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Somewhere Under the Rainbow: Queensland’s Great Beach Drive

By JOHN BORTHWICK

Ochre cliffs, epic myths and catching crabs — Noosa’s rainbow road to the far north is full of story.

“I emailed the whales to appear,” jokes Jack the driver as we roll along the endless sands of Teewah Beach, north of Noosa, Queensland.

Dunes and cliffs rise to our left while the Pacific Ocean crashes to the right. But all eyes are turned offshore to where a humpback whale is doing joyous back-flips. “I guess my email arrived,” says Jack as the whale does another wheel-stand.

We’re on a jaunt called the Great Beach Drive, billed as “the most spectacular beach highway in Australia.” It runs up Teewah Beach, aka the Coloured Sands, beyond Noosa in a 70-km stretch of rolling revelations: infinite horizons, ochre cliffs, mythology and 40,000 hectares of wilderness, all topped off with flaming sunsets.

On the beach, in four-wheel drive mode, we let it rip, but this is no autobahn with sunburn. The beach is actually an official Queensland road, with an 80 km/hr limit. At times we bounce in the tracks of earlier vehicles and at other times cruise on the firm sands beside the water.

We each take a turn at driving, navigating the different shoreline, mid-beach or dune-side routes. Sounds easy. It is until the unexpected opens up before you: washouts or sand ruts just that much deeper than your driving skills.

Along the base of the dunes I see encampments where fishing fans and long-stay holidayers have set up home with elaborate tents, caravans, loos and even solar-powered fridges. All this, plus the Pacific Ocean as your infinity pool, for just $6 a night.

The story goes that, come holiday season, these old “sons of beaches” pull up their deckchairs and a beer to watch while first-time beach drivers bog themselves axel-deep in the sand. After the “entertainment” has gone on long enough, they pull out their towing cables and serious four-wheel drives, and haul free the flummoxed newbies. Or so they say.

We reach Double Island Point where the headland is crowned by a classic, red-roofed, 1880s lighthouse. From here we have a 360-degree view across the Great Sandy Region biosphere reserve. There are more whales — 30,000 of them migrate along this Pacific highway annually — and on cue, a pod of dolphins skips across the swell below us.

The pioneer lighthouse keepers and their families who lived here endured decades of isolation and cyclones. Unlike us, they needed a horse-drawn sled to haul their supplies to the summit. A couple of my travelling companions, terminally phone-addicted, share the pain of those pioneers — they too have no phone signal.

The tide is rising and safe beach driving needs to be done within two hours on either side of low tide. We push on to Rainbow Beach village — permanent population 900, annual visitors 70,000. Which means backpackers and grey nomads galore, almost all who come to watch the sunset from a famous 120-metre high dune known as the Carlo Sand Blow.

Tonight’s lightshow lives up to demand, setting the inland treetops aflame with light before dousing it all in darkness. We head to the pub, where I am disappointed to learn that its once-famous Wall of Shame has been temporarily removed. The display showed what happens to drivers who fail to check the tide before blasting up the beach, only to find their vehicle soon consumed by sand, shorebreaks and voided insurance.

Rainbow Beach, best known as the gateway to Fraser Island, the world’s largest sand island, is our turn-around point. Come morning we hit its little klatch of coffee shops and then resume our great beach adventure, heading back south, again running the gauntlet of soaring cliffs and the ocean blue. 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 gullies. Once inside 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 and healing.

The celebrated cliff faces, over 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 were mined for decades until extraction was banned in 1976.

There is an elaborate creation story to explain the colours and it is fittingly full of drama, desire and the good old infernal triangle. The bare-bones version tells that the earth colours here 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 massive dunes. Scores of delicate, blue-shelled soldier crabs scuttle across the sand. Easy to catch and hold, they always attract visitors.

Our driver 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 my women friends sighs and says, “Wish I’d been there. I wouldn’t mind catching crabs any time with Chris Hemsworth.”

INFORMATION: Great Beach Drive 4WD Tours pick up from Noosa and elsewhere on the Sunshine Coast. See www.gbd4wdtours.com