How to do the 88km Cooloola Great Walk… and survive
Eighty-eight is a mighty powerful number. To the Chinese it means double happiness, to Australians it links us with European settlement (good or bad, it’s still meaningful).
Here’s how it’s done.
Before you lace-up
First up, if you’re not super comfortable playing Bear Grylls on a DIY survival stint, then sign up with an expert guide like Steve Grainger, the head honcho of Tropical Treks and a bloke I like to think of as Australia’s answer to David Attenborough.
Sure, you have to pay $1090 for the privilege, but that’s what you get; the privilege of having an expert guide with you for six full days. Steve’s a bush whiz. He can identify dozens of birds just by their trill, spot a red-bellied black snake before the hungry powerful owl does, and perform first aid on an as-needs basis (p.s. we didn’t need it).
His secret weapon against emergency is a funky little locator that can activate “Canberra” with one push of its button. That’s the basics. The price also includes all accommodation, insurance, food, camping assistance and general camaraderie.
Now that you’ve handed over the dosh, let’s jump into the itinerary.
Day 1: Sign-on Sunday
Your bed for the first night is Beach Road Holiday Homes, Noosa North Shore, one of a dozen or so architecturally-designed holiday homes in a bush village so charming you wonder why you haven’t been before. The house is double the size of the average Queenslander and comes with four huge bedrooms, a Greco-Roman communal pool and a morning chorus of noisy kookaburras. If you decide to bail out of the hike, then this is the place to hole up. Skid row it is NOT.
Critical for survival, tonight you get to pack and then pick your five-day menu from a selection of sparkly packets of dehydrated dinners, tins of tuna, wraps, muesli, wheels of cheese, trail mix, and fruit. This is crunch time. You have minutes to decide.
My food pack hits a whopping 5.5kg on top of my 14kg of equipment. Something’s got to give. I sacrifice a 100g onion to keep the same-weight Lindt chocolate (girl smart!) and leave out the muesli. I also ditch my paperback novel and long trousers but I won’t budge on the extra pair of undies! My total backpack weighs 18.5kg – still 3kg over the ideal weight.
Day 2: Blast-off Monday (17.3 km)
The Cooloola Great Walk is a class four track. It’s got distinct trails with signposted junctions and it requires moderate navigation skills and moderate fitness levels. It also serves up some steep grades, soft sand and the chance to encounter wildlife.
A hat, sunglasses, gaiters, water-treatment tablets and a first-aid kit are a must. As is a trowel for those who can’t last the distance between the long-drop toilets that proudly welcome us into each campsite.
Our six hours of walking today starts with a pretty half-hour trail through the Arthur Harrold Nature Refuge on Noosa North Shore before transitioning over sludgy lowlands toward the beach.
At this time of the morning it’s just us – four human turtles burdened by our heavy homes and two lonely anglers who think we are positively nuts. The remaining 77km between here and Rainbow Beach is easily conquered by 4WD they tell us. Why would you walk when you can do the Great Beach Drive? Why indeed!
Leaving the shoreline behind, we climb 120 metres and track along the beach all the way north into our camp – Brahminy – and the first chance to set up our tents. The resemblance between my bag of poles, pegs and parachute silk and an Ikea flat pack does not go unnoticed.
It takes a good hour to figure out how to get the yellow-submarine erected. The end result is one pretty good looking tent that will defy all manner of wind and rain. I sleep soundly.
Day 3: Sandpatch Tuesday (20.3 km)
Caffeine is my drug of choice but there are no baristas for miles. Thankfully I have some coffee bags to a) get me over the aches of day one, and b) to tackle the notorious Cooloola Sandpatch, a 1.2km-wide crater smack in the middle of our day of sunshine.
The plan for today is to make it to the base of the sand patch, gulp down a snack to fuel our ascent from 120 to 240 metres above sea level and then stop for lunch on the other side.
Steve allocates 45 minutes for the crossing, seriously underestimating my young companions and their hell-bent need to eat. Fast out of the gates they conquer the open landscape in less than 31 minutes. Avocado number two is dead, skinned and smashed on organic wraps by the time Steve and I doddle in 10 minutes later.
The rest of the day is a walk in the hills. Literally.
Day 4: The not-so-big-easy Wednesday (15km)
There’s something about a half-way point that demands a bit of navel gazing. Maybe it’s the morning glimpse of the River of Reflections on the Noosa Everglades. Maybe it’s the exhaustion. Still, everyday worries evaporate and the present comes sharply into focus.
What was previously a dull shrill from a bush transitions into individual bird species. We learn to identify the pretty call of the rufous whistler and the oom-poo of the wampoo pigeon. Steve reels off dozens of names of birds lurking in the bushes around us; proof that the Noosa biosphere is an important resting place for some 40,000 seasonal birds.
Today’s trail may be a relatively short, but it is by far the hardest thanks to a marathon 10km uphill hike. By the time we lob into to Litoria Camp Site, on a pretty hilltop, the team decamps to their own digs for an early rest. It’s only 2pm.
Day 4: Taking-it-home Thursday (21km)
The trail is getting crowded. After 62km owning the Great Sandy National Park, we stumble across two middle-aged chaps hiking the other direction. It’s like discovering life on Mars and the vast wilderness suddenly switches into gym mode. Conversations revolve around recovery, protein hits and step counts.
Today’s 21km hike is the prettiest and the easiest as it rises and falls through the Womalah Forest winding around towering kauri trees and bringing new animals into our line of sight, including the red-bellied black snake sunning itself in an open patch.
I have no curiosity for a reptile that Wikipedia tells me is “capable of causing significant morbidity” and quickly move on. Needless, the venomous creature sparks a long discussion about first aid. Steve confirms that never ever – under no circumstance – do you need to urinate on anyone who has been stung or bitten. Good to note! Apparently, the best thing to do is to lie still, wait a few days and if you are not dead, then count yourself a survivor. It’s all rather practical.
The other practical thing about Tropical Treks is the food. Our nightly meal revolves around Campers Pantry, a kind of rabbit-out-of-the-dinner bag of tricks that transforms a dehydrated brown powder into a chunky and steaming lamb casserole just by adding boiling water. Added to a side of reconstituted Deb Potato, an entree of miso soup and a hot chocolate finisher, it makes for a grand menu.
Day 5: Fat-burger Friday (15 km)
No need to wake us, we can taste the end!
The only thing between us and a burger by the beach is the final 15 km of our Great Cooloola Walk. Our team bolts out of the camp and literally canters past Lake Poona all the way to the Carlo Sand Blow, a magical big sandy dip on the edge of Rainbow Beach and the last stretch before the local surf club.
Here a cold beer and hot burger wait, but not before a much-needed shower at the family-friendly Rainbow Getaway Holiday Apartments, where two of the group stop for the night.
As for me? I’ve ticked a walk off my bucket list and I’ve got a date with a bed back in Brisbane. But before I go, here’s a few tips on doing the walk:
- Take a small bottle of bio-degradable body wash. You get about a litre of water each night to wash, and your body (and your companions) will thank you for it.
- Pack a pair of flip flops; they are super handy around the campsite.
- Throw in a light-weight sarong to double as a bed sheet, a picnic blanket and a spare set of clothes when you wash.
- Dehydrated miso soup is a light-weight welcome salt replacement at the end of each day’s walk.
- Wear long pants (with zippers to turn them into shorts) to protect your legs from the spiky bushes in the lowland.
If you’ve already ticked Cooloola off the list, then check out the other Great Walks in Queensland, or why not send me a challenge to do a walk not even listed.