For the next four days I’m going to be hunting for dingo doo, on Fraser Island, (now known as K’Gari) off Australia’s Queensland coast. Volunteering on a dingo research project, one of a small group, Jay and Jane from Korea, Bronwyn from Australia and our Conservation Volunteers Australia (CVA) project leader Robbo.
As we drive north to the headland at Rainbow Beach and the short ferry crossing to K’Gari, Robbo tells us all about the project. How we’ll be working alongside Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service Rangers (QPWS) travelling to a range of pre-determined sites across K’Gari, where we’ll search for and collect dingo scat. (Hunting for dingo doo.)
Each of us drawn to this project by our individual curiosities and the desire to explore the pristine wilderness of K’Gari, the world’s largest sand island and a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The island offers a very unique and varied bio-diversity over a relatively small area. Ranging from the Banksia dominated bushlands on the western side of the island to dense tropical forests across the centre of the island. Here a few of the true towering giants still survive after the loggers decimated the island. Their trunks so broad you feel dwarfed standing next to them. Creeks and lakes so crystal clear, as to create the illusion of catfish floating in the air just above the surface. To the endless, near deserted beaches of the eastern shore.
Traveling in a small group, perhaps eight or ten of us, we visit remote areas of the island, well away from the usual tourist trails. Spreading out to search for our dingo scat, I often find myself out of sight and sound of the group. It’s in these moments of solitude that I find a deep inner peace, time to listen and observe the world around me. I find an almost spiritual sense of tranquillity.
But there’s trouble in this paradise.
As soon as we arrive on the southern tip of K’Gari, the tyres on our Landcruiser deflated to allow spread and offer more grip in the sand. (There are no roads on K’Gari.) Robbo drives us up the main highway of the island, Seventy- Five Mile Beach, to the QPWS ranger station. Here a chance to meet some of the rangers we’ll be working alongside and a full project briefing.
Once found our dingo scats are logged for date, time, GPS location then bagged and sent for analysis. Part of QPWS’s data collection helping them to educate the islands residents and 300,000 annual visitors. Trying to stop unhealthy interaction between human and dingoes, (deliberate or accidental feeding) that continues to re-enforce their association with us and food.
A large part of the briefing is dedicated health and safety and to how to interact with the island’s dingoes. We’re each handed a “Danger, Look out for dingoes” card with ominous warnings.
“These wild animals roam Fraser Island and can be dangerous.”
Talking us through how to react the rangers use phrases like, “Don’t act like prey… Don’t run… Be prepared to fight back.”
This isn’t my first visit to K’Gari or my first experience of the island’s dingoes and in the intervening years there’s been a seismic shift in attitude. My first time here was back in 1995, then also as a conservation volunteer.
The first time I visited K’gari, was also as a volunteer that time with the Australian Trust for Conservation Volunteers, (ATCV) (Now restructured as CVA.) Taking the ferry from Bingham just south of Hervey Bay, direct to The Kingfisher Bay Resort. From my very sparse journal entries from the time, I know some of my fellow travellers were, Mailon, Deta, Jim, Liz, and our ATCV project leader was Andrew.
Working for the resorts Rangers on any environmental projects they had, mostly some light trail maintenance and tree planting. I don’t think we worked more than two or three hours a day the rest of the time, treated largely like guests. We stayed at the staff village, just a ten-minute walk over the hill from the resort. With three cooked meals a day and allowed to use the resorts facilities, (multiple bars and pools.) This was what Australians would call a “Ripper” of a project.
We often took kayaks to the nearby, Dundonga Creek, watched an army of tiny blue solder crabs marching in unison across the beach. Found a beautiful mottled brown carpet python tangled around the branches of a mangrove. Went on a “Beauty Spots Tour” taking the back seat on the resorts impressive four-wheel-drive busses.
Our first contact with the islands dingoes came as we sat around one of the resorts pools. An adult female dingo just casually trotted between us, almost within arms-reach. Later a staff member informed us that, “Oh she’s a regular…”
The only cautionary warning we ever got regarding the dingoes was on a visit to Lake McKenzie on the “Beauty Spots Tour.” The ranger/driver warning us not to leave boots of belts lying around as, “The dingoes go nuts over anything leather.” Signs of habitualised behaviour.
We wouldn’t find-out what happened until the next day.
Most evenings we made our way to one of the resorts bars, probably for happy hour and staying a little longer, eventually we’d start to drift away in one’s or twos. One night Mailon and Deta, two young Danish backpackers, left to go back over the hill to the staff village. The road itself illuminated by a series of waist-high lights, all else plunged into near total darkness by the dense canopy of the forest.
Over breakfast the next day, they told us how they had been stalked by a group of dingoes, leaving them genuinely fearful of being attacked. They stayed calm, hadn’t run and stuck together until they reached the safety of the staff village.
The most shocking part of this story for me was the reaction of resort staff and others around the table with us. They were adamant that the islands dingoes are harmless, that Mailon and Deta had just scared themselves with shadows. The common perception at the time was that the islands dingoes were semi-domesticated, a tourist attraction…
Unfortunately, nobody told the islands Dingoes of there domestication.
This attitude would come crashing down just six years later.
In April 2001, a nine-year-old boy was killed and his friend mauled by dingoes on K’gari. making headline news around the world. I can only wonder at how Mailon and Deta must have felt when they heard the news.
My two visits to the island were in 1995 and 2012 respectively, the island was still called Fraser Island Then.
After nearly two centuries the Queensland Government in 2022 returned the islands original Butchella name, K’Gari, a word meaning Paradise. (A far more fitting name.) The Aboriginal Butchella people are known to have inhabited K’Gari for at least 5000 years.
As I researched writing this article, I’m saddened that the first thing I find is an article about a six-year-old girl being attacked by dingoes on K’gari just the day before. Thankfully she survived with relatively minor injuries. Then searching Google Maps, there’s a picture of a picnic area at lake McKenzie, surrounded by a five-foot high wire fence.
There are risks in any wilderness area but if you’re aware of these risks you can take common sense precautions. “You’ll never see a dingo away from the beach.” A QPWS Ranger told me. Away from the major tourist areas, (The beaches) dingoes do not associate us with food and will stay well away from us. Hearing us long before we catch even a glimpse of them.
K’Gari is possibly the most diverse and pristine wilderness I personally have ever visited, leaving me with profound and warm memories that will stay with me forever.