We Drove from Cairns to Sydney

An endless road trip Cairns to Sydney

“Life everywhere is in vast and endless variety.” Herrick Johnson

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Whenever I think back to our road trip along the East Coast of Australia, it makes me realize how fortunate we were to have chosen an adventure on such an inspiring stretch of coastline. From Whitsundays and Fraser Island to Byron Bay and Sydney; the variety of destinations was also just as impressive, with what seemed like the perfect mix of natural attraction, iconic cities, and friendly beach towns.

Having traveled to Cairns in the very northern reaches of the East coast, I met up with two childhood friends as we went in search of a rental vehicle for a three-week road trip from Cairns to Sydney. It was an incredible journey on which we encountered every aspect of Australia and in many ways, this variety of attractions

Cairns and life down under

Cairns was to be my very first insight into life down under, and while this is certainly a tourist-orientated town, it remains one of my favorite places to visit in Australia. Featuring an endless line-up of restaurants and bars, the nightlife is a big draw for the backpacking community, but then the location of nearby regions is also quite favorable.

Take Cape Tribulation, for example, a beautiful headland renowned for an abundance of nature. We opted to forgo a trip to Cape Tribulation for a hippy village called Karanda but feedback from fellow travelers left us regretting this decision. Located just two hours north of Cairns and a short boat ride across the River Daintree, this beautiful region is home to crocodile cruises and rainforest treks while the scenery alone offers unrivaled photography opportunities.

At the same time, Karanda and Barron Falls, in particular, was an interesting encounter and we still got to check out the crystal-like waters and colorful marine life in the Great Barrier Reef. Long known as a natural wonder of the world, we took a one-day boat tour to explore this incredible area and while this seemed relatively short, it was better than no time at all.

How to travel the east coast of Australia

Most travelers to this part of the world will at least consider a road trip along the East Coast and given the wealth of attractions; it is quite easy to understand such popularity. From sandy beaches and turquoise waters to vibrant towns and iconic cities; there are many reasons to forget about flying and explore the places in between.

Needless to say, we needed little encouragement to travel overland from Cairns to Sydney, but we would quickly learn that our failure to prepare for this trip was almost a reason it never happened, for it was near impossible to find a vehicle in the midst of peak season.

Taking a bus or self-driving the East coast of Australia

Yes, you can take either the Premier or Greyhound bus from Cairns to Sydney and these stop at all the main destinations, but it seems shameful to rely on a set itinerary in this part of the world, after all, the whole reason for going is often the uncertain nature of the adventure.

Tip: If you do decide to take either of the above-mentioned buses; they both have a daily departure.

With that said, we did eventually find a campervan in Cairns – a last minute cancellation. It was rather small and consisted of three beds, but the climate was so warm along the eastern shoreline that we ended up buying a cheap tent to pitch outside instead. Well maintained and relatively new, rental vehicles in Cairns are an excellent option to explore the coast, and we experienced no issues with logistics the entire way to Sydney.

Mission Beach

Another reason we missed out on Cape Tribulation was that we decided to visit Mission Beach and with time being short, something had to give. Situated one hour to the south of Cairns, this beautiful rain-forested area is also right next to an idyllic beach, and it was an extremely comfortable stay at Scotty’s Beach House. Skydiving is also popular here, but we were more interested in the white water rafting which was said to be a very fun way to gain a different perspective of the surrounding forest

The rumors were accurate, but it must be said that the true highlight of this day was the group dynamic; as we had joined a group of like-minded backpackers on the rapids which made this adventure an excellent team bonding experience. Graded four and five, most of these rapids were also scary enough to keep us in the raft, but as mentioned, it was a truly enjoyable day in the company of such a diverse bunch of nationalities.

Magnetic Island

Aside from the rafting near Mission Beach, these were very relaxing days which also made our departure from Mission Beach a little more painful than expected. However, further south we reached the starting point for our next adventure and boarded a beautiful boat headed for Magnetic Island.

Of course, there are several ways to this isolated landmass, and we found the most affordable way to reach Magnetic Island is by taking an all-inclusive package which includes both accommodation and the ferry ride. Luckily there were places available by the time we reached Townsville, but it is highly advisable to book in advance. Featuring scuba diving tours, snorkeling, and beautiful hiking trails, Magnetic Island was the perfect place to stay outdoors and get active after a couple of days rest in Mission Beach.

Airlie Beach and Whitsunday Islands

Few destinations excite visitors as much as Whitsunday Islands, and despite our high expectations, this stunning archipelago more than live up to the hype. Having stayed overnight in Airlie Beach, we boarded a beautiful yacht, and for the next two nights, this would be our home. In this instance, we had picked a Maxi Racing Yacht which allowed us to get out into the Great Barrier Reef quickly and spend more time in and around the seventy-four islands which make up the region.

Sunbathing or snorkeling during the day and star gazing on deck every night, this was an incredibly chilled tour, but as expected, Whitehaven Beach stole the show. Consisting of the finest white powdered sands we had ever seen, the very first sight of this beach is unforgettable, and the desolate nature of the area also ensures it feels like a very personal experience.

Note – While we had no time to visit this place, the Town of 1770 is hugely popular and was first founded by Captain Cook back in 1770. It is a quite busy town with several cafés and enough backpackers to fill the bars ten times over. Having such a relaxed vibe, this town is also a popular spot for tourists heading north, for the Town of 1770 is an ideal place to relax after spending time on Fraser Island.

Fraser Island and Four by Four

Renowned for being the largest island in the world consisting of sand, Fraser Island is the kind of enchanting destination which intrepid travelers dream about. Before arriving on the island, we had initially worried that restrictions would mean taking a tour guide with us but on the contrary, we were handed keys to a 4X4 after a short briefing, and departing Hervey Bay for the island.

Down sandy tracks and through dense jungle, the drive between each hotspot on the island was always an adventure while Lake Mackenzie and Eli Creek were worth the effort when we did finally get out in search of a hike. We had decided on hostel accommodation for this part of our trip, but you can also go for camping – a popular option for backpackers on a budget. That being said, the accommodation was irrelevant as this was an experience that surpassed all of our expectations and left us thinking how the cost of this adventure was minuscule in comparison with the rewards.

A glamorous beach town called Noosa

On the way to Brisbane, we had two days to spare and took a detour to the town of Noosa. Upmarket and glamorous in every way, this was an entirely different experience to anywhere on the road trip, but it was equally enjoyable for what it had to offer. In fact, the conditions in Noosa were perfect for surfing, and when we were sure that nobody was paying attention, each of us took turns trying not to embarrass ourselves.

Although the real reason we made excuses for this detour to Noosa was the opportunity to visit Australia Zoo which is best known as the former workplace of Steve Irwin. Featuring every snake imaginable, crocodiles galore and a huge variety of other wildlife, this is arguably the best zoo in Australia and well worth the visit, whether you travel to Noosa or not.

City of Brisbane

We stayed in Southbank in Brisbane, which was a short ferry ride from the center and this area seemed like an oasis in comparison to the busy city. With colorful markets, hidden cafes, bars, restaurants and ample green spaces, there was no end of interesting places to go and things to do. However, we did also spend time in the West End during our stay, and this was equally as nice with many more markets and possibly, even more, choice of eateries.

Tip: We enjoyed our time in Brisbane but satisfied with our hectic itinerary until this point, we decided against visiting the Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary which is also said to be very interesting. Moreton Island is another local hotspot for tourists where you can enjoy paddle-boarding, snorkeling, and even dolphin watching. However, this requires a day tour to reach the island itself.

Byron Bay & Surfers Paradise

Even the tall buildings and bustling nature of Surfers Paradise cannot disguise that this is a hugely enjoyable place to spend time. Whether you yearn for a busy nightlife or high-quality restaurants, it has both, while the beach is incredibly long and a nice break from the city.

And then there is Byron Bay, probably the most infamous town on the entire East coast of Australia. Popular with locals and tourists alike, Byron is surrounded by wilderness and surprisingly quiet despite its reputation making it an ideal stop whether you travel north to sound or vice versa.

Sydney and endless variety

Shimmering in the distance, the bright lights of Sydney are incomparable with anywhere else in the world, and as we passed by the beautiful opera house and infamous bridge, it was crystal clear that we had picked the perfect place to end our road trip along the East Coast.

Taking a road trip anywhere in the world is always an exciting prospect, but when you take a road trip along the east coast of Australia, there is a distinct variety which ensures it stands out from any other. We had expected stunning beaches, clear waters, friendly locals and exciting attractions but the truth is; nothing can prepare for the speed at which these different experiences present themselves, for the extent of this variety is nothing short of endless.

Article by Derek Cullen

“Derek Cullen is an Outdoor Blogger from Ireland who has spent the past nine years travelling more than fifty countries around the world. Although currently working as a guide in Africa, Derek has also spent extended periods in Canada, Thailand and Australia.” My blog: http://www.nohangingaround.com