November 24, 2010

Rainbow's magic

Why Rainbow Beach?

I was looking for a place to go with my family while they were visiting from the UK and Victoria. It had to be coastal and within relatively easy striking distance north of Brisbane. Following on from a few days in Byron, it had to be similar (laid-back) but different (new things to explore). Way back, I'd had the Whitsundays in mind, if only to see Whitehaven Beach, which always features in the World's Top Ten Beaches, and because I've never been there. I'd thought perhaps we could stay in Airlie Beach and visit the islands on day trips. But I didn't particularly like Airlie when I went there in June, and flying six people to Proserpine (the airport for Airlie) would be expensive, not to mention boat trips to and/or accommodation on the Whitsundays.

So I considered Noosa. Everybody I've met in Queensland speaks very highly of Noosa. I've only been there briefly and not too successfully – my youngest ate a dodgy sausage and we all have vague recollections of a town full of young couples with buggies – when I brought my daughters to Australia years ago. I felt it deserved another chance. But I quickly drowned in a sea of choice of accommodation online.

Then there was Hervey Bay. Earlier in the year my friend and I fancied a few days' getaway at Easter, and I was on the point of booking somewhere at Hervey Bay when I read about an 'industrial jungle' and 'frenzied traffic snarl' (Lonely Planet Queensland and the Great Barrier Reef) on the outskirts of town as you approach from Maryborough. You know when a thought lodges itself inside your brain and you can't get rid of it... even though I'm sure Hervey Bay is lovely and it's a big whale-watching centre and I will visit some day. Those first impressions are so important.

And Fraser Island? Well, most of us had already been there. My friend hasn't, however, so he needs a few days there à deux so we can walk far and observe birds without our children thinking we're eccentric.

Then Rainbow came on to the radar. The right sort of distance away. Not touristy. Relaxed vibe. Good beaches, surf and interesting natural landscapes. Reasonably-priced accommodation with obliging owners. Personal recommendations and suggestions. I booked it.

We drove up from Brisbane on a hot, sunny day, nearly missing the turning for Tin Can Bay on the outskirts of Gympie. After 47 kilometres we turned off again for another 30k through the Great Sandy National Park to Rainbow Beach. The road was largely deserted, passed through some lovely country and the blue sky had that translucent quality that tells you the ocean is just up ahead. Once at Rainbow, we drove to the end of the road for that all-important first view of where land meets sea and is the ultimate reason you're there.

The Queensland coast north and east of Brisbane is distinguished by large sand masses that form mainland coastal areas as well as large islands. Over many thousands of years, marine currents and waves have carried large quantities of sand deposited by rivers on the continental shelf off northern New South Wales northwards to southern Queensland. The action of wind and water have sculpted some striking landscapes, including dunes that are more than 700,000 years old, the oldest sequence of dunes recorded and therefore of international significance.

Rainbow Beach is so named because of its multicoloured cliffs and other sand features that are part of the Cooloola sand mass, which also includes most of Fraser Island. The region is known as the Great Sandy National Park, and is a World Heritage area. The more-than-70 different hues of white, yellow, red and brown sand result from the deposition of iron-rich minerals leached from soil that once developed on top of the sand.

Probably the best-known sand feature at Rainbow is the Carlo Sandblow, named by Captain Cook after one of his crew.

The sandblow covers 37 acres and is like a giant sand dune that got a bit out of control when the removal of vegetation – either naturally or by human activity – leads to wind erosion. Onshore winds are driving it towards Tin Can Inlet, its leading edge (below) smothering woodland on the way. I've seen migrating dunes swallowing fully grown trees in Spain and in the d'Entrecasteaux National Park in Western Australia and it's eerily fascinating every time.

Carlo Sandblow is sometimes said to resemble a moonscape: it is certainly spectacular, especially early in the morning when there's no one else around. Later on in the day, large shadows may loom on the sand as hang gliders hover above you before landing. (How are you to know how skilled they are?) There's a pleasant wooded 600-metre walk to get there – with interesting inhabitants (Monitor Lizard, below but one).



The Blow was endlessly photogenic.


Teewah Beach begins around Double Island Point (typically named by Captain Cook because that's what he thought it looked like) east of Rainbow Beach and extends for over 50 kilometres south to the Noosa River (below).

This stretch of beach is wild and beautifully desolate, especially in the kind of sun-one-minute, dark-clouds-the-next weather we had. I wish the only other living souls we'd seen on it had been the serried ranks of resting crested terns...



...but unfortunately there were too many 4WDs in this wilderness, many of them driving far too fast. And we weren't even there on a weekend or during school holidays. Environmentalists are concerned about the impact of this level of 4WD use on the beach's ecosystems. But they're up against Australian off-road enthusiasts who think they to have an inalienable right to camp or fish or dirt-bike wherever their beloved vehicles can get them. We came in a 4WD, of course; it's the only way to get there. Ours was a 20-year-old workhorse, hired in Rainbow, that had seen better days. We didn't speed and we respected all restrictions: it was a privilege to be there (Brahminy Kite, below).


Teewah reminded me very much of Seventy Five Mile Beach on Fraser Island, which I suppose is not that surprising. It even has striking sandy canyons and, until 2007, had a wreck, the Cherry Venture. One local told us we needn't bother with Fraser, having been here.




Red Canyon has been formed by the erosive action of wind and water on ancient coloured sands that were once buried deep beneath sand dunes that were then eroded themselves. The elements continue to sculpt dramtic pinacles. This is a delicate, vulnerable landscape and, despite notices asking visitors not to leave their mark, it has been defaced by the names of idiots.

Having climbed up to the Double Island Point Lighthouse...

...we drove across the narrow headland of to the far end of Rainbow Beach, where there are lagoons and pristine sand – once you get beyond the evidence of others.



Finally, among Rainbow's gems, is Inskip Point, a sandy peninsula a few kilometres north of the town. From here you can make the 15-minute crossing by barge to Hook Point (below) on the southern tip of Fraser Island. On Inskip's eastern edge is the Pacific Ocean; to the west the tranquil waters of Tin Can Inlet and the Great Sandy Strait.


This so-far unspoilt stretch of the Cooloola Coast has old-established coastal forest, rare bird species and many others, precious wetlands, and visiting dolphins, turtles and dugongs. It is a very special recreational and wildlife oasis that has to date escaped development that might threaten its uniqueness. But for how much longer? Rainbow Shores Stage 2 proposes almost 500 acres of urban development along 6 kilometres of ocean, a plan that includes accommodation for 6,500 people. The state government refused permission for this scheme following huge objections in 2009, but the developer has appealed. In addition, deep within the peaceful Tin Can Inlet, there are plans for a 300-berth marina – intended for much larger boats than currently potter about these waters from the modest launching ramp at Carlo Point.

Many of Queensland's spectacular landscapes are under threat of development and subsequent ruination in the same way that large tracts of Mediterranean Europe have been damaged irrevocably. We have seen plots staked out in forests and coastal areas of this state from the Daintree to Agnes Water. Globally significant landforms, fauna and flora are at risk, not only from greedy exploiters of resources but from ordinary people who don't seem to appreciate the impact their recreational choices are having.

I have read of plans to charge for permits to access Teewah by 4WD, as on Fraser Island. Maybe that would go some way to stemming the flow. And hey, why not try walking sections of the Great Sandy Walk? That's what I intend to do next time... while it's still wild and beautiful.


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