Fraser Island, first named Great Sandy Island, extends for a distance of 120 km from north to south, from opposite Bundaberg to south of Maryborough. It is the northern-most of the chain of sand islands which include Moreton and Stradbroke Islands, and is the largest of them. It is considered to be the largest such island in the world. All were formed from the build-up of sand on an igneous or similar rocky outcrop; in the case of Fraser Island, Indian Head towards the north of the island.
Nutrient-laden sea spray on the sand mass enabled the beginning of elementary plant communities. Decomposition and regrowth, leaching of nutrients and the chance deposition of mainland seed material led to more complex plant communities, including forest trees. When James Cook sighted Great Sandy Island in 1770 he named Indian Head after Aborigines seen there, proof that the island could support a population estimated at several hundred, and up to 3000 according to a State Protector of Aborigines.
The island came to notoriety when the Stirling Castle was wrecked near Gladstone in 1836. Captain Fraser and his wife Eliza, along with several survivors, reached Great Sandy Island. Eliza Fraser subsisted among the Aborigines for seven weeks, gaining considerable celebrity. By the 1880s Great Sandy was known as Fraser Island.
Six years after Eliza Fraser's misadventure, Andrew Petrie reported on the cypress pine trees found on Fraser Island. Within another 20 years the timber around Kin Kin and Noosa was being cut out, and in 1863 the first timber was taken from Fraser Island. There was also increased shipping around Hervey Bay, and a light station was built on the north of the island at Sandy Cape. The waters there are dangerous, with sand spits extending north and east from the cape. A school was opened there in 1877 for children of the light-station staff. In addition to shipping, there was increased European contact and the first of three missions for Aborigines was opened in 1870. Mission activity ceased in 1904 and the inhabitants were forcibly moved to Yarrabah (Cairns), Cherbourg and Durundur.
Timber harvesting lasted until the 1990s. A sawmill began on Fraser Island in 1918, and timber was dispatched from a jetty opposite the Mary River on the mainland. There was also horse-breeding, leading to a population of brumbies. Among several shipwrecks around Fraser Island, the Maheno (1935) beached near Happy Valley, was the most spectacular. Its loss coincided with Happy Valley starting as a tourist resort. In 1944 a training camp for Z Force commando units was located near the timber jetty.
Soon after the end of the war a geological survey confirmed the existence of good rutile and zircon deposits on Fraser Island. Sand mining began in 1966 at Inskip Point (on the mainland, across a narrow waterway at the south of Fraser Island), and on the island in 1971. It provoked bitter and lengthy resistance from the Fraser Island Defence Organization (FIDO), led by John Sinclair. Mining interests were backed by the Bjelke-Petersen State government, but the Commonwealth's National Estate powers prevailed. Fraser Island was put on the Register of the National Estate by Malcolm Fraser's coalition government and mining ended in 1976. It achieved World Heritage listing in 1992.
Tourism had also increased, aided by a vehicular ferry service from Inskip Point (1967), popular with 4-wheel drive enthusiasts. The island offered a lot to tourists. The northern one-third was a national park (1971), and the rest of the island included heathlands, rain forests, a wide, 4WD-trafficable beach on the east side, freshwater creeks and lakes, and the celebrated perched lakes. Sand can hold 30% by volume of water from the generous rainfall, ensuring replenishment of the water systems. The perched lakes, above the water table, hold their water by having an impermeable bottom layer of sand bonded by colloidal vegetation, hardened as 'coffee rock'. There are also coloured sands at the Pinnacles and Cathedral Beach.
A typical vegetation profile of Fraser Island is eastern foredunes, secondary-dune colonising plants such as she-oaks and coast banksias, then less stunted trees including acacia and eucalypt with understorey, then tallow wood and satinay (turpentine wood), gullies in high dunes with rainforest, and proceeding west to older, leached sand deposits with wallum, heathlands, peat swamps (fens) and mangroves. Rainforest occupies about 5% of the island.
From about 5000 visitors a year in 1970, Fraser Island's annual visitation exceeded 200,000 in the 1980s. Some stayed at the five resort villages, but more beach-camped, especially the backpackers. Day trippers access the island from both Hervey Bay and Rainbow Beach to the south. Rubbish and inadequate lavatory arrangements have blemished the ocean dunes. In June 2001 the census counted 1400 people on Fraser Island, of whom 1200 were visitors. (That allowed 4 to 8 people for every pure-bred Fraser Island dingo, which visitors are warned not to feed.)
During the peak years of conservation consciousness Fraser Island was included as part of the Cooloola sandmass. It was not, however, part of the Cooloola Shire, but was governed by Hervey Bay (north part of the island) and Maryborough Cities, an arrangement corresponding with Hervey Bay's conservation/tourism interests and Maryborough's preference for timber exploitation. That ended with local-government amalgamations in 2008. 'Cooloola' disappeared as a Council name and Hervey Bay and Maryborough were merged as Fraser Coast Regional Council. Fraser has been an enduring name. The Aboriginal name, K'gari, is less well known.
Fraser Island's census populations have been:
Ross and Heather Buchanan, Fraser Island and Cooloola visitors' guide, Logan City, Hema Maps, 1996
John Sinclair, Fraser Island and Cooloola, Willoughby, NSW, Weldon Publishing, 1990
Rob van Driesum, Discover Fraser Island, Eight Mile Plains, Hema Maps, 2004
Fred Williams, Princess K'Gari's Fraser Island, the author, 2002