David Whitley embarks on a sand safari on Queensland’s Teewah Beach
The deep red canyon is nothing but sand, compacted over the centuries to form walls and cliffs, and cut through by rainwater trickling towards the sea. Scrambling up the sides leads to an outcrop with a majestic view.
To the left and right is pure Australian beach, stretching far into the distance both ways. In front, the rolling waves of the Pacific Ocean crash in. And in among them is a humpback whale with her calf, starting out the long migration back down to Antarctica. They’re barely 150ft off shore. The kids digging holes in the sand could easily abandon their buckets and spades and swim out to the great beasts of the sea.
Australia has many great beaches, but Teewah Beach has multiple factors that raise it to a higher plane. The first is sheer length – it stretches over 40 miles from resort town Noosa to the lighthouse at the northern end.
The second is the difficulty in getting there – the Noosa River and Everglades cut it off from relative civilization, and a deliberate decision has been taken to not build a bridge. The only way across – unless you wish to drive an awfully long way round – is to be shipped across on a cable ferry.
But once there, the third unusual factor comes into play, so long as you’ve got a four-wheel drive vehicle, Teewah Beach is one of the most spectacular highways on earth.
It’s not just a case of a few enthusiasts coming out to play on the dunes – full road rules apply. There’s an 80km/h (50mph) speed limit, which is surprisingly easy to go over when the tide is out. That goes down to 50km/h (30mph) in the designated camping areas. Police often turn up with speed cameras and breathalyzers, too.
Steve Hargraves from Surf and Sand Safaris has been driving down Teewah Beach since he was a child, and makes no excuses for tours overrunning when there are whales to watch.
He’s also endlessly fascinated by the sand, which has been building up here, then eroding away again, for 600,000 years.
“It’s a natural catchment area,” he explains. “Currents travel from south to north bringing sand from New South Wales and southern Queensland. Colored sands come from iron oxides washed down through creeks and rivers. Then the thermals deposit them on the cliffs.”
The colors are even more vivid on Rainbow Beach, which swoops round from the rocky lighthouse-topped headland where dolphins and rays can be watched playing in the water.
In the last 20 years or so, a shimmering lagoon has formed here, although the relatively placid waters of the bay have always been fairly ideal for swimming, anyway.
But it’s the cliffs that are truly remarkable. There’s a kaleidoscopic array of colors – reds, whites, blacks, oranges, pinks and yellows. Steve breaks some off and starts spreading it through the wet sand near the water’s edge. It quickly turns paint-like, and he starts painting a rainbow across a section of the beach. This is essentially the technique Aboriginal Australians have used for cave art over thousands of years.
Steve’s handiwork is soon washed away, but the feeling of being somewhere wild, out on a limb and magical, stays with me for a long time afterwards.