Travel Story A sandy road to Queensland beachside adventure

A four-wheel-drive tour shows off a stunning stretch of coast.

“I emailed the whales to appear,” jokes our driver Craig as our four-wheel-drive bowls along the endless sands of Teewah Beach, north of Noosa.

Dunes and high ochre cliffs rise to our left while the Pacific Ocean crashes blue and wild to the right. But all eyes are turned towards a different spectacle, a humpback whale doing joyous wheelies, breaching with back-flips. “I guess my email arrived,” he adds as the giant crashes back into the ocean. Minutes later it launches again.

Five of us are on a jaunt called the Great Beach Drive, billed as “the most spectacular ‘beach highway’ in Australia”. It’s a fair call. The journey up Teewah Beach, aka the Coloured Sands, from Noosa to Double Island Point and Rainbow Bay, is a 70km stretch of rolling revelations. Infinite horizons, red-orange cliffs, mythology and 40,000ha of Cooloola wilderness, topped off with a flaming sunset finale.

It all starts with us taking a punt, so to speak, the ferry across the Noosa River to its mangrove-rich north shore. And then we’re on the beach, van in four-wheel drive mode, liberated. But this is no sandpit speedway. The shore is actually a gazetted Queensland road, with an 80km/h limit (50 in camping zones) and even RBT booze checks.

We plough on, sometimes in the tracks of other vehicles and at other times either cruising on compacted sand beside the water or back on the dry flats closer to the dunes.

Craig pulls off the beach at Freshwater Lake, part of the Great Sandy National Park, and we wolf down a terrific Thai salad lunch that the tour crew have prepared. It’s also an instant change of scenery. No waves, no whales, just plenty of dense “wallum” forest of tall scribbly gums, pandanus and kauri.

Returning to the beach “highway”, we each have a shot at driving, navigating the various shoreline, mid-beach and dune-side routes. Sounds easy. It is until the unexpected opens up before you — ruts, washouts and sand traps just that much deeper than one’s own driving skill. None of us bogs the vehicle, so we bounce on northwards.

I am surprised to see along the base of the dunes extensive encampments where fishing fans and long-stay holidaymakers have set up home with elaborate tents, shade awnings, caravans, loos, and even solar-powered fridges. All this, plus the Pacific Ocean as your infinity pool, for just $6 a night. With a six-week maximum limit.

The story goes that, come holidays such as Easter and Christmas, these old Teewah hands — or new saltwater people — pull up their deckchairs and a beer or three, and watch as first-time beach drivers churn up the track and too frequently bog themselves in sand. Once the “entertainment” has gone on long enough, the watchers pull out their towing cables and serious 4WDs and haul free the flummoxed newbies. Or so we are told. 

We reach Double Island Point, where Great Beach Drive Tours has special access to the headland summit that’s crowned by a classic, red-roofed lighthouse built in 1884. From here we can see more whales; some 30,000 of them migrate along this ocean highway each year. A pod of dolphins skips across the swell. Dugongs are out there too, although rarely seen. The dark knoll we spot offshore, known as Wolf Rock, is a popular place for divers wanting to swim with sharks. 

From the lighthouse we have a 360-degree view across the Great Sandy region’s Marine Park and inland to its biosphere reserve. The old lighthouse keepers and their families who lived here endured years of isolation and cyclones. Unlike us, who’ve just bounced up the steep, rocky incline, no sweat, in low-range 4WD, those stoics needed a horse-drawn sled to help haul their supplies to the top. But some of my travelling companions, twitchingly phone-addicted, share the pain of those pioneers — they have no phone signal.

Time to push on. The tide is rising and safe beach driving needs to be done during the window of two hours on either side of low tide. We reach Rainbow Beach village, population 900, annual visitation 70,000. Which means backpackers galore, plus grey nomads. Almost all of whom come to watch, at least once, the sun setting over the inland, as contemplated from the 120m-high dune just south of town, the famed Carlo Sand Blow.

Tonight’s vivid light show lives up to demand, setting the treetops aflame with light. Afterwards we head to the pub, where I am disappointed to learn that its once-famous Wall of Shame has been recently removed. The display showed the aftermath for drivers who’d failed to check the tides before happily blasting up the beach, only to find their vehicle being swallowed by sand, shorebreaks and voided insurance.

Dinner is at the Heading family’s restaurant, Arcobaleno on the Beach. The Italian name, appropriately, means “rainbow”, but even that is three syllables too many for this barefoot town. It is simply known as Arcos’. A feast follows of crumbed camembert and mushroom, fresh calamari, homemade pasta and crisp pizzas. With good wines, of course. Later, a short stroll away, we expire for the night amid sand-free sheets and wi-fi redemption in the seafront Plantation Resort.

Rainbow Beach is best known as the gateway to Fraser Island but for us it is our turn-around point. Come morning we hit its little clutch of coffee shops for breakfast, and then check out the mounted propeller from the old beach wreck, the Cherry Venture.

Photographing the gracefully decaying hull and ribs of the ship was for decades a highlight of the beach trek, but it is no more. Sea and time had eroded the hulk poetically, if not almost biblically, from rust-unto-rust. Not quickly enough it seemed for someone from health and safety, or perhaps insurance, who condemned the old girl to summary demolition and disappearance.

We resume our great beach adventure, heading slowly back to Noosa, again running the gauntlet of soaring cliffs and Pacific Ocean. Brahminy kites circle above and pied oystercatchers mill along the shoreline. 

We hop out at Red Canyon to explore the brilliant ochre escarpment and its eroded interior gullies. Once within the canyon, all is eerily silent, with even the sea sounds disappearing. For the Kabi Aboriginal people this was a women’s area, a place of retreat, or perhaps of just hanging out with the girls. 

The celebrated cliff faces, more than 40,000 years old, display 38 colours and 72 shades — yes, someone has counted them — formed by iron and other mineral oxides, and vegetable dyes. These compacted, ancient sands are so rich with rutile, ilmenite, zircon and monazite that they were mined for decades until mineral extraction was banned in 1976.

There is, of course, an elaborate creation story to explain the landscape’s colours and it is fittingly full of drama, ungodly foibles and the good old infernal triangle. In its bare-bones version the legend tells that the dune colours were formed when Yiningie, a spirit represented by the rainbow, plunged into the cliffs after battling an evil tribesman over a good woman, as one does.

Our last stop is at Honeymoon Bay, a curve of still-dreamtime coastline framed by a massive dune system and Double Island Point. Scores of delicate, blue-shelled soldier crabs scuttle across the sand flats. Easy to catch and hold for a while, they always attract visitors.

Our guide recounts being here last week and spotting a familiar-looking hunk of a guy who also was watching the scampering critters. “And then I recognised him — Chris Hemsworth, the actor,” he tells us. One of our female companions volunteers: “Wish I’d been there. I wouldn’t mind catching crabs with Chris Hemsworth any time.”

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