Sydney: the jumping off point for the massive island of Australia. But once you’ve had your fill of fast-paced city life, which direction do you go? South to sophisticated Melbourne, wild Tasmania and cooler climes? Or north to sun-soaked beaches, glitzy coast-hugging towns and the exotic tropics of Queensland?
Most choose the latter, moving through two states for 3,000km to Cairns, and it doesn’t take long to understand why this route is so popular. Those lucky enough to fly from Cairns, Brisbane or Sydney along the coast, should arrive in plenty of time to get a window seat and enjoy breathtaking views of lush green land, long white beaches and unbelievably blue seas dotted with tropical islands. Fascinating shapes subtly etched on the ocean surface by the Great Barrier Reef (GBF) have imaginations running wild thinking of the secret world lurking just below the waves.
North to south
There’s no set rule about direction of travel, but people typically move north from Sydney to Cairns. It’s worth checking the weather before assuming this is the best option – contrary to popular belief the skies down under aren’t permanently cloudless, and in the far north daily downpours are the norm. New South Wales enjoys pretty good weather year-round, and summer temperatures between December and February rarely drop below the mid-20s and reach up to 40°C. Many travellers time a visit to spend Xmas Day barbecuing in Sydney’s sun, and despite crowds doing the same, an Antipodean Christmas is
a fun and unique experience.
Once reaching Queensland, its not the temperatures that need watching so much as the humidity. The dry season from April to September is the best time to travel, as the wet season from January to March brings with it risks of heavy rains and cyclones that can turn even major highways into rivers. With typical Aussie optimism, locals will soon exclaim that a cyclone isn’t something to fear, but rather a great excuse for a party (“No work tomorrow, mate!”). However, if activities such as diving and sailing rely on good weather, the wet season is best avoided.
With so many stops and activities galore, it’s easy to assume a year is need to see everything the east coast has to offer, along with a small fortune, but a well-established network caters to pretty much every type and budget. But, with a little less time or money, there is a list of destinations that just can’t be missed, namely Byron Bay, Fraser Island, the Whitsundays and, of course, the world’s largest coral reef. Shop around for the best deal to visit all of these sights; booking more than one trip silmultaneously should qualify for a discount, but it’s important to ask exactly what’s being paid for.
On leaving Sydney, many make a beeline for Byron Bay, missing some worthwhile stops as a result. Popular with Aussie holidaymakers, Port Macquarie is a great place to spot koalas, while Coffs Harbour is ideal for novice scuba divers to learn the ropes – there may not be as much to see beneath the surface as on the GBF, but a PADI diving certificate course can be done cheaper here in readiness for the big one. With the freedom of your own transport there are numerous quiet beaches, and surfers should go in search of amazing breaks found at the likes of Crescent Head or Lennox Head before hitting crowded Byron and beyond.
A bohemian town with a relaxed festival atmosphere all year round, Byron is a great place to leave behind all remnants of city life. A favourite hang out for surfers, board virgins should take some time to learn to ride the waves with one of many schools advertising money back guarantees if you’re not standing on the board by the end of a lesson. Like any challenge, if at first you don’t succeed then paddle back out for another go.
Smiling travellers are a common sight after a four-hour stint of first-time surfing, but they’ll be a lot quicker to tell you about the one wave they caught than their aching arms the next day. It’s a common misconception that Australia’s entire coast boasts breaks to match Hawaii, but beyond Agnes Water, the GBF prevents any decent waves from reaching the beach, so make the most of it down south.
Lined with skyscrapers and glitzy resorts,the Gold Coast’s flashing theme parks welcome you to Queensland with beaches that appear to go on forever and a hectic nightlife to match. Surfers Paradise is filled with all-you-can-drink offers and noisy clubs open till dawn and it’s just a short drive inland to the McPherson Range, where waterfalls and spectacular walks will soon blow away those morning after cobwebs.
With so many people travelling along the east coast, it couldn’t be easier to get from place to place. To make it simple for drivers, two connecting highways, the Pacific and Bruce, will take you all the way to the top. Bear in mind that distances in Australia are deceiving – a local may remark flippantly that Airlie Beach is just a stone’s throw from Brisbane, but driving between the two could mean a full day behind the steering wheel. If long distances don’t endear you to buy or hire a car, the Greyhound bus offers a variety of tickets to fit any itinerary. Tickets for a specified route cater for stringent timings or the slightly pricier kilometre pass (distances are sold in 1,000km blocks) is a flexible jump-on, jump-off option.
Escaping the over-urbanised Gold Coast, Queensland’s state capital Brisbane is a pleasant city that straddles Brisbane River away from the coast. Overshadowed by its louder siblings, Sydney and Melbourne, those who view it as nothing more than a cut-through from the Gold to the Sunshine Coast miss out on a small but relaxed city with a lively behind the scenes music and arts scene. The best of Brisbane’s understated entertainment centres around funky Fortitude Valley where by day people mill around cafés and markets before moving on to bars and clubs frequented by national and international music acts.
For those doing the east coast road alone, there are a number of guided tours to choose from; Oz Experience, being the best known. There’s a definite party vibe on many of these buses, so if that doesn’t appeal they’re best avoided, but as Harry Mostyn, 20, explains it’s a great way to meet others.
“Going to a foreign country alone at first can be an intimidating idea. Travelling with Oz Experience meant meeting a multitude of travellers from all over the world, a chance to learn about local wildlife and aboriginal culture, as well as visiting a stack of locations and taking part in activities that you couldn’t do independently.”
From the sedate to the crazy, the array of activities on offer is immense, with companies strung along the coast entreating travellers to spend their time and dollars doing things they couldn’t (or wouldn’t) dream of back home. Harry made the most of as many of these activities as he could:“After Byron the fun just keeps on escalating, through Surfers Paradise, Brisbane, Fraser Island, Cattle Station, Airlie Beach, Magnetic Island and, one of my personal highlights, Cairns. It was here I experienced a 14,000ft skydive overlooking the GBF, a 50m
bungee jump, whitewater rafting on the ferocious Tully River and something a littler more relaxing, scuba-diving the GBF.”
Before hanging out with the rich and beautiful on the Sunshine Coast, a detour through the Glass Mountains leads to the legacy of ‘Crocodile Hunter’ Steve Irwin. Australia Zoo offers the chance to meet some of Australia’s strangest animals and, of course, watch impressively large crocs being fed suitably large chunks of raw meat.
Beyond the zoo boundaries, the east coast has loads of wildlife spotting opportunities, from cuddly koalas munching leaves in Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary to the turtle rookery in Bundaberg where rangers lead groups to a moonlit beach to see tiny turtles grappling towards the waves from November to March. Out to sea, the GBF teems with colour and life, the entire coast seems to appeal to playful dolphins and Hervey Bay’s popularity doesn’t stop with humans; between July and October humpback whales arrive looking for protection in the bay’s warm waters
Famed for shark infested waters and wild dingoes, Fraser Island sees hundreds of visitors disembarking regular ferries onto its shores every day from tiny Rainbow Beach or Hervey Bay. Hopping onto a guided tour in a 4×4 bus-come-truck is one option, although self-drive tours involving camping and cooking are a fun alternative. Either way, Lake Mackenzie’s crystal clear water, lined by blindingly white sand, is a must, as is climbing Indian Head to witness the early morning feeding frenzy of local tiger sharks beneath a typically stunning Aussie sunrise.
Halfway up the coast, Bundaberg, the home of Australia’s famous rum, and one half of the “Bundi’ and coke” partnership, is a popular stop for fruit pickers. A working holiday maker visa is necessary to earn hard cash, although there are plenty of hostels offering free board in return for a few hours’ work. The populated east coast makes it easy to get work all the way along, with bar work, fruit picking and call centre style jobs all relatively easy to find. Alternatively, volunteering is a fun way to spend a few weeks Willing Workers on Organic Farms is a popular activity throughout Oz (www.woof.com.au), although Conservation Volunteers Australia is another organisation worth approaching (www.conservation volunteers.com.au).
To fund his Australian photography expedition, Dean Mitchell, 32, worked his way up the east coast. “My goal was to save money for the journey around the rest of the country. This way I wouldn’t need to find work in the more remote regions. The east is the most commercial coast of this colossal country and therefore ideal for job hunting.”
Dean didn’t spend all his time working and picking a highlight of his time on the coast was difficult: “There are so many great things to see and do that it’s difficult to pinpoint one particular highlight. However, there is one exception. Diving on the GBF followed by a helicopter flight to see the largest living structure on earth from the air is an experience unparalleled anywhere else on earth.”
As Australia crosses the tropic of Capricorn things start hotting up and not only in terms of the weather. Great Keppel Island off Rockhampton marks the start of the magnificent GBF and town upon town catering to tourists. Before hitting the traveller hotspots of Airlie Beach and Cairns, visit laid-back Agnes Water and Town of 1770 where development hasn’t yet taken over. Fishing, barbecuing and surfing are favourite pastimes here, and to get into the swing of north Queensland’s outdoor lifestyle, take advantage of Australia’s impressive and well-equipped campsites that bear very little resemblance to childhood camping trips in Cornwall. As is the case for most of Australia, the east coast has every type of accommodation on offer. Exclusive hotels, party hostels, quiet B&Bs and superb campsites with every possible option in between are found in most destinations.
Difficult to believe on first sighting, backpacker-haven Airlie Beach also offers exclusive luxury on the nearby Whitsunday Islands, a favourite with celebrity A-listers like Julia Roberts and George Harrison. Families are drawn to pretty South Molle, Hamilton Island holds a five-star resort for a bit of pampering, while back to nature options on Whitsunday Island or a spa retreat on Daydream Island sees travellers returning to the mainland refreshed and happy.
Undoubtedly the best way to see Australia’s picture postcard archipelago is from the beautiful blue seas separating one from the next. With over 90 islands to explore, there’s a plethora of boats including tall ships, ex-racing yachts and catamarans waiting to be filled with shipmates before sailing the not-so-high seas. Experienced sailors can charter their own yacht, although if sitting back and letting someone else do the work sounds appealing, there are hundreds of sailing tours to choose from. Find the ideal trip and, like Roberta Giovedi, 30, the Whitsundays trip will top the east coast highlights.
“I went on a boat called Condor, with 15 other travellers, plus four members of crew. During our three days and two nights aboard, we ate amazing food and got to be a part of the action and help the crew with sailing. We snorkelled twice a day and swam to beautiful white beaches, the most popular one being Whitehaven beach. We spent time enjoying the sun, getting to know each other and swimming in the calm and warm sea, although you have to watch out for jellyfish. From the boat we witnessed amazing sunrises and sunsets, while at night time there were plenty of stars to gaze up at.”
Leaving behind the Whitsunday Islands, the home straight into Cairns is in sight. A direct route takes around 12 hours, however, there are a handful of places to stop en route, and the landscape, vegetation and weather steadily becomes more tropical. Rough and ready Townsville has a rough and ready nightlife and from here it’s an easy ferry ride to magical Magnetic Island, or ‘Maggie’ according to the Aussies. In between relaxing among beautiful green surroundings and keeping an eye out for koalas, try hiring a Mini Moke to tour the small island, ride horseback on Horseshoe Bay or dive the Moltke wreck.
At the end of a long trip from Sydney, most will make a last-ditched attempt to do it all and call in at Mission Beach before reaching Cairns, where lucky visitors will spot the prehistoric looking wild cassowary bird. Mission Beach’s most popular attraction though is the chance to jump from a moving plane and, with the aid of a parachute (and an experienced instructor) float down to earth and land on the spectacular beach.
Travel-weary travellers arrive in droves at Queensland’s most northern city, and in response Cairns has unsurprisingly built up into a thriving tourist centre filled with cheap and cheerful bars (including the obligatory Irish pub), swanky hotels rising high to offer the people inside great views over the ocean and restaurants and cafés aplenty to hang out in with friends made on the route up the coast. For those who haven’t done it further south, Cairns is as good a place as any to take a trip out to the GBF. Once again, there’s a bewildering number of companies offering a variety of ways to see the reef, with divers, snorkellers and those who prefer the dry safety of a glass bottomed boat all rewarded for their efforts with dazzling displays of colour, movement and life going on beneath the ocean surface.
There’s a reason the east coast of Australia is so popular, and there really is something that will appeal to everyone. But, don’t just take our word for it – go and find out for yourself.