Paddling the river of mirrors: 'The spot to head if you need to leave the world behind'

Although it is right by a popular tourist town, the upper reaches of the Noosa River are a rarely visited gem, accessible only by canoe or electric motor boats

The upper reaches of south-east Queensland’s Noosa River offer a level of seclusion that’s hard to find, even in a country as vast as Australia. Before reaching the ocean near the shirtless joggers and deeply tanned shoppers of Hastings Street, the river journeys from the subtropical rainforest of Great Sandy national park beneath slow moving sandblows, through broad, shallow lakes and past million-dollar homes with private docks.

It’s not a technically challenging river, but visitors are rare because the upper reaches are only accessible by canoe or electric motor boats. The absence of watercraft, almost imperceptible current and dark, tannin-stained waters combine to make the surface so reflective that it’s earned the nickname “the river of mirrors”. Mobile reception is intermittent at best and the campsites can only be reserved for one group at a time, making it the perfect spot to head if you need to leave the world behind for a bit.

An aerial photograph of the Noosa River
An aerial photograph of the Noosa River. Photograph: Mark Fitz/Tourism and Events Queensland/Tourism Australia

The river is located in Cooloola Recreation Area, in the southern section of the Great Sandy national park (the northern section includes Fraser Island). Bushfires in 2019 caused significant damage to some sections of the park and forced the closure of the 48km Cooloola Great Walk that crosses it, but the river is once again open to visitors.

Cooloola means “the sound the wind makes as it whispers through the branches of the trees” in the language of the Gubbi Gubbi traditional owners, and there are few other sounds on the numerous tributaries of the Noosa today. That wasn’t always the case, but the arrival of Europeans quickly led to massacres and mass displacement for the Gubbi Gubbi and the land was given over to mining, logging and even agriculture in cleared areas before the park was gazetted in 1975.

Today vegetation is reclaiming the land and large sections of the riverbank are no-landing zones. Overhanging branches are turned into circles by the mirror-like water, which is usually broken only by the V of ripples from your own canoe. Even the night skies are perfectly reflected before morning mists roll in to obscure the surface.

Dusky purple lilies flower in the river’s backwaters and the banks are lined with gnarled, flaking paperbarks, scribbly gums and banksia whose bristly seed pods open like castanets. Closer to ground level, keep an eye out for intricate native orchids and carnivorous sundews as well as colourful wildflowers like Christmas bells and bright pink boronia.

More than 350 bird species are found in the park, including cormorants, herons and ospreys that nest near the river. And don’t let rumours of the Cooloola Monster scare you; it’s a subterranean cricket-like invertebrate that was discovered in the area in 1976.

Beyond the river, the 61,750ha recreation area stretches from the outskirts of Noosa to Rainbow Beach and into the hinterland. It encompasses a diverse range of environments from beaches and giant sandhills to open woodland, patches of rainforest, melaleuca swamps and heath covered in wildflowers. A number of roads pass through the park (most require a high-clearance four-wheel drive) but the best way to visit is under your own steam, either by paddling up the river or on one of the two multi-day walks that traverse the park.

The Noosa River’s tannin-stained, calm waters reflect the shore and the sky
The Noosa River’s tannin-stained, calm waters reflect the shore and the sky. Photograph: Kate Duffy/Tourism & Events Queensland

Where to paddle: Start at Elanda Point or Boreen Point on the expansive Lake Cootharaba before venturing into the narrower upper sections of the river – campsite three is an enjoyable half-day paddle from either.

To reduce the paddling time, you can also launch from the old logging camp at Harry’s Hut, which lies on a very scenic stretch of river only accessible by four-wheel drive.

Where to sleep: With multiple sites hidden in the trees and a longdrop toilet, campsite three is the perfect base to explore upriver or walk to the Cooloola Sandpatch for views over the Noosa River, Pacific Ocean and volcanic peaks of the Sunshine Coast hinterland. Make sure to book ahead.

Nearest hot meal: Habitat Noosa at Boreen Point has a range of accommodation options, including glamping tents, and the onsite bistro with a nanobrewery makes it a welcome first stop after a paddle.

Getting there: The upper sections of the park are accessible from Rainbow Beach, but Noosa Heads (139km north of Brisbane) is the best base for exploring the river. Boreen Point is 30km by car from Noosa Heads (or a long day’s paddle if you want to launch from the esplanade on Gympie Terrace).

When to go: Visit between August and October to see the full palette of wildflowers. Sections of the park are regularly closed due to fire danger in the warmer months.

Alexis Buxton-Collins

The GuardianTramp

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