Somewhere between my foot leaving the sand and stepping onto the entrance platform at Fraser Island’s picturesque Lake McKenzie, a shaft of sunlight pierces the clouds and the lake dazzles me with its blue-and-white glory. I’m unsure whether a heavenly choir heralded my arrival at this beauty spot but it feels entirely probable.

Embarrassingly for a Queenslander, this is my first visit to the world’s largest sand island. A UNESCO World Heritage site since 1992, Fraser lies only 85 kilometres south of Lady Elliot Island at the southern end of the Great Barrier Reef. Besides its famous dingoes, the island is home to an album of wildlife and rare rainforest. Fraser’s original inhabitants, the Butchulla people, call it K’gari – loosely translated as “paradise”.

It’s a paradise that’s wildly popular with the camping and four-wheel-driving fraternity. In high season, the long queue of vehicles waiting for the barge to and from Inskip Point at the top of the Sunshine Coast (barges also make the trip across from Hervey Bay) illustrates its attraction for adventure-seekers, many of whom stay at one of the 45 designated camping areas.

For a more relaxed pace, there’s still plenty that appeals to the less back-to-basics traveller – it’s possible to fly to the island, explore by boat, book a holiday rental or stay at a resort or private lodge. Once here you can choose your speed, be it drifting through water so pure it can hardly sustain aquatic life or heading off on an intrepid discovery of Fraser’s west coast hotspots. Either way, here’s how to make the most of a weekend on the island.

Saturday: taking it easy

“You guys are going to experience a whole lot of sand,” declares Hayden Webber as he ushers me and 39 others onto a four-wheel-drive bus so hefty it could get work as an extra on Transformers. Hayden is a guide for Fraser Explorer Tours and today he’s leading a group on Kingfisher Bay Resort’s Beauty Spots tour. Soon, we’re heading through a dingo-proof fence – electrified, says Hayden, because last year an enterprising litter of pups learnt how to climb it.

Kingfisher Bay Resort, Fraser Island, Queensland

My experience of sand is that the gusset of my swimmers is often full of it and what isn’t there collects on the floor of my car. But the stuff on the tracks across Fraser’s 1840 square kilometres has been gouged and sculpted into something of a moonscape. At times we’re thrown around like socks in a washing machine and when I lift my water bottle to my lips, I’m suddenly wearing the contents.

There’s no driving a regular car here; these challenging tracks call for high-clearance, low-range four-wheel drives. Hire companies rent suitable vehicles and give driving advice – you need a permit and would be a fool not to carry recovery equipment, since bogged cars do get swallowed by the tide and it’s an expensive retrieval.

But Hayden ably manoeuvres this behemoth during his information download. The sand, he says, came partly from huge mountains in the Antarctic area of what was then Gondwana, the great southern landmass. Over millennia it was eroded, gradually re-formed into sandstone in central NSW and eroded again to be deposited here.

Fraser contains half of the world’s 80 perched sand-dune lakes (rainwater captured in an impervious layer), of which the 150-hectare Lake McKenzie is the undisputed pin-up. Wading into its pale shallows, the water feels somehow soft. There’s no salt or chlorine to sting the eyes and its dark-blue depths can’t maintain much more than a few shy turtles and tiny fish.

Nearby is the lush forest of Pile Valley, where whipbirds whistle along with the throbbing buzz of cicadas. Mossy, humid, still and gorgeous, this unusual sand-based rainforest is home to the king fern, a prehistoric wonder that barely exists in Australia outside the tropics. When visiting last year, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex dedicated these forests to the Queen’s Commonwealth Canopy project, though pregnant Meghan understandably skipped the bumpy ride.

The “Royal canopy” of Pile Valley, Fraser Island, Queensland

It’s a smoother drive onto 75 Mile Beach, stretching right up the seaward coast. A gazetted highway with all the normal road rules, it also serves as a runway for the scenic flights offered by Air Fraser. From above, the vast scale of the island is striking. At 123 kilometres long, its bushland is splashed with more than 100 lakes and sand blows cover the greenery like pale comb-overs.

The SS Maheno ocean liner, Fraser Island, Queensland

We soon spot the SS Maheno, a 122-metre ocean liner and one-time Gallipoli transport that washed ashore in a storm in 1935 and now rusts here in the shifting sand. She provides a handy photo op; just to her north are The Pinnacles, crusty sand cliffs streaked with iron oxide.

I’m ready for a bit more action when we arrive at Eli Creek, which disgorges 4.2 million litres of fresh water every hour – enough to fill an Olympic swimming pool twice over. I wade past the wooden footbridge spanning its shallows, envious of kids drifting on inflatables towards the beach. Nobody knows me so I assume a yoga pose I call “the log”, point my feet downstream and let the current take me.

Even including my Lake McKenzie “hallelujah” moment, this is today’s high-water mark. Waders pause to let me pass but I’m focused on my blissful drift, watching the scrolling sky through branches overhead – until my backside strikes the shallows with a rude shock (hello, sandy gusset).

During afternoon tea on the beach, we spot our first dingo scoping out scraps. The island’s 200-odd virtually purebred dingoes can be crafty scavengers; even the smell of toothpaste could lure them into tents. Warnings are postedprominently and five of the island’s camp sites are fenced.

Back at my hotel, the popular Kingfisher Bay Resort, I recharge in a hot tub under a pandanus tree and decide to tag along on a night walk to see what other wildlife we can scare up. Turns out it’s the other way round. With her torch, resort ranger Tess Schreck spots eels in the waterways and lagoons, flitting microbats and funnel-web spiders lurking in holes by the boardwalks. I had no idea or I wouldn’t have worn sandals.

A Hervey Bay local, Tess has visited Fraser all her life and says she “always wanted to be a ranger here”. That’s entirely believable: even when they’re off duty, these rangers can often be found camping. She chirpily ticks off a list of local snakes, including the eastern brown and coastal taipan. We don’t see any of these (but I do admire her sturdy boots).

I scurry off to catch some more of the local nature – this time in my gullet – at the resort’s Seabelle Restaurant, which serves modern Australian cuisine featuring native ingredients. My crocodile and calamari salad with pepperberry aïoli hits the spot. But while today was a gentle introduction to the better-known delights of Fraser, tomorrow I’m aiming for a deep dive. In bed, I assume the log pose.

Sunday: plunging in

Operated by long-running Hervey Bay outfit Tasman Venture, today’s Remote Fraser Island Experience will take me by boat to reveal secret spots on the island’s west coast. It will also reveal how I look in a stinger suit. Spoiler alert: not great but with people being stung by Irukandji jellyfish, these full-body Lycra numbers are recommended for ocean swimming.

Guide Vicki Neville is approaching her 22nd season working alongside the migrating whales who rest in Hervey Bay’s shallow waters. “It’s the whales that keep me here,” she says. “There’s just nowhere like it.” She insists she’s never once felt threatened when in the water with the gentle giants.

If it were whale season (July to October), this tour would include the possibility of doing just that but right now a trio of inshore humpback dolphins try to make up for it, performing just off the bow. Now we need turtles, quips someone, and up pops an obliging loggerhead’s leathery noggin.

There are about 1000 hectares of mangroves here, says skipper Lloyd Burgess. They fringe the wide mouth of Wathumba Creek but instead of the usual mangrove mud, there’s gleaming white sand and it’s clear enough for us to snorkel among schools of fish. We also find a poisonous stonefish, which I add to my mental catalogue of frighteners.

Motoring past the coastline, I can appreciate just how lumpy this island is. We stop at one huge beachfront dune and make the tough scramble to the top, glad to have shed our full-length suits because the heat coming off the sand is intense. The view stretches far across the sparkling bay; to either side lie expanses of beach and, in the shallows, what looks suspiciously like a shark is navigating south, pursuing a school of baitfish. Another entry for the catalogue.

Nevertheless, it’s a thrilling day spent immersed in K’gari’s unspoilt west coast. From kayaking in search of kingfishers to tubing behind a speedboat and pelting desperately across foot-melting sand to plunge into a waterhole, what we’ve seen feels untouched and magnificent. There’s no rubbish floating on the tide. In fact, we’ve barely clocked another human.

Sunset Bar, Fraser Island, Queensland

Back at the Kingfisher Bay jetty, a drink at the handily placed Sunset Bar is a no-brainer. Every afternoon at this laid-back spot, a host of folk belly up to the railing to toast the sinking sun. “It’s a bay of beautiful colours,” says Maryborough local Julie Walker, who makes it over to the island about three times a year. “It is absolutely paradise.”

What to do with...

Small kids: Every weekend and during school holidays, Kingfisher Bay Resort’s Junior Eco Rangers program, for kids aged five to 12, offers fun activities such as fishing, cooking marshmallows on a camp fire and looking for soldier crabs. Elsewhere on the island, swimming in lakes and creeks and playing on sand dunes also have child appeal. If camping, be sure to book at one of the five campgrounds fenced to keep dingoes away and follow signposted advice.

Teenagers: Five Fraser Coast companies are licensed for “immersive” whale experiences under certain conditions – check these with individual operators. The Pacific Whale Foundation runs its as part of a research project to observe and study whale behaviour, while Blue Dolphin Marine Tours’ boat platform lets you lie in the water to watch them rather than being attached to a “mermaid line”.

Adults children: You can go as hard or as easy as you like on Fraser. Charming sailing spots await, as well as nature walks that range from pleasant birdwatching strolls (more than 350 species have been recorded) to the 90-kilometre K’gari Great Walk, which is hard going at up to eight days. The island is also a top fishing destination – hire a boat or guide from the mainland and set out.

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