Sunday, April 12, 2009

World's biggest pile of sand (Apr. 5/09 - Hervey Bay, Australia)

It's only a few kilometers across the strait from Hervey Bay to Moon Point on Fraser Island, but it was an hour-long ferry ride since the captain had to zigzag around the maze of sand bars. One of them, which we had no choice but to cross over, was in only 10 feet of water - and the ferry needed 6 feet of water to avoid running aground! The light turquoise colour of the water certainly had everyone peering over the rain nervously. In the months between August and November, this is supposed to be an awesome spot to see humpback whales, as they have to file through the narrow channels between sand bars on their way to Antarctica.

When we got to Fraser Island, the captain turned the barge and pointed straight at the beach. No loading dock, no terminal - just a natural, sandy beach. When we hit the shore, down went the ramp and the vehicles simply drove off the ferry, onto the beach, and disappeared down the sandy track into the forest. Everyone on our tour walked off and met our big 4WD bus that was already there. It's a good thing we did, too, because another group in a similar bus who were driving off the ferry got completely stuck in the sand trying to get up off the beach. They gave it a bunch of tries but eventually had to have our bus pull them out. Then we were off, bouncing down the narrow track with branches scraping by the windows, wondering how a bus this big (40 passengers) can navigate these roads without getting stuck.

One of the interesting things about Fraser Island is how quickly the vegetation changes from one of the six ecosystems to the next. The western part of the island where we started was wetlands, which morphed into scrubby brush, then transitional forest, and then rainforest. Huge, straight tree trunks reached for the sun far above, which created a canopy thick enough to prevent almost any sunshine from reaching the ground. A second type of transitional forest took over as we reached the eastern side of the island and the settlement called Happy Valley, where a few facilities provide food, fuel, supplies, and accommodation. We had some lunch there and carried on, bouncing down to the beach and then turning north to drive up the sand highway that is 75 Mile Beach. At low tide, it's up to 16 lanes wide, with no road lines (obviously), no stop signs, and no speed limit. The beach took a major beating when Cyclone Hamish ripped through here (400km offshore!) last month, as the massive waves that came ashore took tons of sand when they left. As a result, some of the patchy volcanic rock (isolated in areas on the island from an extinct submarine volcanic pipe) that is normally buried under several feet of sand is now exposed. Navigating over and around it is tricky, and some beach stretches are now impassible because of it. For the most part, the beach is wide and flat, with heavy surf pounding in on the east (no swimming thanks to large shark populations and a strong undertow) and sandy dunes and ledges forming a buffer between the beach and the low sand hills beyond. Camping is allowed in some sections of the dunes, but for the most part the beach is deserted as far as you can see. One thing you do have to watch out for it airplanes, as little Cessnas use the beach as their runway too!

We drove by a spot they call the "Pinnacles", where the sand hills have been eroded into tower-like shapes out of sand painted shades of yellow thanks to the minerals in the sand. Also on the beach is the disintegrating wreck of the Maheno, a 120m long steel passenger liner that ran aground in the 1930s when it was being towed to a scrapyard. The waves have been pummelling it for 70 years, and the rusted hull and portholes are still obvious, as are pieces of the anchor chain, railings, and smokestack. Apparently, the Australian military once used it for target practice, dropping 250 bombs on it but only hitting it twice. (Let's hope they kept practicing!) Our next stop was at a busy little place called Eli Creek, where a crystal clear freshwater stream winds through the forest and spills onto the beach. It's popular for a reason - not only is it pretty, but the water is surprisingly cold, making for a very refreshing swim on an otherwise scorching day. We walked upstream a bit and then walked down in the waist deep water, enjoying every chilly minute.

When we got back on the bus, our driver informed us that the bus we had pulled out of the sand this morning had become stuck again shortly after, and they were still stuck even hours later. This meant that the only road back to the ferry was blocked, so we would have to go back using the ferry that leaves from a spot farther south. It was a good thing for us, though, as it meant we got to drive all the way down 75 Mile Beach and visit a different (better!) lake than the one we were supposed to see. So we took off down the beach, laughing at the rookies driving their rented 4x4s through the wave wash, knowing that all the rental companies charge you big time if the car even touches salt water. I managed to spot a dingo standing at the edge of the beach, which was lucky since they're rarely seen on day trips. We stopped and watched him for a while, chomping on something in a pile of grass and then trotting over to a stream, where he laid down to cool off and drink. The dingoes on Fraser Island are said to be the purest bred in all of Australia, as they have had no cross-contamination from domestic dogs. One more pit stop on the beach a while later, and we spotted a big sting ray flapping around in the waves in just a few inches of water.

Our last stop of the day was at Lake Birrabeen, a freshwater lake that is basically a large collection of rainwater on top of a sand dune, sealed by a layer of decomposing organics on the bottom. White sand was everywhere, of course - the parking area, the trail, the beach, and on the bottom of the lake. Fraser Island is just such a unique place, and even though we only had a day to see it, it was a fun and informative day.

Some more facts we learned about the island:
- It is 120km long, plus 30km underwater, but continually growing as sand accumulates from ocean currents bringing it from farther south.
- Aboriginal people (the Buchella tribe) have inhabited the island for thousands of years.
- It is the world's largest sand island - comprised of 99% sand, up to 600m deep, and containing more sand than the Sahara Desert.
- There is eight times more water stored in the sands of Fraser Island than in Sydney Harbour
- It is the only island in the world where rainforest grows on sand.

So there - Fraser Island in a one day nutshell!

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