Travel: Fraser Island in Australia
Vail CO, Colorado
Editor’s note: Betsy Welch, a former Spanish teacher at Vail Mountain School, is traveling to New Zealand and points beyond this winter. Each week, we’re running an article and photos about her travels.
I can sum up Fraser Island using nothing but “s” words: it’s a little spit of sand, with some serious surf pounding the sunny shore. It’s a benign ocean paradise off the coast of Queensland, Australia. Oh, but it’s also home to snakes, spiders, stingrays and sharks. Some of which you are likely to see if you are me, someone who prides herself on being a adventurous outdoors girl and lover of all beings, however creepy or crawly they may be.
In less than 24 hours on Fraser Island, I have regressed from being a fearless nature lover to a cowering wimp. Once we settle on a campsite, every step I take is the wrong one, and I end up face-to-face with one of the enormous spiders that makes its home at the Dundabara campground. Neither arachnid is less threatening than the other: one is long and leggy and can flip its torso inside out to shoot a mysterious liquid at intruders, and the other is grey, stocky and furry. Our site is ringed with webs, but we don’t want to destroy them because then the spiders would be on the ground. Closer to us. Later in the evening, after cooking some steaks at the communal barbecue, we do have a ground level visitor at our site; a six-foot long snake is slithering its way around the picnic table and towards the trees. We grab the torch and stop it in its tracks.
When we wake up in the morning, two more spiders have spun immense webs ” one above the picnic table and the other smack dab in the middle of the trail to the bathroom, which is truly a wonder of nature since it poured rain most of the night. All over Fraser Island, there are signs warning of the dangers of feeding or provoking the dingoes. On the beach side, you are more than adequately warned not to even dip a toe in the strong current and shark-infested waters. But not a word about the spiders. Does that mean that they’re actually harmless? That we should really only be worrying about the crocs and rays and killer kangaroos?
Fraser Island lies just off the south Queensland coast in Australia. Because of its unique topography (it is essentially one big sand dune spotted with perched lakes, which sit high above the water table), it occupies a spot among only 400 other wild places on the World Heritage List, the Fortune 500 of the natural world. In order to travel on Fraser, you must have a four-wheel-drive vehicle, and even then, there are certain precautions to take in order not to get stuck on any of the 800 kilometers of trafficable roads, all of them sand. If you time it just right, you can drive up and down the beach for hours, with pounding surf on one side and canyon-esque sand formations on the other, and then head inland with the rising tide to visit the lakes, subtropical rainforest and sandblows. Our timing is not quite right the morning after the snake and spider party, so we get socked in by the tide and are forced to wait it out by sitting under a palm tree, writing, sleeping, and snacking. The incoming tide is not a force to be reckoned with here, even in a rental truck.
Before we arrive on the island and are studying the map for places to see, I can’t help but hear an echo of salty old Ed Abbey in the back of my brain. In addition to being on the World Heritage list, Fraser Island is also a national park, and judging by the number of four-wheel-drive truck rental places in neighboring Hervey Bay, I wonder if it’s not a little like our national park system: roads clogged with gas guzzlers going at a snail’s pace and gawkers who never even set foot on a dirt trail. Currently, there is no limit to permits for entering the park, and the number of visitors grows every year. The presence of both dry, tall forests and pockets of subtropical rainforest lends itself to the notion that the island is sturdy, capable and well-rooted. Yet it has been ” and continues to be ” the constant interplay of sand, wind and water that has given shape to the island over the years.
When we actually are on the island, though, exploring the woods, swimming in the cool, clear water, and sleeping with the spiders, I realize ” as I always do after the wonder and majesty of a place have etched themselves into my mind ” that it is possible to travel here in a way that doesn’t totally disrupt the dance of the elements. Tread lightly, stay a short while, then leave the sunny shores to the snakes and spiders.
Contact Betsy Welch with suggestions, comments and publishing contracts at firstname.lastname@example.org.