Australia, Beach, Budget, Cities, Multi-Stop, Oceania, Roadtrips
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East Coast Adventure: Backpacking From Sydney To Cairns

The beautiful east coast of Australia is one of the most popular coastal routes in the world – and it’s not hard to see why. Cosmopolitan cities, island paradises and hippie beach towns come together to create a coastline unlike any other in the world.


MODE OF TRANSPORT

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When it comes to the practicalities of travelling it, there are two options to choose from.

1. The Greyhound Pass

I used a hop-on-hop-off greyhound pass for the first part of my route up the coast due to the campervan we wanted not being available for those locations, and I can honestly say I have nothing bad to say. In fact quite the contrary – every coach journey I took with Greyhound was on time, the coaches themselves were absolutely spotless, with friendly drivers, regular stops, reclining comfortable seats (a life saver if you opt for the overnight legs), free wifi connection and in-seat USB portholes.

[PRACTICALITIES OF THE GREYHOUND BUS]:

Where to book your pass – As for booking it, you have 3 easy options. Either head into a Greyhound retail store or other backpacker travel agency, choose and book your pass online, or give Greyhound a call directly. Make sure you have the correct direction booked, eg. heading north from Sydney to Cairns or south from Cairns to Sydney, as multiple directions cost more.

Pre-booking your journeys – Greyhound is one of the most flexible travel companies I have ever used. You can travel almost all routes every single day, and the shorter ones go multiple times a day. Once you’ve booked your pass, you will be given an ID number to put into the website and book your legs. I would recommend doing this a day or two in advance, but I have also done this the same day. Only thing to remember is: if you change your mind, be sure to cancel that particular journey for free on the website. If you don’t, you might be charged for a no-show.

Cost The hop-on-hop-off Sydney —> Cairns pass costs £213 (around $420)

Top tip – If you’re travelling on a budget and are limited by time, it’s a good plan to go for the overnight journeys where possible, as you save money on hostel accommodation and don’t waste your precious daytimes sat on a bus.


2. Hiring a campervan

I used a company called Traveller’s Autobarn who I would highly recommend (who you can book through most backpacker travel agencies). They do various different van models, from the cheapest of the cheap Budgie Van with ice boxes and mini in-boot kitchens to more ‘luxurious’ campervan accommodation with mini fridges, microwaves and built-in kitchens and storage space. They all come with many of the basics you will need on the road (sleeping bags and bedding) and you can hire plenty of extras (camping chairs, sat-nav etc) at an extra charge. One of their selling points is that they add on a second insured driver for free, which is obviously great news!

[PRACTICALITIES OF DRIVING]:

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If you are going for the self-drive option, these are a few simple but key points to remember:

Cost – It really does depend on which model you go for. If you go for one of the cheaper vans, you can expect to pay around $2000 total for a month duration (split between how many are travelling of course) but this figure can double or more if you go for something a bit more comfortable. Although this can sound like a lot, remember the campervan doesn’t just act as your mode of transport, it’s also your accommodation for the entire trip (instead of forking out around $25-30 per person for a hostel every night).

Petrol – Campervans can be petrol-guzzling, so be sure to put aside enough in your budget to allow for this. We ended up having to fill a full tank at least every day, depending on the distance we were travelling. Also I cannot emphasise enough how long the distances are in-between the petrol stations so make sure you know far you’ve got to go till the next one, as you don’t want to be broken down on a highway with the sun beating down on you.

Weather – As you probably know, the weather can be extreme in Australia, especially during the summer months October-February, so be sure to stop off regularly at the stores on the side of the road to stock up on enough water, other drinks and snacks to last the journey. On the same note, you’re alright if you have a proper fridge, but if you just have an ice box or similar, remember that food won’t last that long in the heat, so it’s best to do small shops regularly.

WikiCamps App – This is a definite must-have for the trip! Download it over wifi before you leave – you have 2 weeks of free use and then it’s about $8 or $9 (£5) to pay. When it comes to finding a campsite to stay in every night, in most places there are both free and paid ones to choose from. If you want power, you will need the paid campsites which can cost anything between $15 and $40 for a spot. Equally, it’s easy to have a couple of nights without power in-between this which does help you to save.

Driving abroad – If you’re concerned about driving abroad, I cannot emphasise enough how pleasantly surprised I was with the wide roads, roadside sign posts and general driving conditions in Australia. I hadn’t actually ever driven abroad before and can’t say I’m the most experienced driver with long distances, and this experience put me completely at ease and I would definitely do it again in the future!

Having travelled both with the Greyhound pass and by campervan, I have to say I loved the freedom and flexibility of having a campervan, being able to decide on a day-to-day basis whether to stay in the same place for a bit longer to to move on to the next place. However, if I were travelling alone I would opt for the bus pass for ease of use, safety and comfort.


THE ROUTE AND DISTANCES

Sydney

Recommended duration: 6-7 days

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The buzzing city of Sydney – one of the most diverse in the world – is the perfect place to start the east coast adventure. Cosmopolitan city life with gorgeous beaches, a harbour home to two of the world’s most famous buildings and structures, and a backdrop of mountainous national park, there really is so much to do and see, I would allow about a week in order to have enough time to see the sights as well as time to relax in-between.

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Highlights include visiting Circular Quay and Darling Harbour, booking a climb up the Harbour Bridge, Mrs Macquerie’s viewing point, and the beautiful Bondi to Coogee beach tour. See my City Series: Sydney post for more details on what to get up to whilst there.

For now, it’s time to start heading north up the coast!


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8h50 on the road / 770km

OR

13 hour bus (overnight journey is highly recommended)
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Byron Bay

Recommended duration: 4-5 days

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This gorgeous little hippie town remains one of my favourite places along the entire coast and is definitely worth a stop off. Spend your time here lazing on the white sand of the main beach, browsing the boutique shops in the town centre and sipping cold drinks in one of the many bars and restaurants lining the streets.

Leave one morning free to do the Cape Byron Lighthouse walk (allow 4 hours with a stop). You can see the lighthouse standing tall at the end of the peninsula from the beach and it looks really near. But trust me – it takes a long time to get there! After setting off in flip flops, with no hat and not much water, I quickly realised my mistake and wished I’d been more prepared!

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The walk itself is beautiful, passing several beaches and surfing spots including my personal favourite Waters Beach, and then continuing with literally picture-perfect coastal views of turquoise water and long stretches of white sand the rest of the way – and we even spotted a school of dolphins playing in the waves below! It was really incredible. And one of the viewing platforms along the way is the official ‘most easterly point of mainland Australia’ – quite an impressive thought! Once you reach the top, the white lighthouse and its grounds at the top are lovely (if you can see it through the sweat dripping down from your forehead!) and if it wasn’t already, the final view of two curved stretches of beach back to back makes it all worthwhile. Classic Australia!

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Take one of your 5 days to visit the nearby town of Nimbin and the famed Nimbin Rocks (just over 2 hours drive depending if you also take the slight diversion to stop at Minyon Falls on the way). If you thought Byron was full of hippies, wait till you see Nimbin. It really is one of the strangest places I’ve ever visited, with a blind eye towards drugs, tie-die clothing, crystal stones and dream catchers absolutely everywhere and a general carefree, happy-go-lucky vibe throughout the town. I would say it’s definitely a must-see whilst you’re there but I wouldn’t want to stay longer than a few hours!

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1h15 on the road / 95km
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Surfer’s Paradise (Gold Coast)

Recommended duration: 3-4 days

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View from Eureka Skydeck

After the chill of Byron, loud and lairy Surfer’s Paradise might come as a bit of a shock to you! It is a concrete jungle – but a really fun one with a holiday vibe. The beach is wide with fine sand and turquoise waters and lined with its skyscraper backdrop. Head up to the Eureka Skydeck for panoramic views over the beach, skyline and city beyond.

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The city centre is absolutely buzzing, with club promoters on the streets (if you don’t end up signing up for one of these nights I’d be impressed!), an amazing shopping scene, and 4 or 5 themeparks and waterparks. If you’re a fan, I’d recommend spending a day either at Dreamworld (tickets cost between $80 to $100) which is the largest and most popular park with both rides and a waterpark on site or Wet’n’Wild Water World which is a really fun day out and both are just a 20 minute bus ride from the city centre. The Gold Coast really is an adult’s playground – perfect for couples, young families and backpackers alike.


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1 hour on the road / 78km
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Brisbane

Recommended duration: 3-4 days

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Brisbane is the cultural hub and most major city in Queensland. Its city centre is buzzing with places to eat, shopping districts, botanic gardens and plenty of cultural activity. On its south bank (walk over the bridge from the main city centre to the other side) is its cultural precinct with Queensland Museum, Sciencentre and Queensland Gallery of Modern Art – which is definitely worth a visit.

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Just along from this is Brisbane’s equivalent of a beach – a large, manmade lagoon with the skyline as its backdrop, perfect for relaxing on those unbearably hot days or when you just want a break from walking around the busy city.

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Also from Brisbane or Noosa you can visit Steve Irwin’s world-famous Australia Zoo – it really is an amazing day out! If you’re in a campervan, you can drive the distance yourself, or if you have a Greyhound pass, they do a journey from Brisbane to the zoo so it’s worth having a look as it’s around a 2 hour journey. Even if you don’t, you can purchase the return journey on its own for $30. The zoo itself is one of the largest in the world and packed with incredible Australian wildlife – spend the day wandering between the world ’continents’, watching the famous crocodile show in the Crocoseum, cuddling koalas, holding snakes around your neck and feeding kangaroos. It’s an incredible experience!

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One of many Steve Irwin’s tributes around the zoo

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The amazing zoo grounds

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1h45 on the road / 141km
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Noosa Heads

Recommended duration: 3 days

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The sleepy, pretty town of Noosa Heads is next up on the coast. With a very chilled out vibe, it’s nice to take time to relax here after busy Brisbane. I would recommend a few days here, if in a campervan staying on one of the campsites along Noosa River (where you can do watersports) as it’s so peaceful and still a few minutes drive to town, where you can enjoy the cafes and boutique-style shops. Spend your days exploring Noosa Heads, Noosa Junction and Noosaville and relaxing on the beach – which is gorgeous – even in the rain (we weren’t lucky with the weather when we were there unfortunately). And if hiking’s your thing, you can do the trails through Noosa National Park which lines the coast.


⬇︎
1h45 on the road / 138km
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Rainbow Beach

Recommended duration: 1 day

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Although mostly known for its prime position as the gateway to Fraser Island (only 10 minutes by barge), I was pleasantly surprised with Rainbow Beach. Its famous multicoloured sand cliffs lining the beach, friendly locals and relaxed vibe definitely make it a memorable stop off, although there is not too much to do there except enjoy the scenery.


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Pick up for tour
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Fraser Island

Recommended duration: 3 day tour

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Fraser Island tours depart from either Rainbow Beach (recommended) or Hervey Bay so make sure you know which pick up location you have booked. It’s now time to head away from the mainland and live the island life for a few days! Now for this you will have to book a tour (only very few opt to venture onto Fraser Island independently). Head to any of the backpacker travel agencies (Happy Travels, STA Travel, Backpackers World Travel etc) in the days and weeks prior to this and get yourself onto one of the many tours available. A 3 day tour will probably cost you around $350 (Australian) including all food and accommodation and you can choose from various 4×4 self-drive and camping tours or if you want more of a guided tour with a local and lodge accommodation, I cannot recommend the one I did enough, which was the Cool Dingo tour!

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Lake McKenzie

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Maheno Shipwreck

The most famous place on Fraser Island is Lake Mckenzie, a giant rain water lake perfect for swimming, paddle boarding and apparently its sand for exfoliating the skin due to its many natural qualities! The water was so clear and one of the most beautiful sights I’d seen in Australia. Other highlights around the island are: (equally beautiful and less crowded) Lake Birrabeen, Maheno Shipwreck, Indian Head, Champagne Pools and the many sand dunes and forests which you will trek through. Fraser Island is one place you just cannot miss off your travels up the coast – absolutely stunning scenery!

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Picnic lunch on the beach

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Views from the trek up to Indian Head

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Spotting turtles from Indian Head

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Sand dunes and lakes

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Lake Wabby


⬇︎
10h30 on the road / 958km
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Airlie Beach

Recommended duration: 2-3 days

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The yachts in South Marina

Airlie Beach is a cool, hippie backpacker town with a really fun vibe. There is a big cafe culture here, the town lined with really nice open air bars, cafes and restaurants, both mainstream and alternative organic juice bars and the like. Airlie Beach is the gateway to the Whitsundays which is your next stop, but I would allow yourself 2 or 3 days to enjoy the town itself. Sunbathe at the lagoon just 2 minutes from the town centre, stock up on some bikinis and swimwear for the boat trip from the beach shops, and take a walk down to the South Marina to marvel at the yachts (your Whitsundays tour will depart from here too so it’s good to know where to get to).

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Pick up for boat trip
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Whitsundays

Recommended duration: 2 day tour

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Now it’s time to say bye to solid ground for a couple of days and embark on your 1 or 2 night boat tour. This one obviously needs booking in advance and there are so many to choose from you won’t know where to begin (I certainly didn’t) and flicking through the many pages in a brochure can be daunting! Put aside a couple of hours and head to a backpacker travel agency (Happy Travels, STA Travel, Backpackers World Travel etc) with a few dates in mind and let them guide you through the different options until you find one to suit you. There are party boats, extreme water-sports trips, and more chilled options, but generally if you book in a backpacker agency you will be with a young group!

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Whitehaven beach from above

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I opted for a Maxi-Sailing boat (costing around $400 inclusive of all food and soft and hot drinks) with snorkelling/diving and stop-offs at all the main beaches and islands. The Whitsundays trip was probably the highlight of my time in Queensland! You will have the chance to snorkel or scuba dive in the world-renowned Great Barrier Reef where you get a glimpse into the most amazing, colourful underwater world, pass hundreds of tiny whitsunday islands, sunbathe on Whitehaven beach famous for being the most beautiful in the world due to its bright white sand and bright shallow turquoise waters, watch the sunset on deck and sleep under the stars if you want to.

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⬇︎
2h10 on the road / 187km
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Ayr (for stopover)

Recommended duration: 1 night

After all the snorkelling and sunbathing (it’s a hard life), I was really tired. The boats will normally drop you back in town late morning, so depending on your time constraints, you may want to stay in Airlie Beach another night. If you have already had a couple of days here and want to continue on the same day, I would recommend breaking up the drive by doing just over a couple of hours and stopping off for the night in one of the tiny towns along the way such as Ayr or Giru (just for the campsite, not the towns). You will still have around 3 hours to drive the following day, but taking off these couple of hours will make it seem that bit less daunting and you’ll be glad of it in the morning. I also found that as the highways were just so unbearably hot during the day, with the sun beaming through the windscreen so strongly and no escape from it, it was sometimes nicer to leave it until late afternoon to set off – so in this case you could still enjoy your last afternoon in Airlie Beach!


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3h09 on the road / 273km
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Townsville

Recommended duration: 1 day

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Townsville is a fairly small market town and the gateway to Magnetic Island (just over an hour’s journey by the Magnetic Island Ferry). Due to less flexibility on time, I didn’t have time to visit the island which I was disappointed about but have heard good things so if time is no issue then definitely leave yourself a day or two to explore.


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2h50 on the road / 235km
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Mission Beach

Recommended duration: 2-3 days

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Just a little bit further up Bruce Highway is the absolutely gorgeous, deserted beach town of Mission Beach which I will always have special memories of. If you’re a beach bum, then I’d recommend staying here a few days to top up your tan on the quiet, palm tree-lined beach. The campsites in town are located right off the beach which is really special and it’s so small you can walk to both the beach and town. The town itself, lying just a stone’s throw from the beach, is just one street with cute shops selling handmade souvenirs and beachy items, several bars and the odd art gallery or museum. Mission Beach is also known as a popular spot for skydiving – and one of the few places you can do a beach landing – and I can see why.

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1h47 on the road / 139km
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Cairns

Recommended duration: 5-6 days

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Cairns, the lively, backpacker party town, is our final stop on the east coast. There’s plenty to do and see here in and around Cairns so you’re guaranteed not to be bored. There’s great shopping and so many places to eat and drink – I’d recommend heading to Gilligans hostel for a drink or a meal if you’re on a budget as it’s so unbelievably cheap and good quality food! The only thing I didn’t like about the town was that there was no beach, just a manmade lagoon area but you can paddle and swim there – and you will be glad of it, as it’s sometimes unbearably hot this far north if you’re there during their summer! Outside of Cairns is where even more action happens – take a day out of your schedule to head north and visit the beautiful Daintree Rainforest (do it on a tour or drive it yourself) and also the famous waterfalls.


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And that’s it – you’ve reached your final destination on my suggested route! It really is amazing to be able to fit so much in to such a relatively short space of time. I hope this has inspired you to visit Australia’s gorgeous east coastline – whether it’s to get started on the practicalities of planning the trip or to just add it to your bucket list for the future!

TOTAL TRIP DURATION: 35-42 days

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