North Stradbroke Island is right around the corner, but it feels like it is a million miles away.
“Every island to a child is a treasure island.”
– P.D. James, The Lighthouse
If every coastline represents, in some way, the edge of consciousness, that effervescent border between waking and the vast ocean of our unconsciousness, then it is no wonder we are so fascinated by islands, which seem to spring up out of that collective aether into awakening, seemingly afloat above an unfathomable depth.
Perhaps all men are islands, the distant peaks of others nothing more than the surface perturbations of the same underlying structure, souls separated by the sea of matter, unaware that below, they arise from the same clay.
The isolation of islands defines every aspect of their reality. Darwin intuited evolution after his time among the Galapagos and the Australian coastline, two islands with such exquisite isolation that they spawned flora and fauna so unique, so utterly locked into their micro-ecosystems that it forced him to re-examine reality.
The Moai of Easter Island, standing guard over their mystery, would have been obliterated were they not ensconced on an island. On islands, there is no history, only the ancient past awoken, surprised and naked, by man, again and again.
Perched on the edge of infinity in every direction, the island is a threshold, it is liminality expressed in the language of our dreams: wind and sand and foam. It forces us to disconnect ourselves from the mainland, the main mythologies of our life, to unbecome.
Staring out at the Indian Ocean with the bulwark of a continent at your back is never the same as looking out over the sea on an island beach, where you can feel its endlessness flanking you, where the self sublimes into another grain of sand, into a dune, into a lost scent.
Locked into liminality, stretching that sense of lightness out for hours, days, weeks, you can learn to fly as if you’re dreaming, learn to feel at ease without the common gravity of the default world.
…you never come back from an island…
North Stradbroke Island is as different from its neighbour to the north, Moreton Island, as it is from the mainland. The water here is as clear as rippled air – something that, to Queenslanders, is reminiscent of the southern shore-breaks like Lennox Head, not the peaty iodine of Queensland’s coastline.
Point Lookout on the northeast extremity of the island, hosts a small town and a surf club perched impeccably on the shoulders of the rocky headland. Tidal pools at the base of the sloping cliffs fill up with blue-green water. There is a great left that peels off the take-off rock about 50m off the cliffs when the swell is coming from the north at all.
A much more classic wave can be had around the corner at Cylinders. When the prevailing southeastern swells wrap around the headland, this place fires long right-hand barrels, from the shin of rock that juts out into the water all the way down the curved beach. I flew over the island once when a huge swell was hitting and seeing those lines curve from Cylinder head all the way to Amity Point was incredible.
Where Moreton is all sandy tracks and windblown wildness, Straddie is a little more cultured, for better or worse. The tracks that wind throughout the island’s interior are paved. You can buy fish and chips at Dunwich and drive out to the main beach while they’re still warm.
There’s a bloke who lives up on the hill on Tramican St who sells fresh seafood out of his house at good prices, straight off the boat. It’s where all the locals go, and it’s far fresher than anything you can get in Brisbane.
Stradbroke is a desert island with logistics. You know the old fireside question: what would you bring with you if you were going to be stranded on a desert island. Straddie answers that question with all of the necessities, without giving up the desert island.
Throw in the surf breaks around Point Lookout and Cylinder Head, the endless gutters of main beach and the freshwater lakes that dot the island, perfect for washing off the salt if you’ve been camped on the beach for too long, and Straddie is the perfect getaway destination, without having to get very far away at all.
For me, pavement is anathema. The feeling of driving on sand with soft tyres is one of the finer pleasures of 4WDing. It is like piloting a hovercraft. Every bump is soft and fluid. Turning hard is an exercise in controlled drift. Even the noise, that high-pitched whirr that comes in the open windows along with a mist of sea spray as you drive down the coastline, even that is a little exhilarating. It lets you know you’re free. There are no lanes out here, no limits beyond the boggy, vehicle-eating gutters and the grassy dunes. You can stop wherever you like, get out and throw in a line, or just lie down in the sand to soak up some ultraviolet medicine.
Driving on pavement, however, with those same soft tyres is a truly unsettling experience, and that’s the biggest drawback with Straddie driving – you’d better have a good compressor onboard for reinflating your tyres for every fish and chip run, or you’re going to have to endure that unbalanced, and dangerous, driving on soft rubber from time to time.
Intriguingly, for most of the island’s life, it was simply the northern half of Stradbroke Island. In 1894 the Cambus Wallace, a 75m steel ship, rang aground near the current site of the Jumpinpin Channel. Six men drowned in the carnage, but the rest of the crew made it ashore.
Not much was left of the ship once the surf pounded it to bits, but there was plenty of explosive cargo onboard, which was detonated in the dunes all at once. The ensuing explosion essentially destabilised what was already a narrow isthmus. Two years later, a cyclone drove its way through the dunes into Swan Bay, separating the islands, north and south, by 20 feet of fast-moving tidal water. In another two years the channel was two kilometres wide.
Needless to say, with all of that water moving around, this is an excellent fishing ground, offering plentiful whiting, flathead, tailor, trevally, bream and even mulloway. There isn’t much beach fishing, though, aside from whiting, as the bar system extends out a great distance before dropping into the channel.
Stradbroke is the second largest sand island in the world, bowing only to Fraser Island, to the north. It is only 15% as big as its big brother.
What is astounding is how rich in resources these islands once were, and in some ways still are. Fraser once boasted old growth forests the likes of which might only be glimpsed in pockets of Tasmania or northern California. And these sand giants have been mined for generations.
Straddie has been sand mined since 1949 – that’s 65 continuous years of mining. It gives one a sense of the balance of things to contemplate that the sand mines are due to be exhausted by 2027, and a national park is slated to be created in 2026 here.
The main camping options on Straddie are beach camps with no facilities and campgrounds with showers, BBQs, toilets, etc. The beach camps are located along the eastern beach and on Flinders Beach, on the island’s north face. The eastern beach spots are better these days. A massive tide flooded the Flinders several months ago, killing many of the she-oaks. And while it’ll come back soon enough, it isn’t quite as idyllic as the spots along Main Beach.
The campgrounds are set up quite well here, though, situated along the waterfront and often near enough to the townships that you can go for a walk and get ice cream, but nearer to nature so you still feel like you’re in the middle of nowhere.