Dr Bambi Rakhel Ward

Medical Education Consultant|Author & Speaker

Rainbow Beach, Sands and Art

I’d like to think I have an acceptable level of cultural competence. This is as a result of having worked in partnership with Aboriginal Cultural Educators in the Northern Territory’s GP training program for several years.

But during a visit to Noosa Heads in Queensland last year, I began to feel very uneasy. Here’s why……


The coloured sands of Teewah, north of Noosa Heads, Queensland, Australia.

In 1969, my parents and I drove up to Queensland from Melbourne for a summer holiday after I’d finished primary school. One of the most memorable sightseeing trips was when a four wheel drive drove a few of us out to Rainbow Beach. We marveled at the variety of different coloured sands on cliffs near the ocean

Katy Stone and Agi Hardy (Mum). circa 1971 with some of their Rainbow Art

Katy Stone and Agi Hardy (Mum). circa 1971 with some of their Rainbow Art

On our return, we noticed a number of glass bottles filled with coloured sand being sold in shops. Some had patterns of sand in them.

My mother was a creative, inquisitive person. She asked a local artist to teach her how to make the sand patterns, and the artist agreed.

Next thing I knew, Mum had decided to create her own business of sand art with her good friend Katy.  Mum and Dad went back out to Rainbow Beach on several occasions, collected different colours of sand in various containers, put them in the boot of their car, and drove home to Melbourne. They returned there several times with Katy and her husband Howard.

Mum set to work making plans with Katy. She found a local glass blower and asked him to create glass figurines of Australian animals such as kangaroos and koalas, paperweights, pendants, candlestick holders, keyrings, footballs(!) and a whole host of other animals, including dogs, cats and swans. They named their business ‘Rainbow Art’, and filled the glass pieces with coloured sand. They created beautiful sand patterns and sold the items to shops that catered for international tourists. Each piece was accompanied by a card summarising the Aboriginal dreamtime story of how the coloured sands came into being.

Mouse, Rainbow Art

Mouse, Rainbow Art

Emu, Rainbow Art

Emu, Rainbow Art

Cat, Rainbow Art

Cat, Rainbow Art

Mum and Katy were interviewed on television and appeared in several newspaper articles. Their business grew from strength to strength.

Mum was proud of her financial independence, and even bought my first car with money she’d earnt from Rainbow Art.

Fast forward to my visit to Noosa Heads. Rainbow Beach is now a national park and people need a permit to get there.

I became very concerned. Was it considered a sacred site by Aboriginal people? Had Mum inadvertently done something culturally inappropriate when she took the sand? If so, what was my responsibility in all of this?

I have some Rainbow Art pieces in my home. My children and I inherited them after Mum died. I wanted to do the right thing. Should I take the sand out of the glass objects and give it to an Aboriginal Elder to return to Rainbow Beach?

Thanks to help from the owner of ‘The Big Shell’, a shop in Tewantin, Queensland, my questions were answered. I was able to track down an Aboriginal Elder who had written a book about the local area, including the coloured sand at Rainbow Beach. I rang him up one day and told him my story. I explained what Mum had done and that I wanted to do the right thing by his people. When I mentioned that everyone who bought a Rainbow Art piece was given a written card that outlined the Aboriginal dreamtime story of how the coloured sand came into being, he was very pleased.

I then took a deep breathe and asked him whether I should take the sand out of the glass objects and give it to him to return to Rainbow Beach.

He told me that wouldn’t be necessary. In his eyes my mother had acted innocently. He said I should look after the remaining pieces with honour and respect, and tell my children to do the same. What a relief! I could relax again and not feel guilty about how the money for my first car was made.

If anyone would like to read the book I referred to above, it’s called ‘In the tracks of a rainbow’ by Robin A. Wells. Published by Gullirae Books, Sunshine Beach. Available from ‘The Big Shell’ in Tewantin, Queensland.

Why not share this?


  1. Caroline Gaden

    June 5, 2016 at 6:42 am

    Thank you for writing this…. I discovered it when trying to answer the same question as you…. should I return the sand to the beach. I have what looks like the dachshund dog in the photo of your mother and Katy. I also have two pictures done by Beryl Wolff, one of Kookaburras and one of an Aboriginal man sitting in the desert with ant hills… I bought them in my early days in Australia in 1971 and sent them to my family in England who subsequently brought them back to Australia when they in turn migrated. They are beautiful pictures and certainly treated with respect and honour for the First People of the land and the beautiful place from where the sand came.
    Thank you.

  2. H Dr Ward

    This is interesting. I am a historian, trying to thread together the origins of bottled sand art in Australia. From what I’ve thus far discovered, it seems Fred Wondunna – a Batjala man (indeed, the great grandfather of Batjala artist and scholar Professor Fiona Foley) was the originator, in the 1920s or earlier. He seems to have been inspired by earlier US & UK bottled sand creations, but the style used in Australia is as far as I can work out derived from his particular take on the art. The Batjala were Fraser Island people (as you know, the island has coloured sand cliffs and the Batjala claim I think extends to Rainbow Beach). If you know anything from your end, let me know.

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