Quotes Describing Fraser Island

From Historical Documents and Literature

From its earliest days FIDO has sought to collect any written records which might give a clue to what constitutes Fraser Island’s integrity.  FIDO has also tried to gather in as many old photographs as possible to provide a visual guide to integrity.  As far as possible FIDO has sought to place all of this data, much previously only privately held into the public domain to provide a better insight.  Much has been published in MOONBI and in Rollo Petrie’s book, “Early Days on Fraser Island”. FIDO has attempted to remedy the deficiency of early photographic records by establishing a photographic archive through its “Then and Now” project, then providing copies of any of its photographs for the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service and the Oxley Memorial.

There are no written records from Aboriginal times.  However, noted anthropologist Dr Norman Tindale noted:

“This island would have been one of more densely occupied areas of Australia, exceeded only by the Kaiadilt of Bentinck Island.  Such densities seem possible chiefly when fish and reef products are freely available.”

Captain Cook provided the first surviving written records but only those elements of his notes which describe the environment:

“The land hereabouts, which is of moderate height, appears more barren than any we have seen on this coast, and the soil more sandy, there being several large places where nothing else is to be seen.  In other places the woods look to be low and shrubby, nor did we see many signs of inhabitants.”

Joseph Banks made similar observations in relation the Cooloola Sand Patch.  In July 1802 Matthew Flinders recorded his observations from the sea,

“This part of the coast is very barren; there being great patches of moveable sand many acres in extent through which appeared in some places the green tops of grass, half buried, and in others the naked trunks of such as the sand has destroyed.”

However, Flinders went on to contradict Cook’s view on the low population noting,

“Nothing can be imagined more barren than this peninsula, but the smoke which arose in many parts corroborated (estimates of a ‘more numerous population of Indians than is usual to the Southward’) and bespoke that fresh water was not scarce in this Sandy Country: Our course at night was directed by the fires on shore…” This reference to fires by Flinders indicates that fire was a part of Aboriginal ecology prior to contact with Europeans. Aborigines were masters of fire.  They managed fire to maximize the productivity of the land for their particular lifestyle based on hunting and gathering.

Three decades elapsed before there are other descriptions.  Escaped convict James Bracefell had a 12-month sojourn on Fraser Island in about 1840.  He described for his recordist, Dr Simpson his observations:

“…passed over in a Canue to Fraser’s Island, called Carina by the Blacks.  The tribes here, who go by the general appellation of the (Baltelus), are very numerous, thousands he thinks, for he states at their great fights he has seen them covering the Beach for four miles in length.”

The Island itself shuts in Wide Bay to the Eastward and may be from 50 – 60 miles long but formed principally of sand hills like Moreton Island but well watered.  There is also abundance of fish, crabs, turtle, seahogs, kangaroo and opossum, also the Honeysuckle and a kind of nut growing on a shrub (macrozamia cycad), which is rendered eatable by being pounded and washed in a running Stream. 

Although Eliza Fraser gave a voluminous account of her seven weeks with the Aborigines of Fraser Island and Cooloola in 1836, she gave none describing the environment other than that she and her husband had to carry firewood and dig roots.

Aboriginal fires also featured in Andrew Petrie’s descriptions of Fraser Island in 1842 when fixed his position in Great Sandy Strait by “observing a black’s fire on Frazer‘s Island …” He went on to record:

“The blacks are very numerous on Frazer Island; there is a nut which they find that they eat, and the fish are very plentiful.  The formations and productions of the island are much the same as those of Moreton Island; the timber is a great deal superior, and also the soil; the cypress pine upon Frazer Island being quite splendid.” 

Elsewhere he reported,

“In this scrub I found a species of pine not known before.  It is similar to the New Zealand cowrie pine and bears a cone. .  It forms valuable timber.  The Blacks make their nets of the inner bark of this tree.” 

Western civilization’s use of Fraser Island was initially based almost entirely on industrial exploitation.  It proved to be very marginal at best for primary industries such as grazing and farming but it was quickly recognized that it had the potential to support a big timber industry. It continued for 128 years.   Ironically the establishment of the timber industry was assisted by Andrew Petrie’s sons.

The earliest descriptions of the forests were published by a pioneering timberman Ned Armitage.  As a sawmiller and timber contractor he described the forests of Fraser Island and the extravagant waste of timber which resulted in many giants being ringbarked and poisoned.

“The traveller strikes a “living wall of giant timber trees up to 150- (one hundred and fifty) feet high, buried in jungle – scrubs so thickly growing that roads or tracks must be cut to enable one to get through, great piles 100 to 120 feet clear to the first limb, are there in thousands, straight as an arrow but by far the greater number are much too big for piles, and can only be used as saw-mill logs up to about four or five feet in diameter, containing from five to six thousand feet in each tree, then beyond that limit again come the super-giants, so big that no saw-mills at present in use in Queensland have any machinery capable of handling them, so the timbergetter must reluctantly pass them by and leave them for some future saw-mills with bigger machinery, to deal with, although he has already made his roads right past them and has his teams and railway and floating-plant on the spot, it is no use, no mill can take them yet.  These great Monarchs of the forest are from six to ten feet in diameter, and contain from seven thousand to thirty thousand feet of timber in each tree, some very powerful lifting gear and some system of sawing is needed before they can be handled.”

A similar eulogistic description particularly of the forests was recorded in a report to the Queensland Parliament in 1905 by Archibald Meston, the Protector of Aborigines who had a nine-year association with the Aboriginal “missions” on the island at McKenzies Jetty and later at Bogimbah Creek.

“The general observer is mystified by an island with not an acre of soil bearing a dense and luxuriant vegetation not rivalled in size and beauty by the richest flora of the tropics.  In the centre of the island, extending for a distance of 40 miles, with a width of 2 to 3 miles, is a dense scrub containing the largest and tallest trees of all Australian scrubs, with hardwood trees up to 9 or 10 feet in diameter, and 200 feet in height, mingled with tall beautiful palms, majestic tree ferns, graceful orchids, splendid mosses and lichens, and a general wealth of luxuriant undergrowth, all growing apparently out of pure sand, the secret lying in the underneath impervious strata of sandstone which intercepts all moisture and decomposing vegetation, and forms a perpetual bed of manure to which the roots of the trees descend for rich supplies of nourishment.

Outside of this belt of extraordinary scrub the country is covered by heavy forest, the size of the trees decreasing as they near the east and west coasts.  There the land is covered by short shrubs, soft grasses, and a great profusion of brightly-tinted and sweetly-scented flowers.

There are at least twenty-two lakes of pure fresh water, most of them encircled by white sand beaches, like that of the sea, and fringed by thick vegetation.  A few resemble swamps, having thick clumps of reeds here and there in the centre or the edge, but all are clear and deep.  The whole island consists of sandhills and valleys, all densely timbered, except a few bare hills along the east coast, north from the centre.”

Walter Petrie took up the position of the first District Forester on Fraser Island in 1913 50 years after his father was involved in the early logging.  In some of his surviving reports he observed on the grandeur of Fraser Island prior to logging.

He wrote a number of reports and publications which indicate not only the size of the forest giants but also the rapacious exploitation of the early timber getters before he aimed to try to establish some order in the timber exploitation:

“The following sizes (of trees) may be of interest.  Kauri Pine 80 feet to the first limb; diameter of stump 10 feet 4 inches diameter of top log 6 feet.  White Beech 60 feet to the first limb diameter of tree 6 feet.  Tallowood 80 feet to first limb diameter of tree 7 feet 3 inches.  Blackbutt 65 feet to first limb diameter of tree 6 feet and Red Stringy much the same.  Turpentine 80 feet to the first limb and diameter 8 feet 3 inches.”

“These are the largest trees; runners up being Hoop pine, scrub box, quandong and bolly gums (hard and soft).  The best development of the great bulk of the different species is reached in or down the sides of the deep gullies or almost gorges…Although in the past considerable quantities of pine and some beech were taken out the present revenue is derived from two species only blackbutt and Tallowood…”

“Many fine trees were logged with the expectation of (floating them down the freshwater streams) and rolled in the shallow but strongly running creek.  A trial dam was constructed…the attempt had to be abandoned…

“A diameter of 3 feet proved the most profitable size to handle and many large trees were wasted because of their size.  In 1878 Armitage cut six logs from a Yidney scrub giant…Bristow and Dempster hauled all but the butt log (10 feet 4 inches diameter) but they all proved too large for the mills to handle”.

“A few remnants of the original large trees yet remain (1926).  Seary states that he extracted 300,000 super feet measurement from an area of about 5 acres (2 hectares).  In 1916 I submitted measurements of a fine stand of trees (not giants) but twenty trees then girthing 60 inches to 97 inches were on quite a small area.”

“In 1913 when I visited the various sites of old operations a few rotting stumps and tops were to be seen but the positions of the old giants were mostly to be located by the holes left in the ground where the stumps had long since rotted away.  Exceptions were the abandoned logs which had become imbedded in the sand under the shallow water of the creeks and thus preserved to water level.  EXPLOITATION HAD BEEN HEAVY and I could see that it would be many a long year before a general logging could be resumed.”

Walter Petrie’s comments were not confined to description of the stature of the forests.  He was concerned at the impact of human interference on the environmental integrity. He was concerned at the use of fire to maintain grasslands on the foredunes noting, “While the bullocks’ condition and sometimes lives depend on the young green grass, fires will contrive to be started, but it is extremely difficult to catch the men “red-handed”.  He also complained about the impact of grazing on the foredunes, a sentiment which would be echoed 50 years later and until the brumbies were removed within the last two years: “No new regeneration of pandanus is now taking place owing to the stock eating the young plants…”

One of the few surviving photos of the foredunes from the Petrie decade despite its poor quality certainly confirms the lack of trees along the foredune.  This image occurs just south of Eurong but outside the area which Aldridge had fenced off as the “Horse Paddock” which remained largely open until the early 1970s.

Walter’s son, Rollo Petrie had many environmental descriptions of Fraser Island. Although Rollo was a mere boy when he first went to Fraser Island he had an incredibly accurate visual memory and his observations are incorporated in his book, “Early Days on Fraser Island”. He has provided the only record of the extirpation of koalas on Fraser Island:

“Old Nugget of the Batjala tribe told me of the last koala on Fraser Island, a big blue gum tree some half a mile from Woongoolba Creek was the spot. The Aborigines and dingoes were the koalas’ greatest enemies.  One old male lived around the big gum tree.  The tree was his base home from which he would move out in search of food and a mate, each night or nearly dawn he would return to the tree and sit and wait for the next evening to sortie out again.  The local Aborigines knew of his plight and were sympathetic to him and on occasions protected him from dingoes. Even though they had hunted koalas for food, this old man was now sacred, the omen of a lost race, so when one morning they found the old man dead at the foot of the tree, there was much wailing and beating of thighs and boomerang tapping.  He was the last koala on Fraser Island.” 

FIDO has collected the stories from many veterans who moved extensively through Fraser Island’s forests in the early 20th Century.   Happily it was possible in 1976 to pick the memories of several veterans who knew Fraser Island in the same period as Rollo although most weren’t familiar with it before 1920 as Rollo was.  In 1995 Rollo wrote:

“From 1913 to the twenties and possibly some time later one could ride practically anywhere on Fraser Island.  Even in the scrubs one could weave a set course dodging a vine here and there or fallen log.” 

Andy Anderson worked on Fraser Island as a Forestry cadet in the 1920s.  He later returned to Maryborough in the 1960s as District Forester.  He was impressed by the environmental changes and frequently commented how while carrying out his work as a forester on horseback he was able to “crown every stump without getting out of the saddle”.  Andy Anderson’s testimony to the openness of the forests which accords with other observations by people who knew the island intimately then, surveyors, bullockies and Aborigines many of whom joined the FIDO Veterans tour in 1976.

It just wasn’t in the commercial forest areas that veterans spoke of a much more open environment.  In 1934 Ike Owens a Butchalla man who had a lifetime association with Fraser Island did a long walk as far north as Sandy Cape and back.  He commented specifically on the issue of the changes to the fire regimes

“When I did my walk around the top end of Fraser Island, I walked around the beach and over the sandhills. It was not overgrown then, there were open grassy areas all through there. The Island is now very much overgrown, because in the past they used to see that it was kept clean by burns. I counted brumbies from Happy Valley to Indian Heads.  At a guess, 800 horses. There were some good horses there. …” 

The environment of Fraser Island remained much as described in early descriptions until the 1970s.  In 1976 those on FIDO’s veteran tour all commented on the increased density of the understorey.  However even then Fraser Island had a much more open woodland with a grassy understorey than at present.

It is important to appreciate the significance of the changes to the structure of the forest because that affects the fauna.  For example, Rollo Petrie describes how much more numerous dingos’ were on Fraser Island 90 years ago. He illustrates this with one story:

“George Jackson found a freshly shot stallion on the beach several miles south of Indian Head. … George poisoned the carcass.  Next morning he had 100 (dingo) scalps”.

Rollo also reported that the dingoes were fond of bandicoots and that

”Bandicoots were plentiful in the 1915 to 1920s in the Wangoolba area.” 

One issue which needs to be addressed is whether the dingo population has fallen because bandicoot numbers (and possibly other mammals which were dingo food sources have declined and if so what has caused that decline.

From 1971, when FIDO was established the3 writer has collected photos showing Fraser Island’s environmental conflicts.  These are now useful in documenting environmental change.

Some descriptions of Fraser Island by Patrick White made after a very cursory 3 hours on Fraser Island.

Extracts from “Eye of the Storm”

 Patrick White

NOTE:  He developed these impressions from just three hours on the ground driving from Wanggoolba Creek Airstrip to Central Station and back to deliver Forestry workers supplies

Beneath them the straits burnished silver by the heat; ahead of them the solid island trembling perceptibly with the motion of their flight.  …  On one side was the strait flat and listless through the fringe of mean looking mangroves; on the other, beyond the pickets of eucalypts rose the dark mass of the more obscure esoteric rainforest which obscured, presumably the ocean. 

Out of a haze of sentiment and tuberoses, she had conjured for this solid land mass, of island of hate; its stinging sand, twisted tree roots, and brumbies snapping at one another with yellow teeth lashing out with broken teeth as they invaded along the beach. 

… an ancient car dashed towards the airstrip from out of the tallowwoods and sassafras, bucking, almost pig rooting at every ridge it had to cross … Nonchalantly the Chevrolet leaped away from the airstrip, tore through a thinnish scrub, and started to climb through the rainforests.  ….

Now it hushed the strangers it was initiating.  At some stages of the journey, the trees were so densely massed, the columns so moss upholstered or lichen encrusted, the vines suspended from them so intricately rigged, the light barely slithered down, and then some dark watery green, through the rare gaps where the sassafras had been thinned out, and once where a giant blackbutt had crashed, the intruders might have been reminded of the actual light if this had not been flittered again like moss, but dry, crumbled white to golden. 

For a moment they were overtaken by the forest pressing through the carrol scrub which had so far fringed the beach, the great eucalypts themselves shedding skin, and the darker sassafras were massing to obscure the tantalizing coloured cliffs of childhood.  She noticed the same green as the moss, sombre yet glowing, clotting in hummocks at the roots of some native cypresses.  What began giving her pleasure ended as a virulent glare.  …

They were driving through the flickering trees and stationary ropes and trapezes of vines. 

Standing on a shelf between the forest and a strip of powdered coral, the house had been stained a practical brown … it had resisted the throbbing, the threats and apocalyptic splendours of an ocean perpetually unrolling out to the indeterminate east. 

There was somebody murdered here in the beginning.  They were wrecked on the island.  The blacks killed the men and made the woman their slave. 

Extracts from “A Fringe of Leaves”

 Patrick White

Describing Fraser Island

Round them shimmered the light, the sand and further back, the darker proprietary trees.  Where the beach rose higher, to encroach the forest, great mattresses of sand, far removed from the attention of the tides, were quilted and buttoned down by vines, a variety of convolvulus, its furled trumpets a pale mauve.  Vine-embroidered sand.  … burning mattresses of sand laced by runners of convolvulus ….

While the sun sank lower the landscape was subjected to a tyrannical beauty of deeper blue, slashed green, and flamingo feathers.  … beneath a splendid sky beside a colour of raw cobalt shot with bronze.  … Shafts of light admitted between the pinnacles and arches of the trees directed her path.