Travelling Australia Part I: East Coast; Sydney to Cairns and Beyond
When it came to deciding what countries to visit in our five months of travel it made sense to go as far away as possible, and what is further away from Canada than Australia? Not much! I admit that Australia hadn’t quite been at the top of my list, but it was the next practical stop after New Zealand. Now, please don’t misunderstand my opinions about Australia; it very quickly stole my heart.
There are a few challenging things about visiting Australia though, it is big and expensive. In terms of comparing the Canadian and Australian dollar it is almost one-to-one, but the cost of things is THAT much higher. Australia really hurt the savings account. That being said, we knew it wasn’t going to be cheap and we came prepared to shell out for activities that would be expensive but worth it.
The next biggest challenge was deciding where to go. It is a massive country and most of the big places to visit are scattered around the coast, with the exception of Uluru. It also has massive climate differences from one region to the next, and lots of little microclimates too. We wanted to see the whole country, but that wasn’t realistic for our timeline.
The cheapest flights from Christchurch were to Sydney, so we let that guide the way. Our plan was to start in Sydney and make our way north along the east coast to Cairns. From there we would have some decisions to make, but we never planned too far ahead.
In the end we spent nearly two months in Australia; five weeks heading up the east coast from Sydney to Cape Tribulation, one week in the south along the Great Ocean Road and one week on the west coast in Perth and Margaret River.
It was an epic, albeit expensive, time and I wouldn’t change it for the world. Australia is another one of those places that I would go back to in a heartbeat. I also think it would be an amazing place to live.
In terms of getting around we practically used it all! We took flights, buses, cars, boats, ubers and our own feet. The more you are on the move the more expensive your costs become, but we were happy to have had a taste of three different coasts.
We predominantly stayed in hostels, often in private rooms but sometimes in dorms depending on cost and availability. Being older than the average twenty-something backpacker we definitely appreciated the extra privacy and were usually willing to pay for it. Staying in hostels also allowed us to almost exclusively cook our own meals. We did eat out in restaurants a handful of times, often when we were visiting or socializing with friends.
I had been warned ahead of time that Australian hostels were not the greatest, and I would say that warning was accurate. There were a handful of really nice standup hostels, but for the most part many of them were tired and not very clean. But if you are trying to travel cheap, you’ve got to be flexible, right?
So without further delay, here is Part I of our Australian Travels on the east coast from Sydney to Cairns and beyond!
I have never been too crazy about cities, but Sydney pleasantly surprised me. It was clean, it had lots of green space, a beautiful waterfront, and the transit system was quite impressive. I loved that you could hop on a ferry as a mode of transportation! We spent a few days wandering the botanic garden, crossed the harbour bridge to Luna Park, visited the aquarium, took the ferry to Taronga Zoo and Manley Beach and spent an afternoon at Bondi Beach. I enjoyed both Manley Beach and Bondi Beach, and I think they are both worth checking out if you have the time. It was a very busy and active few days with loads of walking.
We managed to get our hands on a cheap car rental and headed inland to the Blue Mountains for a couple of days; beautiful forests, sandstone cliffs, canyons, caves and lots of outdoor activities. It’s an easy 1.5-hour drive from Sydney and it is so different from what the east coast is typically known for.
There are some beautiful lookouts at Sublime Point, Echo Point and you can pay a visit to the famous Three Sisters, a rocky formation on the cliffs of a giant canyon. We hiked the Grand Canyon trail in Blackheath, a beautiful trail that takes you to the valley floor with canyons, waterfalls and rainforest. If you are lucky the views at Evans Lookout are supposed to be fantastic, but it was quite a foggy day.
We also drove out to the Jenolan Caves and did a couple of cave tours. It’s a beautiful spot, but the cave tour groups can be quite large.
We took a flight from Sydney to Ballina, and experienced some of the most frightening turbulence I have ever encountered. It probably didn’t help that there was a three year old ahead of me yelling, “we’re going down!” over and over again, but we made it safely and fortunately it was a short flight. We took a shuttle to Byron Bay and settled in for the holidays.
We were lucky to get a few of the last beds in town over Christmas, and we were happy to get a few days to chill out on the beach. Byron Bay is an alternative hippie beach town rammed with tattoos, dreadlocks and an eclectic group of people. It got crazy busy and it’s a surprisingly small town considering the massive tourist industry it supports.
It was my first Christmas away from home and we spent it on the beach. There were people in swimming suits and Santa hats and some families opening presents at the beach. Helicopters flew overhead scanning for sharks and lifeguards in boats cruised the water to scare them away, yes this really happened! We were pulled out of the water a few times too as I guess there was a shark getting too close to shore. It was 40 degrees; we drank beer and got sunburnt, so it really didn’t feel like Christmas at all!
With a few days here we were able to explore the various beaches, do some of the local walks to lookout points and Bryan did some surfing.
We paid a visit to the Crystal Castle/Shambhala Garden and spent an afternoon there. We meditated in the amethyst cave and wandered the beautiful gardens. It was such a lovely place, though it was a pain to get to. We were fortunate enough to get an Uber out there, but we had to hitchhike back. It was my first time hitchhiking and three young travelers picked us up. We bought them ice cream as a thank you.
We opted to purchase the hop-on-hop-off Greyhound bus pass from Byron Bay to Cairns, and leisurely started to make our way north. It was economical and provided us with quite a bit of flexibility.
Gold Coast – Surfers Paradise and Currumbin
We found ourselves in Surfers Paradise on the Gold Coast over New Years. The Gold Coast is known for its beautiful beaches and quaint towns, but Surfers Paradise is not that. Most hostels have minimum night requirements around the holidays and we had booked last minute without really knowing much about where we were going. So we were stuck here a little longer than we would have liked. Surfers Paradise is busy, cheesy, a bit trashy and charmless. The beach is sandy and lovely, but it is in the shadows of tall buildings and skyscrapers. I can see how some people might enjoy this place, but it certainly wasn’t for us. We bided our time hanging out at the beach, taking a riverboat cruise (which I would recommend) and catching up on some yoga and reading. We spent New Years playing games and having drinks with the other travelers at our hostel who weren’t into clubbing (which is the thing to do here) and we watched three different firework shows.
Fortunately, we had met a lovely Aussie couple in New Zealand that had offered to set us up for a couple days. They gave us the true Gold Coast experience in Currumbin, just south of Surfers Paradise. They opened their beautiful home to us, took us to their favourite restaurants and showed us the best beach spots. It was such a welcome break to unwind for those few days and spend some time in an actual home.
In Currumbin we wandered the beaches, checked out the Australian wildlife at David Fleays Wildlife Park and paddled along the bay. It was a great few days with really amazing people, we were so grateful to have met them. (Thank you Bella and David, we won’t forget your kindness and generosity).
Sunshine Coast - Noosa
We stopped for a few nights in Noosa, a chic beach town on the Sunshine Coast with lovely shops and a beautiful national park. We walked the national park’s coastal track spotting dolphins in the distance and passing many little coves and beaches for your own private beach experience. There is also a nudie beach, which we found accidentally…
The water was so beautiful and crystal clear, the sun was hot and the beers went down easy; you quickly see why the name Sunshine Coast is so appropriate.
Rainbow Beach and Fraser Island
Our next stop was Rainbow Beach. Rainbow Beach is a pretty small place, but it is the closest access point to visit Fraser Island. Fraser Island is the largest sand island in the world, and it hosts rainforests, mangroves, swamps, sand dunes and beautiful pristine freshwater lakes.
To visit Fraser Island you need a four-wheel drive vehicle. Getting around will either by really fun or really stressful, depending on how you feel about getting stuck in sand with ocean waves close on your side.
The most economical option to visit Fraser Island was with a tag-along-tour; you sign up, get grouped into vehicles and drive in a convoy. We booked with Pippies Fraser Island Tour; yes, we were the oldest ones of the group, but we still had a really great time!
Driving on the beach was lovely and fairly smooth with the roaring ocean on your left, while the inland roads were quite rough. We had two nights and three days visiting various spots on the island.
Our first day we visited Mackenzie Lake and Lake Garawongera, where we found the softest silica sand that was so white and powdery it looked like snow. We also checked out the Maheno Shipwreck. It has been there since 1935 and sits on its shore slowly being eroded by the ocean.
The night is spent camping at their permanent site where you sleep in tents on a foam mat. Camp was fairly simple, but there were showers and toilets a short walk away and you had everything you needed.
Perhaps the best part of the evenings was wandering out to the beach to see the amazing star show. With no lights or light pollution nearby the sky is an endless canvas of stars.
Our second day started early with a stop at The Champagne Pools, a series of rock pools fed by the ocean waves, followed by a visit to Indian Head lookout where you can see stingrays and sharks cruising the crystal clear waters.
We spent some time at Eli Creek, a natural spring that has created a very cold and refreshing lazy river and our last stop of the day was Tea Tree Lake. The local tea tree leaves fall into the lake and the water is said to have the tea trees medicinal properties – it definitely looked like tea, but felt smooth and velvety.
Our last stop on the final day was Lake Wabby. It required a 3.5km walk through the rainforest and climbing a large sand dune. It is an emerald coloured lake with tons of those small fish that eat the dead skin off your feet. It was a beautiful refreshing lake, though you have to climb a blazing hot sand dune to get out.
Fraser Island was one of the highlights of my time in Australia – it was beautiful, it was remote, but it was also a lot of fun. I would definitely recommend it! Keep in mind most of the tag-along-tours are full of young twenty-something’s bringing a lifetime supply of Goon, but maybe you are a young thirty-something doing the same…
Agnes Waters is the midpoint between Rainbow Beach and Airlie Beach. It is your last chance to surf and swim in the ocean, any further north and you must be aware of box jellyfish and salties (AKA crocodiles). It is also home to the cheapest surfing lesson! We spent a few days here to break up what would otherwise have been an 11+ hour bus ride. It is another small town stop, but I thought it was quite a beautiful little place.
We mostly spent time on the beach, but we also took a surf lesson – not the cheapest one, but a cheap one with a small group of 4 versus 20+ group size in the former. It was a frustrating few hours for me. I spent a lot of time falling and drinking salt water, but I caught maybe 2 waves at most.
Airlie Beach and the Whitsundays
We took the long overnight bus to Airlie Beach, the jumping off point to the Whitsundays. Airlie Beach is mostly the central hub with hotels, hostels, restaurants and shops for people taking boat tours, so there’s not too much charm here.
The Whitsundays are a collection of 74 (mostly) protected islands in the Great Barrier Reef. They’ve got dense forests, loads of interesting marine life and some of the most beautiful white sand beaches you will ever see.
To enjoy the wonders of the Whitsundays you need to sign up for a boat excursion and there are no shortage of options! We particularly wanted to avoid signing up for the cheap booze cruise options that young partiers would be flocking to, so this was a bit of splurge.
We hopped aboard a small sailboat, the Eureka II, which spends 3 months of the year racing and the remaining time running charters. It was a 2-night 2.5-day tour with 13 people including skipper and crew. It was an intimate very chill few days, which was exactly what we had wanted. Much of the time was spent sailing around the islands with various stops to snorkel, chill on islands and visit the famous Whitehaven beach. Whitehaven is the Whitsundays icon with its pure white sand, clear blue waters and as the tide goes out it leaves a beautiful swirly masterpiece. The photos hardly do it justice. We drank under the stars, had dolphin visitors and watched the trevally hunting under the boat. It was a pretty cool few days.
Cairns and the Great Barrier Reef
We hopped aboard another long night bus to Cairns where we began our PADI Open Water scuba certification. I had never scuba dove before so I had no idea how this process was going to go. I was definitely nervous.
We signed up with Pro Dive Cairns, which came highly recommended, and it was definitely the best choice we made. It involved two days of in-class training and pool time, and the following 3 days were spent on a live aboard cruising the Great Barrier Reef.
Pro Dive’s live aboard boat was also insanely nice; modern, clean and well equipped! The instructors and crew were also the best. They were so friendly, knowledgeable and truly passionate about their work. The food was also unreal. I swear every time we finished a dive there was a new cake!
Having heard about the magnitude of coral bleaching happening in the Reef we weren’t sure what we would see underwater, but what we saw was pristine! The corals were bright and beautiful and the marine life thriving. We saw loads of sea turtles, jellyfish, stingray, reef shark, giant seat turtles the size of dinner tables and loads of fish. There will be at least one other post specific to diving, since the experience is truly like entering a whole other world. We did 9 dives over 3 days including 1 night dive!
What really matters is that I was able to hone in my nerves and anxiety and complete both my Open Water and Adventure Diver Certification. This was a huge accomplishment for me. It truly was something I never thought I would capable of.
Cape Tribulation, Daintree and the Tablelands
After finishing our diving excursion we needed at least 24 hours on land before we could fly, so we rented a car and took a mini road trip. We had heard great things about Cape Tribulation and the Daintree Forest, so we planned a few days to explore the region with a little help from our amazing hostel, Traveller’s Oasis.
While it was beautiful and sunny heading up the east coast from the south, it is the rainy season for the north! It rained just about all day. We took our time and made lots of stops on our way to Cape Tribulation. We spent some time on the trails of Mossman’s Gorge and enjoyed a soak in the river. We ate local ice cream with exotic flavours like mango, coconut, wattle seed and black sapote; wattle seed was the best, think coffee flavoured! We stopped at various walkabouts and enjoyed the rainforest and beautiful views. Getting to Cape Trib was a bit of an adventure in an of itself, crossing overflowing roadways through several feet of water – at points we had to park and wait for the water levels to drop because they were too high. But this was all normal to the locals with their 4WD and snorkels.
Cape Tribulation Beach is a little slice of paradise; remote, uninhabited and beautiful – where the ocean meets the rainforest! But again, no swimming – salties and box jellyfish.
We did a Daintree River Cruise to spot some crocodiles, then proceeded to head into town and share a crocodile pie. I hate to say it tastes like chicken, but…
We made our to the Tablelands which was quite a bit of driving, but plenty of interesting things along the way; mango wine and delicious coffee and chocolate.
Our time in the Tablelands was mostly exploring various waterfalls, hiking around and swimming in crater lakes and getting wet in the rain.
As we had kept making our way north we had the debate on where to go next. On one hand we had only done the east coast of Australia and there was still so much more that we wanted to see. On the other hand, we had already made our way so far north and it was just a short jump to Asia from Cairns – oh the dilemma!
Ultimately, we had decided we weren’t finished with Australia. So we jumped on a flight to Melbourne where we would begin another adventure on the Great Ocean Road. Stay tuned for Part 2 on our time in the south!