Monday, October 7, 2013


Captain James Cook got so much right it seems a shame to dwell on every detail that may not have been completely accurate. Such is the case with the Great Sandy Peninsula, an outcropping of pure sand in the midst of the Pacific Ocean just an hour or so up the coast from Brisbane. Great, yes, home to the magical Satay tree a behemoth which was found to be distasteful by every parasite known to enjoy and decimate timber, making it the perfect structure in pier and wharf construction. Sandy, for sure, the area contains three times the amount of sand as the mighty Sahara desert, it's sand from the Ocean floor to it's highest dune. However, it is the peninsula piece of the equation that doesn't quite fit and therefore the Great Sandy Peninsula was renamed the Great Sandy Island by the next in a series of epic Australian explorers, one James Flinders, when he circumnavigated the continent in 1803.

An island of sand containing a vast subtropical rain forest sounds like a dream exploration for a veteran mariner and in a last gasp effort to revive a career cut short by illness, James Fraser mounted a campaign. On a boat from England named, "Stirling Castle", he would sail to the massive island of sand on a research mission. He loaded the boat with 16 young men, either scientists or tried and tested seamen, along with himself and his lovely wife Eliza.

The mission was doomed from the start as poor Captain Fraser fell ill almost as soon as their ship set sail in the spring of 1836. As the captain coughed toward the coast of Australia a few hours north of the great island of sand, the vessel was torn apart on a reef, the crew had to abandon the ship and the 18 inhabitants threw themselves and a few provisions onto two lifeboats. The lifeboats were tied together and were to continue down the coastline towards their destination. However, late one evening the crew of one of the boats, full of hardened sailors, decided that there was nothing further to be gained by continuing down the coast in pursuit of this doomed mission with their dwindling captain. Thus in the dark of night the crew cut the line connecting the boats and headed for the shore, where they intended to  walk to safety. Farewell to the Fraser's, and their small crew of pansy scientists; its every man for himself now.

James and Eliza along with a few botanists, ran ashore on the sandy island a week or two later. They were greeted by the aboriginal people of the island. Initially the crew were able to curry favour by trading a few trinkets for food and shelter, but soon after the trinkets were gone and the aboriginal people began to instruct the strange visitors on the local customs, which included how to fish, hunt and get along on the island - everyone was expected to pitch in! The first order of business was for these new inhabitants to get with the program and strip naked. As you could imagine for a few English botanists this affront to their civilised ways was too much to bear and a gang stormed off to swim the 2 mile channel back to the mainland, they didn't make it. So it was a sick and dying James Fraser left on the island with his lovely bride Eliza making the best of what life they had left. Finally one of the seaman from the first lifeboat made it to an English outpost on the mainland. Most of their gang did not last the journey but the three who did limped in to town telling the tale of the sinking of the Stirling Castle (leaving out the part about them abandoning their captain at sea). The story caught the attention of the commanding officer at Brisbane who knew the right man for the rescue mission, John Graham. Mister Graham put together a small crew and set sail for Fraser Island. As Mister Graham approached the island, he disrobed to his birthday suit in order to be less threatening to the aboriginals, to the complete surprise of his crew. I can just imagine the sight of the aforementioned John Graham jumping off his vessel on the shore of the Island in front a group of aboriginals without any laundry and looking back at his men saying... "are you coming?"

John Graham tried to determine if Captain Fraser was present on the island however the Aboriginals only told the tale of one "ghost" who had joined the tribe. When John Graham arrived at the village he found Eliza Graham being treated for sunburn by the aboriginal elders. He asked for Eliza to return with him to the mainland, and with a little convincing the community agreed to let their sun burnt ghost go with Mr Graham.

Eliza finally made it back to Sydney and made a living retelling her account of her adventures and embellishing the facts to make her fantastic story even more implausible and worthy of publishing. Unfortunately the version of the story which involved a community of aboriginals saving her from death did not play as well as a version involving cannibals spearing her husband and cooking him for dinner and the latter fabrication became a turning point in European / Aboriginal relations, for the worse. In reality the story may have provided the impetus for Europeans to invade and over run the Aboriginal people of the Island in the early 1840's to exploit it for its commercial potential.

Eventually Eliza found out that there might be an inheritance from her late husbands will back in England. Therefore she made the trip back to her homeland reuniting with her long lost son and daughter. However the tribunal responsible for Captain Fraser's estate found a few holes in Eliza's story not to mention the fact that she had hidden a second marriage from them and hence she was not a penniless widow; the estate went to the children. Eliza returned to Australia with her husband Captain Alexander John Greene and they either settled in Melbourne or Auckland New Zealand, whoever you choose to believe.

Soon after Eliza's foray the Great Sandy Island became known as Fraser Island, though no one quite knows when the switch was made. I prefer to think that Eliza returned to the Island and lived out her life bathing in the cool pristine waters of Lake Mckenzie, one of the 28 perched lakes on her island; special indeed as Fraser Island is home to more than half of these rare sand based lakes in the world. I thought about old Eliza as I bobbed around the waters just yesterday.

Who says Australia has no history.