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Paradise Down Under

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.

"Yes?"

"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.

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