Pay attention, class…

I’m now back at the hostel in Rainbow Beach, tired but happy after a fantastic two-day trip to Fraser Island. After yesterday’s ‘fact-light’ entry, I intend to fully educate you about this intriguing place today. Firstly, it’s the world’s largest island formed entirely from sand. As such, the end-effect is an ever-shifting landscape of sand blows, dunes, inland freshwater creeks and lakes and varied forests.

The wildlife on the island is spectacular. The forests are home to mammals such as swamp wallabies, bandicoots, possums and gliders, not to mention many species of small marsupial that inhabit the forest floor. The surrounding ocean is full of stingrays, dugongs, rays, sharks, dolphins, turtles and migrating whales (not that we saw any of these :() and the air is full of birds, including the awesome white-breasted eagle (in fact over 350 species of bird have been recorded on Fraser Island). Plovers and terns strut up and down the beach, and pied shags lurk in the shady reeds around the inland lakes. The island has 79 species of reptile, including 19 species of snake, four of which are deadly to humans, eek. A pretty impressive roll call for its size, really (I was told it is the size of Wales, but I’m not actually convinced it’s as big as that).

I’ve picked out a few of the most interesting facts that I learnt about the flora and fauna (stick with me – to my mind at least, these are actually pretty cool factoids, ripe for when you need to set an obscure trivia question – not that that scenario crops up very often, but here goes…)

  • The antichinus is a small marsupial where the females live for five to seven years but the males only live for ten months. When the males reach maturity they stop eating and resting and concentrate on mating as much as possible until they pop their clogs. Some would say a good way to go.
  • This odd behaviour has led to a brilliant example of the complex ecological inter-connectivity that occurs between species; each species has its own particular niche, and everything is finely balanced to create complex ecological communities. When the male antichini (?plural?!) are enfeebled by their mating exertions the dingos take advantage of this easy meal and concentrate their feeding on the poor, shagged-out (literally) antichini. This leaves the bandicoots, which constitute the dingo’s main diet usually, vital breathing space to carry out their own mating during this reprieve period, and everyone’s happy (well, apart from the male antichini, but then they’re probably in a permanent daze of post-coital bliss so don’t really notice their own demise). Clever, huh?
  • Another example of this connectivity is the cycad palm, which is an ancient species that can change gender. When under stress, it becomes female and grows a seed to ensure its long-term survival. Interesting that when things hot-up they revert to the female form – just saying… Anyway, this plant is very poisonous to all species (including humans) except to one small bushrat species, and this species alone is enough to spread the seeds and propagate the species.
  • We saw some strangler figs in the rainforest areas. I’ve come across this species before, but for those that don’t know, it’s a fascinating parasitic species of tree, that embeds its seeds in the canopy of another tree and grows downwards from here, sending out a network of roots that surround the host tree’s trunk. Once these roots reach the ground, the tree then grows from the bottom up, like a normal tree. Over time, the fig tree ‘strangles’ the host tree, which dies, leaving the beautiful hollow, lattice-work trunk of the fig tree behind – amazing.

 Strangulation in process…

  • We also saw the huge king fern in a freshwater creek, which is unchanged from the jurassic period. This species doesn’t have proper roots; instead it uses suction of the creek’s water up its hollow stem to support itself in the water.

 Ancient king of the forest.

  • And my final amazing fact is that, whilst watching fisherman wiping a plastic bag along the sand near the sea, I asked the guide what was going on. It turns out the bags contain rotten meat, and the scent draws sandworms’ heads out of the ground, as they investigate the smell. The fishermen then use these worms as bait. But the amazing thing is that the worms can grow longer than 1.5 metres – that’s about my height. It made me feel rather uncomfortable, having recently read the book, Dune, with its creepy, giant sandworms.

Anyway, I hope you feel suitably educated now. Maybe one day, when you’re taking part in a pub quiz, or have become a celebrity and are appearing on QI, you’ll thank me for these facts…

I’ll leave you with some photos of the highlights from today. I wish I was spending another night on the island tonight, falling asleep to the sound of the crashing waves, nursing a distended belly from another delicious all-you-can-eat buffet, *sigh*…

I woke up to do a sunrise yoga session this morning, and it was spectacular. I was alone on the beach apart from some dingo footprints (oops – flouting one of the island’s rules, which states you should always walk around in a group to prevent dingo attacks). It was one of my best, most serene yoga experiences of the trip – that is, until I was sitting in lotus on my mat afterwards, watching the sun creep up the sky and highlight the tips of the waves, frothy white like whipped meringues, when a 4×4 pulled up in front of me and an Aussie woman rolled down the window and said, “You’re in the road, doll – move further up the beach,” and then drove off, which rather spoilt the moment. She did have a point, though – it turns out that the beach counts as an official highway, and all road rules apply -oops again.

We stopped for a swim in some giant pools called the champagne pools – so called due to the waves crashing over the rock-edge and sending foamy bubbles through the water. It was brilliant fun – the waves were really strong, such that even whilst swimming frantically against them, you didn’t move at all – brilliant exercise, no doubt – no wonder I’m tired this evening…

We climbed up to one of the few rocky points along the east coast (but even the rock is formed from solidified sand), named Indian point. It’s a good place to spot marine life, but no luck today. Fabulous views back across the island though – in the background is another sand blow. I was slightly misleading in my description of these yesterday, in that they are a mobile landscape feature, and move around 1 metre per year, such that they submerge entire forests (as in this case), but reveal them again hundreds of years later, when the sand has passed – I think of it as a kind of sand glacier.

This is the Maheno ship-wreck, a turbine-driven steamer built in Scotland in 1905 and used for regular journeys between Auckland and Sydney.  It was wrecked in 1935 on its way to being scrapped. Quite an imposing, ghostly sight on the long, otherwise empty beach.

We finished the day by floating down the crystal-clear, sand-bottomed freshwater Eli creek, which flows from an aquifer below the island out onto the beach. It was so tranquil being swept along by the current below the shady branches, watching eels and fish swim past. This photo shows just how clear the water is.

Finally, this is a close-up photo of some coffee-rock – again, a rock substance formed from solidified sand, darkened through mineral staining. This is what underlies much of the island, particularly beneath the areas where the rainwater lakes form. This area of coffee-rock had a very barren, lunar feel.

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