I have long wondered whether explorers should be allowed to name what they discover. The talents of adventurers rarely include wordsmithing. For example, in Australia if it isn’t named after Lachlan MacQuarie then it is probably named after something obvious.
Captain Cook may have been handy with an astrolabe and a compass, but he wasn’t nearly as skilled in appellation. When he encountered the stark majesty of Australia’s vast coral reefs, he named them “The Great Barrier Reef.” He saw no beauty, only a barrier. At the very southern tip of these reefs lies an island that Cook named the “Great Sandy Island” but is now known as Fraser Island, the largest sand island in the world and recently named a world heritage site. Its current name derives from the infamy of Eliza Fraser, who may or may not have elaborated significantly on her experiences being shipwrecked off its coast. Regardless, her successfully marketed story of her ordeal kept her name stuck to the island.
When I visited Fraser Island, I also underwent my own ordeal, albeit much smaller. I don’t need to exaggerate as Mrs. Fraser did. All I have to do is relate the facts about “Crazy” Steve who loved driving insanely fast across Fraser Island’s Seventy-Five Mile Beach. (Side note: the “Seventy-Five Mile Beach” is not seventy-five miles long.) Pavement is a luxury on Fraser Island, and “Crazy” Steve’s four-wheel drive bus vibrated like a stagecoach on the brink of flying apart as it hurtled down the sand.
This is the sort of thing that is never mentioned in the brochures. They also didn’t mention that the beach doubles as a runway. With drivers like Steve, it must be stated explicitly by the island’s authorities that ground vehicles must yield to landing planes.
“Crazy” Steve chose that time to tell us that he raced cars as his other job. I don’t recall where his nickname came from, but I do recall that he enjoyed his sobriquet immensely. He wanted to be known as “Crazy” Steve.
As we flew across the vast sand, I saw nothing but the horizon. To the right, an endless parade of white-tipped waves marched onto the shore. To the left stood rainbow-colored dunes. Both extended as long as the sky. However, to call them rainbow-colored does limit the rainbow to three shades: light pink, dark brown, and light brown. Still, colored sand of any variety speckled with lush vegetation is a wondrous sight to see. That’s why the original Bidjara name for the island, K’gari, is much more suited to this sandy wonderland than any of its other names. Roughly translated, it means “paradise.”
In the Aboriginal story, the spirit K’gari came to earth to create the oceans and rivers, but when she experienced how beautiful the land of Australia was, she fell in love with it. The great God who had sent her allowed her to be transformed into Fraser Island. Her body would be the land, and her eyes would be the lakes.
Even to an outsider like me, Fraser Island is imbued with ineffable awe. It seems to be unconnected to the rest of the earth. According to studies, its water table may have insulated itself from the outside world for hundreds of years.
My moment of reverie was jolted back into the present by one of those soft spots of sand that effectively function like driving over a speed bump at sixty miles an hour. “Crazy” Steve then screeched our bus to a halt and shuffled everyone off just to point at the sand below our feet.
For a moment, Steve said nothing and reveled in our puzzlement. “Anyone thirsty?”
He went on to explain that locals never take any water with them; they only need to dig a small hole in the sand to access water fresher than any bottled water ever could be. To prove it, he knelt and dug a little hole in the beach only about half a foot down and sure enough it filled with water.
I tasted it. Steve was right; it tasted like a spring.
There was no time for any other sort of dilly-dally. Steve rushed us all back onto the bus, shifted its gears, and appeared to be reversing us into the sea. Just as I started to wonder if there were extra features of this bus that hadn’t been mentioned, Steve changed gears again and roared forward as fast as tires could spin over sand. When we ran out of beach, Steve sped us over the dunes that separated the coastline from the interior.
As we bumped down the trail toward the island’s center, the tree cover became thicker and darker. The interior overflowed with ancient miracles that stubbornly exist in defiance of logic. I was dumbfounded to see the forests that towered into the sky with only the sand for roots.
The dim underbrush was composed of many plants that had ceased to exist in most of the rest of the world at the same time that the last Tyrannosaurus Rex died. It is as if the rest of the world forgot about Fraser Island and so these plants, as well as satinay, kauri pines, and piccabeen palms, continued to grow.
“Crazy” Steve revealed that these prehistoric plants are what allow Fraser to exist, as they place nitrogen and other nutrients back into the sandy soil. Without these primeval plants, the island would be one colossal sand dune.
The forests of the island’s interior also harbor habitats for all kinds of other rare breeds, especially dingoes. I kept a wary eye out for them throughout my travels. All around Australia dingoes have interbred with other dogs so frequently that almost no true, wild dingoes still exist. However, one to two hundred purebred dingoes still live on Fraser because of its isolation. Even here, in their refuge, forty dingoes were killed in retaliation for a young tourist who was found mauled to death in 2001. Wherever the last few dingoes were, they were wisely not hanging out nearby.
Deep into the island, we disembarked at Wanggoolba Creek, a river flowing through a tangled rain forest. Sometimes a river roars, sometimes it purrs, but flowing water always creates some noise. But this river flowed in complete silence because it only looked like a river. It was actually a gash in the landscape so deep that the water table silently drifted past. The crystal water moved on its way as unobtrusively as if it were underground. While most of the river ran clear, its banks were murky enough to hide any eels or fish that wished to stay hidden. Walking along Wanggoolba Creek, I felt swaddled in the green light created by the translucent canopy above. Several knotted and corded trees, which would have looked at home in a swamp, tangled silently above.
“Crazy” Steve stopped our group at a random point on the trail. He pointed down to a small hole just off the trail, darkly shaded by the canopy.
“See that?” he asked. “Don’t touch that.”
“Why?” I asked, even though I had no intention of poking my hand into any dark hole in that rain forest.
“Funnel-web spider lives there—the most poisonous animal in Australia. He’s got a small web like a tripwire in the front of his hole, touch it and he’ll pop out and bite you faster than you can see him. You’ll be dead in twenty minutes.” Steve paused. “So I wouldn’t touch that if I were you.”
Australians rarely exaggerate about danger, so I kept to the middle of the trail.
Sadly, “Crazy” Steve was not scheduled to make the trip back with us. He would remain in the heart of the island while we drove back with the inimitable Marty.
Marty was big. Marty was gruff. Marty ploughed through sand roads and took great pleasure in making other four-wheel drive vehicles reverse to make way for his oncoming bus.
“We’re heading back by Lake MacKenzie way. There are other ways, but I’m taking this way, I don’t care what you all think,” Marty announced to the bus.
Although it was a lake, it looked like a sea, with no water entering and none flowing out; a lake with water purer than millions of gallons of Evian. MacKenzie is the largest of the lakes that the Aboriginals knew as the eyes of K’gari.
“If you’ve got swim trunks, y’can jump into the lake. But do not wear sunscreen or anything else. What goes into Lake MacKenzie stays there for a long time.” Marty paused. “And if you’re not back on that bus in time, I will leave without you. I don’t care what your excuse is.”
MacKenzie almost seemed too crystalline and pure to swim in. I’m almost reluctant to admit that I splashed around in it. Back then I was swimming religiously to cope with the visceral isolation of studying abroad where I knew no one: a country on the other side of the world. I hadn’t swum in almost a week. I needed the water. I swam a couple hundred meters off the shore just to turn and admire the view. The blue sky, streaked with white clouds, sat on top of a jungle tangled and lush, beside pale sand dunes. It’s a pity that those little disposable windy-clicky cameras can’t get a little wet. Still no words, pictures, or images can describe the dunes, trees, and sky that I saw there.
I swam back before I wanted to leave, mostly because I had no doubt that Marty would leave me behind.
Marty regaled his captive audience with jokes, theories about life and many other stories. “I think those bloody Poms did my ancestors a favor. All they had to do was steal a loaf of bread and our Queen and Country kindly arranged for them to take an all expenses trip to paradise.” Marty laughed as the four-wheeler dipped and bumped through the sandy trail. “After all, who wouldn’t want to get sent out here?”
Marty had a point.
On the ferry, I sank into a deep reverie. I missed K’gari even before I touched back on the mainland. Still, all of Australia appeared to me to be not a separate continent but a separate world—an ancient planet. The name Eucalyptus, devised by the famous botanist Joseph Banks for trees ubiquitous in Australia, is derived from a Greek root that can be translated as “well hidden.” Perhaps that is a better name for Australia as a whole. Past eons, that have long since sped past Eurasia, Africa, and the Americas, find little nooks and crannies in Australia and they live here. The entire history of the world comes here to rest. Perhaps that is why K’gari chose to transform into Fraser Island. She knew the world would need a refuge for all the fragments of its ancient past. As I sailed back to the mainland, I realized that a fragment of my past was now rooted in K’gari also.