Paradise Down Under
Published: June 2009
By Peter Carey
On splendid Fraser Island, an expat Australian draws pictures in the sand
For three years I lived just hours away from Fraser Island, the largest sand island in the world. If I never visited it, it is because I already had paradise enough outside my cabin window. A narrow road ran to the coast at Noosa Heads, curling and looping past 10-foot-high sugarcane, then cutting straight through forests of tattered white paperbarks. I would park and walk down a hot, sandy path lined with flowering banksias and needle-leafed casuarinas, to one of those long Queensland beaches where old leather-skinned fishermen stand alone in the surf.
Fraser Island? Maybe later.
In fact it was 20 years before the call came; by then I was living far away, in New York City. With his usual uncanny timing, my Australian book publisher, Laurie Muller, telephoned just as the fire trucks began screaming up Sixth Avenue. Cradling the phone protectively, I listened as he painted pictures of Fraser Island, where he had just been camping. It was winter in Manhattan; there was slush on the sidewalks.
Laurie is a passionate nationalist, and once he felt the tug of my attention he slowly reeled me in. Don't worry that your back is bad, he said, you can drive in. You don't need to carry anything. He had enough sleeping bags for me, my wife, and my two sons. He had tents. He had frying pans, spatulas, tin plates.…He would have given us his car, but he decided we should enter Fraser Island by the "back door," and for this we would need a four-wheel-drive, which we could rent at Noosa Heads. From there we would drive up the old logging tracks to Inskip Point.
"Mate," he said finally, "it's a magic spot. You've got to camp out. Your boys will never forget it."
A week later he sent me a map labeled "Fraser Island World Heritage Area." The photographs took my breath away. It was the Australia I'd been dreaming about in my exile's sleep.
I showed it to my wife. "What about your back?" Alison asked. "I thought you wouldn't go camping because of it."
"I'll take Advil."
"Maybe there's a place with a good bed. Look, there's a resort at Kingfisher Bay."
"We should camp on the beach. The boys will never forget it."
My wife gave me one of her level gazes. I knew what she was thinking—she would have to listen to me whine about my back. But then, suddenly, she smiled.
"Okay," she said. "Let's do it."
With our plans well under way, Alison phoned our friends David and Kristen, who live in Noosa Heads.
"We're going camping on Fraser Island," Alison said. "The boys are so excited."
"There is a very nice resort there," Kristen said at last. And then she revealed that a child—whose family had been camping on Fraser Island—had just been mauled by a dingo. Radio and television were full of it.
With great alacrity, Alison brought this news to my office door.
"The dingo stole my baby!" I cried.
"How very unfunny," she said. And indeed she was right. In 1980, Lindy Chamberlain claimed that her baby daughter was taken by a dingo from a tent near Ayers Rock. This was thought so unlikely that Chamberlain—played by Meryl Streep in the film A Cry in the Dark—was charged with murder. No witnesses contradicted her story, nor had her daughter's body been discovered, but Lindy Chamberlain was found guilty. After she had spent three years in jail, evidence was found that proved her innocence.
"All right," I said. "I'll phone Laurie."
My publisher sprang to the dingo's defense. This was not unpredictable. He guessed that the child on Fraser Island had treated the wild animal like a domestic dog, had perhaps poked it with a stick or pursued it into the bush. Laurie had camped out around dingoes all his life. We should relax, he said.
Alison did not relax. I understood immediately by the way she folded her arms that the children would not be camping on Fraser Island. I might be lucky to get them to Australia at all.
And so, curiously, it is the dingo that I have to thank for my discovery of the extraordinary resort at Kingfisher Bay.
The largest sand island on earth is about 75 miles long but no more than 10 miles wide. The lower half tucks in against the Queensland coast like a piece of a half-completed jigsaw, allowing just a narrow passage of pacific water, which we were now crossing by ferry—the Great Sandy Strait. A glance at the map shows how sweet and protected this water is: mother whales bring their new babies here to rest and play before going on to the Antarctic summer.
The moment we were on board the catamaran our younger son, Charley, stood at the bow looking down into the waves and evinced a passion for an occupation that had never interested him in his previous seven years of life.
"I want to catch fish."
My wife turned to me. "Daddy will take you fishing," she said.
Although I have told stories about fishing for many years, in fact I know almost nothing about it. "Sure," I said, "if we can find a rod."
We could have taken the shuttle bus to the hotel, but it was a beautiful day. So we strolled along a charming boardwalk, amid coastal tea trees and banksias, plants that no European eye had seen until a little over 200 years ago. The banksias are named for Joseph Banks, botanist to Captain Cook, but the names that would better evoke the total weirdness of this vegetation are Seuss and Doolittle.
"Sam! Charley!" I called. The boardwalk had brought us to one of Fraser Island's many lakes. "Do you see the Creature from the Black Lagoon?" Sam, who is 11, rolled his eyes. Later he took pleasure in explaining that the black water of this lake is pure, its color produced by the tannin of fallen leaves. It is called a perched lake, and unlike the window lakes, which are so named because they provide a "window" down into the water table, perched lakes are depressions "perched" in the midst of Fraser's sands.
While our New York children cannot understand the strong emotional connection their Australian parents have with corrugated iron, the humble material that has been used to roof Kingfisher Bay Resort, it was easy enough for them to recognize the place as a series of delightfully inventive, very human, tropical spaces. To enter the grand hangar-like room with its reception desk (and, past that, a series of bars and restaurants) is a little like entering the heart of a musical instrument.
Treespalms, satinays, casuarinas, banksiasgrow in profusion around the two hotel wings and the adjacent houses and villas. Many of the rooms overlook those black perched lakes. At night, sitting on your balcony with a flashlight, you might catch sight of a bright green Cooloola tree frog, a creature that exists only here and in a few places on the mainland. We, however, did not have to wait till night to begin viewing the wildlife.
It was just a few hours after checking in. Alison and I were lying beside the pool. Sam and Charley were engaged in a watery contest involving their elaborately conceived "superhuman powers." I shut my eyes. When I opened them a moment later, it was to discover two wet children at my side.
"There's a dingo."
Indeed there was, loping past the pool, the elderly Japanese couple drinking tea, the two young Germans playing cards. It turned, looking thin and perhaps a little depressed, to glance in our direction.
"What will we do," Charley asked, "if it comes near us?"
"Just don't look it in the eyes," replied Sam.
(Laurie Muller, hearing this later on the phone, found it very amusing. "No eye contact," he said, laughing. "Mate, you've become such New Yorkers.")
As we sat applying suntan lotion, another dingo trotted around the pool. We did not look at it and it did not look at us. It bypassed a 10-year-old girl, ducked its long yellow snout under a nearby chaise, and emerged a second later, a Timberland shoe in its jaws. It did not run, but walked swiftly down the boardwalk.
The dingoes that frequent the resort are leather fetishists. At campsites, so we heard, the rewards are juicier: lamb chops, T-bones. In the expectation of such spoils, dingoes can be persistent, even disrespectful. They will rip the meat-wet paper from a camper's grasp. Well, so we heardwe ourselves had not yet left the resort. Indeed, our children had hardly left the pool.
There is a great deal to do at Kingfisher Bay. Whole sheets of activities are published dailyranger-guided bird-watching, catamaran sailing, dolphin cruises, whale-watching, paddles up Dundonga Creek. There was even a junior eco-rangers group in which the kids could not only identify the island's indigenous animals, but trap the imported cane toads that threaten them.
"Wouldn't you like to catch a toad and put it in a plastic bag?" I asked.
Our children preferred the pool. Just the same, on the third day we hired a four-wheel-drive and a driver to show them the Fraser Island we had come to see.
This was an amazing trip, along rutted tracks bordered with dense vegetation of great varietyhuge stands of satinay trees 100 feet tall, rain forests filled with palms and creepersand nothing beneath our tires but grains of sand. No rock, no earth, just sand that had, over the centuries, been deposited from the rivers of New South Wales and southern Queensland. As wind and waves throw more sand onto the island coastline, newer and larger dunes form. We saw a sandblow, a mountain of sand, creeping slowly from the west while devouring all vegetation before it (and slowly unearthing, at perhaps a few feet a year, forests that were buried centuries ago).
"I can see it moving," Charley said. "It's going toward the hotel."
Predictably, his brother knew better. "It takes centuries, Charley. It takes like a thousand years."
"Duh," said Charley. "It takes like a thousand years for us to get to the beach."
In fact, it takes hardly any time to get from the resort to the eastern beach, an hour perhaps, no more, but when our vehicle roared down onto the beach we all whooped and yelled like creatures released from captivity.
Wide, hard sand. Long rolling breakers. Not a single human dwelling. Here was wilderness, or would have been, had it not been for the astonishing traffic of four-wheel-drives up and down, weaving like cabs on Third Avenue at midnight. Some belonged to fishermen, but most, I suspect, were filled with tourists just like us, emerging from the forest, thrilled by the sudden freedom, shocked by one another's presence, excited to see…
"It's an airplane!" Sam cried.
"It's landing!" added Charley.
Light aircraft constantly land and take off at Seventy-Five Mile Beach. You pull over, hoping they will land right near you. In a World Heritage Area, all this was terrible, and yet…electrifying too. Even we adults, aware of the ecological threat being posed, could admit to enjoying the anarchy.
Most of the four-wheel-drives on Seventy-Five Mile Beach make a stop beside the rusting bones of the Maheno, the only shipwreck you can visit on the island. (Captain James Fraser's Stirling Castle was the first recorded shipwreck here, but Fraser Island—named for his wife, Eliza—continued to be a shipwreck coast well into the 20th century. The ships that went down here—Stirling Castle, Seabelle, Maheno—have now given their names to restaurants and conference rooms in the resort.) No great tragedy clings to the Maheno: in 1935 it was being towed to new owners in Japan when it was washed ashore during a storm. The islanders are said to have furnished their cabins with its chandeliers, set their tables with its silverware. Later, during World War II, it was used as a bombing target by the Australian Air Force. In a landscape with few signs of human history, the Maheno is now a picturesque, emotionally uncomplicated ruin.
Two miles south of the Maheno, Eli Creek runs into the sea. Old photographs show it making its way swiftly through the tough beach grasses and casuarinas, with a wildness about it that the present visitor will never see. Today the delicate banks must be nurtured; we walked beside the Eli on a boardwalk.
For all its protection, it is still a creek. Its water is still water; its sand is just sand. You can enter the stream without damaging any national treasures. You can lie in the flowing crystal water and be carried toward the sea. The water is shallow, and you can feel the sand brush along your back. You can repeat the experience many times.
Lake McKenzie also charmed us. The kids swam and built elaborate sandcastles with their mother. Permitted to reflect quietly on the dream-like beauty of these Fraser Island lakes, I sat on the white sand beach, looking out across the turquoise waters. It was hard to believe that this was a lake. It resembled a seashore in, say, Jamaica. I began to imagine that we might all return here tomorrow after our whale-watching expedition.
"Dad?" Charley had come to sit with me.
"You know, I really would like to go fishing."
I saw his earnest expression. "Okay," I said. "We'll go tomorrow."
The next morning, Charley had a special shine about him that could not be attributed to the whales rolling belly-up 10 feet away or the sugar glaze on his cinnamon bun. He stayed close by me all morning, and when we docked he put his sticky hand in mine and silently led me to the end of the jetty.
We met up with a stocky soft-spoken New Zealander named Bob TeHira. His job, as he sees it, is to ensure that all his acolytes catch fish. To this end he equipped Charley and me with rods, bait pouches, and little white towels that would let us handle the fish without damaging them. We walked along the soft sand, learning how to use a bait pump to suck up yabbies—small crayfish—from the soft gray sand. We learned how to get the yabbies on the hook. We walked onto the sandbar and cast our lines out where Bob said the whiting were gathering. Although we did not catch a whiting, for reasons too technical to go into here, Charley did not lose his shine. He switched to prawns; he lost his bait; he rebaited his hook; he retreated before the rising tide; he agreed to try the jetty where, Bob promised, there was a flathead with his name on it.
Thus the afternoon progressed. We fished, Charley, Bob, and I, until it was almost sunset, and finally, using a juicy piece of pilchard that he had threaded onto the hook himself, my son connected with a silver bream. He said not a word when the fish hit, but as he worked the rod, as he reeled the line, his eyes flashed and a curious expression I had never seen before, a kind of secret smile, illuminated his face. When the fish finally lay flapping on the jetty, Bob knelt beside it.
"What do you want to do with it?" he asked.
Charley was far too excited to talk, but when he saw that Bob was intent on releasing his fish, he had no choice.
"I want to eat it," he said.
"Fine," said Bob. "They'll cook it for you at the Seabelle."
And so, as the sun sets over the Great Sandy Strait, a seven-year-old boy and his father walk up the bitumen road. The boy carries a silver bream, holding it proudly in front of him, with his fingers hooked under the gills. The only imperfection in this sentimental scene is the painful way they are tiptoeing along the gravel-strewn blacktop—they are both barefoot, their leather shoes having been thoughtfully locked away from the dingoes.
KINGFISHER BAY RESORT
61-7/4120-3333, fax 61-7/4127-9333; doubles from $130.
Each of the resort's 152 rooms has a private deck; two- and three-bedroom villas are also available. There are three restaurants on-site, and an adjoining village has a pizzeria, bakery, and general store.