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cooloola coast red canyon

Coloured Sands of the Cooloola Coast

by Christina Cannes

Nature Immersion, Aboriginal History & A Single Mother Takes Her Kids Camping

Living on the Sunshine Coast, we are spoiled—Mother Nature’s beauty abounds—but especially in a section of protected coastline known as Cooloola.

When it comes to dealing with stress and the daily pressures of modern life, camping and spending time in the raw wilderness is for me, the most potent medicine—I call this nature immersion. Once you cross the Noosa River, unless it’s Christmas or Easter, the crowds disappear and you can carve out a space of beach all yours and soak in the glorious place that we are fortunate to call home—that’s what I wanted to be able to do for myself and my kids.

We moved from Melbourne to the Sunshine Coast for two reasons: one, it rained regularly and did not habitually experience drought; two, it was a beautiful seaside community surrounded by mountains and rainforests. I wanted my children to grow up in nature, in the sunshine, swimming in the ocean. A few years after moving here, I found myself suddenly separated and soon-to-be-divorced. I lamented the fact that I would have to give up some of our more adventurous past-times—especially going off road at Rainbow Beach. I tricked myself into believing I could not do it without my husband—but then I had a good laugh at how stupid that idea was, sold my Lexus sedan and bought a Toyota FJ Cruiser. After all, 4WDriving was just driving—anyone could do it!

The FJ tracking over a bridge through Cooloola on the way to Harry’s Hut.

Trip Preparation

There is a saying I live by—everything good in life lies on the other side of fear. Was I scared to go camping and 4WDing alone with my boys? Yes, which is why I decided to go for it! Camping as a single mum, however, requires a different set of provisions. All gear must be manageable for my size, weight and strength as well as the storage space inside my vehicle. My goal was fast and light so I opted for a Coleman instant tent, a few Roman Moon mats and a large tarp for heavy rain.

I grabbed a Gaslight stove, first aid kid, torches, some nifty non-plastic, biodegradable plates, bowls and cutlery set and a billy. After adding a pair of bins for food storage and an esky, I felt I had enough to keep us dry and alive.  Besides, the whole point of camping is to escape the heaviness of day-to-day life—you don’t need that much!

The boys resting on the FJ after arriving at Elanda Point campground.

Elanda Point Education Centre & Adventure Park

We started off this trip to the Cooloola Coast going in the back way—at Elanda Point. Not only is this campground family-friendly, but it’s also a time capsule along the banks of Lake Cootharaba. Thirty kilometres west of Noosa, it serves as the gateway into the Cooloola Recreation Area of the Great Sandy National Park. Opened in 1975 and managed by a former school teacher, Elanda Point Education Centre and Adventure Park, is not only clean, quiet and convenient—it also has an awesome games room, movie nights, boat and kayak rental, bushwalks and a great general store. It pumps out family-fun vibes and feels like a sitcom from the 1950s. There is an innocence here unlike other campgrounds—children play freely and the people who come here are quiet and respectful and friendly.

Camping for two nights cost our group of three a total of $72 plus a $10 key fee refunded upon check out. Although the campground in many ways resembles a caravan park, camping is free-form and there are no delineated sites—which also means you don’t have the option of a powered site and they have strict rules around generator noise (thank goodness). If you’re lucky, you can get a nice, grassy lakeside spot.

That evening, after successfully setting up camp solo, going for a swim and even taking a bush walk, I made the boys some dinner and watched nervously as dark clouds headed our way from across the lake. I quickly pulled the FJ around to the front of the campsite to block the wind from hitting the tent (it was beginning to buckle and sway), pulled the tarp out and tied it to the roof rack, slung it over our tent and staked it town to the ground. I dragged our three camp chairs into the space between the FJ and tent which was just large enough for us to shelter under and eat as the first wave of rain erupted from those ominous dark clouds. While not ideal or glamorous—we stayed dry!

The rain only lasted for an hour and by the time the boys were tucked into their sleeping bags, I ventured down to the edge of the lake for some quality time with stars. The night sky is one of the things I love most about country life—and not something people seem to appreciate as much as they should. The entire Milky Way decorated not only the sky, but also the water below. I could not tell where the sky ended and the water began. The Southern Cross rose directly over the water, pointing towards the origin of the wind that had been blowing all day. And as I sat in my rickety camp chair with a cuppa, staring out at the stars and their reflections in the water of the lake, I felt proud for trekking out with my two boys. Camping is one of the best ways to spend time together as a family.

The next morning the sun rose in the eastern corner of the lake, spilling golden and pink rays over glassy water. I cooked up brekkie and coffee and then we left to rent a surf-ski and head out to Harrys Hut at the far end of the lake. The boys ended up riding most of the way, although I did get them a paddle. Since the lake is so shallow, it was easy to jump out and just drag the little boat when needed. It’s the best spot for small children, as the water provides great entertainment, but devoid of currents and depth, it creates a somewhat safe atmosphere so parents don’t have to be constantly concerned.

Time Travel: The Infamous Mrs Fraser

I had no idea Elanda Point played such a large part in the area’s history until after I got home and did my own research (the stories of the land here are so often hidden). On 22 May 1836, the Stirling Castle hit a reef and shipwrecked off the coast of Fraser Island. Eighteen people, including the captain James Fraser and his wife Eliza Fraser, survived and rowed ashore. The survivors split up—Mr and Mrs Fraser trekked south to Hook Point where Mrs Fraser claims she was kidnapped by the Badtjala or Butchulla people (also known as the Dulungbara). Her husband died from starvation or from his wounds.

According to Dalungbara (Fraser Island) elder, John Dalungdalee Jones, part of the burial ceremony of the ancestors involved the removal of the outer layer of skin prior to the body being wrapped in bark (tea tree preferably). The skin was scraped away by the coals of a burnt branch to expose the white under-layer. The body was then laid out for three days with smoky fires burning to prevent the spirit of the departed from returning to haunt the living. Therefore, when white people came to the area, Aboriginal people believed they were Muthare, the white spirit relatives returning and as such, they were accepted into the tribe.

Not far from Elanda Point, near Kin Kin Creek along Lake Cootharaba, lies Wa Wa, the corroborree ground where Mrs Fraser was shown to neighbouring tribes. More than 300 people assembled, from the coast to the nearby mountains, to witness the ‘ghost spirit’ or Muthare. An aboriginal man known as Mothervane from the mountains nearby claimed she was the returned ‘ghost spirit’ of his wife’s sister. Mrs Fraser was eventually “rescued” by the convict John Graham, who spent six years with the Dalungbara people after escaping the Moreton Bay penal settlement (Graham was declared to be the ‘ghost spirit’ husband of a woman known as Namba and lived with her for six years learning the language).  Graham managed to convince the elders Mrs Fraser was the ‘ghost spirit’ of his recently deceased Aboriginal wife and she was released to him and taken back to Fraser Island (later named after her), where a rescue party waited. The Butchulla name for Fraser Island is K’gari—which means paradise.

A new book about the infamous incident written by Larissa Behrendt, Finding Eliza: Power and Colonial Storytelling goes into more detail, specifically from the point of view of the Butchulla people. According to Behrendt, Eliza was “hostile and ungrateful and insulted that she was asked to do menial jobs such as watching children and digging for yams. They humiliated her by covering her body with salt, charcoal and grease (to heal her sunburn) and showed their jealousy of her being white by marking her with an ochre sign (to tell the men ‘do not harm this woman’).” Eliza’s confusion and elaboration of her mistreatment later led to their massacre. Looking back, maybe the Butchulla should have left her on the beach.

Cooloola Painted Dunes

A Brief History of the Cooloola Coast

Derived from the Aboriginal word for cypress pine tree kululu or kululoi, the Cooloola Coast region runs from the Noosa River in the south to the northernmost tip of Rainbow Beach at Inskip encompassing an inland area of rainforests, streams and lakes. The Dulingbara—considered a subgroup of the Kabi people—lived in the Cooloola region prior to English settlement. The land, rich and plentiful, provided ample fish, shellfish, bush tucker and game. Archaeological evidence of Aboriginal occupation estimates settlement at 6,000 years ago—that’s not to say that Aboriginal people were not in the area much sooner. The seas rose prior this period, which would put their former areas of occupation under the ocean.

During the 1860s, the lumber industry moved into the area and felled native trees, specifically kauri and hoop pines, sending them down Lake Cootharaba to the mill at Elanda Point. Steamers drove these huge rafts further down the Noosa River where they were then processed. Once the cattle and lumber industries settled in the region, the Aboriginal population declined drastically (due to genocide, disease and displacement). During the 1960s, various locations around Cooloola were subjected to sand mining until the mid-1970s. The declaration of the Cooloola Recreation Area as part of the Great Sandy National Park in October 2010 currently protects the area although there are still extensive pine plantations inside the park.

Rainbow Beach & Tackling the Freshwater Track

After two days at Elanda, we packed up our camp to head further into the Cooloola region of the Great Sandy National Park towards Rainbow Beach. As I was strapping the tent to the roof, our neighbour who had barely spoken to me the entire weekend, walked up and asked if I was a professional camper. I laughed and said ‘sort of!’ She told me that at one time she too had been a single mother and she knew how exhausting it was and wanted me to know that it gets better.

All packed into the FJ, we took off towards the back entrance of the park via Lake Flat Road. I used the book Dirty Weekends to navigate my way into the park since my iPhone no longer had reception. Thankfully, we had the Hema Map app on the iPad which tracks your location via GPS. After a few hours of winding through the unmarked roads of the pine plantations surrounding the national park, I finally admitted to myself that I was lost. I’m rubbish at reading maps and following directions and with detours from the cutting schedules, I had wound up on the wrong road. I finally managed to lock in my position with Hema and get the old girl onto the Cooloola Way’s sandy trail.

We planned to camp at a site called Poverty Point along Tin Can Bay, not far from Rainbow Beach and only because it was waterside and you could have a fire. When we pulled into Poverty Point, I quickly changed my mind about our original decision. There were zero facilities, which is fine, but the only other sign of life was an abandoned dome tent with two capsized camp chairs beside it. The area was surrounded by mosquito infested salt flats and the fast-moving waters of Tin Can Bay did not look safe for my little boys to swim in—a site better suited for fishermen. I turned around and crawled our way back to the main road and booked into a cabin at the Rainbow Beach Holiday Village—I know, but having a hot shower felt amazing. Plus, being in town meant café meals and fresh coffee! We spent the afternoon at the pool and trekking over the sand dunes near town for spectacular views.

Freshwater, Poona Lake & Double Island Point

The next day, we were back out on the tracks heading down the Rainbow Beach Road towards the Freshwater Track. Not far down the track, lies a turn off on the right which leads to the Bymien picnic area parking lot. From here, it’s a 2.1km hike to a breathtakingly beautiful fresh water swimming hole, Poona Lake. The water, stained brown from the surrounding tea trees, feels like silk.  Due to its isolation in the rain forest, the only sounds are birds, cicadas and the wind across the water. Carve out a couple of hours, as it’s a 40-minute walk one way and you’ll want to spend some time basking in the tea-tree infused water—it’s said to heal the skin, especially sunburn.

Once you pass the Bymien picnic area, permits for driving are required. Here, the track turns into a sandy lane covered by a thick rainforest canopy.  It’s about a thirty-minute drive to the track’s terminus at Teewah Beach. Check the tides when you’re in this area—the lower the better. We drove down along the beach towards the eastern side of Double Island Point and then cut north again via the Leisha Track. On the other side of Leisha, it’s a clear path back to Rainbow Beach (if you feel comfortable navigating Mudlo Rocks) or Double Island Point. The painted dunes curl around the horizon, their orange, yellow and red sands contrasted so beautifully with the white beach sand, blue sky and blue water—it truly is a festival of colour.

Cooloola Painted Dunes + 4WDs

Luckily for us, the beach was empty—save for a few rangers—and as we pulled the 4WD over for a swim, I watched a white LandCruiser crawl its way up the beach towards us. The beach around Rainbow and Teewah is classified as highway—road rules apply so keep children out of the way of any oncoming vehicles.

We swam in clear, blue water that day as the waves were small and the sweep unnoticeable. The boys played on the nearby dunes, staining their clothes with the red sand and running up as high as they could to slide back down again. Double Island Point, paradise for any surfer, juts its rocky headland out into the ocean just far enough to take the brunt of the southeasterly wind leaving calm seas for the likes of us!

The dunes lining the beach here, known as the Cooloola sandmass—a triangular formation of giant sand dunes—is the oldest chronosequence of coast dunes known on Earth. Most of the dunes accumulated during the past 1.8 million years and formed during global fluctuations in ocean levels from the last glaciation period. The yellow, brown and red colours are created by iron-rich minerals which, over thousands of years, stained the sand. Wind and water erosion shapes and carves the dunes to form fantastical spires and canyons as well as exposing their red, yellow and brown core.

Murrawar and the Rainbow: The Legend of the Coloured Sands

(from the book In the Tracks of a Rainbow)

A beautiful Aboriginal girl called Murrawar once lived on the banks of the Noosa River a long time ago. As Murrawar was playing near the river one day a Rainbow who had stepped down from the clouds noticed her and immediately fell in love with her. The Rainbow would then often come to the place on the river where Murrawar loved to swim and play, however, one day she was nowhere to be seen.

Sensing that something was wrong, the Rainbow shot up into the air to look for Murrawar. The Rainbow was just in time to see a fierce warrior called Burwilla heading north along Teewah Beach with the abducted Murrawar. The Rainbow raced up the beach to save Murrawar but before he could reach them, Murrwar had escaped from her captor, Burwilla, and ran back along the beach towards the Rainbow. Burwilla, seeing her escaping, threw his huge boomerang, bigger than the biggest tree and full of evil spirits at Murrawar. It surely would have killed her.

In despair, the Rainbow threw himself in front of Murrawar to save her and was smashed to pieces by the huge boomerang. Pieces of brave Rainbow fell to earth all along the beach for miles and coloured the sands with his beautiful rainbow colours. Even today the colours of the Rainbow can be seen in the sands all the way from Teewah Beach to Rainbow Beach. Gullirae (Double Island Point) was said to have been the Rainbow’s tail, which fell to earth in one piece.

Cooloola Red Canyon

Red Canyon, Teewah & Noosa River Ferry

The next day, we headed back down the Freshwater track and then south down the beach towards the first cutting, following the painted dunes towards Teewah. We stopped at Red Canyon, a deep, red gorge carved out of the dunes by water erosion. According to Aboriginal Dreamtime, this place was where the brave Rainbow was shattered by Burwilla’s boomerang when he threw himself in front of Murrawar to save her. The ochre sand was used to make body paints for corroborees held along the Noosa River at Tewantin. Visitors can climb through the curving walls and look down at the beach from the red interior. The site is sacred, so please do not carve into the walls or climb up them.

As we only stayed for a four-day weekend, we left Red Canyon and charged back down the beach, driving over the soft sandy hills made from the waves, dodging fishermen and families playing cricket, winding our way towards the ferry that would take us across the Noosa River back home. And once on that ferry, the feeling of accomplishment washed over me. I took my boys camping all by myself and despite the utter exhaustion of the entire ordeal, and the fact that we cheated and hired a cabin, the boys had fun—we all had fun! We spent four days immersed in the raw beauty of the Cooloola Coast and I felt healthy, strong and healed. Camping adventures were not outside the bounds of possibility for our family of three!

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

– Robert Frost, The Road Not Taken

Rainbow Beach from Dune

Trip Information

For more information about the Cooloola Recreation Area, visit Queensland parks website.

Required Permits:
To drive and camp in the Great Sandy National Park, Cooloola Recreation Area, permits must be purchased from Queensland parks here.

Walking Tracks
The Cooloola Great Walk runs the length of the park (102km) from just after the Noosa River Ferry to Double Island Point and Rainbow Beach. It winds through rain forest, tall eucalypt forest, dry coastal woodland and heath plains and can take upwards of five days to complete. Please purchase a topographic map and plan for this trip as it is very remote and difficult. For more information on all the walking tracks, visit Queensland parks website.

Friends of Kinaba, a community in partnership with National Parks
Friends of Kinaba is a local community volunteer group focused on the protection of Cooloola and the Great Sandy National Park. The site has lots of great information about flora and fauna as well as the history of the area. Visit website.

Elanda Point Education Centre & Adventure Park
204 Lake Flat Road, Boreen Point QLD 4565
(07) 5485 3165
Visit website.

Rainbow Beach Holiday Village
Rainbow Beach Rd, Rainbow Beach QLD 4581
07 5486 3222
Visit website.

Books used to write this piece include:
In the Tracks of the Rainbow: Indigenous Culture and Legends of the Sunshine Coast by Robin A. Wells, Gullirae Books, 2003.
From Amazon.

Cooloola Horseback

Cooloola Coast, Noosa to Fraser Island: The Aboriginal and settler histories of a unique environment by Elaine Brown, Univeristy of Queensland Press, 2000.
View on Google.

Aboriginal Pathways in Southeast Queensland and the Richmond River by John Gladstone Steele, University of Queensland Press, 1984.
View on Google.

Finding Eliza: Power and Colonial Storytelling is published by University of Queensland Press, 2016.
From Amazon.

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