The Ultimate Guide to a Road Trip across Australia's Fraser Island
Fraser Island is one of the magical places you can only find in Australia. It's one of the most unique landscapes in the world and a must-see for any traveller visiting Australia. Located on the southeast coast of Queensland, stretching over 120km, you'll discover towering rainforest trees hundreds of years old, deep pools of crystal clear water in the middle of a sandy dune stretching hundreds of yards, breathtaking wildlife and, if you're lucky, you might even spot one of the island's most camera-shy residents, the infamous dingo.
Fraser Island is listed as a UNESCO world heritage site due to its rare combination of shifting sand-dunes, tropical rainforests and inland lakes. It is also the largest sand island in the world. The island was originally inhabited by the Butchulla people. ‘Butchulla’ in the aboriginal language means “the sea people” since they were surrounded on all sides by the power ocean. The Butchulla people named this island "Paradise". Fraser Island was discovered by the western world in 1770 by explorer James Cook, but Cook never ventured onto the island, only viewed it from afar. In 1836 Captain Fraser was the first non-aboriginal to step foot on the island. But Fraser never made it off the island, after being killed by the aboriginals but his daughter survived and was rescued. It was her that told the story of the island and what she found there. Archaeological evidence has uncovered that the aboriginal people of the island have lived here for over 5000 years. Today, the island has a permanent population of only 194 people, mind you there are a lot more people on the island day-to-day on tourist excursions but the fact that the overall population is so low means the island preserves that peaceful, oasis feeling.
Guided Tour or On Your Own?
There are two ways to experience the island for yourself. One is by joining a guided tour, and the other is by taking or renting your own car. Each has there own pros and cons and you simply need to weigh the different experiences and see which one is for you. The advantages of a guided tour are your guides are extremely experienced in driving in the sandy, off-road conditions. They are highly capable drivers who know this island inside and out. They provide food, drinks and accommodation all already set up for you upon arrival. You also get to meet other travellers and stay with a big group as well - which can be a pro or a con depending on your personality type. The most significant drawbacks is you can't really make the itinerary bespoke or go at your own pace. If you fall in love with one location, you can't just stay there all day. You also don't have as much flexibility over your accommodations or type of food. In terms of price, there are various operators, but the most reliable and highly rated 2-day tours are Fraser Explorer Tours ($250 US ) and Sunset Safaris ($286 US). And while that might seem steep remember this includes pretty much everything you'll need along the way and a personal; guide and driver. I liked the freedom of being able not to worry about all the little details and just concentrate on the experience and seeing all those incredible new sites along the way.
Going on your own is hugely advantageous since you can control every bit of your adventure, from where you stay, what you see, how long to spend in each place and what you want to eat. The biggest cons are you need to organize your car rental, permits, be your own navigator, pack all your food and either buy your own camping equipment or stay in one of the various hotels or Glamping grounds on the island. For people who love driving, getting to cruise down along the famous 75-mile beach is an experience of a lifetime. So if you’re someone who loves to drive this is definitely a bucket list adventure, you wouldn't wanna miss. Either way, you're bound to have a fantastic time!
Driving and Car Rental Advice
If you're thinking of just driving your regular Honda Civic onto the island, think again. Only 4WD vehicles with low-range capacity and high clearance are allowed onto the island. Most people opt to rent a vehicle even if they have a 4WD car since the roads on Fraser Island are so tough they'd rather not push their own car too far. If you're confident with your car and rather drive something familiar just be sure you get a permit for your vehicle to drive on the island, these can be purchased at any of the tourist information booths in Rainbow Beach or Hervey Bay.
There are many different companies which rent 4WD vehicles for Fraser Island excursions, all of which will have the necessary permits. These companies will also often help you with finding a good camping site and give advice for the best route to take at that time of year. The roads throughout Fraser Island are all made of sand and if you've never driven on sand before be sure to ask your renting agency for some lessons on how best to tackle it. While there are discount places where you can get a car, this kind of expensive is something you shouldn't skimp on. Your car breaking down on the island where there's no reception or local police to give you a tow can turn what should be a fantastic adventure into a real catastrophe. The lowest price you’ll find for a 4WD rental is $100 US per person, per day. The prices often includes the car rental, off-road liability insurance cover, ferry transfers and vehicle permit.
Ensure that when renting your vehicle you check the pressure in the tire as well as the car's oil and water levels. Before leaving check that the vehicle has an emergency kit in case you get stuck in the sand or if there is a mechanical problem with the car. The best piece of equipment the car will need is a shovel since you’ll often find your wheels get stuck in the sand and need to be dug out slightly. There is virtually no reception on the island so getting a good GPS system or downloading an offline map is key to making your way around the island without getting lost. You can also get a detailed paper map with the roads and distances marked on it provided by the National Park Service. You can pick these up at your rental agency. Remember, the beach highway is only accessible at low tide and is sometimes the gateway for you to get to your campsite, leaving it too late means you might get stranded until the water goes out once more. Driving at night is also unadvisable since there are no street lamps and the road is hard enough to see in the daytime. Avoid driving in the water since the salt water will ruin the car and even if it's a rental you don't want to risk getting being charged for the damage.
What to Pack for a Guided Tour
If you're taking a guided tour, you won't need to make as long of a list as if you're going it on your own. Here are the key items to bring with you!
A small backpack should be enough to hold everything you need. Remember, even if you're taking a guided tour, this is a still venturing into the natural landscape so travelling light and small is key to making the most of your journey. You don't want to be lugging a huge suitcase through the sand.
Good walking boots for the sandy hikes are essentials
A pair of small flip slops are great for playing in the water and along the beach. The extra pair of shoes is always a good idea if the first pair gets water.
The weather can sometimes be a bit rainy so if you're expecting that bring a light raincoat.
Even in the best whether you're going to be in and out of the water so a few pairs of socks are a great idea.
A small, quick dry towel is a lifesaver!
Even in the winter or on a cloudy day the UV rays in Australia are dangerous, so sunscreen is an absolute necessity.
Of course, bring your camera! There is indeed nothing like the spectacular things you'll see along the way.
Remember to carry extra batteries and portable backup charger since there isn't much electricity available on the bus and even at the campsites it can be a hot commodity. If you're staying at the resort you'll be able to charge up there, but while you're out on the road, those things are handy to have.
A small hat and pair of sunglasses
A bathing suit is essential for floating down one of the many lazy river creeks and swimming in the inland lakes.
Most likely the weather will be pretty warm, so two pairs shorts and t-shirts are your best bet for your daily outfits
A lightweight hoodie or sweater along with a pair of pants is perfect for when it cools down in the evening.
During October to March, the bugs are pretty bad, so insect repellant is vital to remember if you're sensitive to bug bites.
A good water bottle that you can can refill at any of the water refill stations is a must have. Having fun on Fraser Island can get exhausting, so making sure you’re keeping hydrated is essential to remember.
What to Pack for a self driving trip
If you're renting a car and driving yourself, you can stop off at one of the many supply shops near the ferry stations which are always stocked with exactly the right things for campers on their way to Fraser Island. In addition to all items below, you'll need the same as the above mentioned for the group tours. The camping essentials you’ll need are;
Camping equipment (tent, sleeping bags, etc.)
Extra fuel and a full tank
A lantern or flashlight (key for late night trips to the bathroom)
Ice inside a proper cooler
Lots of water for drinking and washing (don't skimp on this)
An emergency medical supplies kit
A gas cooking stove
Food to eat both on the road and at your campsite
Most of the campgrounds have public toilets, but some of the showers cost $2 so be sure you have some change on hand for them as well.
There are four options for lodging while visiting the island. If you're travelling on a guided tour, each provider has a specific accommodation type which is provided so if you are hell bent on not camping be sure to check which kind of lodging they offer before booking. Now, I'm not a big fan of camping either, but I LOVED camping out on Fraser Island so I would highly recommend getting your courage up and giving it a try! It really connects you to the natural environment in a way that hotels are never going to give you.
There are various hotels on the island in the central locations of Kingfisher Bay, Happy Valley and Eurong. The most popular and highly rated is the Kingfisher Bay Resort on the west coast. Rooms cost as little as $130 US for a standard room. The Eurong Resort Hotel on the northeast coast is another option with rooms at $90 US/night.
Airbnb is another option which has recently started up on the island. They have houses with full kitchens and rooms for a vast group. While their prices range from $180-230 a night, you get a better sense of life on the island and can house a lot of people so if you're a big group you might find the price per person actually quite low.
Camping is the most authentic way to experience Fraser Island. There are 45 different camping areas across the island, each with their own unique features and facilities. Five of the camping areas are surrounded by dingo deterrent fences. The downside to these areas are they aren’t very private. The most popular areas on the island are the ones closest to the primary services (Eurong, Happy Valley and Cathedrals) and roads but if you're willing to trek out a bit further and are prepared to be self-sufficient, you'll be rewarded with total privacy. Central Station camping area is one of the most popular as it's located near the major roads, has a fenced area, offers excellent facilities and best of all is situated under one of the most picturesque regions of the canopied rainforest. Waddy Point beachfront camping area offers up the most impressive views of the sunset across the crystal clear waters. There is also a fenced in an area here and as such this spot books up quick! Camping should be booked in advance if possible as it guarantees you the place you want. The cost to book in advance is a small fee of $4 US but worth it for the peace of mind. The cost of camping is meagre, only $4 US per adult and $3.3 US per child.
My favourite option and the one we stayed in with our guided tour was the Beachcamp Eco Retreat. While this might sound extravagant, it's actually an excellent option for people who want the outdoor experience of camping but don't want to rent or buy a tent. You just arrive, check in and walk into your tent all set up and ready for you. And its more than just a tent. The Beachcamp Eco Retreat provides Glamping Tents which have a real bed inside on top of a raisedfloor, key for those rainy days. The retreat’s electricity and water run on solar power, so it is very eco-friendly. There are hot showers on site along with an ensuite bathroom, private beach access, BBQs as well as a fully equipped kitchen. The cost is $98 US/night for the for a room for 2 adults and 2 kids.
Plan on bringing your own food unless you are staying at the resorts, where there are restaurants on the premises. Although there are some places to eat around the island they are pretty pricey and often will require going out of your way to access. Groceries can be purchased in town before heading onto the island, and you can buy a veritable feast for under $100 for a family of 4. Be sure to pick up some traditional Aussie camping treats. This includes; a goon sack (or three...) which is basically boxed wine without the box, kangaroo sausages for grilling, baked beans, Vegemite and bread for toast, some canned chicken and corn soup, hamburgers with beetroot, a box of Lamingtons and Tim Tam for dessert. And of course, lots of water.
Accessing Fraser Island
Fraser Island is located 300 kilometres north of Brisbane. Most people arrive at Fraser Island from Hervey Bay or Rainbow Beach whether they're joining a tour of driving themselves. The best way to get to either of these destinations is to make your way to Brisbane (serviced by all major airlines) and take the Greyhound or Premiere bus to the Hervey Bay or Rainbow Beach. If you're driving yourself, you won't need to worry about the bus and just drive yourself to one of the two ferry points of access. Some tours also offer pickup in Brisbane so be sure to check the itinerary before booking since a pickup in Brisbane might save you a lot of time.
If you're taking a guided tour, they'll give you a specific timeline of where to meet and your ticket onto the ferry will be prepaid. If you’re driving your own vehicle or your car rentals didn’t include ferry tickets the prices and ferry departure times are listed below.
Rainbow Beach Ferry
Rainbow Beach ferry departs from Inskip Point on the Manta Ray Barge. These barges leave every 30 minutes from 6:00 am to 5:15 pm. The return prince from this departure point is only $84 US including all passengers, so it's definitely the best option price-wise.
Hervey Bay Ferry
Hervey Bay's ferry departs from River Heads and leaves the mainland at 8:30 am, 10:15 am, 4.00 pm. This barge requires a reservation in advance since there aren't as many daily departures. River Heads Ferry costs between $120 US for a standard 4WD vehicle including the driver and $190 US for a Large 4WD vehicle. Each additional passenger in the car is $4 US. Once more, if you've purchased a package with this included you won't need to worry about paying.
Beware of Dingos
Dingos on Fraser Island are actually the last remaining pure-bred dingoes in Australia. And while spotting one of these iconic creatures might be a momentous moment, you also need to be aware that while they might look cute, you always need to take caution whenever you are around them. Dingos have been known to attack people, and there have even been a few cases where it has ended in fatalities. As recent as January of this year a young boy was attacked by a group of dingos and had to be airlifted to the hospital. So they indeed are no laughing matter. There are a few safety tips to ensure you don't let that happen to you.
Always ensure your food is locked away in your vehicle and never ever feed the dingoes. Don't leave food in your tent even if it's sealed, the dingos can still smell it and get in. Make sure you clean up any food of tables and grills after eating since the smell is likely to attract them as well.
Always keep children within arms reach. The dingos are less likely to attack when faced with a group of large adults.
While going for a jog on the beach might seem appealing, avoid running or jogging since it will trigger the dingos into an aggressive interaction.
If you do run into a dingo, stand still and face the dingo, don't turn your back as that leaves you vulnerable. Calmly walk backwards and call for help.
Should you be attacked the emergency number in Australia is 000 or 112. Most people who visit the island never even see a dingo and while this all might sound scary the chances of having a negative encounter if you follow this advice is very minimal.
Things to See and Do
While I would love to create you a detailed, hour by hour itinerary, your journey will be dictated by the tide. Some locations might be inaccessible if you've arrived at high tide and the order you visit each destination will depend on which ferry point you arrive at. So below is a sample itinerary of arrival from the Rainbow Beach Ferry Terminal and camping in Waddy Point Beachfront Campground. But even if you want a different route, the list of things to see and do here is a great start for your trip planning.
Day One - The Beach
Seventy-Five Mile Beach
Upon arrival on the island, you'll immediately be struck by the incredible, bright white sands of the Seventy-Five Mile Beach. This beach stretches out the entire length of the east side of the island. As you approach the island from the ferry, you'll see it straight away, contrasted by the bright blue waters and dark green forest. While the beach might look like a great place to take a dip, there is a large shark population and dangerous current which plagues this area. But don't worry, there are still lots of places to take a dip while driving along the island!
Head inland when you reach Eurong Beach, and you'll be on your way to see the Great Hammerstone Sandblow. Sandblows are major sand formations which flow like a river in a particular direction from weather and erosion. These sandblows shift and changes the landscape over time. This one actually is covering what used to be an entire forest eco-system which has been swallowed up with sand over the years. For the past 700,000 years, these sand dunes have been shifting and changing the shape of the island. The highest dune of the island is over 240 metres above sea level. The best way to take in the sheer enormity of these sandblows is from the air. And while a flight might not be an option, there are great hiking trails near our next destination which lead you up above the dunes where you can look out over the scenery.
Lake Wabby is a 4.8 km round trip hike from the nearest road. You get actually to walk across the Sandblow as you go. Trust me, I'm not very fit, but even I managed this hike. Driven by pure excitement as what I saw once we got out of the vehicle. Footprints from other travels create and bumpy pathway across what looks like a desert surrounded by a great rainforest. Located on the edge of the dunes is a Lake Wabby, an emerald green lake and the deepest of all the inland lakes on Fraser. Unlike the other though, this one is filled with wildlife! Freshwater turtles and even some fish can be seen swimming under the surface of the water!
Fraser Island Great Walk
Beside Lake Wabby is access to the Fraser Island Great Walk. This hiking trail is over 90km long, but you can quickly jump on it here and hike for only for a short time up unto the Lake Wabby lookout point. The landscape throughout the hike gives you a glimpse into the subtropical rainforest which makes Fraser Island so unique. Trees bend and twist as their sandy foundations shifts with the wind. The trees each contained strange and fascinating leaves and even some odd, alien looking growths.
Follow the signs along the way to the Lake Wabby look out. From here you have an unparalleled glimpse across not only the lake and sandblows but out onto the oceans as well. From here the people swimming in the waters looked like tiny ants and you could even spot groups of dingos out for a drink.
Drive back down to the 75 Mile Beach and continue along until you reach Eli Creek. You'll know you've made it right away from the groups of cars parked outside. During high season this area can get crowded but just remember you're all there to see something amazing and don't let the crowds get to you. Eli Creek is a clear freshwater creek surrounded by a leisurely boardwalk. The creek stretches along inland and you can float down it inside a floaty doughnut or just walk along the broadway further into the lush rainforest. The water level rises and falls with the rainfall and the creek has been known to get as deep as 2 meters. It's such a relaxing place just to cool off and admire your surroundings. This is a fantastic spot for the kids! When we visited the creek was very shallow, and we could even walk through many parts of it. If you need to use the washroom, this is also an excellent place to stop off.
Further up from Eli Creek you'll come upon a bright orange ship, sitting all alone on the shore. This is the S. S. Maheno. The Maheno was shipwrecked here in 1935 when a cyclone washed it onto the coast of Fraser Island. The ship was once used as a hospital by New Zealand's Naval forces in World War I. During low tide, the entirety of the rusting vessel is exposed. The rusted metal is stunning against the white sands and blue seas. Unlike some tourist attractions which are off limits, you have free reign of this place. And despite some signs advising not to climb up on top, you can really adventure right inside of it and imagine what different areas of the ship would have been used for before it was nothing but scrap metal. If you haven't already had something to eat along the way in your car, this area has some great picnic tables where to can eat.
As we continue up north, we come upon the incredibly colourful Coloured Sand Pinnacles, these can be found at the Red Canyon Park marked on your map. These multicoloured dunes are composed of iron compounds in the silica sand which give them this vibrant red, orange and sometimes even purples colours Different trees and bushes grow right out of the sand, the dark green leaves against the red a seemingly unnatural colour combo but created right from the earth.
These mystical sands were a feature in the aboriginal Butchulla people’s sacred stories. One such story is of a beautiful woman named Wuru who was promised to marry an older man named Winyer. But she loved someone else, she had fallen in love with Wiberigan, the rainbow serpent. Seeing them together one day the older man threw his boomerang at Wuru in anger but Wiberigan stepped in front of it to save Wuru. When the boomerang hit him the rainbow serpant it spilt its colours out all over the sandy cliffs. And to this day the cliffs are thought to be a place of good luck for the aboriginal people.
Continue driving a fair ways until you reach Indian Head lookout. Indian Head is a rocky hilltop which looks out over the island. A short hike up the outcrop will lead you to one of the best views on the island. The view from here not only looks out over the 75-mile beach but also the nearby crashing ocean. Take some time to study the water. If you bring some binoculars or even with the naked eye, you’ll have the chance to spot whales, dolphins, shark, rays and even turtles! It’s worth spending some time up here, we were mesmerized but the whales which breached the water and stayed here almost until the light of the day started to ween.
From the Indian Head trail, head down to the famed Champagne Pools. The Champagne Pools were my favourite part of the trip. Here, the surf crashes over the rocks and over hundreds of years has created these small pools on top of the rocks near the ocean’s edge. You can lounge in these waterlogged pools of water and relax in the sunlight. The water is actually quite warm, and it looks almost like a spa from afar, it's hard to imagine its all natural.
Pitch your tent in one of the various dingo fenced camping areas to stay the safest. Make some dinner on the gas stove and watch as the sun set over the ocean. This time of night on the island the cars stop running and the silence of only the wind over the waves is all that fills the air.
When night falls on the island, the entire place takes on a new shape. Check your local National Park guide book to see if there are any rangers tours near your campground at night. Don't do it on on your own! These rangers are highly trained in local wildlife and how to avoid running into dangerous creatures. That being said there are some creatures you do want to see, this includes rare frogs, sugar gliders, snakes and some ENORMOUS spiders. We loved the tour we went on with the local ranger and felt it gave us a scary, yet exhilarating look at the different creatures which rule the island.
Day Two - Inland Rainforest
On day two we are heading deep into the rainforest. The drive from the northernmost part of the island, inland toward Lake Mackenzie is a rough and wild ride, but it's worth getting out along the way to stretch your legs and admire the incredible rainforest which surrounds you. You’ll be driving through this incredibly dense rainforest for a few hours so stopping along the way is a great way to break up the time.
Lake McKenzie is one of the most popular parts of the of the island. It is often overwhelming full of tourists and bus tours. My advice? Skip it. This might sound like a crazy piece of advice since it’s famed as being one of the best things to see on the island. But right nearby are two other inland lakes which are arguably just as beautiful and you'll have all to yourself. If you stop at McKenzie lake and it’s not too crowded by all means do it! But there’s no harm in checking out the others too.
If Lake McKenzie is too busy considering heading a short ways away to Basin Lake. Basin Lake is an enormous perched lake formed when organic matter gradually decomposed and hardens into depressions created by the wind, making a lake bed that is actually above sea level. Because of the sensitive ecosystem in the lake, it is essential you do not wear sunscreen if you decide to take a swim. While this lake has a slightly more textural bottom than Lake McKenzie, I would argue it's all the most scenic and peaceful. The water was pretty cold but it was an experience of a lifetimetaking a dip inside these unique waters. While Wabby Lake might be emerald green, this lake is crystal blue.
Wanggoolba Creek is located in an area was once known as Central Station. Central Station was once the centre of the forestry industry when there was logging on Fraser Island. Some of the rarest ferns grow in the rainforest near here. There are beautiful boardwalks along Wanggoolba Creek with informative signage listing facts about the different flora and fauna growing on Fraser Island.
This brings you to the end of the tour. Take your vehicle back to the ferry station and catch the last ferry of the day. The last ferry of the day is silhouetted by the sunset against the water as you sail away from the island. I hope this guide helps you with your trip to Fraser Island. Are you planning on visiting sometime soon or have you been before? What are you looking forward to seeing or what was your favourite location? Share your thoughts with us in the comments!