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Great Sandy Strait - Fraser Island's Playground


Fraser Island and the Great Sandy Strait’s history are there for all to see.  The wide expanses of the Great Sandy Strait are deceiving.  Although there looks to be a lot of water, much of it is too shallow for the many large vessels that use the calm inside passage between the mainland and Fraser Island to make their way either north or south along the Queensland Coast.  As long as they keep to the shipping channels they are fine but stray too far and the unwary boatie could easily find him or herself hung up on a sandbank waiting for the tide to come back in.  On your journey north from the Wide Bay Bar, that will all change at Ungowa.

Sailing in the Moonlight. Although the strait here is at its narrowest at low tide, it is also very deep.  Sailors on the annual Bay to Bay trailer sailer race know the Ungowa stretch well as it is usually where they become becalmed;  the wind is shielded by the high South White Cliffs.  In the shadow of these cliffs one can find the remnants of the island’s timber felling past – the rotting, rusting hulks of barges that were used to transport the logs up the Mary River to the mills in Maryborough.  In Deep Creek lies the steel-hulled Palmer.  A few hundred metres further north, in the mouth of the creek named after it, is the wreck of the Ceratodus.  The Ceratodus can easily be reached by walking south along the cliffs from the nearby Ungowa jetty, where they used to load the timber.  The former logging camp at Ungowa is accessible by 4WD or boat but care should be taken near the jetty, which is now abandoned and in a dilapidated state.

Back in the strait, the area between Woongoolbver Creek and the next point of interest is McKenzie’s Jetty.  The jetty here is in an even more dilapidated state than Ungowa’s but there is a lot of history behind it.  It contains the remains of a tramline, village and sawmill where timber was processed before being loaded on to barges for the mainland.  It is also the site of the World War II Z Special Unit (not Z Force), commando training camp.  Lake McKenzie’s Jetty is almost within shouting distance of Kingfisher Bay Resort and Village.  The stretch of water between the two is a popular anchorage for passing boats, which are protected from the prevailing south-easterlies by the height of the Island’s land mass.  It is also a popular fishing location, renowned for golden trevally and big whiting.

Kingfisher Bay Resort, set in a natural bush amphitheatre near North White Cliffs, is on the site of what was Balarrgan, originally an Aboriginal mission which was turned into a quarantine station to process miners going to the Gympie goldfields in the late 1800s.

Some of the Great Sandy Strait’s most fascinating features lie between Kingfisher Bay and Moon Point.  Here you will find the Southern Hemisphere’s largest artificial reef, Fraser Island’s largest flowing stream, the remains of two of the oldest lighthouses in Queensland, an island discovered and named by Matthew Flinders, the remains of an old logging camp and the site of the last Aboriginal mission encampment.  It is also the setting for some of the most breathtaking scenery of the whole journey north from Inskip Point and an angler’s paradise.  Boaties leaving Kingfisher Bay invariably head for the shipping channel that takes them up the narrows between Big and Little Woody islands.  These islands, along with the much smaller Duck and Picnic islands at the southern end of Big Woody, are part of the Great Sandy National Park.

The two smaller islands are a favourite resting place for anglers who fish the deep, fast-flowing channel known as Boges Hole that separates Picnic Island from Big Woody and the channels among the sand flats towards the mainland.  Woody Island was discovered and named by Matthew Flinders in 1799 but it was not until 1822 that the Great Sandy Strait was discovered.  Until then it was thought that Fraser Island was joined to the mainland.  In 1866, two timber lighthouses were built on Big Woody, one in the middle of the island at the aptly named Middle Bluff and another at the northern end at North Bluff, overlooking the entry into the strait.  North Bluff lighthouse was closed in 1959 and Middle Bluff in 1987.  Both are still standing and are heritage listed but can be explored, although entry is not possible.

Mangroves.Not far from Middle Bluff is Jeffries Beach, the only significant stretch of sand on the whole island, which is otherwise mostly rocky.  Jeffries is a little-known bush camping spot that is accessible only by boat.  Here, in the shade of the casuarinas, is one of the most beautiful camping areas you will ever see.  With sweeping views over the strait and across to Little Woody and a passing parade of vessels in the channel, one can almost forget that civilisation is only 20 minutes away in Hervey Bay.  There are absolutely no facilities here so you will need to take your own fresh water and a fuel stove as open fires are prohibited.  A camping permit is also required, which is available from the marina kiosk at the Urangan Boat Harbour.

For bush walkers, this is the perfect base for exploratory forays to the lighthouses and the rest of the island.  For anglers it is even better as it is within only a few minutes’ motoring of the Roy Rufus Artificial Reef, the largest reef of its kind in Australia.  The reef was started in 1968 with the dropping of 30 car bodies, 50 tonnes of concrete and an untold number of tyres.  Over the decades it has been steadily added to.  By 1988, there were four old log barges, two pile-driving pontoons, about 2500 cars, 800 tones of concrete and 1200 tyres.  Yearly checks by divers found that at first weed and coral began to grow, then fish moved in.  By 1974, 102 different species had been counted.  Today it is estimated between 10,000kg and 18,000kg of fish are on the reef at any time and the reef has become famous among divers and very popular with anglers.

To the east of the “arti”, as it is called to by the locals, hiding behind Little Woody Island, lies Urang Creek.  In the mouth of Urang Creek are the remains of a 70-ton Essex steamer which was built in Brisbane in 1880 and worked between Brisbane and Ipswich.  Urang Creek used to be serviced by a car carrying barge from Hervey Bay but that service stopped because it was only accessible during high tides.  About 2km north of Eurong is Bogimbah Creek.  There is a common misconception that Eli Creek on the eastern beach is Fraser Island’s largest creek but it is not.  With a flow of 1666 million litres a day, that honour belongs to Bogimbah.  The creek also has the island’s greatest diversity of mangroves as a result of the large outflow of fresh water.

If the sands could speak they would tell of a dark and unhappy place where there was much sadness.  Following a confrontation between whites and Aborigines at the White Cliffs mission in 1897, the mission was shifted to the less desirable site at Bogimbah.  Here, they lived in appalling conditions, many dying of malnutrition, dysentery, syphilis, influenza and tuberculosis, until the mission was abandoned in 1904.

The first forestry camp was built at Bogimbah in 1913 but was shifted to Central Station when the magnitude of the island’s timber resources became apparent.  Now the timber felling has stopped and there is little left, although some remnants of those days remain.  You can still see the old logging dump and a little further on the remains of some old buildings close to the beach.  If you listen really carefully, you might even hear the sighs of the former inhabitants.  There are no safe anchorages here except for tinnies that can get up the creek.  So if a northerly blows it can become very uncomfortable.  It is best to head north to Moon Point and the inlet on the southern side.  Although very shallow at low tide, once inside you can lay up comfortably in relative safety.

Pristine beach a secret no more

One of the great secrets of the Great Sandy Strait is the north-western beach that runs from Moon Point to Wathumba Creek.  Because it is often impassable and dangerous for 4WDs, few visitors, with the exception of those who own a boat, have savoured its delights.  Being inaccessible means the environment, unlike that of the eastern beach, has remained in an almost pristine state.  The sand is so white it hurts your eyes to look at it and the creeks that run into Platypus Bay are so clear you cannot help but scoop the water up in your hands and drink it.  Most awe-inspiring of all is the absence of people.  The only footsteps you will find in the kilometre after kilometre of blinding sand are almost certainly yours.  At the risk of incurring the wrath of the lucky few who have kept this secret to themselves, we can reveal that you do not have to have a boat or 4WD to get there.  There is a daily vehicle barge service from Urangan Harbour to Moon Point that also carries walk-on passengers.  The barge makes two return trips a day, leaving the harbour at 8.30am and 4pm, at a cost of $18 a person for the round trip.  Once on the island you are on your own.  There are no shops and absolutely no facilities so you must bring your own food and drink with you and be prepared to walk everywhere.

From the barge drop-off point it is only a short walk to Moon Point and what is now an island since the creek that exited at the southern end broke through the northern beach.  There is great swimming inside this creek and even better fishing off the beach where the flathead and whiting are plentiful.  The only downside is the smell from rotting vegetation that can be a bit overpowering at certain times of the year.  Far better is Coongul Creek a few kilometres up the beach.  Here you are able to wade and walk a fair distance up its fresh waters, stopping along the way to take in the beauty of the natural surroundings.  Coongul is a popular spot for boaties and you are likely to find one or two at anchor or pulled up on the sand in its protected confines.  Camping anywhere along the beach or up the creeks is allowed but you must have a permit which can be bought at the marina kiosk in Hervey Bay before you leave.

It is advisable to check if fire restrictions are in place in case you want to light a campfire.  It is also strongly recommended that you take a supply of insect repellent as the area is known to be frequented by sandflies during summer.  And don’t forget the sunscreen. There is no worse torture than trying to scratch sandfly bites through sunburnt skin.