Sydney to Brisbane: A Coastal Dream
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Leg 1 Sydney to Hunter Valley
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“Not all those who wander are lost.”
Famous words from a famous author, and no less true today than they were when they were written. Keep this in mind as you take the longer, more scenic route from Sydney to Brisbane – at least for this first leg. Taking the coastal route will be faster, but going the long way round promises some of the most iconic scenery in Australia in the Blue Mountains, as well as an historic township visit with its alluring glow worm cave, and a popular attraction that only the locals know about.
The Blue Mountains are arguably the most iconic piece of New South Wales outside of Sydney, and are a great reason for taking the scenic route to the Hunter Valley from Sydney. Named after the bluish haze that descends upon the area, the mountains are a veritable playground for those who love spectacular scenery and the great outdoors. Walk one of the countless tracks through the mountains, visit the famous Three Sisters rock formation, learn about Aboriginal culture on a heritage tour, jump into cool dark waters during an adventurous canyoning experience, or simply drive through it all and soak up the beautiful scenery at every turn.
Lithgow is one of the small historic towns surrounding the Blue Mountains area, but don’t let that fool you into thinking that it’s the type of place you can cruise through in an afternoon. One of the most popular attractions here is a disused railway that used to run between Lithgow and Newnes. These days, a massive colony of glow worms have taken up residence in this 400-metre cave just 40 kilometres out of Lithgow. Another popular stop is the ‘Zigzag Railway’, a trainline that zigzags its way up the mountain, affording its guests impressive views in a new and novel way. Lithgow is also where you can visit Hassan’s Wall, which is the highest lookout in the Blue Mountains, and Capertee Valley, which is the world’s second-largest canyon.
Wollemi National Park
Continue roughly two hours northward, turning off at the Wollemi National Park. The park is part of the Greater Blue Mountains World Heritage Area and is known for its dramatic cliffs, canyons, and rivers, and is a wonderful place for canoeing, walking, and camping. One of the main reasons to visit this national park, however, is Dunns Swamp. It’s a favourite with locals and is ideal for an Australian campervan holiday as it’s mainly a caravan camping site. The swamp itself at Ganguddy is less of a swamp and more of a serene, refreshing waterway along the Cudgegong River. It’s perfect for swimming, canoeing, birdwatching, and hiking, just be sure to bring your own water as there is none available on site. Also, note that you can’t book a spot, so it may be best to arrive early if you’re travelling during the busy season.
Leg 2 Hunter Valley to Port Stephens
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It may be one of the shortest legs on your Sydney to Brisbane drive, but it’s just as full of incredible attractions and things to do as routes that are twice as long. The Hunter Valley is one of Australia’s premier wine regions, and is a veritable magnet for wine connoisseurs from all over the world. Nearby, Pokolbin offers more of the great offerings as the Hunter does, only with a few extra – and tasty – complementary activities and stops.
The sand dunes at Stockton will astound you with their immense size, as well as the fact that such a massive natural feature can be found so close to a city such as Port Stephens. And on your final stop of this leg, you’ll get to enjoy the heart-warming sight of koalas in a natural reserve.
The Hunter Valley is not just a highlight of New South Wales, but a major attraction for Australia. It is known for its abundance of award-winning wineries, with more than 140 wineries and cellar doors where you can try and buy some of the most delicious vinos you’ll ever find. The dry white Semillon variety is particularly famous in the Hunter, followed closely by Chardonnay and Shiraz. The real question is how much time you can spend in the Hunter to see and do as much as possible, as you can take a guided tour of the vineyards, self-drive your way around a chosen few, or even jump on push bikes for a fresh-air winery tour. Not to mention, the restaurants in the Hunter are plentiful, the cooking classes are a treat for the tastebuds, and the farmers markets are a perfect way to pass several hours.
Not long after you leave the Hunter to drive towards Port Stephens, you’ll come across Pokolbin, which is a small town that is still very much part of the Hunter Valley. While there are numerous vineyards in the area, if you haven’t quite had enough there are also a handful of fantastic places to visit here, too. For a start, make a stop at the Hunter Valley Cheese Company. Here you can tour the factory, indulge in the heavenly tasting room, and purchase some fine cheeses that will perfectly accompany that wine. The Hunter Valley Gardens are another fabulous attraction in the area, and are not just your usual garden. Take a walk amongst the themed areas such as the fairytale-like storybook gardens, stop to smell the roses in the rose garden, and enjoy the culture at the oriental gardens. There are more than 60 acres of gardens to explore along 8 kilometres of walking tracks that wind between the 10 different garden areas. Finally, be sure to stop in at Pokolbin’s Wine Glass Gallery to complete your full wine tour of the Hunter.
Stockton Sand Dunes
Jump back in the campervan and drive another hour towards the coast until you reach the Stockton Sand Dunes. The dunes are situated on the Worimi Conservation Lands, which cover 4,200 hectares in total and offer one of the best and most alien-like landscapes in New South Wales. Some of the dunes are as much as 30 metres high, altogether they cover 32 kilometres, making them the longest moving dunes in the Southern Hemisphere. The traditional owners of the land are the Worimi people, and they have kindly opened the area to the public for recreational activities including everything from 4WD, quadbiking and sandboarding to horse riding and fishing and diving. Even if you don’t want to try any of the adventure activities on offer, be sure to take a walk across this surreal landscape!
Tilligerry Habitat Reserve
Only 30 minutes up the road from the sand dunes is the Tilligerry Habitat Reserve. After mineral extraction in the area more than 30 years ago, a committed team of staff and volunteers have worked tirelessly to create this 9-hectare reserve that is now home to an array of Australian flora and fauna. The most famous of the reserve’s inhabitants is easily the cuddly koala. Stop by to see the wonderful work the team does to rebuild the natural environment in the area, and to check out the cute little koalas in a natural habitat.
Leg 3 Port Stephens to Coffs Harbour
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As you slowly make your way up Australia’s east coast, you’ll quickly come to realise just how diverse this route can be with vast differences in geography within just a few hours of driving.
This leg takes you on a slight detour along a popular tourist drive to a famous waterfall, then heads back to the coast for beach hopping from the aptly named Lighthouse Beach, to a national park and one of the country’s most exciting dive sites. Prepare to spend most of this leg outdoors, as each stop is best experienced on foot and by sea.
While driving north from Port Stephens, turn off the coastal route at Taree for a small detour that will take you to a big highlight. You’ll take Tourist Drive 8 through the Manning region for 99 kilometres, passing by some of the most gorgeous green scenery in the state. Your trip will take you past the Red Tail Winery, the Wingham Bush and Museum, and finally, to the magnificent Ellenborough Falls. With a drop of 200 metres, this waterfall is one of the highest in the Southern Hemisphere. There are two walking tracks by the falls; one which winds down to the bottom of the feature, and another that takes you to a lookout point opposite the cascade.
Only a little south of the famous Port Macquarie is the lesser-known, but equally fantastic, Lighthouse Beach. It’s one of the best beaches in the area, with the surf breaks, warm golden sand, lighthouse walk, fishing opportunities, and cafes and picnic areas to prove it. There is a caravan site near the beach so you can easily park up for the night should you wish, and Port Macquarie’s 18-hole championship golf course is not far away, either.
Hat Head National Park
Situated right on the coast, the Hat Head National Park is nothing short of a national treasure and an absolute paradise for nature lovers. Comprised of beaches, wetlands, rainforests, and sand dunes, the park is an idyllic spot where you can take a break from the hustle and bustle of the cities. There are multiple walking tracks such as the easy 3-hour Connors Track, or the more difficult 3-hour Gap Beach walking track. You can swim, fish, explore the lighthouse, or camp in the camping grounds to spend a little more time in the area. Note that there is an $8/day fee for each vehicle you bring into this park.
The Southwest Rocks are quite close to the Hat Head National Park, sitting just on the other side of the Smoky Cape Lighthouse. That said, a worthy stop is a worthy stop, and the Southwest Rocks are certainly not lacking in reasons to pull over. You’ve got all the water-based activities that come with a coastal location, as well as some fascinating history to be discovered at the Trial Bay Gaol from the 1880s. The site is especially well-loved by divers - it’s considered one of the best spots in the country to explore underwater. The Fish Rock Cave is 2 kilometres off shore, a 125-metre passage through a small island where you’ll be surrounded by incredible aquatic life such as nurse sharks, with the possibility of catching a glimpse of the Humpback Whales as they pass by on their migration. You can pick up dive gear for a tour, or simply go on a whale watching tour above water, from the Rock Dive Centre.
Leg 4 Coffs Harbour to Byron Bay
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The drive from Coffs Harbour to Byron Bay is already something of an attraction along this Pacific coastline as the landscape continues to flourish with alluring beaches and enchanting rainforests.
This short leg of the trip will get you started at Coffs Harbour, where you’ll encounter everything from giant, famous bananas, to gorgeous sea creatures. You’ll drive through the quaint township of Grafton and stop to admire its architecture and history, and you’ll spend some along the banks of the stately Clarence River.
First off, go and visit the Big Banana. Of all the famous ‘big things’ in Australia, this is easily one of the most renowned – as well as silliest – and makes for a funky photo to add to your motorhome holiday album. Of course, there’s more to this dynamic town than large bananas. Diggers Beach is arguably the most popular for a swim, but you’ve also got the choice of Jetty Beach and Emerald Beach. With ideal waves for beginners, you can even try a surf lesson at Sawtell Beach or Surf Beach. The town is also a treasure trove of parks and outdoor spaces, with the Bongil Bongil National Park, the Coffs Coast State Park, and the Ulidarra National Park right on its doorstep. The Dolphin Marine Magic attraction is yet another great way to encounter some of the area’s wonderful marine life. This is the only site in the state that features these cheeky animals.
Grafton is only a small town along the drive up the New South Wales coast, but thanks to its rich history and numerous attractions, a stop here is always a great way to spend an afternoon. The Grafton Heritage Trail is a good place to start your explorations, as it will take you past 25 of the town’s historic buildings and structures, including buildings from the Victorian and Edwardian eras, the old Grafton Gaol, and the Christ Church Cathedral. Be sure to visit the Grafton Regional Art Gallery before you depart, as it holds the largest art collection on the state’s North Coast, and offers a fantastic little café for a bite to eat before you hit the road again.
The Clarence River is the largest on the eastern seaboard, and therefore has plenty of scope to offer limitless activities along its banks and on the water. It was, at one point, the region’s biggest trade route, and you can still see ferries connecting small villages and townships today. Fishing is the primary attraction for many, while others will simply enjoy a peaceful cruise up or down this massive waterway. In some parts, the river becomes a frenzied mass of roiling water, making it a perfect place for white water rafting, and in others, waves crash down the river, offering surfers a fantastic spot for catching a wave without heading to the coast.
Leg 5 Byron Bay to Gold Coast
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The drive from Byron Bay to the Gold Coast is full of famous places, endless beaches, and unique attractions that you can’t find anywhere else in the country. Before you even leave Byron Bay to start the trip, you’ll be off to visit the easternmost point in Australia, and by the time you arrive in Coolangatta, you still probably won’t be able to decide which of its world-class beaches you want to visit first.
The Currumbin Valley offers a quick detour from the coast with a collection of quirky attractions, and the undeniable Surfers Paradise will welcome you towards the Gold Coast with all the golden sands, sight-seeing opportunities and entertainment options you could wish for.
*You can also start your motorhome journey from Byron Bay itself!
While you’re in Byron Bay, take the time to stop and take a closer look at this lovely township. The first thing to do is to take a stroll out to Cape Byron and its 100-year-old lighthouse. This point is the easternmost piece of land in Australia and features plenty of scenic walking tracks to stare out at the vast Pacific Ocean. If you can make it out here to catch a sunrise, it will be an early start that you’ll never forget. If you’re in town on a Thursday or a Saturday, stop in at the Byron Bay farmer’s markets for a fresh meal and to pick up some souvenirs and snacks for the road, and spend a few hours relaxing on one of Byron Bay’s gorgeous beaches before you leave town.
Beaches, beaches, and more beaches, and every one of them more relaxing than the last. Coolangatta knows how to put on a good show when it comes to gorgeous swimming spots and warm sands to lie on for the day. The main shore is Coolangatta Beach, but you can take your pick from that or others such as Greenmount Beach, Snapper Rocks, and Kirra Beach. With that beachy lifestyle comes the laid-back atmosphere on land, complete with a fantastic café and restaurant scene, monthly markets, boutique shops, and plenty of water-based activities such as surfing, kitesurfing, and windsurfing.
Take a quick break from the coastline and head inland to the Currumbin Valley, only 30 minutes from Coolangatta. There’s a little bit of everything to see and do in this area, so you may end up staying longer than you think. The Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary is a popular spot as are the numerous arts, crafts, and pottery galleries dotted around Currumbin, and even the Superbee Honeyworld where you can watch bees as they work in their hives and taste their delicious honey. The Rock Pools are a great place to cool off on a hot day, and the 457-metre high Tomewin Mountain gives a fantastic view of the valley itself as well as across to the Cougal and Springbrook Mountains, which are both World-Heritage Listed.
Surfers Paradise is known throughout Australia and across the globe as a mecca for those who worship the sun, the sand, and the surf. Yet, as much as this spot is a paradise for surfers, it’s also a paradise for a stack of other reasons, too. Be wined, dined, and entertained at a Dracula’s dinner show, get the best views in the city at Australia’s highest external building climb on the 270-metre tall SkyPoint Climb, or pose with your favourite celebrities at the Wax Museum. Pick up a bargain at the beachfront markets in between your sunbathing sessions, or take a cruise on the water like no other with the AquaDuck land-to-sea tour boat. Or of course, simply spend your time here soaking up the rays on one of the most beautiful shorelines in the country.
Leg 6 Gold Coast to Brisbane
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The sixth and final leg of this Sydney to Brisbane self-drive holiday is a short one in kilometres, but with countless fun and adventurous things to do along the way. There are certainly a number of experiences to tick off before leaving Brisbane, and you can’t turn down the chance for one more detour up to the serene Tamborine Mountain.
When you arrive in Brisbane at last, plan to spend at least a couple of days in the city enjoying all the sights, sounds, tastes and experiences this major Australian city has to offer.
*You can also pick up your campervan from the Gold Coast or Brisbane if you're planning on doing the trip in reverse or heading further north.
The Gold Coast is easily one of Australia’s top locations for everything from fine dining to adrenalin-pumping theme parks, which is why it can claim more than 10.5 million visitors to the city every year. Before heading out of town, take a day or two to see as much as you can, and do as much as you can fit in. Movie World, Dreamworld, Wet ‘n’ Wild, WhiteWater World, and Sea World are all top attractions, with each one offering different rides and entertainment. If all of that sounds like a bit too much excitement, take a relaxing afternoon off to spend at Broadbeach, Burleigh Heads, or Greenmount Beach. This city is also a hive for big events, concerts and festivals that fill the calendar throughout the year, so check to see if any acts you’d like to see are in town during your visit.
Tamborine Mountain is a place of exquisite natural beauty, yet one that sits just off the main route between the Gold Coast and Brisbane, making it an easy and absolutely worthwhile final detour on your east coast Australia road trip. More than just your average mountain area, this place includes no fewer than 7 wineries (as well as a brewery and distillery), art galleries, markets, and tours. Upon the mountain itself, you can explore the Rainforest Skywalk up amongst the treetops for the best views of the lush bushland, and you can even discover a massive glow worm cave full of stalagmites, stalactites, water features, and thousands of luminous little worms. Of course, the mountain is crisscrossed with walking tracks for people of all fitness levels to see waterfalls, wildlife, and native flora in abundance.
It’s only fitting that the very final stop on your Australian campervan adventure is one that leaves you in one of the country’s most vibrant cities. Brisbane is the place to be for nightlife, relaxed life, the foodie life, and the adventurous life. The South Bank is awash with cultural institutions such as the Queensland Gallery of Modern Art, the Sciencentre, and the Queensland Museum. It’s the home of the Gabba – the Brisbane cricket ground, the Alma Park Zoo, the Story Bridge, and the Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary. It’s known as the River City, so is one of the coolest places to explore by kayak, or even just watch from the deck of a river cruise. As for fine dining, simply wander the bright lights of Eagle Street Pier and pick a place from amongst the countless world-class restaurants and eateries. Safe to say, you’ll want to leave yourself at least a day or two in Brisbane before you head home, wherever that may be.