There’s something intriguing about shipwrecks. We are drawn to their stories, to the tragic tales of loss, the prospect of treasure…
On Queensland’s Fraser Island, the rusting hulk of what was once a luxury steam ship has rested on the wide sweep of Seventy Five Mile Beach since 1935. The SS Maheno is Fraser’s most famous and most visible wreck – and thankfully its most recent. All the 4WD tours include it on their routes, and as the beach is a designated highway there’s usually quite a few people gathered around it.
I was keen to see the Maheno again. I clearly recalled it from my last visit to Fraser Island and was curious to see how the years – and the shifting sands – had changed its presence on the beach. And yes, there was quite a difference – the portholes, once all clearly visible, are now partly submerged in the sand.
Twenty-three wrecks have been recorded in Fraser Island waters since 1856. The Sandy Cape light house began operating in 1870 but this, and a smaller light on Woody Island, didn’t seem to help much!
Built in 1905, the Maheno plied a regular route between Sydney and Auckland until she was commissioned as a hospital ship in Europe during World War I, also serving in the Mediterranean and the Red Sea. In 1935, she and her sister ship Oonah were sold for scrap. The rudders of both vessels were removed and they were being towed to Japan when a cyclone hit, snapping the tow chain and setting Maheno adrift. She came to rest on Fraser Island’s wild and exposed eastern shoreline.
During World War II, the wreck was used for air force target practice and the Z Force Special Unit used her to practice with limpet mines. Today, it is a major attraction on the island.
When Kingfisher Bay Resort was built on Fraser Island in 1992, the architects settled on a maritime theme, with images of the ships’ rigging, masts and sails incorporated into the design. The resort has also named its restaurants and conference rooms after some of the famous ships which came to grief on Fraser Island.
Fraser Island even owes its name to a shipwreck survivor. In May 1836, the Stirling Castle, en route from Sydney to London, struck a coral reef north of the island. Captain James Fraser, his wife Eliza and the crew made it to shore in a longboat. Half the party walked south and was rescued; the others lived with local Aborigines for seven weeks, during which time Captain Fraser died. A rescue party set out from Brisbane with two former convicts who had lived with the Aborigines, and Eliza Fraser and three others were rescued. Mrs Fraser’s accounts of her time living with the indigenous people became the stuff of legends and made her a celebrity. The island was named for her, rather than her husband.
On our first night at the resort we ate at the Seabelle restaurant, named for one of the first ships recorded as lost off Fraser Island. The 158-ton schooner left Rockhampton on 7 March 1857 and was wrecked the next day on Breaksea Spit, the north-eastern tip of the island.
Seabelle is the resort’s signature restaurant, one of five places to eat. The menu uses as much local produce as possible, blending in “bush tucker” (foods used by Fraser Island’s indigenous Butchulla people), and all the herbs and garnishes are grown in the resort’s kitchen garden.
One of the more casual restaurants, overlooking the resort swimming pool, is called Maheno. It’s the place to head for breakfast, and for lunch and dinner; sit on the outdoor deck to soak up the sun and enjoy the birds and the trees. Near the entrance, there are photographs and more information about the SS Maheno.
A Glass Half Full stayed on Fraser Island as a guest of Kingfisher Bay Resort.