Travel: Australia, Queensland’s Sunshine Coast

Taking a drive along Rainbow Beach, Queensland
Taking a drive along Rainbow Beach, Queensland
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A quirk of fate means my first Australian beach experience takes my breath away. The beach is wide and flat, the breakers white, the sea aquamarine beyond, and stretching 40km ahead… a highway to heaven.

Teewah Beach really is a highway: we are in a big four-wheel-drive, doing 60kph heading for Double Island Point, where a lighthouse stands guard.

There are rules to this sandy road: you drive near the tideline where it’s hard, stay on your side of the road for any oncoming vehicles, watch out for hidden dips… and ultimately keep your momentum when leaving the hard sand to come off the beach.

It’s hard to imagine that just last night I stepped off my 28-hour flight into the Queensland night. I’ve never seen an expanse quite like this beach.

We are not alone, yet it feels like it. The birds battle the post-cyclone winds. Occasionally other vehicles pass. Gradually the beach-side dunes come to life as my guide, Craig Madden of Great Beach Drive Tours, explains the plants and gives the birds names.

Then at Red Canyon we leave the 4WD and walk a little way up through a cleft in the sand cliffs for a closer look, which is when I realise just how strong and relentless the wind out here is.

Cyclone Debbie had unleashed its full force along the eastern coast of Australia in the days before my flight from Scotland and today we are experiencing the aftermath as Teewah Beach has no shelter from those winds off the Pacific. Yet its sheer expanse is strangely intoxicating, intensified by the continuous thunder of the surf on the strand. No wonder the Cooloola Recreation Area of the Great Sandy National Park is a popular camping destination. We have already passed some monster caravans dwarfing their 4WDs as they head home – but on Teewah camping is only permitted in a 15km zone. The accommodation ranges from simple tents to those giant vans which are kitted out with anything you can “cut and shut” as Craig puts it.

In case anyone, especially the “silver campers” or retirees who perpetually tour Australia, thinks this would make a place to live, there is a six-week limit to their camping permits and park rangers on patrol.

Double Island Point was home to lighthouse keepers for more than 100 years. Now it is a favourite hiking destination, but Great Beach Drive Tours has a gate key and vehicle access up to the isolated white light tower. Named by Captain Cook during his explorations in the 1770s, the point looks like two islands from the sea, and in season (July to December) is a great place to watch whales. Today a lone fishing boat braves the waves and the wind snatches away my words as I look back down to the sandy highway we’ve just driven along.

If I thought all that was fabulous, there is more beach magic to come.

Rainbow Beach is nature at her most dazzling. They say you can find 60 shades of sand in the cliffs here. Rust, rose, cream, ochre… as many shades as you can find words for. Although hard when it’s in the cliff, once you put water with it, the sand becomes a paint.

And as Craig colours me a rainbow on the beach, he explains this was how the indigenous Gubbi Gubbi people created artwork and decorated boomerangs.

The day is timed around the tides and, as they are particularly high, we can’t continue along Rainbow Beach so head inland. First a stop at a picnic spot, complete with BBQ facilities and teens larking around. Their high jinks are not to the liking of the residents: a family of goannas, oversized lizards who also go by the most unlikely of names – lace monitors. Unless provoked, they are harmless Craig assures me, but there is no pretty laciness to these pseudo alligators as they lumber across the grass.

Leaving the teens and goannas behind we head off and drive through a tropical forest. Again it is Craig who makes sense of it for me. The paper bark trees mean it is swampy ground, while the scribbly gums show we’ve moved to better drained areas.

The names are evocative: strangler figs encase their hosts from above, while the wrapping qualities of the paper barks are evident.

After all that nature it is a shock to return to modern life.

Rainbow Beach is my first Australian town and initially it seems to be a wide main street, a few shops and lots of parked cars. Later I see it also has large residential areas making great use of the ocean views. Of course, Rainbow Beach has grown up because of the sea and there, right on the shore, is its surf club and our destination for lunch.

Surf clubs are an integral part of Aussie beach culture, often the “best seat on the beach”, and provide affordable food, drink and entertainment supporting their all-important lifesaving services. Rainbow Beach Surf Life Saving Club is no different, and as we tuck into a generous steak and chips, we watch kite surfers with Double Island Point in the distance to the south.

My awe for this first day on Australian soil was down to a twist of fate. My hotel – the Novotel Twin Waters at Sunshine Coast – is a family holiday resort built around a lagoon and just a few metres inland from the 30km Mudjimba Beach from where it had been my intention to watch the dawn, except I had missed the turning on my 6am exploration. A lucky mistake, because there is no doubt it would have spoilt the intensity of experience of Teewah and Rainbow beaches later that day.

Instead, I finally find Mudjimba at sunset in a lather of foam. The winds have picked up again creating a scum of suds and any brave souls don’t linger long. Next day at dawn the scene is different: dog walkers and joggers are pacing beside the breaking waves and it couldn’t be more the Aussie dream – the sun, the surf and a far-off horizon. In the distance Mudjimba, the economic centre of Sunshine Coast, shimmers, its beach-front buildings glinting in the sun.

All of this is something Scotland’s elite athletes will experience next April in the run-up to the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games, when Team Scotland is based at Twin Waters for its three-week pre-Games camp. Alongside the resort’s own recreational facilities – think kayaks, ping pong, swimming pool and aquapark, as well as that beach – the Scottish athletes will use the University of Sunshine Coast’s sports facilities, a 30-40 minute drive away.

Twin Waters is used to hosting sporting groups, with a netball team staying recently, and as I watch a school rugby squad being put through their paces on the resort’s own sports field, I reflect that I can’t think of a better base from which to lap up the outdoor lifestyle of Queensland.

FACTBOX

Family rooms cost from A$221 per night for two adults and two children outside school holidays. Novotel Twin Waters Resort, 270 Ocean Drive, Mudjimba Beach

(www.novoteltwinwatersresort.com.au).

Day tours cost A$165 (child A$95). A private tour for up to four adults and two children costs A$850. Great Beach Drive 4WD Tours (www.greatbeachdrive4wdtours.com)

Brisbane international airport is about an hour’s drive from Sunshine Coast. Transfers with Limoso limousine service (www.limoso.com.au) cost from A$165 for up to four people.

Tourist information at visitsunshinecoast.com and www.queensland.com