With mountain retreats, vast beaches and inquisitive wildlife, Queensland’s Sunshine Coast presents a road trip that sounds cruisy.
But what if there’s no road … well, not in the traditional sense. The area’s new Great Beach Drive is a newly-devised circuit from Brisbane or Noosa that takes in Fraser Island, Rainbow Beach and the lesser-known delights of Tin Can Bay, Maryborough and the Sunshine Coast hinterland. And while there’s still a lot of bitumen in the mix, actual beach driving is a very Queensland thing, so you’ll also be taking it softly softly for some of the time.
For that you’ll need a proper 4WD and clear instructions on the do's and don'ts of sand driving, particularly on ocean beaches. So at Brisbane Airport we pick a Nissan Patrol with raised clearance from Coastal 4WD Hire and spend an hour being briefed. Once we hit the sand on Fraser Island, we quickly discover how invaluable the briefing was.
Maleny and Montville
But that is still a day or so away from the start of a five- to seven-day jaunt; this is a holiday, after all, so we ignore the main highway and go to Rainbow Beach (about 120km north of Noosa) on the scenic route in the Sunshine Coast hinterland, via the hill towns of Maleny and Montville. The route is only a few kilometres longer but is infinitely more interesting. The highlight at Maleny is the privately-owned Maleny Botanic Gardens & Birdworld at 233 Maleny-Stanley River Road – note the address, as the council seems adverse to any useful signage. The gardens are beautiful, with views to the Glasshouse Mountains and a walk-in aviary that is a flurry of parrots and other birdlife.
Following the ridge through Montville, a quaint mountain village with chances for a coffee or quick shop and a new glass chapel, we descend to get back to the M1 via Yandina and a stop at the Ginger Factory, now more like an amusement park. The road through Gympie to Rainbow Beach is good tar all the way.
While Rainbow Beach is a fun, small coastal town, the real star – besides the beach itself – is the Carlo Sand Blow. This wide expanse of sand 120m above the coast was named by James Cook after one of his crew and is now a popular site for hang-gliding. The town’s Waterview Bistro is an alluring spot for dinner.
The next dawn sees us en route to Tin Can Bay where the Barnacles Dolphin Centre has a family of wild Indo-Pacific humpback dolphins that drop in around breakfast time. They have done this for decades and a group of volunteers takes visitors into the water to feed the dolphins under close regulation.
Maryborough’s Mary Poppins connection
Chim Chimminy, Chim Chimminy … we are driving north to Maryborough, birthplace of P.L. Travers, the author of Mary Poppins. The bank building where she was born in 1899 has a statue of the nanny outside. And the town has a Mary Poppins festival each June-July school holidays. Ken Ashford, the town crier, shows us around the heritage river port, which has one of the most impressive military museums in regional Australia.
We never make it to Hervey Bay, as the turn-off to River Heads is a few kilometres to the south. Soon we are on the barge crossing to Fraser Island. Kingfisher Bay Resort is both the island’s best accommodation and an Australian tourism icon. It is at one with its environment, for which a wide range of tours have been devised, including nocturnal guided walks within the resort. And Kingfisher Bay’s Seabelle Restaurant has one of the most creative menus using Australian bush seasonings.
Fraser Island’s World Heritage listing
Fraser Island is the world’s largest sand island and a World Heritage site. The interior is dense forest and crystal-clear sandy freshwater lakes. Over on the east coast beach is a superhighway for 4WDs.
While the roads around the resort are sealed, the track immediately beyond the dingo-proof fence is the most difficult driving we will encounter on this trip. I’m grateful for every centimetre of clearance and the low-range gear option. For a keen driver, it’s perfect: challenging driving through scenes of intense natural beauty, with lots of places to explore and swim – e.g. Lake McKenzie and Central Station, an old loggers village. As a straight drive, it would take an hour; it would reward a week.
The lure to drive north up the beach is twofold. It’s fun to be beach-driving and there’s the wreck of the Maheno, a once-luxury cruise vessel that ran aground while under tow in 1935. The distinctive wreckage is a photographer’s delight, especially at sunset. A dingo trots alongside our vehicle as we drive up the beach – there are some 250 on Fraser Island.
We also stop to take a short flight over the island with Air Fraser Island, a rare airline that has a surf beach as its registered airport. The sandy take-off and landing is exciting but only from the air does the uniqueness of Fraser Island make sense.
We return to stay at Eurong Beach Resort. This is a big complex that works well, with a busy store for the passing campers and drivers. The following day is our last and proves to be a highlight of my driving life: along the beach of Fraser Island, crossing by barge to Rainbow Beach and driving the coloured sands there before diverting around Double Island Point and along the wide expanse of Teewah Beach.
The most spectacular stretch of the whole beach drive is between Rainbow Beach and Double Island Point. Here you cross multi-hued patches of sand while hemmed in by the surf on one side and rainbow-coloured cliffs on the other.
The expanse of hard-packed sand below the tide line is a natural highway only interrupted by eroded freshwater washouts of various depths. The speed limit is 80km/h but fishermen, family groups, driftwood and washouts mean the going is often considerably slower.
All up, it is about 100km but, when we turn inland towards Tewantin, it’s sad to be back on tar again. Tide charts had been more relevant than maps and we were regularly impressed by what our Nissan Patrol could negotiate. It was off-roading in its purest form.
Beach-driving has its challenges. If you want to tackle it in your own 4WD, get some important tips from Queensland's national parks service – go to www.nprsr.qld.gov.au/experiences/fourwheeldriving.
Base yourself at RACV Noosa Resort before or after your big Great Beach Drive adventure. RACV members get fantastic discounts on accommodation when they book directly with the resort – go to racv.com.au/noosa or call (07) 5341 6300.
If you'd like to experience Fraser Island and Rainbow Beach on a day-trip from Noosa, the front desk staff at Noosa Resort can book it.
David McGonigal was a guest of Sunshine Coast Destination and Australia’s Nature Coast.