Anyone who’s roamed south-east Queensland will be well versed with the beauty and appeal of Noosa and Maroochydore, with their white beaches, cool cafes and bustling shopping strips. But head a little further north and there’s an abundance of lesser-known treats to explore.
The Gympie region — incorporating Rainbow Beach, Tin Can Bay, the Mary Valley and Kilkivan — is fast emerging on the traveller’s trail. It's an exciting mix of nature, wildlife, adventure, excellent locally-grown food and bucketloads of history.
It all began in 1867 when Englishman James Nash found six ounces of gold over six days in ‘Gympy Creek’ (as it was known by the Indigenous inhabitants) leading to a massive gold rush and the birth of a bustling town. Now the region is ripe for all manner of modern-day discoveries.
Gympie’s historic beginnings are still very much evident. Wander the main thoroughfare of Mary Street and you’ll see plenty of impressive classical and neoclassical architecture built in the late 1800s and early 1900s. It makes for an interesting walk, especially with the Gympie Region Heritage Trail Guide in hand to highlight noteworthy buildings and the stories behind them. The trail also extends to the wider region, taking in the old brick chimney of Mount Clara Smelter, century-old railway bridges, homesteads and plenty more.
To appreciate how the discovery of gold launched and shaped this town, a visit to the Gympie Gold Mining and Historical Museum is a must. A good few hours are required to wander this sprawling indoor/outdoor complex containing mining equipment, relocated historic cottages, military memorabilia, and a restored ambulance and 1942 fire truck. There’s even an extensive collection of cameras, radios, gramophones and gemstones.
If you fancy trying to find a little gold of your own, head to the Deep Creek fossicking area. While the area was extensively explored back in the day, there is still a chance of unearthing something. Panning along the banks and bed of the creek is your best bet, particularly on the inside of creek bends.
Another spot to try your luck is the countryside around Kilkivan, west of Gympie. While you’re there you might want to explore the 88km Kilkivan to Kingaroy Rail Trail, a great place to stretch the legs by bike.
For a ride or walk in Gympie, the River to Rail Trail offers a peaceful route alongside the Mary River.
One of the biggest draws in Gympie is the Mary Valley Rattler, a heritage steam train relaunched in 2018 after extensive restoration. Even if you’re not into trains, this is an excellent experience right from the moment you arrive at the pretty 1913 station, its platforms lined with hanging flower baskets. The line was originally built to transport gold, timber and produce to Maryborough and Brisbane. Now, several steam locomotives and one diesel pull a variety of carriages that date back as far as 1909. There’s a real sense of nostalgia as you rattle and roll between Gympie and the quaint village of Amamoor and, with the windows open and an average speed of 23km/h, there’s plenty of opportunity to soak up the countryside.
A special Tasting Train operates on Thursday, serving up cheese, homemade biscuits, salami and macadamias sourced from the region, followed by a three-course lunch at Gympie station. For train nerds, one lucky person can sit up front with the driver and fireman (stoker) to watch the action as coal is shovelled into the belly of this panting and puffing machine. It’s quite an eye-opener and gives a real insight into the art of driving steam trains, which requires the right amount of coal at the right time to match the gentle undulations of the line.
Oh, and you can bring your dog!
THERE’S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY
While the train offers a glimpse of the Mary Valley, there is plenty more to explore here. Take a scenic drive, stopping by at the quaint villages of Imbil, Dagun, Amamoor and Kandanga — make sure you grab a pint at a classic old corner pub or stock up at local farmer’s markets. Lake Borumba is also worth lingering at for a spot of fishing and boating.
Platypus inhabit the Mary River and, while you might be lucky enough to spot one from shore, a morning or dusk paddle along the Yabba Creek — a tributary of the Mary — is a good way to increase your chances. Kayaks allow close encounters with these elusive creatures and Ian Harling from Ride On Mary knows where they like to hang out. The opportunity to spot blue kingfishers and other birds is a bonus.
On land, check out the Mary Valley Rail Trail, a 4.7km gravel path easing its way through plantation and rainforest between Imbil and Brooloo, home to whipbirds and bellbirds. On foot or by bicycle is the way to go.
If you fancy saddling up, Mary Valley Adventure Trails leads rides through the rainforest on Arabian horses. Known for their smooth gait, they’re also on the petite side making for a relatively safe and low-stress ride that even a complete beginner can enjoy. The route goes from rolling countryside into beautiful forest of red cedar, beech and piccabeen palms, strung with vines.
TIME TO TUCK IN
The region’s rich soils have made it a food bowl for south-east Queensland, providing quality produce for many local high-end restaurants. Gympie’s Farmer and Sun market and gourmet cafe gathers its stock from around 60 local farms, ensuring super fresh and tasty produce. Stock up on fruit and veggies as well as relishes, jams and cakes.
Alternatively, head straight to the farm door. Lindols Macadamias produces a range of sweet and savoury nuts direct from its 11,000-tree farm, along with pestos, dukkah and homemade cookies. If you long for the sweet and flavoursome strawberries you enjoyed as a kid, head to Cooloola Berries where up to a dozen different varieties are grown at any one time. Pick your own or buy a few punnets to takeaway. Sunday afternoons are famous for Paella in the Paddock, serving up lunch from its enormous paella pans, paired with sangria and music.
PARADISE IN A CAN
The extensive and sheltered waterways of Tin Can Bay provide a haven for humans and animals alike. It’s most famous for being the place where you can hand-feed wild Australian humpback dolphins, and every morning a pod of nine, led by alpha male ‘Mystique’, swim up to the Barnacles Dolphin Centre to nab a few fish. Volunteers supervise the feeding, which takes place around 8am (there’s a small fee for the fish).
Boat cruising and kayaking is also popular in the shallow aqua waters, and the lucky might spot one of the 100-odd dugongs reported to live here. Unsurprisingly, the sleepy township of Tin Can Bay is a great place to enjoy fresh seafood. If you want to catch your own, there are plenty of sheltered bays and mangrove-lined creeks to drop a line in.
THE END OF THE RAINBOW
Rainbow Beach got its name from the multi-coloured sand cliffs (reputedly 72 different tones) lining its 23km of coastline. It’s part of the Cooloola Recreation Area in Great Sandy National Park and, with a high clearance 4WD, you can actually drive from Noosa to Rainbow Beach via the Cooloola Beach Drive.
The township of Rainbow Beach is a relaxed one-street affair though it’s the gateway to some pretty exciting activities. A doors-off helicopter ride with Rainbow Beach Helicopters will give you a good appreciation of the coast, rainforest, Carlo Sand Blow and Inskip Point where dugong sightings are almost guaranteed.
Permits are required to drive the beach out to Double Island Point but if you don’t fancy tackling it yourself, Epic Ocean Adventures will drive you past the stunning coloured sand cliffs as part of their kayak tour. These aqua waters are home to dolphins and turtles, and there’s even a chance of whale sightings. Down this end of the beach is also where surfers to come to ride Australia’s longest waves — clean, peeling rollers that can be up to a kilometre long.
The northern end of Rainbow Beach is another great spot to saddle up and soak in the views, and the excellent guides at Rainbow Beach Horse Rides are extremely safety conscious. If you want to stretch your own legs, a short 10-minute walk will lead you up onto the Carlo Sand Blow, a surreal 15 hectare mass of windblown sand that has swallowed a forest. Nearby, the 4.2km Poona Lake Walk leads through rainforest to a tea-coloured perched lake.
Serious hikers can tackle a mellow 102km route from Rainbow Beach via the Cooloola Great Walk all the way to Noosa, opening up a whole world of other things to see and do. But that’s another story.
Gympie is two hours north of Brisbane and 45 minutes from Noosa.
WHAT TO DO
- Mary Valley Rattler, Gympie: maryvalleyrattler.com.au
- Gympie Gold Mining & Historical Museum: gympiegoldmuseum.com.au
- Gympie Region Heritage Trail: gympieheritagetrails.com.au
- Platypus paddle on Mary River or Yabba Creek: rideonmary.com
- Horse riding at Mary Valley or Rainbow Beach: maryvalleyadventuretrails.com.au or rbhr.com.au
- Doors-off helicopter flights: rainbowbeachhelicopters.com.au
- Double Island Point — Kayak with dolphins, turtles, and whales (Jun-Nov), or surf Australia’s longest wave: epicoceanadventures.com.au
- Feed wild dolphins at Tin Can Bay: barnaclesdolphins.com.au
WHERE TO STAY
There are plenty of campsites across the region, from beachside at Inskip Point, creekside at Borumba Dam, or shady bush camps at Kilkivan. Download the full guide (including dump sites) from visitgympieregion.com.au/our-region.
WHERE TO EAT
- Farmer and Sun, Gympie — fresh local produce and gourmet cafe: farmerandsun.com.au
- Vespa Espresso Bar, Gympie — stylish high-ceilinged cafe: 205 Mary St
- Little Parliament, Rainbow Beach — cool cafe for breakfast and lunch: 12 Rainbow Beach Road
- Acrobaleno on the Beach — popular Italian restaurant at Rainbow Beach: Ph: (07) 5486 8000
- Cooloola Berries, Wolvi — pick your own or sit down in the garden cafe: cooloolaberries.com.au
- Kandanga Pub — a local's favourite in the Mary Valley: 40 Main St, Kandanga.
- Snack Shack — best for fish and chips: 35 The Esplanade,
- Tin Can Bay
A Vehicle Access Permit will be needed for driving on beaches in the Cooloola Recreation Area. Obtain via QPWS, ph: 13 74 68.