East Coast: January 2022

Only a year late, and a year off of writing, here’s the tale of my adventures up and down the east coast of Australia in five weeks at the beginning of 2022.  

The east coast of Australia is often seen as the go-to destination for backpackers.  If you’re only in the country for a few weeks, everyone says that the east coast is a must-do, packed with the most tourism and postcard highlights.  For exactly that reason, I had delayed any travel along the coast, and had relatively low expectations, assuming that it wouldn’t be as amazing as everyone said.  I had more of a desire to explore the hidden treasures of Australia, to go where most backpackers wouldn’t, which is why I was even more pleasantly surprised by these five weeks.  With a combination of perfect timing and unforgettable experiences, my east coast trip has been my favourite so far, and while I do recommend seeing as much as Australia as you can, the east coast is definitely a highlight. 

Timing-wise, I couldn’t have been more lucky.  As is the case most years, floods devastated much of the east coast of Australia, and 2022 was especially bad. Not only would many of the roads I drove on been impassible a few weeks later, but many of the towns still haven’t fully recovered before this year’s floods.  Australia is no stranger to damaging natural disasters, but the past few years have been especially rough, and especially for the southeast and east coast.  So as I said, I was incredibly lucky that I was able to go on this trip, and that the timing worked out so perfectly.  

I had returned from South Australia before Christmas 2021 so that I could spend the holidays with my boyfriend. I also planned to return to the same winery I worked at the previous year, to work their vintage season, beginning at the end of February.  So this provided a perfect window for more travel.  I set out on Saturday, 15 January. I was only planning a few days in advance, and usually only booking accommodations a day or two before arrival.  This was a huge departure from the old me, who wanted to map out every single day before the trip started.  But I like the new me. The main event on this trip, the only booking that needed to be planned around, was a boat tour in the Whitsundays.  Just south of the Great Barrier Reef, this would be my northernmost destination.  So while I had some flexibility on whether I could stay one or two nights here and there, I knew I needed to be in Airlie Beach by the morning of 31 January, and then be back in Victoria in time to start work. 

My first week on the road wasn’t my favorite,  and made me nervous about how the next four would go, but if anything it just meant that the trip could only get better from there.  I departed northeast Victoria and started north, crossing into New South Wales, through Wagga Wagga, then along the highway, before dropping down towards Canberra.  I had an early dinner at The Sir George in Jugiong, and enjoyed a beautifully scenic drive down through Yass (Australian town names always amuse me), past Brindabella National Park, across state lines into the ACT (Australian Capital Territory) and arrived at Cotter Campground just after dark.  I knew my trip would fall during school holidays, and this was a Saturday night, so I expected things to be busy, but I had no idea Canberra was this popular.  Despite booking a camping spot that morning, I had to squeeze into the last parking spot and spent a very hot night sleeping in the car.  On my previous trips, my car had been set up to be half sleeping, half storage space.  But those trips had been during the spring, and now in the middle of summer, even in one of the coldest corners of the country, my car set up wasn’t going to last me five more weeks. 

After a restless night I was up early and drove the twenty minutes into Canberra, Australia’s capital.  Of the many destinations I’ve been recommended, this has never been one of them, and was assured that one weekend would be plenty to see all that I needed to.  I don’t think that’s giving it quite enough credit, because there’s beautiful greenery,  and a vibrant city life.  That being said, I think one weekend is really all you need.  It was a bit overcast, but I drove to a couple of lookouts, Mount Ainslie with the best view.  Canberra is most known for the government and the museums, so I headed to the Australian War Memorial. One of the many free museums, I spent three hours and probably could have spent three more, learning about the history of Australia and it’s involvement in various wars.  There was an overwhelming amount of information to take in but it was nice to get in a bit of history and culture.

I continued to drive around the city, to the central hub along the river.  I was immediately struck by the similarities this capital has to Washington D.C.  The parliament building is oddly modern and distopian, but every other public building looked straight out of the 1970s, with near exact replicas of Watergate and the Kennedy Center.  Presumably not a coincidence, but I think D.C has much more to offer.

Thinking I was in for another crowded night at the campsite, I headed back early, and squeezed in next to a family.  Serendipitously, the family was from Bright, in the area I had been working the past six months, so we bonded over northeast Victoria.  They had been travelling with their family for the last few months, and had all kinds of recommendations for the east coast, so that gave me some encouragement for the next leg of my trip. 

I drove back into Canberra in the morning to a camping store to stock up on gear, including a tent, tarp, and fan.  My next stop was the Blue Mountains, just west of Sydney, for two nights.  This stop taught me the importance of booking ahead, and that I’m happy to pay a few dollars to secure a spot for the night.  After stopping for groceries in the town of Katoomba, I tried one free campsite, but the road was closed due to heavy rains.  So I added more driving time in search of another free campsite, probably spending more on fuel than on a campsite fee.  I settled on Old Ford Reserve, set down in a rainforest environment, so another night in a hot, muggy car. 

My first stop in the morning was Wentworth Falls, where I climbed up and down to various lookouts, with waterfalls on one side and an expansive valley on the other. It was rainy, but beautiful. I wanted to do the Three Sisters walk, which is the most well-known in the region, but it was too foggy to enjoy it.  So instead I did some reading and napping, and decided to scope out different campsites for the night. I didn’t really like any that I found, for a variety of reasons that seemed silly and too picky in hindsight. I settled on a park, that you weren’t supposed to stay overnight in, but I was too tired to care.  This further solidified my need to book in somewhere for my future nights, but I also realized I needed to relax my standards on an acceptable campground.

From the Blue Mountains, I travelled north on country highways, to Tamworth for the night. The oversized golden guitar and the American delicacy Taco Bell were the main attractions. After scoping a few potential overnight spots, none to my liking, I drove a further forty minutes to a campsite.  On this trips, and others, I relied heavily on phone apps to find accommodation, namely WikiCamps and Google Maps, and once I had more of a sense of what I was comfortable with, they were invaluable. 

With the first week of getting comfortable on the road under my belt, I was on my way to the coast! I cut southeast, passing Apsley Falls, where I stopped for a walk around a basin and a look at rushing falls.  Back in the car, I was looking for campsites within a short drive of the coast, and settled on Timbertown outside of Wauchope.  A railroad museum and tourist attraction, I opted for the camping spot next door.  This was the first time trialing my new tent, and of course with forecasted rain and no previous camping experience, I was destined for success.  Despite being next to the main road, I enjoyed a surprisingly nice and dry sleep.  The rain continued on the next day, but I was still able to explore Port Macquarie, taking a walk along the shore front, and visiting the Tacking Point Lighthouse and adjacent beach. By then it was fully storming, but that didn’t stop me from a quick dip.  Another night at the campsite, I briefly explored the town of Wauchope the following morning, and then was on to my next stop, Coffs Harbour.  

An hour and a half up the coast, I had heard of Coffs Harbour prior to my trip, but hadn’t heard much good. I knew I was a hotspot for backpackers, with lots of opportunities to complete farm work near by, but hadn’t heard enough about its beautiful beaches and large commercial center.  I drove straight to the coast,  exploring Sapphire, Moonee, and Emerald Beaches.  This was mostly to scout out potential overnight spots,  but it gave me the opportunity to walk across the Moonee Nature Reserve, with a dozen kangaroos grazing on the hillside. I decided I didn’t want to sleep in an illegal parking spot, so I drove thirty minutes inland to Glenreagh Recreation Reserve. This was another reasonably priced campsite, attached to the local football oval a horse grounds, I was able to pitch my tent and enjoy a beautiful rainbow. 

As my camping setup was coming together, and with the inclement weather, I wanted to get an awning or covering that would allow me to set up my chair and table to relax under, without a blazing sun or torrent rain to affect me. So I hopped on Facebook marketplace and found one an hour away, which perfectly coincided with a farmers market I wanted to visit.  So the next morning, I drove north to Iluka, picked up the awning, then drove back down across the river to the Yamba river market.  I don’t know how I’d heard of this market, but I was glad I’d had another reason to come this way.  I didn’t think there was anything too special about it, but I bought a pair of earrings, and then had a wander around town. 

My car has roof racks, but the awning needed different fittings to work, so I had a few trips back and forth to downtown Coffs and the auto parts store to get what I needed.  I spent the afternoon at the beach again, and then headed back to the campsite.  I was all prepared to assemble the awning myself, but within five minutes, I had three dads descend on me, and I sipped my beer while they put it together.  I only had to step in and correct them once, but otherwise just supervised.  

I thought two nights in Coffs was perfect, although I could’ve gone for a third. Monday morning, one week on the road, and I felt like I was hitting my stride.  I left early and drove north to Grafton, and then onwards to Nimbin.  Known as the weed capital of Australia, Nimbin is set in the middle of a tropical forrest, off the beaten path.  I wanted to see it for the novelty factor, and because I knew other people who had visited and enjoyed it.  Perhaps because I grew up in the middle of Berkeley and Telegraph Avenue, but this seemed like a dumpy, rundown town with a bunch of dirty hippies.  Novel for some, I didn’t find much of interest.  I popped into some shops, bought a sticker and postcard, but was quickly on my way. 

Disappointment number two of the day was Byron Bay.  This might be a hot take, because I know many travel just to see this chilled, surfing beach town.  What I knew used to have old Australian charm, now seemed to be overrun with tourists, influencers, and struck me as vastly different from its reputation.  I had booked in at Glen Villa Resort and caravan park, which turned out to be expensive, but less so than other accommodations, and relatively empty.  I set up my awning and campsite, although I hadn’t quite mastered handling the awning on my own, so I was quickly tired and cranky.  After a snack and a beer, I put a load of washing on and logged into the Wi-Fi.  At this point I was planning as I went, so I knew every few days I would need to set aside time to make bookings and study the map.  I also took this time to reinforce my love of swimming pools.  Odd, considering I’m traveling between some of the best beaches in the world, but for me it doesn’t get any better than a pool.  Each night in Byron, I had a nice relaxing dip in the pool at the caravan park, and it became a criteria for my future bookings.

I sorted my laundry in the morning and did some more research and bookings. I was off to town by 10am, buying a necklace along the way, that I still wear most days.  I wandered past the shops, and then continued on towards the Cape Byron Lighthouse.  This turned out to be a much longer and steeper walk than expected, but I do love a good lighthouse, and this one sits on the most easterly point of mainland Australia, which is pretty neat.  Got some photos, then made the trek back down, and got a late lunch at The Top Shop.  I checked out Tallow Beach, but the waves were a bit intimidating, so I headed back to the main beach, did some swimming and reading, bought some beers and ice in town, and walked back to the camp ground. Another dip in the pool, leftover sausage sandwich and cheese and crackers for dinner, and another mediocre sleep in my tent, listening to the rain fall. 

Wednesday, 26 of January, Australia Day, also known as Invasion Day by the Aboriginal community.  I had already planned this as a rest day, so I had no plans other than to sit at the campsite all day. I was in a bit of a mood, probably due to not getting a lot of sleep the last two weeks, so it was good I had no plans.  Some research, some reading, and preparing for the next leg of my journey.  All that relaxing led to a perfect sleep, and I was up and out by 9:30, happy to leave Byron.  I drove north, briefly stopping in Mullumbimby.  This was serendipitous, because I had recently started watching the show Ozark, where at one point they talk about running away to this very small town in Australia.  So I drove through, deciding they probably wouldn’t have enjoyed it, and continued on to Pottsville, which I decided I could retire to. Another thirty minutes north to Tweed Heads, the border into Queensland.  I got out to walk along the border, check out out some surfers, and then continue on through the Gold Cost and Surfers Paradise.

On my previous trip to Australia in 2014, our school group had stayed in this area for a few days, so I wanted to see what I could remember of the area.  I stopped at Surf World, a surf museum next to Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary, and then on to Brisbane.  I stopped for some calamari, and then parked in the CBD to walk along the water front.  The Brisbane River flows from the sea, and winds through the city, with a public pool and museums in the main area.  I wasn’t much impressed with Brisbane on my first visit, and the same held true now, although perhaps I wasn’t giving it enough credit.  

Something I had forgotten was that upon crossing the border into Queensland, the time turns back an hour, because they don’t do daylight savings. So now it was approaching darkness at 6pm in the middle of summer. I continued north another hour and a half to my campsite near the Sunshine Coast, set in a macadamia orchard. It was a bit damp, and I discovered cane toads, which are big and ugly and a pest, not like cute little frogs, which I’m also not too fond of.  I picked this spot for its convenience to Noosa Heads and the Australia Zoo, my destinations for Friday. 

The time difference worked in my favor, because I was up nice and early.  My first stop was Noosa, and this turned out to be much more how I pictured Byron. The beach was seemingly perfect, and along the lines of my lucky timing, it wasn’t too busy.  I walked along the coast, which yielded beautiful views, and then walked back to have a swim in the most perfectly clear water I’d been in yet. Everything about that morning was perfect: the weather, the water, the beach, the sun, and the frozen ice cream I had for lunch. 

The afternoon was spent at the Australia Zoo, Steve Irwin’s legacy. While a big part is the croc feeding and show at midday, there are so many more animals from every corner of the world, I ended up spending more than three hours there.  I’m not always a zoo girl, or an animal person for that matter, but this zoo was well worth the admission.  I was absolutely exhausted from the long and wonderful day, so I was back at the campsite for an early night. 

From Noosa, my next major destination was the Whitsundays and Airlie Beach, but to get there required two days of driving. I never put pressure on myself to drive when I was too tired, and to remind myself that I could take as many breaks as I needed to. I listened to a variety of music, podcasts, and called my boyfriend plenty. But I did need to make sure I was on the boat in two days, so I needed to power through the driving.  I was up bright and early, departed the campsite, and continued north. I detoured through Maryborough and Hervey Bay, Barrum Heads and Bundeberg, stopping in Agnes Waters. I had thought this was supposed to be another cute surf town, but was a bit disappointed. I spent too much time trying to find a beach, that ended up being windy and rough, but I did end up having excellent fish and chips. I decided to stay overnight at a roadside stop, mostly for the convenience sake of driving, but it meant a hot and restless night in the car. 

Up early for another full day of driving, I stopped early in Rockhampton for some coffee and a look around, took a picture at the Tropic of Capricorn monument, the line which I was standing on, and walked through the local botanic gardens. Powering on, I made it to Lake Prosperine, making for an eight hour day, which was better than I anticipated. This was a beautiful lake with full amenities about an hour inland. I did a full camp set up, kicked back with a beer and enjoyed the sunset, excited for what the next few days would bring. 

After a very windy night with little sleep, I packed up and headed to Airlie Beach early. I checked out the town, which was very touristy and a bit tacky, figured out where I could leave my car for three days, and bought a day pass to a resort with a pool for $20. This felt very luxurious, and confirmed my love of pools. And then it was time for the boat! 

I could do an entire post about my three days at sea, and perhaps if I could keep up with my writing I would have, so I’ll try to be concise. This was the main event of my five weeks, and far and beyond surpassed my expectations. I booked with True Blue sailing, for the two night three day excursion, on a ship with about 15 other guests, and a crew of four boys who fit the part. I was worried about my fellow passengers being too young or too party focused for my liking, but it was absolutely perfect. We also managed to avoid a storm, making for perfect weather and clear skies the entire time. If I did it again, I couldn’t recreate as perfect circumstances, and I would recommend it to anyone who wants to sail the Whitsundays. 

As part of the package, we made multiple stops to swim with fish, jump off the boat, and snorkel through coral. We had early and nearly exclusive access to Whitehaven beach, the biggest beach in the Whitsundays, enjoyed all of our meals on the boat, and could drink as much as we could carry onboard. I did my first ever flip into the water, swam next to a sea turtle, saw jellyfish and the biggest fish I’ve ever seen outside of an aquarium. I met two fun-loving girls from Brazil, living in Sydney; a young couple from Adelaide, full of adventure but also with quite the political interest; a 19-year old who had already traveled more than I ever will, and a Northern Ireland doctor in Melbourne who I had the most fun with.  The trip was all I could’ve hoped for and more, and I was sun burnt and exhausted by the end. 

I was convinced to stay another night in town rather than back at my next campsite, so I enjoyed a night out with the group, before continuing on solo. I had planned two nights of recovery, knowing I would be tired, need to do laundry, and plan the second half of my journey back down the coast. I traveled an hour north to Bowen, where I booked in at Wangaratta Caravan Park, the furthest north I would go. And it had a pool! Probably recovering from a touch of sunstroke and weeks of exhaustion, I wasn’t very well the next day, so was happy I’d planned accordingly. Alternating between napping, doing laundry, and reading, it ended up being a nice day. That night I decided to treat myself to a movie, walking in the rain to the local cinema.

After another night in the rain, and a last dip in the pool, it was time to return south. I drove as much as I could, only stopping at McDonald’s to use their free wifi and toilets. Due to my complete lack of budgeting, I was running a little low on funds, so at one point I had nearly no money, no service, and no gas in the car. That was fun. But I carried on. I stopped at Mackay, and then to my campsite for the nigh outside of Rockhampton, which was a big lot behind an abandoned hotel. It had a friendly but strange groundskeeper, and only one other car camping. With the canopy off of my tent, I slept with fresh air, and awoke to the sunrise. Absolutely lovely. I wanted to stop at Noosa again because of how much I’d enjoyed it the first time, so made the six hour drive south in the morning, but knew I wouldn’t have a lot of time to stay. I got dinner, and had a quick visit to the beach, but it wasn’t as nice as the first day. I’d contemplated spending more money on a hostel or campsite that was further away, but decided to park on a quiet street and hope no one bothered me. I had cut covers for all of my car windows, so I could do stealth camping without the fear of being seen, but still always felt a little nervous about sleeping somewhere I wasn’t meant to. That fear continued, when I discovered highway rest stops limited you to four hours. Whether that was enforced or not, it led to me spending the following night in a big service station car park after my eight hour drive. I made my final bookings for the trip, in Newcastle and Sydney, and continued south. 

On Tuesday, 8 February, I arrived at my Airbnb in Newcastle, two hours north of Sydney. I had heard wonderful things about Newcastle from one of the girls on my boat trip, and this was meant to be another rest and relaxation catch-up. After some grocery shopping and a hot shower, I got settled in for the next 24 hours. Lots of screen time, naps, and a whole lot of nothing, which was a nice departure from the last few days. I was able to find time to explore some of Newy, the cute shops and perfect beaches, and would definitely want to visit again.

Thursday I packed up and departed the Airbnb and Newcastle for Sydney. The last time I had visited was in 2015, and while some memories stuck out very clearly, there was still more I wanted to explore. I booked into a hostel for three nights, which was more of a converted apartment building in the inner suburbs. A little bit sparse, but it would do. I had a quick turn around, popped a nice dress on, then caught a train to the CBD. Perhaps the most perfect train station view, as you emerge you’re greeted by the opera house and bridge. I walked along the shore, under the Sydney Harbour bridge, and then around to the opera house, to see the Marriage of Figgaro. This was an ode to my dad, an avid opera lover, and I figured if I had to watch an opera, the Sydney opera house was a good place to start. However, I take after my mother when I say it was very, very long, the seats were wildly uncomfortable, and I couldn’t stop fidgeting the entire time. So perhaps operas aren’t for me, but it was still a nice experience.  All of the scenery and views from the Harbour area are just as spectacular as pictures capture, so I knew I’d be in for more exploring.

The next day I had planned on an inner suburbs driving tour. First stop was Bondi Beach, home to the tv show Bondi Rescue, and many a silly tourist who doesn’t know how to swim. I don’t know if it’s an unpopular opinion, but I think there are much nicer beaches in the Sydney area than Bondi. I was more interested in doing the Bondi to Coogee coastal walk, which I had never done, and that was as beautiful as I had hoped. The most important stop was to swim at the Bondi Icebegs Club, with a swimming pool attached to the ocean. One of my biggest regrets from seven years ago was not swimming in this pool when I had the chance, so I bought a day pass and jumped in. Turns out a salty pool with some waves doesn’t make for the most relaxing conditions, but I still had fun. I cleaned up at the pool and walked up the road for pancakes and a little shop. I drove through Bronte and Coogee, then up to Rose Bay and Watsonville. It all had the potential to be beautiful, but the rain and cloudy skies ruined the vibes.

My next stop was Marrickville, named one of the best suburbs in the world, to Hawkes Brewery. Bob Hawke, notable Labour Party leader and favourite of my boyfriend, I wanted to get some beer to share. They were in the process of developing their venue, but I managed to grab a couple cases of beer, a t-shirt, and stubby holder (that’s a coozy to you Americans reading along).  I went to a sushi boat restaurant for dinner, and then back to the hostel for the night.  Saturday was more of a walking tour of the Harbour. I had a slow start to the morning, and then trained back to the CBD.  I did a loop through the city, past the state library, art museum, along the coast at Mrs. Macquarie’s chair, and through the botanic gardens. I got Messina gelato for a little treat, and decided I had seen enough of Sydney for now. I had a little rest at my hostel, then went to Newtown suburb for a Mediterranean dinner. 

My overall impression of Sydney is that it’s lovely to visit, and has nice attractions and beaches, but I’d much rather live in Melbourne, which is more compact, convenient, and seems to have a better atmosphere. On my way out of town, I drove to Cronulla, got myself some fresh fruit and my nails done, and then drove south along the coast.  Some cute seaside towns, I travelled through Clifton and Wollongong, down to Kiama, where I stopped to look at the lighthouse and famous blowhole, where the sea has worn down a pocket of rocks, and now comes shooting up at people. At this late stage in my trip, I still wanted to see as much as I could, but it also felt like I was in a rush, ready to be done on the road. My night’s experience solidified that feeling, when I had to sleep in my car because there was no one to check me in at the caravan park I had booked into at Jervis Bay. I was able to flag down the gardener in the morning to let me through the gate, and after I set up my tent, I spent a lovely day on the beach. It ended up being an alright stay and if anything made me decide that I might like to manage a beachside caravan park in my retirement. 

Continuing south in the morning, through Batemans Bay, stopping for a walk at Mystery Bay, and a swim in Bermagui. Merimbula was my destination for the next two nights, and after a grocery stop and then setting up my tent at the final caravan park of the trip, I walked down to Short Point Beach. The waves were intimidating and it was more of a walk than I’d imaged, so by the time I walked back up the hill, I was ready for dinner and bed. In the morning, I set out early for Middle Beach. I miscalculated the sunrise, or rather didn’t realise that the beach was facing east, so was faced with a brutal sun.  After a quick dip, I walked across the point to Bar Beach.  This was a small beach, and packed with people, but for good reason. Perfectly clear water, almost no waves, and protected from the sun, I stuck around for a few hours.  Walking back to the campsite, I was looking forward to taking a swim in the pool, having a hot shower, and doing nothing for the rest of the evening. I know that Merimbula, and the entire southern NSW coast has a lot of offer, but I was completely burnt out by end of this trip. 

Despite being very ready to be back home in Beechworth, I had one more night, where I would be meeting up with my friend who I had met at the apple shed. I departed Merimbula and made a quick stop in Eden, just before the Victoria border. I drove northwest to Cooma, where I waited for my friend to arrive, and then I followed her another hour to the kangaroo sanctuary she had volunteered at. We had stayed in touch over the last year, but she was travelling north to work, so this would the last time we would see each other for a while. The sanctuary was just a massive property, which had fenced in areas as well as open paddocks, but was secluded enough to allow for kangaroo rehabilitation from bushfire affected areas. In the morning, we got a tour of the property from the owner of the land in an old military cargo truck, which was a bumpy, wild ride. Some of the property had been affected by fires, and it was sad to see the damage, but encouraging to see the regrowth.  That was a bit of fun, but I was ready to be done.  I had another five hour drive ahead of me, through Kosciusko National Park. 

34 days, nearly 8,000 kilometres, and my east coast adventure was finished. Despite only getting maybe five nights of good quality sleep, spending more money on gas and more time overthinking than I could have imagined, this trip surpassed all of my wildest dreams. I saw every town I wanted to, plus I few I didn’t know I needed; I gained an appreciation for QLD and NSW that I didn’t previously have, and learned to appreciate their unique beauty. My Whitsundays boating experience was one of my favourite memories I will treasure from Australia.  Between November 2021 and February 2022 I did more travelling than I had done in the previous two years, and I’ve now visited every state except for Western Australia and the Northern Territory.  It is still my plan to see every corner of this beautiful country, but I know that realistically I won’t get to these last two for a while.  I’m so grateful for what I’ve been able to see and do during my time here, and I can’t wait for what’s to come. Hopefully stay tuned for a recap of the rest of 2022, and then probably 2023.

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