Stage 1 - Along the 75 Mile Beach

Indian Head to Waddy Point (14km)

We decided to ease ourselves into the walk, so on the first day we headed north instead of south, on a pack-free hike along the beach up to Waddy Point and return. This would take us to a point where we could see, the far north "growing tip " of the island sweeping around and disappearing into the salt-hazed horizon.

Red volcanic rocks of Indian Head


The sun rises early in daylight-saving deprived Queensland, and this enabled us to take a quick early-morning stroll out along the pandanus- and casuarina-lined top of Indian Head to look down over its red, volcanic rocks into the clear blue sea below and watch the shadows of manta rays cruising along the ocean floor. To the south, an endless line of breakers rolled in from the Pacific onto the long stretch of the 75-Mile Beach, down which we would head tomorrow. To the north, the sandy coastline was punctuated with a series of black volcanic rocky headlands as far as Waddy Point.

These headlands have helped shape Fraser Island's geography, trapping the sands dragged up by the currents, which the wind has shaped into massive undulating dunes. Over time, a green and grey mantle of vegetation has mostly covered these dunes, but sometimes the elements fight back and the island is dotted with sandblows, where the vegetation has been displaced by massive, slow-moving wind-driven dunes. The brilliant whiteness of the Tukkee Sandblow dominated the views inland from Indian Head.

Looking south down 75-Mile Beach from
Indian Head

Indian Head jutting out into the Pacific - Tukkee Sandblow on the right

View north from Indian Head toward to Waddy Point


Nello surveying the black volcanic
Middle Rocks

From Indian Head we dropped down on to the beach and headed up to Middle Rocks; it was high tide and the big surf was crashing over the rocky barrier and into large foaming pools, the Champagne Pools, a favourite stop for backpackers wanting an invigorating ocean dip without having to worry too much about bull sharks and strong rips. We noted it for the return journey. Traversing a small beach, we crossed over the second headland of Middle Rocks and followed the long straight line of beach to Waddy Point; a sea-eagle soared above the low, grass-covered fore-dunes as the surges of the incoming tide cooled our bare feet. We were starting to enjoy this walk already.

Backpackers at play - Champagne Pools

The magnificent sea-eagle

From Middle Rocks to Waddy Point

Sandy track through the casuarinas

Just before Waddy Point a track turned inland through a grove of grey casuarinas to emerge at Orchid Beach, an immense stretch of sand now heading east rather than north. In the distance, the houses of Orchid Beach village dotted the dune tops.

2m long goanna - the first of many

Our destination, however, was a bit closer; Waddy Point Campground lay just behind a series of shallow freshwater lagoons, filled with tadpoles and waterbirds. This was our furthest point north on Fraser Island and, technically, The Great Sandy Walk started here.

After a short rest stop, we headed out through the forest towards the Binngih Sandblow. A small marker post a few hundred metres beyond the campground fence added a sobering note to our walk - here in 2001 a dingo had killed a 9-year old boy. Fraser Island is one of the last refuges of pure-bred dingos in Australia, but the sign was a reminder that this wild dog is a natural predator and, wherever humans and dingos co-exist, there will be an uneasy interaction. Nonetheless, the chance to see a dingo in the wild is, for many people, one of the attractions of Fraser Island.

Emerging from the forest, we found ourselves at the top of Binngih, with sweeping views over the white sands to Orchid Beach in the north and Waddy Point in the east. Heading east over the broad expanse of sand, we finally had a sense of complete isolation; the hard, wind-packed surface was disturbed only by the occasional track of a dingo as it padded alone across the dunes. The sandblow led us down through the grass-covered foredunes and back on to the beach. From here we retraced our steps, stopping only for a quick and refreshing dip in the Champagne Pools before heading back to our cabin in time for lunch.

Looking north over Orchid Beach from the Binngih Sandblow

Crossing the Binngih Sandblow

Fisherman's cabin at Indian Head

The early start certainly changes the patterns of the day. However, as we sipped a tea under a large pandanus, shading us from the hot afternoon sun, or drifted back and forth in the strange currents of the shallow channel below Indian Head, watching an old dingo padding up and down the beach and an osprey skimming the ocean surface as it hunted for fish, it became clear.

In this part of the world the wise man walks early before the sun gets too hot; the rest of the day will take care of itself.

Old dingo in the dunes

Indian Head to Dunduburra

Woken by the melodious call of the butcherbird and other members of the dawn chorus, we were up at 5am - but then so was the sun. The heavy showers of the night had passed by and a hot, humid day seemed in store. Our packs were heavy after a 6 month break since our New Zealand trip, but it was good to be off and heading south down the famous Seventy Five Mile Beach. An osprey watched haughtily from the low grass-covered dunes as we headed quickly down the first section, Corroboree Beach. After one kilometre, a small dot in the distant salt haze transformed into a 4WD and, passing with friendly waves all round, it reminded us that technically speaking were were walking on a highway.

Setting off down 75-Mile Beach

Osprey in the dunes

The first 4WD of the day on the beach highway

Orange gash in the green-clad sand cliffs

However, we had chosen our time well, as few were up that early and the sounds of the rolling surf were rarely disturbed by the odd passing vehicle. Soon, the beach closed in on the tall line of sand cliffs, announcing our arrival at Cathedral Beach. Unfortunately, the weather also began to close in and grey clouds turned to brief periods of drizzle, interspersed with hot, steaming sunshine; we were glad for the occasional cooling north-westerly at our backs.

For the most part, the cliffs are covered with dense, low grasses and shrubs, with a scattering of pandanus and casuarina. Occasionally, erosion has revealed the red, yellow and cream shades of the underlying compacted sand.

Wading down a freshwater stream metres from the surf

The passage of 4WDs halted for a couple of hours as the high tide closed the highway, leaving us the meditational opportunity that can only be found on a long isolated stretch of beach. The landscape features passed by; small rapidly flowing freshwater streams, carving their paths in the sand only a few metres fro the ocean before rushing across the beach to enter the sea, the tannin stained freshwater soaks high on the beach, and wind-and water carved gashes of colour in the long line of green undulating sand cliffs. Yellow and purple flowers were scattered in the sand of fore-dunes.

Every so often we passed a solitary fisherman's tent-site, sheltered under the casuarinas in the depression between low fore-dune and sand cliff. The beach was deserted apart from the odd scurrying dotterel, the occasional pair of oystercatchers probing for pipis, the lone gull or tern cruising by above the rolling surf, the silhouette of the sea-eagle and osprey high in the sky above and the tiny periscope eyes of a myriad of ghost crabs watching our passing from their sandy burrows.

Splendid isolation; the sand, the sea, your thoughts

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The tide had begun to recede and by the time we stopped briefly at Red Canyon, where an interpretive sign explained the significance of the coloured sands to the original inhabitants, the Butchulla people, the beach highway was re-opened to traffic.

Red sand cliffs

Coloured sand dreaming

Red Canyon

Two kilometres further on, a sign-post pointed to Dundubara Campground, set back from the beach in a lowland forest setting - we had covered the 20km before lunch. Setting up our tent in the shade of a grove of tall gnarly paperbarks, we soon found ourselves having an unplanned siesta - the humidity had completely sapped our energy. A goanna wandered slowly between campsites, while ravens and bronzewing doves also checked the grounds for pickings. However, the tranquility of the hot afternoon was rapidly broken by the call of the ranger "Hi folks, there is a snake coming your way!". We got up to see the dark outline of a small-eyed snake whipping rapidly along the ground away from the patch of grass and shrubbery 10m away from our tent. The 2.5 m brown snake that followed moved much more sedately - comfortable in the knowledge that no one was going to challenge it?! Somehow, the campsite seemed that little bit less tranquil.

Camped under the paperbarks at Dundubara

Orange and white sand cliffs

Frog fossil in the making

Dundubura to Cathedral Beach (7.5km)

Another heavy shower overnight saw us awake to a cool, muggy morning. We took our time packing up as, at 7.5 km, today's walk would be much shorter - heading down to Cathedral Beach, where we had booked a cabin for the night. By the time we were back on the beach and heading south, the sky was grey and the winds of yesterday had changed into a stiff salt-laden south-easterly. Progress down the beach was not as easy as the day before and we were glad that this was not going to be a long day.

The cliff lined landscape was identical to that of yesterday and soon we spotted the entrance to Cathedral Beach Campground through the salt film on our glasses. Apart from a cabin and comfortable bed, the chance to do some washing and catch up on the trip journal, Cathedral Beach has a general store and this offer of fresh milk and vegetables, an icecream and a cold beer made this a stop well worth making.


The surf fisherman

Cathedral Beach to Happy Valley

Today we knew that we would definitely not be alone, as the walk down to Happy Valley would take in the tourist trinity of the 75-Mile Beach; The Pinnacles coloured sands, the wreck of the "Maheno" and Eli Creek. Leaving Cathedral Beach Resort, we were soon back on the beach and heading south again - the sun was shining and the south-easterly had abated to a cooling breeze. Within a couple of kilometres we saw the large jagged gash of ochre coloured sands protruding from the green-clad cliffs - a deeply eroded section known as The Pinnacles.

They say that there are 72 shades of colour in the sands of Fraser Island, from white through grey to shades of pink, cream, yellow, orange and red, and many of them are on display at The Pinnacles. We stopped for a closer examination and soon were joined by the first of many 4WD tourist buses. That we expected; the sight of a light plane, roaring by twenty metres above our heads to land on the beach behind us and unload its cargo of tourists for their 10-minute inspection of this colourful feature, was not!

The Pinnacles coloured sand cliffs

Final approach at Fraser Island International Airport

The first tourist buses reach The Pinnacles - time to move on

Soon a dark object began to emerge from the salt-haze to the south - the wreck of the "Maheno", lying half-buried between ocean and beach. Once a proud (if not particularly large) passenger liner, little remains but a rusting skeleton since it was washed ashore some 70 years ago - a salutary lesson of the permanence of man-made things.

A few surf fishermen were casting their rods nearby and we retreated to the shade of a casurina in the foredunes for a break. From there we watched the day-tripping tourists inspecting the wreck before the drivers' calls to reboard sent them all back on to the bus and disappearing toward The Pinnacles, while from their lofty perch, high on top of the cliff, a pair of sea-eagles watched us watching the tourists watching the wreck.

Eagles watching people
watching eagles

1935 photo of the beached "Maheno"

Wreck of the "Maheno"

Rusted porthole

The "Maheno" 70 years on

The crystal clear waters and
sandy bottom of Eli Creek

Heading south again, we were passed by a Brahminy kite, completing the set of three large birds of prey that live on the island. It soon became clear where Eli Creek was - a clutter of buses and 4WDs lining the beach in the distance indicated the location of this freshwater oasis.

Flowing from a spring back in the dunes and fed by water soaking through the sandmass, Eli Creek is the largest of the streams flowing out to the eastern coast, the fast-flowing cool crystal clear waters being a magnet for tourists on a hot Fraser Island day. We wandered up the short boardwalk to find a shady lunchspot, before doing the traditional wade down the creekbed, lined with yellow-flowering hibiscus, purple vines, banksias and pandanus, before emerging to follow its line parallel to the beach and finally meet the ocean.

Doing the traditional wade down
Eli Creek (sorry, no inner tube!)

A little luxury at Happy Valley


Refreshed, we quickly covered the final few kilometres to Happy Valley and the end of the first part of the Great Sandy Walk. Farewelling our companion of the last four days, the Pacific Ocean, we headed inland to Fraser Wilderness Resort, for a little bit of luxury beside the pool and a well-needed feed of barramundi at the restaurant.

It was time for a day's R & R before the next stage of our walk; five days camping out on the newly developed Fraser Island Great Walk, amongst the tall rainforest trees and clear perched lakes of Fraser Island's interior.

Pandanus silhouettes