
If you opt for a tagalong tour to Fraser, there are dozens of companies that pretty much all offer the same trip. They'll arrange the camping, take you to all the best sites, and teach you a bit about the island. If you have a choice though, we highly recommend going with Dropbear Adventures. Not only is it one of the only independent tour companies operating on the island (most of the others are run by the travel agency chains you'll see all along the east coast), but the people were fantastic and really made the trip for us. Importantly, they're the only company that seems to put so much effort into teaching their guests about the indigenous history of the island, which is actually pretty horrendous. In short, the Butchulla people inhabited and cared for the island for thousands of years before ultimately being massacred by European colonists. Dropbear is really passionate about making sure the full story is told, which is really the story of Australia.
Dropbear puts this same level of thought into every aspect of the tour. Because the island is so remote, everything visitors will need should really be brought in and back out at the end of the trip. Dropbear put a lot of effort into making sure everything we used was taken back off the island and recycled when possible in order to preserve the untouched beauty of the island. Our guide, Dave, is probably one of my favorite Australians. He's a typical Aussie in some ways--rugged, outdoorsy, and an actual crocodile hunter--but he's also a compassionate soul. He's managed to earn the respect of the Butchulla people because of all the effort he's put into getting to know their story and, at the time we visited, he was in the process of being accepted into the tribe as one of their own. It's a monumental honor for a white person, making Dave the only living non-native to be accepted.
The icing on the cake was that our trip fell on Christmas day. We spent Christmas Eve with the group and woke up on Christmas morning on the island. Dropbear put so many adorable touches into making it a good one for all of us away from our families on a hot Australian island for the holidays and we really appreciated it. The owner of the company even dressed as Santa and drove out onto the beach to surprise us all with gifts with our names on them and a glass of sparkling at sunset on Christmas Eve. It was a pretty perfect trip overall, so I can't recommend them enough.
Tip: If you don't know how to drive manual, which we learned is mostly an American thing, go with Dropbear. They're the only company with automatic cars. Otherwise you'll be sitting in the back for three days playing DJ.
Fraser Island is about 160 miles (250 km) north of Brisbane. Most people leave for the island from either Rainbow Beach or Noosa. The most common route for backpackers heading down from Cairns along the coast is to hit Rainbow Beach for a couple days before meeting with their tour group and departing for Fraser. We chose to pass Rainbow Beach entirely and stay in Noosa, which then meant we had to backtrack a bit with our tour group. From what we've heard though, there's not much going on in Rainbow Beach so we think it was worth it. We're glad we chose to base ourselves in Noosa because it was just the contrast we needed from where we had been the last few weeks.
Most tour companies depart from Rainbow Beach. They'll meet with everyone who has signed up, make everyone watch a very boring legally mandated video about safety on the island, driving 4WD without flipping them, and camping on an island full of dingos, and eventually pack up into a caravan of Jeep-like trucks and head off to the island. Dropbear also offered departure from Noosa, where we filled out all the paperwork and watched the video before heading to meet the rest of the group. It was actually a really nice way to ease into the trip because we started by driving along the beach to Rainbow to pick up the remainder of the crew. From Rainbow it's about a half hour trip to Fraser, give or take, which concludes with a trip on a ferry packed full of cars going to and from the island.
Almost everyone camps on Fraser. There aren't really many other options. But it's fun! I think I actually like camping now. If you're headed to the island with a tour group they'll take care of everything--food, water, and facilities. Our campsite was already set up for us when we got there and we never worried about a thing.
Dropbear also offers a hostel and a glamping option at their Beach Camp Eco Retreat, which is really cute. I'd recommend camping like most other people do because it really is part of the experience, but if you're completely opposed you can pay a bit more to sleep in a real bed.
It's not the most fun thing to talk about, but there are a few things visitors should be aware of. First and foremost, Fraser is a preserved island. It's full of wildlife and it's extremely important that visitors respect the animals and their home. Dingos run wild on Fraser, which is one of the few places one can find a wild, native dingo population. You'll hear it over and over again on the island, but dingos are not dogs. They may look cute, but it's dangerous to feed or encourage them to get close to humans. They can get too comfortable and become dangerous. Dingos are known to attack, particularly smaller prey like children. We did see a couple of them at night near our camp site, but things will generally be fine if you're smart. Carry a big stick and always walk with a buddy. If you encounter a dingo stand your ground. They fear confidence and are quick to back down when challenged.
While on the island you'll mostly visit lakes and creeks. Fraser is obviously surrounded by water, but the continental shelf is very steep close to the shore, which makes it the perfect environment for sharks. The water surrounding the island is infested so no one swims in the ocean.
Things to See
The attractions on the island are mostly natural. Half the fun is driving around in 4WDs, which can be pretty tricky. If you've never driven on sand before, picture driving on ice in the winter. It's really slippery and it's tough to maintain traction. Because of this, it takes a while to make it seemingly short distances. You'll spend your time heading from one site to another, and anyone who wants to take a turn driving can, as long as you're over 21 and have a license.
The number one attraction on Fraser are the crystal clear waters of Lake McKenzie. It's Aboriginal name is Lake Boorangoora and it was sacred to the Butchulla people. The lake is entirely filled with rain water and is a closed system. The Butchulla never swam in the lake, rather they preserved its purity for drinking water. Visitors today enjoy McKenzie for its super clear fresh water and fine sand. We were there on Christmas morning, our last day on the island, and it rained off and on. I felt such a strong connection to the space as I meditated on a serene stretch of beach away from the group.
Indian Head was named by Captain Cook in 1770, but its Aboriginal name is Tukkee. Cook is known as the first European explorer to reach Australia's east coast. Tukkee was used by the Butchulla as a court room. From the headland one can look out over the island and the ocean below full of sharks, manta rays, and sea turtles. It's also the epicenter of one of the darkest moments in the island's history, where military forces marched the remaining Butchulla women and children off the edge of the cliff to their deaths after killing all the men.
The Maheno was a luxurious cruise liner that was converted into a hospital ship during WWI. In 1936 the ship was washed ashore during a cyclone and was never removed. Today it's sits on 75 Mile Beach rusting away but makes for a great photo op.
Central Station Rainforest
Somehow an incredibly lush rainforest manages to grow from the sand and makes up the heart of the island. It's a beautiful area to drive through--trees envelop the road and the canopy floats high above. Wanggoolba Creek, which flows through the forest, was a serene birthing place for indigenous women. Rainforests have quickly become one of my favorite environments to visit since moving to Australia and this one's no different.
The Champagne Pools get their name from the golden bubbly water formed by the ocean crashing into two natural rock pools. While it wasn't the most exciting stop we made, the best part is that tropical fish get trapped in the shallow pools and are really beautiful to look at up close.
K'gari sits atop a massive fresh water reservoir. The water is incredibly pure and crisp by the time it makes its way up through layers of sand. Water from the reservoir flows through Eli Creek, which is the second largest creek on the island. It forms a natural lazy river and you'll see people gently floating down the creek in big tubes.
This was our first and one of my favorite stops on the trip. Lake Wabby is a beautiful, green fresh water lake that gets its deep color from a natural tea tree infusion. The water has a subtle tea tree scent and when you sit in the water little rainbow fish swim up and eat the dead skin from your feet. It's like a free, natural spa day! To get to Lake Wabby you have to take a little hike through the forest and over a massive sandblow, which is basically a huge mountain of sand that slowly blows across the island and results in an every-changing landscape. Eventually the lake will completely disappear because the sandblow is moving in its direction and slowly eats away year by year.
If you're headed to Fraser Island soon, prepare for an incredible trip. There's something so liberating about being disconnected from the outside world for a while. We found it to be a rejuvenating trip full of great energy and a real look at some of Australia's aboriginal history. As always, reach out with any questions.
Heading down the coast? Read our complete itinerary!