Rather than taking the plane again to the next big city, we decided to drive all along the East coast of Australia, from Sydney to Cairns. You need 3 things for the perfect road trip: time, a good car and a good partner. Australia is a vast country and sometimes you drive for long hours on very lonely roads with nothing around, you need to stay focused as wildlife doesn’t warn you before they cross your path. From Sydney, we stopped at 8 places before we made it to Cairns. For us, everything was planned ahead just to make sure we stuck to our budget and time frame but also to get the best accommodation in advance.
Stop 1: Port Macquarie (4 1/2 hour drive)
Our first stop was a city known for its lighthouse, you’ll get a stunning view from it. There is also the only hospital for koalas in the world in Port Macquarie. Only 4 paid employees and more than 150 volunteers are doing a great job to preserve this threatened species. They were particularly busy as it was in a middle of the bushfire crisis. Otherwise, you will find the Breakwall along the Hastings River, displaying painted rocks that people originally created for an art competition in 1995. Nowadays, anyone can contribute their own way with diverse messages on it. I spotted one that I liked, saying: “Maybe you’re the lighthouse in someone else’s storm”.
Stop 2: Byron Bay (4 hour drive)
A lot of travellers stop in Byron Bay for the beaches and the atmosphere that I would qualify as hipster. The Cape Byron Lighthouse offers a really nice walk with great views of Tallow Beach and a pathway to the most Easterly point of mainland Australia. If you’re not really into surf, you wouldn’t necessarily love this place as much, but there are some pretty cool trendy restaurants too.
Stop 3: Surfers Paradise (1 1/4 hour drive)
Surfers Paradise was not new to me, I’ve been there before and I loved the vibes of this busy city… It literally is a paradise for surfers, as its name indicates, quite dangerous for swimmers if I’m honest, but the beach itself is stunning. Go on the 77th floor of the Q1 Tower Observation Deck and you’ll be able to see the Gold Coast all the way from Byron Bay to Brisbane. It’s simply amazing and probably the best viewpoint I’ve ever been to. It’s not really a place you go to relax though, the city is busy and there is always something going on.
Stop 4: Brisbane (1 hour drive)
Brisbane is where I lived, back in 2006… I was only 21 at the time, I was using a working holiday visa and didn’t care about how difficult my paid-by-commission job was (I was doing door-to-door for charities), I was just so happy to be in Australia. This is pretty much where I learnt English, there is nothing like full immersion. I’ve had so many good memories in this city, so we stayed there almost a week to add even more memories, together this time. Brisbane definitely deserves a full post so I’ll write about it in more detail another time!
Stop 5: Noosa Heads (2 hour drive)
After we left Brisbane and on the way to Noosa Heads, we stopped at Australia Zoo for its famous Crocoseum and because my partner used to watch Steve Irwin on TV when he was a kid. When you visit Australia Zoo, you’re making a contribution to conservation. Their mission has been to protect wildlife and wild places for 50 years now. You can also hold a koala – it’s allowed in Queensland but forbidden in some other states – if you fancy your picture taken with the most adorable Australian animal. Also, the safari part of the zoo is incredible, you feel like you’re witnessing a scene of the Lion King in real life. It’s one of the best zoos in Australia and really sets the bar high!
We originally planned to stay in Noosa Heads to access Fraser Island, the world’s largest sand island. We heard about this place so much that it was very frustrating when we realised we didn’t book ahead properly enough and that we had no choice but to give it a miss. It’s very tedious to organise a full trip and sometimes you miss some parts of it. This is what happened to us at that time, lesson learnt for next time! Instead we went for a wander along Hastings Street which seems to be full of beach-style clothing shops and restaurants. Noosa Botanic Gardens were empty at that time of the year.
Stop 6: Seventeen Seventy, or 1770 (4 1/2 hour drive)
Once arrived at 1770, we stayed in a secluded place surrounded by kangaroos. This area was home to the Aboriginal group before the arrival of Europeans. On 24th May 1770, James Cook had set foot on Australian soil, landing at the south point of the bay. This is a very quiet and peaceful small town where there isn’t much to do, but it was a nice place to rest before the longest part of the trip the next day.
Stop 7: Airlie Beach (8 hour drive)
This was the riskiest part of our plan… So much driving in one day! I imagine most people use a campervan and sleep in the middle of nowhere to break it down in smaller parts. We experienced 700 km of nothingness, just plenty of wildlife coming up from nowhere: frogs, lizards, turtles, kangaroos, emus… And just to entertain us, we had various road signs reminding us how “fatigue kills” (probably also boredom as you just follow a straight road for hours). The weather was very changeable too, from clear sky to heavy downpours. When it started to get dark, that’s when it became really dangerous. We arrived at Airlie Beach safe and sound but mentally exhausted.
We were not really lucky with this stop as our 2 day stay had bad weather pretty much all the time. Australians never complain about the rain though, because they need it so much! We had a full day plan to go to the beautiful Whitsunday Islands but it got cancelled due to the weather. Some roads were closed due to flooding so we couldn’t even visit the area by car (and don’t even think about crossing on foot, it’s full of crocodiles!). So we decided to do a Scenic Flight instead and luckily we managed to find an hour window where the weather allowed us to fly. We had an awesome view of the Great Barrier Reef from above (the famous Heart Reef is only visible from the air), as well as the Whitehaven Beach which has the reputation of being the most beautiful beach in Australia.
Stop 8: Townsville (3 1/2 hour drive)
The only reason you would stop at Townsville is to access Magnetic Island, a ferry will bring you there within 25 minutes from the harbour. Once arrived, we hired a 4X4 to drive around the island but we didn’t realise how badly the roads have been affected by various flooding. Some parts of the road even collapsed so sometimes we had no choice but to leave the car behind and keep going by foot to access some remote areas. All the efforts we had to make to access those places all paid off with plenty of incredible views. The island is really full of scenic spots!
Stop 9: Cairns (4 1/2 hour drive)
Finally, we made it to Cairns! “In the middle of nowhere” would be a good way to describe where we spent our last few days in Australia. We had access to a huge green space, beautiful mountains in the background and a nice creek full of fish and turtles. This part of Australia is very humid and tropical, fresh water is not lacking and they don’t suffer from bushfires. We found the weather there similar to Southeast Asia, a good aircon makes a big difference. Fun fact: I’ve never seen so many bats than in Cairns, at day or at night. In the high street we just had to look up to see them everywhere!
Don’t forget to visit Kuranda if you’re in Cairns. The 35 minutes drive to get there is a visual feast: tropical coastline on one side and the rainforest on the other. Kuranda village offers many things, from local market to wildlife experience. The Aboriginal influence is strong via street art and various shops. It’s a perfect way to immerse yourself in the history and heritage of Australia.
All in all, it’s a bit risky to have a tight schedule when you’re road tripping, you never know when something unexpected could compromise your entire plan… We got lucky! I would still recommend doing it that way to people who already have a return ticket back home, it removes the stress of running out of time. People say: It’s the journey that counts, not the destination… So it’s important to plan it well! For us this road trip took 4 weeks, 9 stops and 3,700 km all in all. Have you ever been on the road for so long yourself? Or are you planning to do it soon?
Big Girl x