Erica Hamp squints into the morning sun towards the river mouth, taking in the wind, the tide, and the way they play on the maze of sand drifts and shallow waterways. She’s plotting a route for us, applying her years of experience paddling here.
The outflow’s location hasn’t always been the same but the gradual encroachment of human settlement has meant a hard entrance has been created and now the river must conform. Still it resists, flexing and wandering idly as though enjoying a last hurrah before losing itself to the South Pacific Ocean.
The Noosa River reaches north from the township of Noosa Heads, a thriving tourist spot where median house prices hover above half a million pounds and many spike far higher. Its main street shines with slick restaurants, bars and boutiques. But to venture out onto the river, along its 60-kilometre length, sandwiched by the vast, forested dunes of the Cooloola Sandmass to the east and open heath plains to the west, is to be transported into one of Queensland’s great wilderness areas.
Tidal lower-reaches connect a series of saltwater and brackish lakes that eventually merge with the pure freshwater narrows of the upper river, where the wake of motorised vessels is prohibited. Such a sprawling mass of waterways offers a haven for migrating shorebirds, a protected nursery for fish, and a home for myriad other creatures.
I’ve a long-held yearning to explore it, to paddle from the coast up as far as I can go. It’s a mission I attempted a year ago, in conjunction with a six-day hike on neighbouring Fraser Island, but extreme weather forced me to abandon my travel plans just days before departure. First, it was the hiking trail that was closed. Unusually dry and hot conditions had resulted in extreme fire danger, months ahead of the summer norm. Days later, the region was hit by intense storms, leaving behind a trail of uprooted trees, damaged infrastructure and a river dangerously in flood. Southeast Queensland was in turmoil.
A year later I’ve timed things better. Mid-winter typically brings brilliant sun and cool air – perfect conditions for paddling the double kayak that a friend and I have rented from Erica.
‘Most people only come to paddle the Everglades,’ she says, referring to a famously scenic stretch upstream. I sense in her a longing to push off for the river’s remote upper reaches, where we are headed, but she and partner Tracey operate a thriving business near the river mouth. Every day is spent guiding tourists across lakes, through hidden corridors of mangroves, and over sand flats where stingrays, soldier crabs and moon snails (a predatory sea snail) roam. Their deep connection to the river and its inhabitants is what they find so rewarding. ‘On the river, we’re aware of the wind, the currents, tides, weather and wildlife,’ she says. ‘We’ve become part of the ecosystem.’
This deep connection with the environment is what I am seeking too, a chance to leave civilisation behind and enter a world where humans are no longer dominant. It is perhaps auspicious that an enormous white-bellied sea eagle soaring over the river mouth heralds the beginning of our journey.
Alexis, seated in the rear cockpit, is our steerer, but he’s left his glasses in the hotel, so I take on the role of navigator and guide through the sandy maze. The river’s lower reaches wind past many millionaire properties. Makepeace Island, a small heart-shaped dollop in the river’s tidal zone, belongs to Richard Branson though it can be anyone’s for £13,000 a night. Beyond it, the river spills into Lake Cooroibah and then into Lake Cootharaba, ten kilometres long and five wide. A paddler here is fully exposed to the wind and waves, and the best route dog-legs out into the centre to avoid the shallowest parts of a lake only 1.5m deep at best.
Its shore provides a base to camp for the night. From Elanda Point, Everglades Eco Safaris operate cruises upstream, where the river squeezes in close and life slows down. Trevor Sinclair has been guiding here for 40 years and, like Erica and Tracey, the river has become a part of him, its energy weaving with his own.
‘It’s the serenity and sense of isolation that I love most,’ he says. ‘That and the river’s reflections.’ Tannins from surrounding Maleluca trees seep into the water, staining it the colour of dark tea and, sheltered from winds, the river becomes a mirror. ‘I don’t know how many times I’ve seen that water over the years but it always gets me.’
Before heading upstream we tie up briefly at Kinaba Information Centre, nestled among the rushes, to understand more about the region’s geography. A string of information boards tell a story of shifting sands, which have shaped this stretch of coast over a million years. Rivers such as ours carried eroded quartz fragments out to sea where waves and wind blew them back in again, creating an enormous system of sand dunes.
Captain Cook dubbed the area ‘Great Sandy’ and now a national park of the same name incorporates the Cooloola Recreation Area, in which we paddle, and Fraser Island, the world’s largest sand island floating 42 kilometres north. Covering 184,000 hectares, Fraser’s unique landscapes and biology earned it World Heritage status in 2007. It’s one of few places in the world where rainforest grows in sand, thanks to the presence of a nutrient-giving mycorrhizal fungi. It’s home to more than 100 lakes – including half of the world’s known ‘perched’ lakes – has the purest breed of dingoes in the country, and is a haven for humpback whales who rest there on their annual migration.
Such bountiful attractions have made Fraser a magnet for tourists. Cooloola however is far less accessible. A sand deposit spanning 42 kilometres in length and reaching 10 kilometres inland separates the river from the ocean – the Cooloola Sandmass – making it one of the largest coastal sand deposits in Queensland and creating a natural barrier to access.
We slip back into our boat and head across Fig Tree Lake. Lilac lilies once carpeted the entire lake but a hot spell a year ago killed most of them off, leaving a tangle of stems and roots beneath the surface that catch in our paddles.
Beyond it we slip into The Narrows, aptly named and overhung with pandanus palms, peeling paperbarks, banksia and trailing vines. Sedge grasses and reeds close in around us, hiding entrances to other smaller lakes and waterways. It’s popularly referred to as the Everglades – derived from ‘ever’, meaning forever, and ‘glades’, meaning grassy open place. Birds thrive here – kingfishers, egrets, cormorants, black swans and hundreds more – along with eels, turtles and fish that shelter in dense root systems. Even the elusive dugong grazes in these water-meadows.
Dugongs were once a popular food source for the Gubbi Gubbi, the first people of Noosa. The area was so rich in food that their usually nomadic ways became largely unnecessary. Fish and shellfish were plucked from the river, and kangaroos, possums, snakes and bandicoots from the land. Trees offered up berries, figs and native plums.
When white settlers arrived in the 1800s the Gubbi Gubbi were displaced and natural resources exploited. Cross-cut saws felled trees for decades and the rusted corrugated iron and wood of Harry’s Hut, home to timber workers in the 1950s, still marks the riverbank.
As we paddle slowly toward it, the river’s famous mirror effect begins to kick in. Reflections hypnotise, drawing us in to the ‘other world’ beneath the surface. When darkness falls, the stars floating in the depths of the still, black water are even more siren-like than the day’s puffy white clouds. Like static fireflies, stars twinkle both below and above us, so close in the sky that they appear to skim the treetops.
Our third day rolls out like an adventure race: a six-hour paddle followed by a quick transition for a three-hour hike. In the morning’s silent mist, we pull on wet clothes and leave camp to paddle the mirror, falling further into the river’s serene and hypnotic pull. Up here, signs of human existence have all but gone. The water winds and reaches, past cormorants on logs drying their wings, a swimming snake and another majestic eagle, almost a metre-tall, perched on a branch beneath which we silently glide.
We slice the water for hours until, at the junction with Teewah Creek, the water that was once eight to ten metres across suddenly ends in an impenetrable tangle of bushes and fallen logs. There is nowhere further to paddle yet still the water trickles in from distant reaches. The river’s catchment covers 850 square kilometres, most of it deep within national park conservation areas. Rainwater soaks into the wetlands, filtering through sand deposits and heath plains and recharging groundwater systems, the slow release of which means that the Noosa River is one of the few freshwater systems in Queensland with year round flow. ‘When the rain comes, everything fills up like a giant sponge,’ Erica had explained. ‘But the sponge is empty at the moment,’ she said, describing the river as the lowest she’d seen it in five years.
We paddle back downriver 14 kilometres and tie our boat up, to climb a white silica sand trail between stands of banksia and scribbly gums towards the fringes of the Cooloola Sandpatch. Wind and rain have taken advantage of an open gouge in the forested dunes, further eroding the shrubs and trees that once stabilised them, and now an advancing ‘nose’ of sand, two kilometres long, creeps inland from the ocean, its windblown ripples casting deep shadows in the late afternoon sun.
From our elevated perch, the surrounding landscape becomes clear – the river and lakes cast winding streaks of blue amid the greenery, and in the distance is Mount Cooroora, a volcanic plug of basalt rising 439 metres from the Western Plains. The scene is timeless, devoid of signs of human civilisation, a view that might have been observed by the Gubbi Gubbi a thousand years ago.
The loggers have now long gone, the vegetation regrown. Recent decades have seen national parks and the Noosa Biosphere Reserve established, but now the biggest threat to the region is climate change. The IPCC has declared the low-lying coastal area of southeast Queensland one of two vulnerability hotspots in Australia, at threat from increased flooding, erosion, bushfire, and more frequent mass die-offs of vegetation, flora and fauna. For the Noosa River and its inhabitants, surviving such increasing threats is likely to be the biggest challenge yet. l