Backpacking the East Coast of Australia is almost a rite of passage for many travellers in the part of the world. I began my journey down the coast in Cairns, eventually aiming for Sydney and via many beautiful stops along the way. Here you’ll find all the best places to visit on the East Coast of Australia on the first leg of the trip from Cairns to Noosa!
With limited time in Cairns we spent our only full day at the lagoon and esplanade along the seafront, soaking up the tropical atmosphere, and wandering the city centre.
After enjoying a day of swimming and exploring, we went back to our hostel via the Contemporary Arts Centre which was sadly closed at the weekend. We still managed to get a glimpse into the kind of things they showcased however with life-size jelly babies outside! For our last evening in Cairns we headed to a small blues bar to enjoy some live jazz (we were almost certainly the youngest people there, but these guys knew how to enjoy live music!), we then grabbed an ice cream and checked out the Night Market just by the esplanade. Our time in Cairns felt brief but enjoyable, despite the illness!
Our main method of travelling down the East Coast was by train, and the Spirit of Queensland train was by far the best. The seats are extremely luxurious, complete with personal TVs for movies and music per person, plenty of leg room, blankets and an exceptional choice of refreshments – each journey we took with them seemed to fly by.
We made it to the small town of Tully (known for banana picking and it’s high rainfall!) where we transferred to a bus to take us to our “indigenous camp”. This was in actual fact just a small camp site in the National Park, and left us a little baffled by our experiences here… Our local campsite leaders were very nice, but with so few people to share the experience it felt underwhelming and would have been better with a larger group.
During our indigenous stay we swam in the river (and battled the strong currents), learned to make things with vines, learned about the flora and fauna of the area, and (tried to) threw boomerangs. After all the activities we assisted in cooking an indigenous style fish and chips, which went down a treat! After some card games and it was sufficiently dark, we went for a drive and spotlighting – the activity of searching for animals best seen after dark. We saw a few large pythons and other snakes, however before long it was way past our bed time and our tiny tent was calling.
We next headed to Airlie Beach, another small but far more touristy town located on the mainland just where the Whitsundays are found. Airlie Beach was much more what we expected from Australia, with hostels, villas, resorts, bars, restaurants, and all sorts of bohemian shops to occupy visitors. A young and relaxed atmosphere meant we felt much more at home and ready to see the natural sights on the nearby Great Barrier Reef.
For our three day excursion to the Whitsundays we boarded our boat (and home) for the weekend: The Avatar. Although excited to see what awaited us, it was also nerve-racking to think about being stuck on a boat with new people that we potentially wouldn’t get along with. We needn’t have worried however, as everyone was lovely and we ended up having a great time with them.
It seems as though staying on a boat is a totally different world, all our worries and stresses just melted away. The rules of Avatar probably had an impact on this, as a few things were a little unlike being on land. For anyone looking to take a two-night trip on the Whitsundays and ready to do so on a budget, be prepared for a few lifestyle changes! Water availability is limited, so we were only allowed 1 minute showers to preserve water supplies, which resulted in a unanimous decision to not shower at all. Secondly, sleeping arrangements were such that it was two people per “bed”, of which there were 6 in pods at the sides of the boat, and 6 squashed in the kitchen. It was all embraced however, and the three crew members ensured we were fed and entertained at all times.
The first day we were on the boat it had rained in the morning, which meant snorkelling at Hook Island that day had very poor visibility which was slightly disappointing as we had hoped to get a glimpse of the Great Barrier Reef in all its glory! So we spent the rest of the day getting to know everyone, learning about sailing and assisting to raise the sail, and generally chilling out on a boat!
That evening we experienced our first taste of the infamous “goon” that is so popular in Australia and with travellers. Goon is effectively cheap, sweet, boxed wine. And it is not nice. Nor is it any good for you. After only a couple of glasses you can certainly feel the effects and it tends to result in a pretty bad headache the next day, but at least you get your money’s worth! So we attempted to enjoy our goon and got to know the people on the boat while playing some ice breaker type games.
Awake bright and early (and rather delicately) after a poor night’s sleep was totally worth it in order to make our way onto Whitsunday Island – the highlight of any Whitsundays trip. The short walk through the forest took us to a few lookouts along the way, where we caught a glimpse of the perfectly white silica sand and bright blue waters that make the area so famous. Our Deckhand who guided us even told us of the many movies that were filmed on or near the island, so it might be familiar to more people than you’d think!
We then made it to the main attraction of the Whitsundays: Whitehaven Beach. The beach was absolutely stunning, with everything just postcard perfect. There’s something strangely satisfying and remarkable about being the first pair of footprints on the softest, finest sand. It was pure bliss. But of course, as this is ‘Straya we’re talking about, swimming in the waters wasn’t safe without a stinger suit for protection. Nonetheless, it was a gorgeous morning. We even saw a few turtles waking up in the morning, a couple of stingrays and reef sharks too. The best time to beat the crowds is extremely early to make the most of the beach here, however I believe day trips are possible to make your way from the mainland over if you’re short for time.
Later on in the day we had two amazing snorkel trips around various reefs. The first took us to meet George, a huge Australian groper fish widely known as King of the Whitsundays, who is incredibly friendly and will happily have his belly rubbed if you’re brave enough! Alongside George we swam with more very large and overly friendly fish who were eager to be fed, and a couple of sharks thrown in there too (it’s all sounding so casual now isn’t it?!). The final snorkel of the trip was by far the best, known for being an incredibly diverse and beautiful spot of the reef. This was the home of Nemo (all Pixar fans will know what I mean!), and we saw a whole range of amazing corals and fish. I could have floated about for hours staring at them all, but half an hour was all we had unfortunately. Another relaxed night of games and food (and slightly less goon) accompanied by a stunning sunset really rounded off our boat trip, I’d recommend it to anyone and I’m certainly glad I’ve ticked off that Australia must-do.
We had a few nights to kill in Airlie Beach as we were unable to get a train for a few days, which actually turned out for the best as it was a chance to relax and recover from the poor night’s sleep on the boat. We were also lucky to meet some fantastic people here and just generally enjoy spending time at the lagoon in the day and appreciating some live music at the bars in the evening.
One highlight of Airlie was also to get a very Australian dinner of kangaroo and crocodile steak. I’m not a big meat eater by any means, but this felt like something I had to try once. We were recommended KC’s Bar and Grill, who do a platter of both alongside chips and a salad which me and Emily shared between us (it was more than enough!). The kangaroo was delicious, perfectly cooked and tender with a red wine sauce. The crocodile was a little tougher, sort of like fishy pork, but also had an amazing creamy sauce. Yet another thing to tick off the bucket list!
By our last day we were definitely glad to be leaving Airlie, as there’s really not much to do there besides kick back and relax. We met our new guide who was taking us to our next stop and chilled out with him and a friend in the day before catching an evening train (more luxury!!) down to Rockhampton, from which we got a bus to Emu Park where we were staying the next two nights.
The following day we spent the afternoon at a farm where we assisted in herding the horses back to their fields, setting up a campfire, making some beer bread and then enjoying a fantastic stew followed by toasted marshmallows. It made for a lovely change of pace from the busyness of traveller towns, to be somewhere more rural and out in the bush for a couple of nights.
Our last train of this stretch of our journey down the East Coast took us to Gympie from where we were picked up by a new guide called Noodles (yes, really) who drove us to Rainbow Beach. After a very slow and poorly managed check in at Pippies Hostel we were pleased to find ourselves upgraded to a private room (yay!). We decided on a nice and early night as we were preparing to be up early the next day for our Fraser Island tour, ticking off yet another Aussie must-do.
Up early (again) and making a few safety checks before piling into our 8 seated van to begin the adventure. Fraser Island is accessed by barge that takes 5 minutes to cross from an inlet just at Rainbow Beach, which takes you to the east side of the island. Most of this side of the island is taken up by 75 Mile Beach which is effectively the main “road” if you like, so we quickly had to get used to the feel of driving on sand right next to the ocean. Our car had three drivers of which Em was one, and from hearing about her experiences it sounded pretty tricky to manoeuvre in soft sand, and as we followed behind a lead car we just had to ensure we did exactly what they did to avoid any problems! Our first stop took us down an inland track of forest to Lake McKenzie, the most popular of the several lakes on the island, as it boasts the white silica sands and crystal clear waters, but this time with cooler fresh water making it very comfortable to swim in.
Lake McKenzie & 75 Mile Beach
As we left the lake it began to rain very heavily which meant by the time we were back at Eurong (the resort town of the island) our lunch was spent huddled under a shelter. It managed to clear up fairly well however, just as well as the next stop was a huge personal highlight. Further up the beach is Maheno shipwreck, which at just under 100 years old looks as though it’s been there for centuries. It was so incredible to hear the story of its destruction and how it evolved to become an icon of the island, as well as to go right up to it (some less sensible people even tried to go inside, I mean why would you risk that?!). It was truly spectacular, and with the moody sky it was magnificent to see.
The next day exploring Fraser Island was superb. We began with a drive up to the top of the island to Champagne Rock Pools. These pools were naturally created by the crashing waves which fill them up during the high tide and then leave mini oceans in them at low tide. The water was beautiful and warm to swim in and there were some cool fish to see there too. The best part was definitely understanding the reason of the name of them, as when a wave creeps over the rocks it flows down into the pools as though it were bubbly champagne. It was tricky to capture the exact moments but so much fun to be in, like a natural jacuzzi! Next we headed to Indian Head and heard about the aboriginal history of the rocky hill. This area is considered an “aboriginal retirement home” where the elders would sit and observe, fish, and relax in their later years. Of course now it’s purely an attraction for tourists and time can be spent spotting dolphins, sharks and turtles. We weren’t lucky enough to see any sadly, but just about managed to glimpse a stingray.
Champagne Rock Pools
After lunch we spent the rest of the afternoon down at Eli Creek, which is where the natural rapids of the creek flow into the ocean. We had turns flowing down the waters in all sorts of ways before perfecting our tubing technique. It was a lovely way to enjoy the company of the friends we had made, and the good weather certainly helped to improve our mood. After dinner we played card games with most of the group, before once again heading for an early night in our unexpectedly comfortable tent.
On our final morning on the island we took a trip inland once again to Lake Garawongera, which is surrounded by tea trees and so gives the water a murky brown appearance. Despite this we went for a pretty decent swim in order to reap the benefits of the tea tree leaves we were promised would do our skin some good. A final lunch in Happy Valley and we drove back along the beach to finally spot a dingo (at last!) before we were back on the barge to return to Rainbow Beach.
Lake Garawongera & Dingo Sighting
After settling back into the hostel at Rainbow Beach we took a walk to Carlo Sandblow for the sunset and bodyboarding down the dunes. The walk took longer than expected so we missed some of the sunset, but the benefit to this was we had the dunes to ourselves, and it was a beautiful place to see the coastline and sunset from.
The next morning we were back on a short bus ride (only 2 hours!) to Noosa. We were welcomed into gorgeous sunshine and immediately fell in love with the small, upmarket seaside town. It was clear that this was a place for families and backpackers alike, and so for once it felt as though we were normal people and not just backpackers. So exciting! The area is very well off, and seems to boast some stunning homes that overlook the ocean. The water itself was lovely to swim in, almost European feeling in having slightly less dramatic waves and mild temperature. Apparently this is because the beach faces north rather than east like most of the other places, which was fine by me!
The following day we wanted to take a walk to Noosaville, via Noosa Sound which is where some of the best holiday homes are. For some reason we loved torturing ourselves with seeing which houses we would want in our ideal world, and while looking at how much these dream homes cost befriended an estate agent who offered to drive us over to Noosaville. Never one to pass down an opportunity we accepted, and heard some very interesting facts about the architecture of Noosa and the surrounding area on our drive over.
We then walked back from Noosaville to Noosa Heads where the beach is, back along the street with some fantastically quirky art shops and posh clothing stores. After a brief cool down at the beach we took a coastal walk to Hell’s Gate at the top of the coast. There were several great lookouts and beaches along the way, we could have stopped at them all, but just about managed to enjoy the sunset on the walk back.
The next morning was, you guessed it, a bright and early one as we agreed to see the sunrise at the beach. Annoyingly we failed to remember that the sun wouldn’t be seen from this particular north facing beach, but it was still a beautiful and calm start to the morning. Later we walked up to the lookout where we should have gone originally and were treated to a great view of the beach before heading down for a last swim.
Next stop is Brisbane, click here to see what we did on the next part of our East Coast journey!