Note: This is a trial version, featuring our 34 most popular parks. View the full list of parks.

  • Find a park
  • Cooloola Recreation Area, Great Sandy National Park

Cooloola Recreation Area, Great Sandy National Park

© Tomek Z Genek

Cooloola Recreation Area, Great Sandy National Park

Venture along sweeping beaches backed by mountainous dunes, hike through wildflower-dotted heathlands, and camp beside scenic waterways of the Upper Noosa River.

Don't miss sunrise over the Noosa River at Dutgee walkers' camp.
Don't miss sunrise over the Noosa River at Dutgee walkers' camp. Robert Ashdown © Queensland Government
View map
Park Cooloola
Traditional Owner Traditional Owners
Park Ranger Park Ranger

Experience both adrenaline-charged adventure and soul-refreshing solitude in the massive sandy wilderness of Cooloola. Sculpted over millennia by wind and water, Cooloola is a true nature escape in a stunning coastal setting. Whether you immerse yourself here for a few hours or a few days, you’ll leave with memories to treasure.

Head off on a 4WD adventure along vast stretches of shimmering coastline, fringed by cliffs of striking ochre, red and cream-coloured sands , with a spectacular backdrop of Cooloola's towering coastal sand mass. Stop to breathe in the tangy salty air and cast a line from the beach to catch dinner fresh from the sea.

Venture inland to explore the beautiful waterways of the Upper Noosa River and its tributaries, by boat, canoe or kayak. Make sure you take a camera—the calm tannin-stained waters mirror twisted paperbarks and bloodwoods against a backdrop of brilliant blue skies.

If hiking is more your style, choose a short walk, or a longer hike of several hours or, if you’re feeling adventurous, tackle multi-day Cooloola Great Walk or Wilderness trail. On foot, you’ll discover fragrant eucalypt woodlands, paperbark swaps and wildflower-sprinkled heathlands.

Witness stunning golden sunsets and rosy sunrises when you camp on the beach or beside the river or freshwater lakes. You won't want to leave!

Keep discovering

Top things to see and do

Set up camp on the sandy banks of Tin Can Inlet at Poverty Point camping area.

Cooloola's camping areas

See Cooloola's camping areas.

Embark on the ultimate canoeing adventure and experience the best remote river camping along the Upper Noosa River waterway.

Cooloola's journeys

See Cooloola's walks, drives, and horseriding and dog-friendly areas.

Go for a paddle, throw in a fishing line or just sit back and take in the views of the upper Noosa River at this popular day-use area.

Cooloola's attractions

See Cooloola's day-use areas and information centres.

Getting there and getting around

Cooloola Recreation Area, in Great Sandy National Park, is on the Sunshine Coast between Noosa Heads and Rainbow Beach (155km–240km north of Brisbane).

  • You can access Cooloola from the south (southern Cooloola beach and Noosa River) and the north (Rainbow Beach).
  • You need a 4WD to get to most parts of the park. With a conventional 2WD you can only reach the outer parts of the park, such as Elanda Point in the south; and Rainbow Beach and Bymien picnic area via Rainbow Beach Road in the north.

Southern access

From Brisbane drive 135km north on the Bruce Highway or the Sunshine Motorway to Tewantin; or from Gympie drive 58km south and east on the Bruce Highway to Tewantin.

To Cooloola's southern beach

To Elanda Point and the upper Noosa River

  • From Tewantin drive 19km west and north via McKinnon Drive and Louis Bazzo Drive to Boreen Point. Turn left onto Lake Flat Road and drive 2km to the Elanda Point access road, gateway to the upper Noosa River waterway.

Northern access

  • From Brisbane, drive about 160km north on the Bruce Highway towards Gympie. At the southern edge of Gympie, turn onto Tin Can Bay Road and drive 42km, then turn right onto Rainbow Beach Road.
  • From Maryborough, drive 57km south on the Cooloola Coast Road, then turn left onto Tin Can Bay Road and drive 3.5km, then turn right onto Rainbow Beach Road.

To Cooloola's northern beach

  • Follow Rainbow Beach Road north through the township, turn left onto Kirchner Avenue, and right onto Griffin Esplanade to access the patrolled beach and beach access ramp.
  • Alternatively, follow Rainbow Beach Road south of the township for 4km, turn left into Freshwater Road and drive 3km to Bymien day-use area and continue 26km on the sand road to Freshwater camping area, Freshwater day-use area and Teewah Beach.

Getting around

Coastal Areas

Beach access is possible from Rainbow Beach or Tewantin (near Noosa). Access from Tewantin is across the Noosa River ferry at the end of Moorindil Street, Tewantin and then via the beach access points at Noosa North Shore. These are called 1st cutting and 3rd cutting.

Vehicles are not permitted on the beach between 1st and 3rd cutting.

You can travel a little way south from 1st cutting, but it is an offence to drive, ride or take animals into the Exclusion Zone near the Noosa River mouth, which protects the habitat of 43 species of local and migratory birds that shelter in the estuary. This local government-regulated Exclusion Zone prohibits all motorised vehicles—4WDs, quad bikes, trail bikes—and domestic animals including dogs, cats and horses. Rangers do patrol regularly and penalties apply for non-compliance.

You can travel north from 3rd cutting along Teewah Beach to Freshwater, Double Island Point and Rainbow Beach.

Take care! Mudlo Rocks (in front of Rainbow Beach township) and the ongoing erosion to the sand cliffs between Rainbow Beach and Double Island Point may impede travel.

River

  • Commercial boat tours on the Noosa River operate frequently from Noosa and Tewantin.
  • Canoes, kayaks and small power boats can be hired from Boreen Point and Elanda Point private camping area. Power boats can be launched from the boat ramp at Boreen Point. Canoe and kayak launching facilities are only available at Elanda Point and Harrys camping area and Harrys day-use area.
  • For tourism information for all regions in Queensland, see Queensland.com, and for friendly advice on how to get there, where to stay and what to do, find your closest accredited visitor information centre.

Beach

Inland tracks

  • Cooloola Way, an unsealed access road, traverses Cooloola, linking Rainbow Beach Road in the north with the Kin Kin-Pomona Road from the south.
  • Other sand tracks provide access to inland sections of Cooloola.
  • Cooloola Wilderness Trail and Cooloola Great Walk traverse the beaches and inland sections of the recreation area.
  • Remember all vehicles must be registered, drivers must be licensed and all Queensland road rules apply, even on beaches.
  • Read 4WD with care for important information on 4WD safety and minimal impact driving.
  • A vehicle access permit must be purchased. Display the permit on your windscreen before driving in the recreation area.
  • At the northern beach access, visit the Manta Ray barge office, Shell service station, Rainbow Beach caravan park (BP service station) or the Rainbow Beach Tourist Information Centre for vehicle access permits, also Camping permits and other information (business hours only).
  • At the southern beach access, visit the Great Sandy Information Centre, located near the Noosa River ferry on Moorindil Street for Vehicle access permits, also Camping permits and other information (business hours only).

Road conditions

  • Access roads to Elanda Point, just north of Boreen Point are sealed and suitable for 2WDs.
  • Noosa North Shore is accessible by 2WDs via a car ferry across the Noosa River.
  • Rainbow Beach Road and the 3km unsealed section Freshwater Road accessing Bymien day-use area are suitable for 2WDs
  • All other roads, tracks and beaches in Cooloola are suitable only for high clearance 4WDs with low range gears. They are not suitable for caravans, campervans and motorhomes. Off-road camper trailers must have good clearance.
  • Cooloola's narrow inland sand tracks and beaches are rough and generally have dry powdery sand making driving difficult.
  • Some sections of Cooloola Way may be impassable after wet weather. Check local road conditions before traversing this council-maintained road.
  • Mudlo Rocks (in front of Rainbow Beach township) and the ongoing erosion to the sand cliffs between Rainbow Beach and Double Island Point may impede travel.
  • Check the Cooloola Recreation Area conditions report prior to arrival for any park closures, fire prohibitions, warnings, tide times and beach and track conditions. Subscribe to the RSS feed to receive automated updates. (About RSS feeds).

  • Check park alerts for the latest information on access, closures and conditions.
  • See traffic and travel information for road and travel conditions.

Wheelchair access

Wheelchair-accessible toilet facilities are available at Freshwater camping area, Freshwater day-use area, Fig Tree Point, Harrys camping area and Harrys day-use area.

Camping

Cooloola offers a wide variety of camping experiences, from social and family camping areas to remote bush and river sites, all located in beautiful natural surroundings.

See camping areas

Other accommodation

Walking

Walking is a great way to experience the best of Cooloola and with walking tracks, ranging from easy strolls to five day hikes, there is something to suit everyone..

Picnicking

Many day-use areas are provided in Cooloola, some with toilets, picnic tables and water on tap.

Viewing wildlife

Cooloola beaches, waterways, eucalypt woodlands, dry and wet sclerophyll forests, and riparian rainforests offer excellent opportunities for viewing wildlife. With more than 350 bird, 75 mammal, 21 frog and 80 reptile species, you are guaranteed to experience a close encounter of a natural kind.

Cultural and historic sites

Cooloola is rich in heritage sites that tell a story of a colourful history.

  • The Double Island Point lighthouse was the 18th lighthouse built in Queensland when it was built in 1884. It is accessible from the Double Island Point lighthouse walk.
  • A timber-getter hut near Harrys day-use area is the site where logs were winched across the Noosa river by a makeshift crane in the 1950s.
  • The Mill Point Settlement Site on Lake Cootharaba (Noosa River) contains remnants of a private 'company' township based around a sawmill and sustained by timber extraction from local forests which was in operation from the late 1860s until the early 1890s. The site is accessible from the Mill Point circuit.
  • The area around Poverty Point camping area was the site of a tramway constructed and operated between 1873-1883. Logs were hauled out of Cooloola's inland rainforests along the tramway by the 'Mary Ann', the first steam engine built in Queensland's history.
  • Several shipwrecks are dotted along the coast from Noosa to Double Island Point. The now-removed wreck of the 'Cherry Venture', which came ashore just south of the Leisha Track, is remembered in a memorial sign at the Freshwater day-use area. Other famous wrecks in deep waters include the 'Culgoa' in the Noosa estuary; the 'Leisha'; and the "Dorrigo' off Double Island Point.
  • Read more about the park's cultural history.

Horseriding

Take a leisurely beach horseride on Cooloola's southern beach on Noosa North Shore, between the Noosa river estuary and Teewah township.

Four-wheel driving and scenic driving

With a high-clearance 4WD, explore Cooloola's inland sand tracks and scenic drives, discovering secluded picnic areas, swimming in hidden lakes and enjoying the serenity. Take the time to plan your drive carefully as inland Cooloola is isolated and remote.

Map of four-wheel drives

Trail-bike riding

Ride your road-registered trail bike on beaches and inland vehicle tracks through Cooloola, unless otherwise sign-posted. Remember trail bikes are not permitted on designated walking tracks or fire management tracks.

Map of trail bike trails

Canoeing and kayaking

Great paddling experiences await you in Cooloola!

  • Paddle your ocean kayak in the calm ocean waters on the Double Island Point's northern beach, accessed from the Cooloola beach drive.
  • Canoe or kayak in the tranquil waters of the Upper Noosa River waterway and enjoy the picture-perfect water reflections on a calm, sunny day.
  • The upper reaches of the river upstream of Camp site 3 offer quieter experiences away from power boats.
  • Read about how to stay safe around water in Cooloola.

Swimming

While swimming is generally not recommended in Cooloola, some streams and lakes may have limited dangers, and may be suitable for swimming with care. If you do decide to swim, you enter the water at your own risk. Do not jump or dive into water and obey any safety signs.

  • Swimming is not recommended because visitors have been seriously injured or killed diving or jumping into water. All water bodies have hidden dangers that cannot be seen and may contain swift currents.
  • The river system, lakes and coastal beaches are not patrolled. The nearest patrolled beaches are at Rainbow Beach and Noosa Heads.
  • Sharks are common in the river system and ocean beaches.
  • For health reasons, do not dam or swim in creeks or soaks along the beach.
  • Beware marine stingers.
  • Read water safety for important information about staying safe in and near water and caring for parks.

Fishing

Recreational fishing is popular along the Cooloola beach and the Upper Noosa River.

Boating

Around Cooloola there are many opportunities for river and coastal boating.

  • Launch your boat from council-managed boat ramps at Boreen Point, Tewantin and Noosaville (Noosa River) and explore the Upper Noosa river waterway (motor boats can go as far as Camp site 3).
  • To explore coastal waters and estuaries, launch from boat ramps at Carlo Point (north of Rainbow Beach) and Norman Point (Tin Can Bay).
  • Coastal waters north of Double Island Point (including the headland) and the Tin Can Inlet are in the Great Sandy Marine Park.
  • Read more about staying safe and boating with care in Cooloola.

When to visit

Opening hours

Cooloola Recreation Area is open 24hrs a day.

  • Access restrictions may apply during periods of scheduled maintenance or during severe weather events.
  • Check the Cooloola Recreation Area conditions report prior to arrival for any park closures, fire prohibitions, warnings, tide times and beach and track conditions. Subscribe to the RSS feed to receive automated updates. (About RSS feeds).

  • Check park alerts for the latest information on access, closures and conditions.

Climate and weather

Cooloola enjoys a mild, sub-tropical climate. The average daily temperature range is 22–30°C in summer and 12–22°C in winter. The mean annual rainfall for the area is approximately 1400mm with the driest times between July and September.

Permits and fees

Camping permits

Vehicle access permits

  • A vehicle access permit must be purchased. Display the permit on your windscreen before driving in the recreation area.

You need a vehicle access permit for:

Organised events

  • If you are planning a school excursion or organising a group event such as a wedding, fun run or adventure training, you may need an organised event permit. Maximum group sizes and other conditions apply depending on location and activity type.

Pets

    Dogs are only permitted on the beach in a designated dog-friendly area on Teewah Beach, between the 1st beach access cutting on Noosa North Shore and on the beach at the northern end of Teewah township.

    Access to the dog-friendly area is only via the beach access cuttings—1st or 3rd cutting—at Noosa North Shore. These conditions apply in the dog-friendly area:

  • Dogs must be on leads and under control at all times.
  • Dogs must stay in the intertidal zone—between the low and high tide mark.
  • Wrap or bag dog droppings and remove them from the Recreation Area.
  • Do not allow your pet to chase birds or other wildlife.
  • Please ensure that your dog does not prevent Ranger access to view permits.
  • See map of this area (refer to page 2).
  • Be aware! Dogs are not permitted and penalties apply:

  • in the Exclusion Zone at the mouth of the Noosa River
  • anywhere in the Cooloola Recreation Area, including travelling in vehicles through the area, except in the designated dog-friendly area.
  • If you're travelling with a dog and heading north to Inskip Peninsula Recreation Area you cannot travel through the Cooloola Recreation Area. However you can get to Inskip via the Cooloola Way or, from Gympie, on the Tin Can Bay and Rainbow Beach roads.

  • Horses are permitted in a designated Noosa North Shore horseriding area. Access to the horseriding area is only via the southern beach access cuttings at Noosa North Shore.
  • Horses are not permitted within the  Exclusion  Zone at the mouth of the Noosa River.
  • Horses can still access the  Noosa  Shire Council’s designated horse trail, but must not traverse the beach north of Teewah township or other walking tracks and firebreaks in the Cooloola Recreation Area, including the Cooloola Great Walk.
  • Domestic animals are not allowed in elsewhere Cooloola Recreation Area. This includes travelling in vehicles, vessels and trailers through the recreation area on inlands tracks and along the beaches between the two dog-friendly areas.

Staying in touch

Mobile phone coverage

Unreliable. Generally good around Rainbow Beach and Tewantin on the beach, but intermittent coverage elsewhere. Check with your service provider for more information.

Wi-Fi

Connect to our QldParks wi-fi in the Great Sandy Information Centre.

Tourism information

Brochure

Download this brochure and take it with you:

Information provided in this guide is correct at the time of printing. Check park alerts for the latest details.

For tourism information for all regions in Queensland, see Queensland.com, and for friendly advice on how to get there, where to stay and what to do, find your closest accredited visitor information centre.

Be prepared

  • Parks are natural environments and conditions can be unpredictable. You are responsible for your own safety and for looking after the park.
  • Read stay safe and visit with care for important general information about safety, caring for parks and essentials to bring when you visit Queensland’s national parks.

  • Check the Cooloola Recreation Area conditions report prior to arrival for any park closures, fire prohibitions, warnings, tide times and beach and track conditions. Subscribe to the RSS feed to receive automated updates. (About RSS feeds).

  • Check park alerts for the latest information on access, closures and conditions.

Camping

  • Domestic animals are not permitted in the Cooloola Recreation Area, unless otherwise sign-posted but you can camp with your dog at the nearby Inskip Peninsula Recreation Area.
  • Use established vehicle tracks to access beach camp sites; don't drive or park on vegetated dunes.
  • Bring $1 coins if utilising the showers at Freshwater camping area and Freshwater day-use area.
  • Sand pegs will be useful. The use of generators is prohibited in Cooloola except in the Teewah Beach camping area.
  • Read camp with care for tips on camping safely and camping softly.

Drinking water

  • Drinking water is not provided throughout most of the recreation area.
  • Tap water is available at Harrys day-use area and Freshwater day-use area. Water from the Noosa River is not suitable for drinking
  • Treat all water before use.
  • Never drink, cook with, swim in or bathe with water collected from creeks, pools or sub-surface flows along the beach.
  • The use of portable sand spears to collect sub-surface water from the foredune area of Teewah Beach camping area is not permitted.

Open fires

  • Use a fuel stove at all times for cooking as camp fires are not permitted in most camping areas, or during fire bans.
  • Where camp fires are permitted, bring clean milled and untreated wood from home as you can't collect bush wood (including leaves and twigs).
  • Read camp with care for tips on camping safely and camping softly.

Rubbish

Dump points

  • Bring a portable chemical toilet for beach camping or camping without toilet facilities, or pack a trowel and toilet paper.
  • A portable toilet waste disposal facility is located inside the recreation area near the southern beach, opposite the Freshwater day-use area.
  • The nearest dump points for portable toilet waste disposal are at Tin Can Bay township, Coolum Beach, Tewantin and Gympie.

Driving

  • Dogs are not permitted in vehicles while traversing Cooloola's beaches and beach access tracks on the way to Inskip. Detour via Cooloola Way or the Tin Can Bay and Rainbow Beach roads.
  • Consider carrying a Personal Locator Beacon especially if travelling into remote areas with no mobile phone reception.
  • Unless otherwise signed, maximum speeds are:
    • 80km/hr on beaches
    • 50km/hr along beaches adjacent to camping and day-use areas
    • 20km/hr on all other inland roads
    • 20km/hr within camping areas
  • Avoid travelling at night; washouts and rocks can be difficult to see.
  • The best time for driving on the beach is two hours either side of low tide. Be aware of tides as they rise quickly and if you become stuck, it will be many hours before you can drive out safely.
  • Stay on the formed tracks and do not drive or park on the fragile foredunes. The dunes may be soft and unstable, collapsing under the weight of a vehicle.
  • The beach is exposed to seasonal larger-than-normal tides. Large winds and/or ocean swells can push water further up the beach causing beach erosion.
  • Deep washouts can happen at any time, particularly after heavy rain and large ocean swells. Debris, such as tree trunks and coffee rock, is often exposed in the intertidal zone—between high and low tide marks—following severe weather events.
  • Mudlo Rocks, just south of the beach ramp at Rainbow Beach, are generally impassable at high tide and often at low tide as well, depending on conditions. Use extreme caution; only experienced drivers should attempt the crossing. Conditions change daily. Always check first. Use Freshwater Road as an alternate route.
  • Leisha Track northern entrance is subjected to continuing natural erosion and at times this can impede travel. The track may become totally inaccessible on or around high tide so plan to travel at or near low tide. Due to traffic congestion, do not park on the Leisha Track.
  • Do not drive on the foredunes. They are fragile, are damaged easily and are nesting sites for shorebirds. For this reason, do not travel on the high tide! Drive slowly around (not through) flocks of birds. They are resting after long, exhausting migration flights.

  • Remember all vehicles must be registered, drivers must be licensed and all Queensland road rules apply, even on beaches.
  • Read 4WD with care for important information on 4WD safety and minimal impact driving.

Walking

  • Stay alert when walking on the beach. Approaching vehicles are difficult to hear over the sounds of the surf and wind. Keep children close and remain alert.
  • Best walking times are two hours either side of low tide. On some high tides there is no beach to walk on.
  • Exposed coastal sand dunes and sand cliffs are unstable and can collapse without warning. Climbing on, sliding down or digging into them is dangerous and can lead to serious injury or death. Never allow children to play near or on sand dunes and sand cliffs.

Boating and fishing

  • Coastal waters off Cooloola, north of Double Island Point (including the headland) and the Tin Can Inlet, are in the Great Sandy Marine Park.
  • If you're heading out on the water make sure you know your zones so you can follow the rules.

  • Fishing restrictions apply to the protected coastal waters north of Double Island Point and including the Tin Can Inlet.
  • Commercial netting is not permitted in the Upper Noosa River and Kin Kin Creek.
  • Use lures rather than live bait to reduce the chance of harming freshwater turtles or eels.
  • Turtles can become trapped and drown in wire collapsible traps that have wider entrances than the round mesh crab pots—consider using more turtle-friendly crab pots and methods.
  • Use appropriate length of float line for depth and tide, and weight pots to reduce amount of loose line that can entangle turtles.

  • Fisheries regulations apply. You can obtain information on bag and size limits, restricted species and seasonal closures from Fisheries Queensland.

  • There are no boat launching facilities within Cooloola Recreation Area however you can launch your boat from council-managed boat ramps at Boreen Point, Tewantin and Noosaville (Noosa River) to access inland waterways, and from Carlo Point (north of Rainbow Beach) and Norman Point (Tin Can Bay) to access coastal waters.
  • You can take your motor boat on the Upper Noosa River waterway as far as Camp site 3.

Around water

  • While swimming is generally not recommended in Cooloola, some streams and lakes may have limited dangers. If you do decide to swim, you enter the water at your own risk. Take care and swim with caution. Do not jump or dive into water and obey any safety signs.

  • Swimming is not recommended because visitors have been seriously injured or killed diving or jumping into water. All water bodies have hidden dangers that cannot be seen and may contain swift currents.
  • The river system, lakes and coastal beaches are not patrolled. The nearest patrolled beaches are at Rainbow Beach and Noosa Heads.

  • Rips occur frequently and sharks are common in the ocean.
  • Bluebottles (a species of marine stinger) are prevalent during spells of northerly winds.
  • For health reasons, do not dam or swim in creeks or soaks along the beach.

  • Read be wildlife aware for important information about dangerous animals and plants.

  • Beware marine stingers.
  • If fishing at night, wear a high visibility vest and use glow sticks to alert approaching vessels on the river, or vehicles on the beach.
  • Read water safety for important information about staying safe in and near water and caring for parks.

Bad weather and emergencies

  • For all life threatening emergencies (police, fire, ambulance), phone Triple Zero (000).
  • Tsunami, cyclones and extremely high tides may occur along coastal areas.
  • The Noosa River is also susceptible to flooding, cutting off escape routes.
  • Tune into a local radio station for updated warnings and advice. Be aware that an emergency alert may be received at any time.

Restricted access

Regulatory notices restrict access on management roads within the recreation area.

Natural environment

Building the sandmass

Over the past 2 million years, ocean currents and waves have swept sand north from the continental shelf of New South Wales and southern Queensland. Sand accumulates and covers the bedrock to form dunes parallel to the coast, leaving only peaks uncovered—today's headlands.

Onshore winds blow some loose sand inland into high parabolic (hairpin-shaped) dunes, which march inland over parts of older dunes, forming a sequence of overlapping dunes.

Fraser Island and Cooloola are remnants of sandmasses once stretching 30km east. Major dune-building has continued in episodes as sea levels rise and fall, forming a sequence of at least eight overlapping dune systems of different ages, some more than 500,000 years old—the world's oldest recorded sequence. These processes continue shaping the sandmasses.

Sandblows

Sandblows form when strong onshore winds break through the vegetation cover, driving sand from the eroding dunes. They engulf forests in their paths, at rates of up to 1 metre each year. New sandblows can also form when the stabilising plant cover is damaged by fire and wind, walkers and vehicles.

Coffee rock

Scattered along the beaches are outcrops of soft, dark-brown 'coffee rock', made up of sand grains weakly cemented by organic matter (plant remains). This is a reminder of a time when the sandmass stretched further to sea—and the currently exposed coffee rock was inland, formed as part of the sandmass's soil layers.

Coloured sands

Underlying parts of the windblown sandmasses of Fraser Island and Cooloola are coloured sands—the visible parts of older sands that have bound with clay into a weakly consolidated mass. The yellows, browns and reds are colours created by iron-rich minerals in the dune sands which, over thousands of years, stain the sand a complex array of tones and hues. Spectacular sculptures emerge where wind and rain erode the sandmass, exposing this soft older core. These can be seen at Rainbow Gorge and Cathedrals, where the Pinnacles and Red Canyon are striking examples.

Lakes in porous sands

Freshwater dune lakes occur in Great Sandy National Park on Fraser Island and in Cooloola. Perched lakes such as Birrabeen and Lake McKenzie on Fraser Island and Lake Poona in Cooloola are the most common type of lake in this park. They develop when a saucer-shaped 'hard pan' of organic debris, sand and peat forms in a depression between dunes. Water collects, slowly filtering to the watertable below. Barrage lakes form when a mobile sand dune dams a watercourse, usually in younger dunes close to the coast. Window lakes, generally at low elevations, form where the ground surface drops below the watertable level and fills with groundwater. Some window lakes have been barraged by sand dunes. All the freshwater lakes are low in nutrients and support few plants and animals. Most lakes have only two or three fish species. Eli and Wanggoolba Creeks are noted for their flow of crystal clear water—mainly localised outflows of groundwater from the sandmass. They contrast with the golden-brown, tannin stained creeks and seepages such as those into Lake Boomanjin.

How are forests created on bare sand?

Most plants growing on sand draw mineral nourishment from two unlikely sources. They strip the fine mineral coating from grains of beach sand, turning yellowish grains white, and also absorb small amounts of atmospheric trace minerals, washed into the sand by rain.

Decaying plants return these minerals to the sand. Over time, minerals are concentrated in the sandmass, providing nutrients that support a succession of forest types, from coastal pioneers and shrubby woodlands to tall rainforests.

As each successive dune forms, a thicker, deeper nutrient layer develops, able to support taller, more complex forest.

However, on Great Sandy's older dunes, the nutrient layer has been leached by water beyond the reach of even deep tree roots. The tall forests are replaced by stunted woodlands, shrubs and low heaths. This phenomenon—retrogressive succession—is of international scientific interest.

On Fraser Island, older dunes generally lie to the west, overlaid partly by progressively younger dunes to the east.

Beaches

Life is abundant—pipis (shellfish) and moon snails live in the shifting intertidal sand; sand-bubbler crab colonies leave patterns of tiny sand balls and ghost crabs scuttle on the sand at night.

Watch out for bluebottles with long blue stingers, sometimes washed ashore following strong winds. Flotsam, such as jellyfish is food for scavenging crabs and birds, adding nutrients to the sand.

Plants holding dunes together

Holding the coastal foredunes together are salt-tolerant pioneer plants: pigface, with fleshy angular leaves and purple flowers, goatsfoot vine, with purple trumpet flowers, and beach spinifex, creeping over the dunes and trapping sand swept from the beach by the wind.

Pioneer plant species begin nutrient and soil development. Their roots host bacteria that convert airborne nitrogen into nitrates that enrich the soil. Small, hardy trees such as beach allocasuarinas, coastal banksia and pandanus are a more permanent stabilising force on the foredunes. They protect wattles, hopbush, tuckeroo and stunted eucalyptus trees from harsh salt-laden winds.

Abundant banksia flowers in these coastal forests provide plentiful food for insects and nectar-feeding birds.

Mixed forest

Protected from the harshest salt-laden winds, and growing where richer sand is starting to develop, trees in the mixed forests and woodlands are larger than those of the coastal forests, though more stunted than the same species in the tall eucalypt forests.

Fires clear the understorey of foxtail sedge, bracken, blady grass, and fallen leaves and twigs, providing an ash bed for new seedling growth. With age, trees develop hollows that shelter nesting birds and nocturnal gliding possums. Ant nests are conspicuous on the forest floor, and more than 300 species of ants have been recorded in Great Sandy National Park.

Tall eucalypts

Protecting the forest core are tall eucalypt trees, including smooth-barked forest red gums and scribbly gums. These tall trees contrast with tessellated-barked bloodwoods, string-barked satinays, and blackbutts, with their rough-barked bases and smooth, light upper limbs.

Tall eucalypt forest grows on the ridges on the high middle dunes in the centre of the sandmass. It surrounds the central forest core, protecting rainforests from drying winds and salt.

After fire, eucalypts of the tall forest regenerate from seeds released into the ash bed. They also sprout new leaves from special buds protected under thick bark, and from lignotubers (woody tissue attached to the root system) below the ground.

Blackbutt trees were the mainstay of the timber industry. Visitors can see remnant stumps of former giants. You may notice occasional large, shield-shaped scars near the base of some trees, where Indigenous people removed bark for gunyahs (shelters).

Rainforests

The slopes and valleys of the middle, high dunes have the best protection from winds, receive the highest rainfall and have the deepest accessible soils. They are dominated by huge brush box, with bark 'stockings' on their lower trunks and smooth red limbs, and the tall, straight-trunked, stringy-barked satinay. Their long roots reach rich nutrients buried deep in the dunes.

In other areas, lichen-covered trunks of giants such as kauri and hoop pine emerge above lilly-pilly, quandong, brush box, and strangler figs, draped in vines, orchids, ferns and mosses. Walk slowly to see colourful fungi sprouting on rotting trees, their fine threads slowly decomposing the wood.

These rainforests are known as vine forests. Along their drier margins are low vine forests of small-leafed grey myrtle ('carrol' scrubs).

Hollows in older trees are nesting sites for mammals and for birds including king parrots, yellow-tailed black cockatoos and sulphur-crested cockatoos, often heard screeching from treetops. Brushtail possums, sugar gliders and flying-foxes are active at night.

Woodlands

Wallum communities dominate the older western dune systems, where the main nutrient layer has leached down beyond the reach of tree roots. Only shrubs and smaller trees can grow on the infertile upper sand layer. In seasonally waterlogged areas, paperbark and wet heathlands grow in dense stands.

Scribbly gum, pink bloodwood, wallum banksia (with serrated leaves) and black allocasuarinas (with needle-like leaf stems) grow as low trees above a heathy understorey.

Look closely at the hard wallum banksia seed cases—they open only with the heat and smoke of fire, releasing seeds that take advantage of the lack of competition after a fire. Most of the plant communities in the Great Sandy region respond to the frequency and intensity of fires and the season in which they occur.

Heaths and swamps

Swampy, treeless, grassy plains, fringed by paperbarks, colourful heath and swamp banksias, feed tea-coloured water to creeks and lakes. These are wallum heathlands.

Frequent fire maintains grassy heathlands by inhibiting tree growth. This preserves habitat and food for fairy wrens and ground-dwelling birds such as quails and ground parrots. Heaths and swamps are home to 'acid' frogs that can tolerate mildly acidic waters, the harmless freshwater snake, and several crustaceans.

Mangroves—forests on intertidal mudflats

Swarms of biting insects and an occasional smell of decomposition mean mangroves are not always pleasant for visitors. But the shelter of their roots and the deep layers of decomposing leaf litter make mangroves the nurseries and feeding grounds for much marine life in the Great Sandy region. Mangroves are also important in the food webs of nearby heathlands. Great Sandy's mudflats and sandflats are major feeding grounds for migratory shorebirds such as bar-tailed godwits on their flights from the northern to southern hemispheres.

Request a species list to see what plants and animals have been recorded here.

Culture and history

First inhabitants

Archaeological evidence suggests Aboriginal people have lived in the Great Sandy area for at least 5000 years, but they may have been here far longer.

Changing European uses

The first written record of the region is from Cook's discovery voyage of Australia's east coast in 1770. However, there are references to the area in old Portuguese navigation charts, and lead weights mined in France between 1410 and 1627 AD have been found on one of Fraser Island's beaches, suggesting that Europeans may have visited the region well before Cook.Early impressions of the region were not positive. Matthew Flinders, the first English explorer to set foot on Fraser Island in 1802, noted 'nothing can be imagined more barren than this peninsula'. That perception changed in 1842, when pioneer Andrew Petrie reported good pastoral lands and excellent forests in the area. This attracted settlers, who grazed horses, sheep and cattle at Cooloola and Fraser Island.

Logging of valuable kauri pines began on Fraser Island in 1863 and Cooloola in 1866. After the Gympie gold rush of 1867, demand for timber boomed and logging expanded to become the region's major industry for more than a century.

Small-scale mining for heavy minerals, mainly rutile and zircon, began with mining leases granted on Fraser Island in 1949. Sandmining exploration increased in the 1960s, attracting opposition from conservation-minded individuals and community groups. Their efforts eventually ended sandmining in Great Sandy in 1976, while logging stopped in late 1991.

National parks were declared in the northern part of Fraser Island in 1971 with more additions in later years and 1992 saw the significant listing of Fraser Island as a World Heritage Area.Residents have used the area for recreation since the 1870s. Tourism grew slowly. The first commercial tours and accommodation on Fraser Island did not start until the 1930s. This changed with the controversies surrounding sandmining in the 1970s and cessation of logging in the early 1990s, which dramatically increased visitor interest. The subsequent World Heritage listing of Fraser Island increased international visitation. The declaration of the Cooloola Recreation Area in October 2010 has provided for greater protection for the magnificent beaches of Cooloola.

The challenge for management today is to balance conservation of the region's natural and cultural assets with opportunities for people to enjoy the magnificent values of Fraser Island World Heritage Area and Cooloola Recreation Area in Great Sandy National Park.

Last updated: 15 October 2018
  • Share: