East Coast Part 1 – Sydney to Surfers Paradise

Living and road tripping in a Vauxhall Astra 

Preface – March 2016

Once leaving our job in Melbourne, my friend Tom and I embarked on a period of travel. Instinctively arranging the trip over table tennis, I sublet my room and booked a train to Sydney for the following week. Our provisional plan involved hitch-hiking from Sydney to Cairns, where Tom was due to meet up with his parents. Although the coast experiences many tourists, we realised that using public transport was wiser for at least some of the 2500km. This post recounts our adventures in the state of New South Wales (NSW) with several references to southern Queensland.

New South Wales (NSW)


Reaching Australia’s most populous city was another accomplishment on my bucket list. Yet we instantly faced a conundrum: hitch-hike to the next destination or purchase a car to give us added flexibility. We decided on the latter, immediately scouring eBay, and, after organising two viewings I purchased impulsively. For a 2003 Astra, reasonably priced ($2500) and in decent condition, the risk seemed justifiable. Leaving Sydney via Kmart to buy a mattress and blanket, we drove towards Newcastle, stopping at Central Coast to browse several beaches. Our aim throughout was to find campsites, using WikiCamps, yet the first one, north of Newcastle, was more a truck stop. Spending a day in Sydney was enough time to at least capture views of the Harbour Bridge and Opera House.

Bulahdelah Mountain
The Astra parked near to our camping spot in Bulahdelah.

Waking up in Bulahdelah (mid North Coast region) we headed for the Bulahdelah Mountain lookout just off the Pacific Highway. Here we acquired views of Myall Lakes National Park, encompassing fresh water lakes, and Myall River which flows into the Tasman Sea. This first destination was an insight into the diverse and spectacular scenery, and abundance of campsites in the region. Our next visits included various waterfalls amongst magnificent rainforest and rolling gorges, and then the Barrington Tops National Park. Certainly, distances we covered in the first few days illustrated the sheer scale of NSW, let alone the country.

Barrington Tops National Park
Grazing land in the Barrington mountain range.

Carved out of ancient volcanic flows, Barrington Tops National Park protects one of the largest temperate rainforests in Australia (95000 hectares). Two hours from Bulahdelah, the park is part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site Gondwana Rainforests of Australia. The greater area is home to subtropical rainforest (including unique Antarctic beech), which is critical habitat for diverse birds and animals. Further, Barrington Tops includes 1500 metre ridges and waterfalls. On a rainforest trail we encountered birdlife and sipped water at the Williams river; the river is classed as wild making it pure and unpolluted. Our next destination Port Macquarie was 2 hours drive, initially through intimate valleys and then coastline. We stopped just south at Queens Lake which is part of the Camden River Haven, a barrier estuary which flows into the Tasman Sea. Koalas are known to have been noticed here but on this occasion we had no such luck.

Queens Lake, just out of photo is a home made swing that Tom and I used to project ourselves over the lake as far as possible!
Port Macquarie

A larger coastal town, known for its far reaching beaches and waterways, we arrived here as the fabulous sunset commenced. Port Macquarie’s highlights include the Tacking Point Lighthouse, which is a popular whale watching site, several beaches, the marina and fresh fish and seafood which we sampled at the local restaurants. Evening comprised of a walk around the marina before taking in Tacking lighthouse and the adjacent lighthouse beach. We managed to take a shower at Anytime Fitness Gym here and this continued at various larger towns on our journey up the coast (Tom had a membership valid for all clubs). The location of our campsite for the night was west of the town and we settled here around the usual time of 7-8pm after a McDonalds dinner.

Dorrigo National Park
Tom admiring the rolling landscape at the Skywalk summit.

After a morning walk on a Port Macquarie beach we drove 2 hours north on the Pacific Highway to the Waterfall Way intersection. The Waterfall Way twists west through breathtaking surroundings including numerous waterfalls and seven National Parks. Three of these parks are UNESCO World Heritage protected due to the scientific importance of the ancient plants and vital wildlife habitats they contain. Waterfall Way crosses the Bellinger River to Dorrigo National Park and the Skywalk lookout on the edge, our first stop. This lookout is a 70m boardwalk above rainforest, offering remarkable views over the Bellinger Valley as far as the horizon. We completed the boardwalk and explored the lower lying areas including the Crystal Shower falls and the Dorrigo Rainforest Centre. The array of rare birds we spotted in the National Park culminated in making this a memorable place.

Crystal Shower Falls, Dorrigo National Park.
Dangar Falls, Dorrigo

Continuing north through the town of Dorrigo, we reached the scenic Dangar Falls (not to be confused with Dangars Falls near Armidale). The Dangar Falls are spectacular 30 metre cascade waterfalls located amidst lush forest. When rain occurs, the waterfalls are apparently even more spectacular, yet they were still eye catching when we visited on a scorching hot day. On the ascend through the trees we encountered the venomous Red Bellied Black Snake, endemic to Australia, scuttling across the path in front of us. Given Tom was wearing flip flops, he was a little concerned, yet I was fascinated with the sighting. Walking down from the viewing platform to the walkway beneath the waterfalls, we appreciated the magnificent surroundings before heading back to the car for the onward journey. 

Coffs Harbour, Banana coast region
Sunset at Coffs Harbour Marina.

Dissected by the Pacific Highway and an hour drive from Dorrigo National Park, Coffs Harbour is a larger city on the north coast. Prior to camping in the area for the night, we wandered along a beach and then out to the jetty, witnessing the trawlers unloading their hauls of fish and seafood at dusk. The next morning, our first excursion was to the Solitary Islands Marine Park, around 72000 hectares of beautiful beaches, mangroves, reefs and estuaries stretching 75km north. The park is popular for fishing, whale watching, swimming and snorkelling, and a conservation area for marine life including an array of mammals, reef fish, coral, molluscs, seabirds and local shorebirds. We captured some fantastic photos here, observing the wildlife, Pacific Ocean and the bordering landscapes, before walking the jetty to the Muttonbird Island Nature Reserve.

Solitary Islands Marine Park.

On the southern boundary of the Solitary Islands Marine Park, the Muttonbird Island Nature Reserve is accessed by an interconnected jetty from the marina. We walked the steep trail to the eastern lookout which offered superb views over the immaculate coastline and undulating mountain ranges on the horizon. Whales can even be seen during their annual migration, yet we were a month too early. Leaving Coffs Harbour we followed the highway in the eventual direction of Byron Bay, driving through some beautiful coastal towns and their beach namesakes. (Sapphire Beach, Moonee Beach and Emerald Beach to name a few). These beaches were popular surfing locations, yet pristine and not overly crowded Australia has over 10,000 beaches; even discussing all of the NSW beaches we experienced would make this post excessively long.

Muttonbird Island Nature Reserve.
Washpool National Park

The Pacific Highway bends inland soon after Corindi Beach before intersecting, the Big River way continues north west towards Grafton and the Pacific Highway parallel to the coast. We opted for a timely lunch stop at McDonalds in Grafton and then headed 2 hours further inland to the 60000 hectare Washpool National Park. Washpool National Park, in the mountainous Northern Tablelands region, is a magnificent World Heritage rainforest as there are significant plant and animal habitats found here and at the bordering Gibraltar Range forests. After a creekside climb to waterfalls we stayed at the Boundary Falls campground which was pretty idyllic and one of several camping areas. The next morning we travelled back towards the coast via a viewpoint at Buck Creek. Along this span of road I spotted my first Wallaby rummaging in the bush.

Byron Bay

Rejoining the highway near Grafton, we pressed on in the direction of Byron Bay, famous for its hipster vibe and featured in the movie Inbetweeners 2. Some scenes were filmed at the Arts Factory Lodge, a place we briefly visited on the way to Cape Byron Lighthouse. The lighthouse lies 650m from Cape Byron, a rocky headland and the easternmost point of Australia. We scaled the headland which provided us spectacular 360 views of the wilderness including beaches, cliffs and the awesome Pacific Ocean. After dinner and beers here we needed to camp close by which was tricky as there weren’t many suitable sites for car camping. We chose a discreet car park to camp and set off early the next day to Cabarita Beach via Tyagarah Beach and Nature Reserve, a serene place for a swim. Byron Bay was interesting yet I enjoyed other NSW coastal towns more as they felt further ‘off the beaten track’.

Cape Byron Lighthouse.
Cabarita Beach
The serene Cabarita Beach.

Fast approaching Queensland, we arrived at Cabarita Beach, one of the most beautiful and uncrowded beaches we saw along the east coast. Just 40 minutes north of Byron Bay, the beach is 1.4 sq. km of white sand and turquoise water surrounded by nature reserve and coastal rainforest. Tom and I explored the coastline, including having a swim, and the wooden boardwalk that advances to the summit of Norries Headland. Norries Headland, previously an island, gave us amazing views of the Tweed Coast as far as Byron Bay. We clambered over rock formations and rock pools which contributed to us achieving some fantastic panoramic photos. In the afternoon we took the Pacific Highway towards Gold Coast, making a brief visit to, and then crossing into Queensland and turning off south west to Springbrook National Park.

Views of the South Pacific Ocean from the Tweed Coast.


Springbrook National Park and Natural Bridge

Close to the Queensland-NSW state border, Tom and I accessed Springbrook National Park via the Numinbah Valley, stopping to appreciate the remarkable landscapes. Springbrook National Park, consisting of 4 reserves, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a vital habitat for several species of threatened birds. The National Park protects rainforest in the cliff-lined headwaters of rivers and tributaries flowing to the Gold Coast, several of which have eroded away less resistant rock. We completed trails through eucalpyt forest and creeks, witnessing some of the 16 waterfalls that have developed where water cascades over the escarpment. We then briefly explored short tracks and viewpoints at the Springbrook plateau, one of the reserves, which contains volcanic rocky outcrops, waterfalls and Antarctic beech trees.

The Natural Bridge, in the territory of the local Aboriginal people, is a natural rock arch above Cave Creek, a tributary of the Nerang River. The bridge was formed by the waterfall undercutting a cave below and carving a crater on top, before the two merged with the creek flowing through the cave. Cave creek is home to a colony of glow worms and we joined an organised cave tour in the afternoon. The ‘light’ the glow worm emits, produced within their body, is a method for attracting their prey. Other sightings were the lace monitor (from the monitor lizard family), native to eastern Australia and a Spider (yet to identify), the largest I had seen on my travels. After an amazing experience in the mountainous sub tropics, we located a remote campsite, tucked into our tinned food diet (a common feature of the NSW trip) and rested for the night.

The very large Spider at Cave Creek.
Brisbane AND SURFERS PARADISE, Gold Coast – End of the NEW SOUTH WALES adventure

After excursions in the wilderness we headed to the Brisbane suburbs to Tom’s friend’s house. Tom spent the weekend with his friend while I drove to Gold Coast, Australia’s party capital, to stay with Uni mates in Surfers Paradise. Their apartment was in a central location and being positioned right on the coastline, the views and sunsets over the beach were amazing. As mentioned in a subsequent visit, Brisbane and Gold Coast – End of the Australian adventure, my mates Ryan and Jack worked in marketing roles for nightclubs. On both nights, along with some of their mates, we boozed on discounted drinks in Gold Coast bars. On Sunday I emerged with a hangover but was excited to travel onward with Tom from Brisbane. The many miles we covered showed me how diverse and incomprehensibly vast Australia is. Read our onward Queensland experiences in the upcoming post.

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