When I moved to Australia in 2009 I spent my first couple of weeks at the Gold Coast preparing for my backpacking trip up the coast of Queensland. I knew that sooner or later I would move to Brisbane to try to find work so that was a great starting point for my adventure! I later ended up living in Brissie for almost a year and really enjoyed the quality of life - I mean who wouldn't like a free down town shuttle bus, a gym & a swimming pool in the apartment complex and commuting to work by boat?
Brisbane has a fantastic quality of life, is backpacker friendly and it has its own list of attractions to keep you busy while here! The CBD (Central Business District) is a compact area great for shopping (Queen Street Mall), eating out and exploring. South Bank is a beautiful neighborhood with a man-made beach & swimming pool (don’t be tempted to swim in the Brisbane River – apparently bull sharks are living in its murky waters!) and the botanic gardens and city parks are beautiful green spaces ideal for playing sports, running or just chilling out. If you have time for a day trip and want to escape the humid city, go up Mt Cootha for some incredible views of the Brisbane skyline or take the bus out to the Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary to cuddle a koala or feed wallabies.
Mainly known for its sugar cane industry and rum distillery, Bundaberg is a sleepy little town 5 hours north of Brisbane. I decided to stop over here to break up the journey but didn’t quite anticipate how difficult it would be to book accommodation in advance. When I visited in 2009 Bundaberg wasn’t even listed on hostelworld.com (which oddly enough still seems to be the case) – I had to pick a hostel from the Yellow Pages and call the people to make a reservation without seeing any reviews or getting a quote. Note to self: if the place isn’t even on Google it’s probably not a good idea to book it! I remember arriving in Bundaberg at the railway station late at night but luckily the place I had booked was close by. And that’s where the good news ended.
The owner let me in, took my money for three nights without giving me any change and then invited me to join him in the strip club next door. I excused myself and went up to the room. It was dirty and I prayed there wouldn’t be any bedbugs but all I wanted at that point was to sleep. At 5am a man came knocking on our door screaming something about fruit picking. At that point the other couple that also stayed in the room got up and left for work. Luckily the sun rises quite early in Queensland so by the time I got up and got dressed it was light outside. In the light of day the room looked even worse and I drew the line at “eek there’s brown water coming out of the tap!” when trying to brush my teeth. I wanted to get out of there asap.
By 6.30am I was out and about trying to find another hostel. I got breakfast, chatted to an old local man who used to work for Bundaberg Rum and wandered around for a good while admiring beautiful Queenslanders (traditional timber houses) before walking into a second hand bookstore to check out Aussie travel guides for hostel recommendations. I was lucky and found one nearby! The Cellblock Backpackers – a former prison turned into affordable accommodation. Complete with a backyard, a clean kitchen and huge comfy beds it was a different world compared to the other place. I booked a room for the next two nights, paid and went back to hostel #1 (at this point I really can’t even remember what it was called), picked up my bag and the owner even gave me a full refund for the other two nights! I couldn’t wait to move into my prison cell together with nine other inmates. I spent the next two days strolling around the Botanic Gardens, visiting the Historical Museum and stepped back in time in the Hinkler Hall of Aviation. Bert Hinkler was a pioneer aviator in the early 20th century who had his complete house shipped from England to Australia and had it rebuilt brick by brick here in the Bundaberg Botanic Gardens!
Townsville & Magnetic Island
After three days in Bundy it was back on the overnight train for me and off to Townsville. This little place had gotten onto my radar when I read about an island full of koalas just off the town’s coast so I decided to stop over. Townsville itself is a buzzing place with seriously laid-back people and full of beautiful Queensland architecture.
I got up early on my first day there and went to the pier to catch the boat over to Magnetic Island – the place with the biggest wild koala population in Australia! It was a perfect day for wildlife spotting and when I arrived on the island a bus took me all the way up to where the main hiking route started -The Forts Walk.
My first impression:
Oh dear! I knew that when snakes feel vibrations on the floor from walking people they steer clear of the paths – they’re more scared of us than we are of them! I frantically stamped by hiking boots with every step I took to let them know I was there and not keen on meeting them and it must have worked! I didn’t see a single death adder (or for that matter any other poisonous snakes/spiders/scorpions in my entire 12 months in Australia!). But back to the koalas: it took me a while to spot the furry marsupials hanging out in the eucalyptus trees but soon enough it got easier and I saw quite a few!
Apart from wildlife this hike is also popular because of the fort at the top of the hill. You can still go inside the empty concrete compound which was used in WWII to watch out for invading enemies’ boats. Today all you see from up here is a beautiful view over Cleveland Bay!
Another short train ride two days later and I was in Cairns – the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef! Ohhh the excitement! I arrived at the hostel, checked in and straight away booked two day tours: a sailing boat snorkelling trip to the Great Barrier Reef and a bus trip up to the Daintree rain forest.
It’s hard not to have a great time in Cairns! It’s the backpacker city in Australia. The main party/meeting/dining place in town is the saloon bar The Woolshed. It’s all about affordable food (some hostels give out vouchers for discounts on dinner & drinks), party music and pub quizzes. It’s impossible not to make friends on a night out in the Woolshed.
The Great Barrier Reef
Then came the big day: I was off to the Great Barrier Reef on a huge red & white sailing boat. I had a light breakfast (not light enough as it turned out) and made my way down to the pier to board the boat together with all the other snorkelers and divers. We settled in, kicked back and relaxed. The sea was rough, the sky was gray and shortly after we had left the safety of the bay I became violently ill. I had never been seasick before! The staff on board suggested that I sit on deck in the back of the boat facing the horizon and get some fresh air. Off I went armed with my brown paper bag only to find the deck crowded with many other brown-paper-bag-clutching people. Together we suffered and I made a new friend or two before we came to a stop in the middle of the ocean and the snorkeling equipment was handed out.
Our queasy stomachs calmed down and once we were in the water all the suffering was forgotten and we happily swam with turtles, harmless reef sharks and even some of Nemo’s relatives! In some parts the reef grew so high that it was even visible above the water. After a while we hopped back on the boat and sailed off to a sandbank (which was also a bird sanctuary) for our second snorkel session. Walking into the shallow water from the beach you had to watch out not get scratched by the reef and once you were floating you needed to take care not to step or stand on the fragile coral formations. I wore a foam float around my waist to make sure I stay afloat. We saw more beautiful schools of fish and now that the sky had cleared up the colors were amazingly vibrant! In the afternoon we sailed back into Cairns in beautiful weather.
Daintree National Park
And the next morning another item on my bucket list was about to be ticked off: Daintree.
By bus we went all the way up to Cape Tribulation and the Daintree Rainforest, visited Mossman Gorge on the way & had a quick stop in Port Douglas. We ate home-made wattle seed ice cream, went on a crocodile spotting river cruise and had a picnic at the beach. We played with wallabies, listened to exotic bird song and learnt that there’s a tree – the Stinging Tree – that has leaves with tiny little needles which will cause you agony when you touch them, not to mention when bush walkers use them as uhm toilet paper...
This trip was easily one of my personal Australian highlights! But see for yourself...
I hope you liked this first part of Awesome Australian Road Trips! Stay tuned for part 2: Darwin to Alice Springs coming up next :)