From the lighthouse at Double Island Point, the highway we've just driven up looks astonishing. Curving 51 kilometres back to Noosa, there's not a speck of bitumen in sight. Normal road rules may well apply on Teewah Beach, but it is anything but standard.
Teewah is the first chunk of Queensland's Great Beach Drive, and it has long been beloved of local 4WD enthusiasts. Steve Hargraves from Great Beach Drive 4WD Tours admits he first started driving here when he was just seven, before it became a gazetted road. "Mum and Dad would send me to fetch firewood," he says. "But the police would probably put a stop to that now."
While there are plenty of drivers – some with permits, some not, and some probably a little too fond of cold beers in Eskys – to keep Queensland's boys in blue busy, hundreds of families are out camping, all competing to see who can have the most elaborate kit, the gaudiest site marker flag and the best haul from a couple of hours' fishing.
From Double Island Point, it becomes clear why that fishing isn't exactly the hardest work in the world. Through the extraordinary mix of sea colours, it's easy to make out two sandbars running parallel to the beach, and a trench between them. Fish stick to the trench in a bid to avoid bigger, nastier creatures further out to sea. They don't consider the sunburnt predators coming off the beach.
It's worth keeping an eye on the water. Dolphin pods can be spotted leaping, stingrays glide in the shallows and the odd turtle sticks its head out. Come during the migration season, and you'll also catch humpback whales on their way to and from their breeding grounds just off Fraser Island.
But this 4WD romp, tough going in the morning when the tide is high and it's soft under tyre, is about the sand, not the sea. And on the other side of Double Island Point, the beach is even more spellbinding.
Rainbow Beach is an apt name, partly because of the way it curves, but mainly for the colours that make up the cliffs alongside it. Driving down from the photogenic lagoon at the top end, Hargraves stops at a point where the cliff is high and technicoloured. He picks up some of the rocks that have tumbled down, and breaks the mirage.
The "rocks" crumble in the hand. They're just sand, and the cliffs are steep dunes, unprotected from the sea and prone to landslides. The colours come from oxides. Some – such as the titanium oxide of the white sand, used in beauty treatments – are highly valuable. But the local Indigenous people have always prized them for their artistic value.
On the wet sand, Hargraves starts making rudimentary paintings. The crumbled reds, oranges and yellows are turned into a temporary rainbow on the beach. Crimson sand is broken down between the hands, then pressed into the moist canvas to make what has been the standard artist's signature for centuries: a hand print.
Within a few hours, this piece will be lost to the world, as the tide comes in. But right now, it's the ideal time to get back in the 4WD and up to the 80km/h speed limit, with the flat, damp, compacted sand providing a smooth road quite unlike the one we juddered and swerved along earlier.
The writer travelled courtesy of Tourism and Events Queensland.
Virgin Australia flies from Sydney and Melbourne to Sunshine Coast Airport. See virginaustralia.com
Great Beach Drive 4WD has day trips, including lunch at Rainbow Beach, for $195. Pick-ups from Mooloolaba, Coolum and Noosa. See greatbeachdrive4wdtours.com
Sofitel Noosa Pacific Resort is on glam Hastings Street and has a swim-up pool bar. Rooms cost from $296. See sofitelnoosapacificresort.com.au