Andrew Bain encounters sand blows and lakes, rainforests and rivers on the Cooloola Great Walk north of Noosa.
With its restaurants and shops just a few steps away from the sand, Noosa is the epitome of holiday civilisation for beachgoers. For bushwalkers, it is the starting point for a new trail almost as civilised as the town itself.
Opened in March, the Cooloola Great Walk is one of the newest of Queensland's 10 listed Great Walks, chosen as the state's finest and most marketable trails in similar style to the Great Walks system in New Zealand.
Stretching between Noosa's North Shore and Rainbow Beach, it spans the Cooloola section of the Great Sandy National Park. It's a walk that's long on variety but short on difficulty. The sandy ground is soft underfoot, there are no long or steep climbs and days need be no longer than 20 kilometres. As Australian bushwalks go, it's just a latte short of being a Hastings Street stroll.
The trail begins in the Arthur Harrold Nature Refuge, where a kangaroo is grazing beside the trail head on the morning we set out. Ahead of us are 90 kilometres of walking. My friend, Greg, has been coaxed here by the thought of a few gentle days of bush and beach. His overnight bushwalking experience comprises a single night in a tent. This might explain why he's turned up in Noosa wearing a pair of op-shop, plastic-soled boots he bought just days before.
In the next five days we will see only a smattering of walkers - some days we will see none - because Cooloola has a surprising anonymity, despite being pinched between the headline destinations of Noosa and Fraser Island. Those who do know the park usually connect it with fishing and four-wheel-driving - a long, surf-bitten strip of sand and little else.
Yet what's ahead for us on the Great Walk is an amazing variety of hidden environments. At its start, paperbark scrub quickly yields to open, baking heathland. From here, it's an hour's walk to the seemingly endless Teewah Beach. In the days ahead we'll traverse tall sandhills, blackbutt forest, grass tree-covered ridges, the tea-coloured Noosa River, rainforest, empty sand blows and lakes that are pooled in nothing but sand.
On Teewah Beach, at least, such quiet magnificence seems like a fantasy. Here, any sense of removal is, well, removed on what is a highway of sand. Around and above us there are four-wheel-drives, trail bikes, speed-limit signs and helicopters. The surf roars ashore and the wind blows us north. Four-wheel-drives whoosh past, making me feel as vulnerable as the turtle I resemble.
We pound the beach for half an hour before finally, blessedly, turning back into the low dunes. Quickly, however, we have greater issues. We have walked just 10 kilometres when the sole peels away from one of Greg's shoes. He is too stubborn to turn back but it is too difficult to walk on. A bushwalking impasse.
Our compromise is to detour into the shack settlement of Teewah, where a local builder reattaches the sole with a sealant. We plod on, the sealant leaking out of Greg's shoes like toothpaste. Only 80 kilometres to walk like this.
From Teewah, the track climbs from sand dunes on to sandhills and throughout the next morning it continues to surprise. To a continuing drumbeat of waves and 4WDs now roaring 100 metres below us, this low-lying land brings conversely large views. Behind us is fast-fading Noosa, to the west is shallow Lake Cootharaba and the sharp volcanic plugs of the Sunshine Coast hinterland and, below, is the meandering line of the Noosa River, the banks of which will be our bed tonight.
Between us and the river is the track's prized feature: the Cooloola Sand Patch. From its edge, the sand blow resembles a glacier or a ski run (except for the humidity) and only a dead tree trunk serves as a guide through the featureless sand. At its head, we stop for lunch. Nearby, a tree comes crashing to the ground, the sandy earth no longer able to hold it upright.
During the next two days it feels as though the closer we walk towards Fraser Island, to the north, the more the land comes to resemble Fraser Island. Beyond burnt-out sand ridges crowded with grass trees, we enter rainforest that grows in nothing but sand. The tracks of dingoes or wild dogs cross the path and there are perched lakes such as Lake Cooloomera and Poona Lake, pooled atop the water table just like those on the World Heritage-listed island. This could be Fraser Island with a mainland address.
The forest and earth glow with the previous night's rain and there's celebratory birdsong from the treetops: the cracking of whipbirds, the laughter of kookaburras. The contrast with the knee-high heathland near the start of the walk is absolute - from no trees there are now only trees, the canopy blackening the sky. It's difficult to believe this is the same track.
It is here, too, that a familiar sound returns: the flapping of a shoe sole. The sealant has held but, now 20 kilometres away from Rainbow Beach, the sole on Greg's other shoe has blown out. Who could have imagined such bad luck from a $12 pair of shoes?
Better luck comes in the form of an American bushwalker who, for some inexplicable reason, is carrying duct tape in his backpack. We wrap sheets of it around the boot. In a forest sprinkled with barcode-straight kauri pines with cones weighing up to three kilograms, the American also carries a foreigner's typically unhealthy fear of the Australian bush.
"It's my first time in Australia and I came with all the stereotypes: that the people are friendly and the place is beautiful but just about everything in the bush can kill you," he says. "And then this - even the pine cones can kill you."
We are now a day's walk from Rainbow Beach and from the final camp there's the option to continue along the sandhills or return to the coast, walking past the Cherry Venture shipwreck and around Double Island Point. The former means just 15 kilometres of walking to a shower and a bed; the latter almost 30 kilometres, plus a return to the hard-packed beach and its 4WDs. Only the hardiest walkers will choose the coastal route and Greg's boots are fragile.
We stay on the sandhills, the rainforest persisting until finally we stand high above the coloured sands of Rainbow Beach. We've been near the coast throughout the walk but it's the first we've seen of it for three days. Four-wheel-drives race along the beach far below us but their noise disappears on the wind.
The end of the walk is near, just beyond the Carlo Sandblow - but the end of Greg's boots may be nearer still.
Andrew Bain travelled courtesy of Tourism Queensland.
Virgin Blue and Jetstar fly non-stop to Maroochydore from Melbourne for about $139 (one way) and Sydney from $85. Henry's Airporter runs a shuttle-bus service between the airport and Noosa.
Campsites, which need to be booked before you hike, are spaced to make it a comfortable five-day walk. Book at the national parks' website at www.derm.qld.gov.au/parks/great-walks-cooloola/index.html.
Details about the walk can also be found here. A Cooloola Great Walk topographic map can be bought at the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service offices in Tewantin (Noosa) and Rainbow Beach.