Perspectives / Extensive damage by vehicle use on Wonga Beach



Allowing 4WDs, motorbikes and quads on beaches has been almost universally phased out and should be in Douglas, DSSG President, Didge McDonald said this week. Council is due to consider Its policy about vehicle use on Wonga Beach at its meeting on August 25, 2020.

“It is no longer appropriate, the volume of traffic is growing rapidly, it is largely unmanaged, environmental damage is substantial and the quiet amenity is lost to speeding vehicles” Mr McDonald said.

“Furthermore Wonga Beach is designated as a Habitat Protection Zone within the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park designed to ‘…protect and manage sensitive habitats and ensuring they are generally free from potentially damaging activities…..’, McDonald said. “Vehicles on beaches are a high impact use.”

The foreshore (low water mark) has the status of a habitat protected area. The Habitat Protection Zone provides for the conservation of areas of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park by protecting and managing sensitive habitats and ensuring they are generally free from potentially damaging activities.

Extensive damage has already occurred to the foreshore by quads, motor bikes and 4WDs. 48 entry and access points into the National  Park and adjacent protected areas have been documented by concerned locals, including some penetrating up to 1.6 kms into the National Park. There is constant disturbance to migratory shore birds as well as  local species that use the beach above high water mark for breeding including one listed as vulnerable ((Beach Stone Curlew).

The amount of traffic has escalated rapidly in recent times and visitors from  outside the Shire are coming specifically to be able to drive on the beach.

On 28 August 2018, Council endorsed a draft policy regarding vehicles on beaches. The draft policy can be found here Draft vehicles on beaches policy. The draft policy includes conditions for limited recreational use on Wonga Beach. Council will consider the final policy at its August meeting where it will either adopt the policy as is, amend the conditions, or exclude vehicle use altogether.

The draft policy proposes that, in certain circumstances, Council will issue an approval (permit under Subordinate Local Law 1 (Administration) for the bringing or driving of motor vehicles onto beaches or beach related areas. The policy provides for four types of approval:

  1. Special approval for a person with disability,
  2. Event or other approval for Iron Man events, beach clean-ups etc,
  3. Emergency services, Council workers or contractors where undertaking Council work,
  4. Limited recreation use at Wonga Beach

The fourth approval would apply only to the area north of Giblin St access, only to residents of Wonga Beach, excludes two wheel bikes, requires a current certificate of registration or a Certificate of Currency for Public Liability Insurance, noting Douglas Shire Council as an interested party, and showing an indemnity value of $20,000,000.00. An unregistered vehicle can receive an approval.

The conditions applying to all types of approval include:

  • Prohibition on driving above the high tide mark, except when travelling to and from the beach; and on or over frontal dunes or foreshore areas not designated as access points
  • Maximum speed limit of 20 kph
  • No driving under influence of alcohol or drugs
  • Give way to pedestrians and wildlife
  • Quad bike operators must wear helmets

Mr McDonald said DSSG does not support the recreational use of vehicles on any beach in the Douglas Shire, including Wonga Beach. “We believe that general recreational use of vehicles on beaches is inconsistent with the values of a World Heritage region and detracts from the environment friendly message needed to attract visitors and maintain the Shire’s eco-tourism credentials. “To make matters worse, there is no enforcement of existing conditions which are ignored users, most of whom are either ignorant of the conditions or choose to ignore them.” 

While Council has jurisdiction over the foreshore, the foreshore still remains part of the Great Barrier Reef Coastal Marine Park, and all activities must comply with the relevant management plan. 

A recent scientific study focusing specifically on the impact of low-level vehicle traffic on beaches found a significant decrease in species biodiversity and density. This negatively impacts on the ability of many species to survive in the face of further disturbance. There are no conditions that will alter this basic fact. If vehicles are allowed to drive on beaches, damage to the coastal environment and ecosystem is unavoidable.

Certain shorebird species require some uninterrupted rest period during the daytime. Queensland law specifies the need for ‘resting periods, closures during breeding periods and restrictions on night driving and one hour after, and before dark. None of these issues have been addressed by Council’s proposal. There are no closures proposed for breeding birds such as red-capped plovers and beach stone curlews. No shorebirds can breed successfully with vehicles driving in the proposed driving zone.

McDonald said DSSG believes Council must take expert advice on the environmental impact of permitting recreational vehicles on Wonga Beach.

“Council must take expert advice on the legal framework as it fits with other laws, and on the liability issues arising from Council permitting an inherently dangerous activity. Quad bikes are notoriously dangerous. As at 2 July, there have been 11 quad bike fatalities in 2020, six of these in Queensland.

Recent literature on the issue of vehicles on beaches in Australia, indicate that Councils are winding back vehicle access because of population increase, climate change pressures and increasing ORV ownership. Many areas have been re-zoned to no longer allow vehicles. Reasons cited are environmental damage, climate change impacts, enforcement issues and conflicts within the community.

DSSG is concerned that Council resourcing will not be adequate for proper enforcement and monitoring of impact.

DSSG proposes Council phase out vehicle use on the beach and in the meantime, as a minimum, we recommend the following conditions:

  1. Speed limits
  2. Beach closures, seasonal and night closures for protected species
  3. Restricting vehicle access to below the drift line, away from dune vegetation
  4. Rehabilitating damaged vegetation
  5. Education of permit holders about responsibilities and the impacts
  6. Signage and identification of vehicles
  7. Enforcement – sufficient and appropriate
  8. No beach driving at high tide
  9. All vehicles to comply with registration/insurance and safety requirements
  10. No 4WD cars except to launch boats – the weight of these vehicles is extra damaging

The Douglas Shire Council information page is here.


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3 years ago

We visit Wong Beach on a regular basis and are very diappointed to see the changes that have occurred due to Four Wheel Drives that drive up and down the full length of the beach, the quadbikes that drive up and down the beach and two wheel motorbikes.
I read the “Draft vehicles on beach policy and the conditions there part of” and can safely state that not one of the driver’s comply with the policy. The conditions that are supposed to be complied with by the drivers are total disregarded, as they all know that there has never been any Council Officers around to enforce and the policy.
The image of the beach has changed as instead of one access to the beach, there are now numerous well worn tracks onto the beach.
The drivers definitly drive above the high water mark and are damaging and destroying vegetation along the beach.
My wife was fishing on the beach one day and was nealry knocked over by a quadbike rider who drove so close to her back that if she had hooked a fish and leaned back, the driver would have colloided with her.
If you yell out or try to motion to them to move away, you receive a mouth full and a finger gesture.
There have been security cameras install to try and catch anti social behavior, however, the drivers just steer clear of the cameras and drive through more vegitation.
Wonga Beach used to be a quite area and a great beach for fishing and for familys to walk or picnic, however, now it looks like a main road and some days all you hear are quad bikes and four wheel drives on the beach. The quad bikes also seem to drive all over the Wonga Beach streets, with out helmuts etc and there are not registered to do so.
Once again, no action seems to be taken to prevent these actions.

Catherine and Andrew
3 years ago

We visited Wonga Beach in November and December last year (from SEQ), and were appalled on the several occasions we walked on the beach to encounter 4WDs and quad bikes. The drivers were obviously out for a hoon (or too lazy to walk?) accessing the beach from several points, and taking no regard for their activity on the dune vegetation and likely resting and breeding habitat of shorebirds, as well as the amenity and safety of fellow beach users. As former residents of Cairns, we have visited Wonga Beach on many occasions over the last decade and felt that the level of disturbance we observed late last year was much worse than ever before.
Wonga Beach is a special place, as befits its status as part of a World Heritage region and habitat zone in the GBR Coastal Marine Park. We fully support the submission by the Douglas Shire Sustainability Group to the Council and fervently hope the Council takes its responsibilities seriously and prioritises the issue of environmental impact in its deliberations about vehicle use on Wonga Beach. We’d love to come back and see this beautiful environment without the damage that unconstrained or poorly enforced vehicle use has caused in so many other places in Australia.