From Cairns to Byron Bay: one month of road trip on the Australian East Coast

The road trip on the East Coast an absolute must of travelling in Australia. Along with Uluru and Sydney, this is where most of the tourists visiting the country go… but if it’s so popular it’s also for a reason! From the Great Barrier Reef to the sand dunes of Fraser Island, from the Daintree Rainforest to the cool vibes of Brisbane, from the kangaroos on the beach of Cape Hillsborough to the koalas on Magnetic Island, there’s a fabulous diversity of landscapes and wildlife throughout the 2000 kms separating Cairns from Byron Bay. Come explore it with me with this suggestion of a one-month itinerary!

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Note: if you’re travelling on the Australian East Coast, you’ll probably finish (or begin) your trip in Sydney. I deliberately chose to end this itinerary in Byron Bay because I didn’t spend enough time exploring the coast of New South Wales to be able to write about it. But in the end of this article I’ll still introduce you to two great places located between Byron Bay and Sydney, called Nambucca Heads and South West Rocks, that I really loved.

cape-hillsborough.JPG

Before beginning this road trip, one word about the best moment in the year to do it: the northern part of Australia is subject to only two seasons, the “wet” and the “dry”. The wet or rainy season usually lasts from the end of November to the beginning of May, so I’d advise you to go during winter or spring, between June and October, to get the ideal weather with warm (25 to 30°C in Cairns) and sunny days. Brisbane is a bit colder during that period (average highest temperatures in the low twenties) but also dryer than in summer. The furthest south you go, the most temperate the weather gets, with colder winters and hot and dry summers. The best compromise would be to start from Cairns in August/September to reach Sydney a few weeks later (or on the contrary start from Sydney in May to be in Cairns in June).

In this article, I give you for every destination what I consider to be the minimum amount of time you should spend there to enjoy it at its best, for a total of 31 days from Cairns to Byron Bay (including the time spent driving). If your holidays are shorter than a month, you’ll have to skip some places from the list.

Cairns, Kuranda and the Great Barrier Reef (3 days)

About 165,000 people live in Cairns… but more than a million of tourists visit the capital of North Queensland every year. I found the city itself not really attractive but its location is truly unique: nowhere else in the world can you find two World Heritage Sites directly next to each other (the Great Barrier Reef and the Daintree Rainforest) and Cairns is at the edge of both.

Among the things to see in the city, there’s of course the nice Esplanade, with the artificial lagoon at its southern end. It’s the only place in Cairns where you can swim: never try to go for a dip in the ocean as crocodiles can be found here, as everywhere else on the coast of North Queensland. It felt very weird to me to see so many crocodile warning signs just next to this beautiful coastal walk! Have also a look at the mangrove at the northern end of the Esplanade, and don’t miss the gorgeous Botanic Gardens that I already mentioned in another article, a bit further out from the centre to the North.

Located to the North-West of Cairns, Kuranda is a great place for a day-trip to appreciate the beauty of the tropical rainforest. You can either drive there (the solution I chose myself), take the Scenic Railway weaving through the forest or the Skyrail (the cable car) for amazing views. Make sure to travel on the Jungle Walk to appreciate the lush vegetation, the stunning trees and the dozens of beautiful butterflies. Don’t miss also the Barron Falls: they are much more impressive during or after the rain season when the stream is extremely powerful, which wasn’t the case anymore during my visit in July.

But the first reason that makes so many people come to Cairns is of course the Great Barrier Reef. There are many options to explore the world’s largest coral reef system: the most common are day tours bringing you usually to two different spots on the reef where you can choose between snorkelling, diving or taking place in a glass-bottom boat to enjoy the extraordinary colours of the coral, be amazed by the hundreds of beautiful fishes and maybe see a turtle or even a harmless reef shark! The pictures below have been taken from my very basic and old Go-Pro and don’t do justice to the fantastic beauty of the Great Barrier Reef; swimming right next to a big turtle still remains one the best memories of my entire life.

If you’re a diving addict you can also opt for longer cruises over a couple of days, with the advantage of going further out on the reef where less tourists go. Please remember that the Great Barrier Reef is extremely endangered by climate change and human activity, and some scientists even think that the point of no return for the preservation of this natural wonder has already been reached. Don’t touch the coral, never stand on it and don’t take anything with you apart from pictures and memories!

The Daintree Rainforest (2 days)

daintree-rainforest-cassowary-signLocated just North of Cairns, the Daintree Rainforest is one of the oldest ecosystems in the world, with an age estimated between 100 and 180 million of years. It is home to one of the largest (and most dangerous) birds on Earth: the cassowary. Unfortunately, the population of this blue-headed bird has been drastically reduced in the past decades and is thought to be of less than a thousand of individuals today. If they disappeared, that would be dramatic for the rainforest as they play a very important role in seed dispersal. It is very hard to see them in their environment, and if you’re lucky enough to observe a cassowary try to stay at a reasonable distance and never turn your back to it. They have huge and powerful claws on their feet that could cause severe injuries in case of an attack. Drive carefully anytime you’re in the rainforest too, as road kill is the primary cause of cassowary’s deaths.

On your way towards the Daintree Rainforest, you’ll first drive past Port Douglas, a nice harbour known to be another great spot for tours on the Great Barrier Reef. Once again, even if the landscape is really enchanting, don’t go swimming and don’t even sit next to the water because of crocodiles. Shortly after Port Douglas, you’ll find to your left the beautiful Mossman Gorge. You can hike along the Mossman River, admire the trees in the forest and safely go for a swim in the water: there aren’t any crocodiles here!

A bit further north, you’ll reach the Daintree River. The road stops here: the only way to go to the other side and keep driving to the Daintree Rainforest is to take a little ferryboat. Next to the end of the road is a little parking lot where 2 companies offer tours on the Daintree River to observe crocodiles in their environment. I strongly recommend to do it: it’s very impressive to be so close to these giant and extremely dangerous animals (a few imprudent tourists die every year in Australia). You’ll also see birds like the beautiful kingfisher and maybe snakes on the riverbanks.

The other side of the river marks the beginning of the Daintree Rainforest. The road here is sometimes quite narrow and very winding so be careful while driving. There are a lot of things to see and do in the forest, including lookouts, hikes and beaches so I’d advise you to stop at the Discovery Centre and get a map of the area with the list of all the points of interest. Make sure to go all the way up to Cape Tribulation: this iconic beach is absolutely gorgeous, even on cloudy and rainy days like it was during my visit.

The road transforms into a dirt track soon after Cape Tribulation and you’ll absolutely need a 4WD to go further North in the direction of Cooktown.

Atherton Tablelands (2 days)

Complete change of scenery compared to the deep, dark and sometimes scary rainforest: the hills, pastures and lakes of the Atherton Tablelands West of Cairns couldn’t look more different and reminded me of a European scenery.

This area is worth a visit mostly for its countless waterfalls. Once again, ask for a map at the Visitor centre of Atherton, it will make it so much easier for you to find your way to the next waterfall. The most famous are the Millaa Millaa Falls where you can even swim in the natural pool in front of them. Here’s a little gallery of some of the most beautiful waterfalls in the Atherton Tablelands.

Don’t miss also the Curtain Fig Tree. This giant tree is one of the largest of North Queensland. Because of the weight of the fig roots that grew around it, it eventually fell into a neighbouring tree and the vertical roots look like a curtain below it. Really impressive!

After completing a loop around the natural sites of the Atherton Tablelands, drive back towards the coast in the direction of Innisfail and eventually Mission Beach, the next destination I’ll describe in this article.

Mission Beach (1 day)

Mission Beach and its neighbour Bingil Bay are in my opinion among the most beautiful coastlines of Queensland. If like me you weren’t lucky enough to spot a cassowary in the Daintree Rainforest, this might be your second chance: some are living in the Djiru National Park nearby and can sometimes be seen close to the road. That’s what happened to me but unfortunately it was impossible to pull over and get a picture of that brief moment.

Mission Beach is also known to be one of the greatest places to skydive in Australia. I’ve done it myself and I can tell you that the landscape seen from above is stunning (you can even get a glimpse of the colours of the Great Barrier Reef in the distance) and icing on the cake, you’ll land on the beach, one of the most beautiful of the country! The colours of the ocean and the palm trees at dusk are unbelievable.

There are also a lot of hiking options in the Djiru National Park. One of them starts from Bingil Bay and leads to Bicton Hill, from where you’ll get a nice panoramic view.

Finally, I can’t mention Mission Beach and Bingil Bay without talking about one of the most fabulous experiences I had in Australia: spending the night next to the beach at the Bingil Bay Campground (or more accurately, on the day-use area next to it where camping is officially forbidden but apparently tolerated if it’s only for one night, to quote what locals told me). Without any light pollution, it’s a perfect place for stargazing and observe the milky way in the night sky, and the sunrise in the early morning is one of the most amazing sights I’ve ever seen.

Townsville and Magnetic Island (2 days)

235 kms South of Mission Beach, Townsville is the largest city of North Queensland. There are a few things to see on the way: the first one is a lookout on the side of the highway offering a beautiful panorama over Hinchinbrook Island.

hinchinbrook-island

In the village of Ingham, turn right on Fairford Road in the direction of the Wallaman Falls, 50 kms more inland. This is the tallest single-drop waterfall of Australia, with a very impressive height of 268m.

wallaman-falls

On a warm day, the shade and the cold water of Little and Big Crystal Creek a bit further after Ingham are perfect to refresh yourself.

Despite a population of 180,000 people, there’s not much to do in Townsville. Following the coastline, the Strand with parks, playgrounds and restaurants (that close super early, be careful!) is nice, and the view from the top of Castle Hill, the huge red rock in the middle of the city, is pretty as well. Nothing very special though: the main reason to come to Townsville is not the city itself but lies right in front of you when you’re staring at the view from Castle Hill lookout: it’s the proximity of Magnetic Island.

Magnetic Island

This island, that I described more in details in a previous article, offers a lot of various activities like snorkelling, hiking on its many tracks or just relaxing on its gorgeous beaches. But what makes it so famous and absolutely unmissable if you’re travelling on the Australian East Coast is its colony of wild koalas. There aren’t many other places in the country where you can get so close to these lovely animals! Most of them can be seen around the Forts Walk, a path leading to bunkers built during World War II to defend the harbour of Townsville, which offers also stunning 360° views of the island.

Airlie Beach and the Whitsunday Islands (5 days)

The highlight of the East Coast? It’s hard to tell but it’s impossible not to fall in love with the natural wonders of the Whitsunday Islands. From Townsville, it’s a 275 km drive to Airlie Beach, the gateway to this 74-island archipelago. I also described the different activities to do in the Whitsunday Islands in the same article previously mentioned about Magnetic Island, so here’s a summary.

If there were only one thing to do in Airlie Beach, that would be taking a scenic flight to see the Whitsunday Islands and the Great Barrier Reef from above. You’ll fly particularly above Whitehaven Beach, the beach with the purest sand in Australia, and have the privilege to see the iconic Heart Reef. It’s quite expensive (229$ for an hour with GSL aviation) but worth every cent of it in my opinion!

The most popular way to explore the Whitsunday Islands is to go on a cruise. There are a lot of options, with different types of boats (sailing boats or motorboats), different types of tours (if you like it quiet, avoid the party boats full of backpackers) ranging from one-day return trips to Whitehaven Beach to 3-days 2-nights cruises including snorkelling on coral reefs, which is the option I chose myself and would recommend, just for the pleasure of watching sunset from the boat. If you’re lucky and travelling during the appropriate season (May to October), you might even see whales during your cruise. Inquire at a travel agency to book the tour that fits you the best.

Finally, there are also a lot of hiking options in the Conway National Park around Airlie Beach, especially a nice track starting from Shute Harbour and leading to a beach only made of dead corals called Coral Beach.

Cape Hillsborough (1 day)

Cape Hillsborough is part of a list I made of 6 hidden gems on the Australian East Coast, and is probably the brightest gem of that list. I don’t need to say much to convince you to take a detour to this place South of Airlie Beach: in Cape Hillsborough you can see kangaroos on the beach at sunrise. What else? If that’s still not enough to persuade you, I’m sure the pictures below will help.

From Cape Hillsborough to Rainbow Beach (2 days)

The 850kms between Cape Hillsborough and Rainbow Beach aren’t in my opinion the most interesting part of the trip. It might be too long a drive for a single day so I suggest to split it in two, and here are some suggestions of things you can do along the way.

Rockhampton is known as the “beef capital” of Australia: agriculture and especially cattle farming is the biggest industry of the area. A good place to enjoy a steak! It’s located just North of the Tropic of Capricorn, and the coast nearby is therefore called the Capricorn Coast. The coastal road between Yeppoon and Emu Park is nice but nothing really amazing compared to other places of Queensland. It’s also the gateway to the Keppel Islands that are supposedly gorgeous but I didn’t visit them myself.

Further South, you’ll find the villages of Agnes Water and 1770: this uncommon name comes from the second landing of Captain Cook in Australia in May 1770, a few weeks after he first set foot on Botany Bay which later became the actual Sydney. These places are good for surfing lessons and the coast here is really pretty.

Finally, Hervey Bay is known to be one of the best places of Australia for whale watching, but as I personally saw whales during my cruise in the Whitsunday Islands, I wasn’t interested in doing a tour so I can’t tell you more about it.

Rainbow Beach and Fraser Island (4 days)

Rainbow Beach takes its name from the variations of colours of the tall sand dunes that can be found here next to the coast. It goes from yellow to red with infinites different kinds of orange in between. Add green vegetation on top of the dunes, blue ocean at their feet and you’ll get the entire spectrum, especially at dusk when the sky turns to purple.

It’s also the gateway to Fraser Island, the largest sand island in the world. As I already explained in this article, unless you own a 4WD you’ll have to go on a tour to explore Fraser Island. I went for a 3-days 2-night trip with Pippies and really enjoyed it, as it took us to all the attractions of Fraser Island: the crystal-clear water of Lake McKenzie, the bubbling Champagne Pools, the picturesque Maheno Shipwreck and the vast and tall sand dunes, perfect for sandboarding.

Remember also to be careful about dingoes on Fraser Island: this kind of wild dogs can try to steal your food and might attack young children so always carry a “dingo stick” with you! They are among the last remaining pure race dingoes of Australia, and because of that dogs aren’t allowed on the island.

Dingo stick, Fraser Island

Noosa (1 day)

After leaving Fraser Island, it’s a 135kms drive from Rainbow Beach to Noosa, one of the most beautiful but also most touristic towns of Queensland. Due to its proximity to Brisbane (less than 2 hours drive), Noosa isn’t only popular with overseas tourists but also with Australians going on week-ends or short holidays on the Sunshine Coast. Expect to see a lot of people on the main beach and in the many shops and restaurants nearby!

The highlight of Noosa is its gorgeous National Park. There are a lot of hiking paths to explore it from top to bottom, including the very popular coastal walk that offers amazing views from spots with suggestive names such as “Fairy Pools” or “Hell’s Gates”. It’s also a great area for whale watching during the right season (April to October), and if you’re lucky you might even see dolphins, especially if you stay long enough at the “Dolphin Point Lookout”.

Glass House Mountains and Bribie Island (1 day)

Between Noosa and Brisbane, you’ll see a few peaks with characteristic shapes close to the highway: these are the Glass House Mountains, the remnants of ancient volcanoes. There’s a great lookout called Wild Horse Mountain directly next to the highway: the climb to reach it is steep but not too long and the panorama is very rewarding.

For a different point of view, you can also climb to the summit of Mt Ngungun, one of the peaks that you can see from Wild Horse Mountain lookout. The 360° view is great, especially at the end of the afternoon.

Close to the Glass House Mountains, Bribie Island is a very popular destination for Brisbanites because of its nice beaches. I saw one of the most amazing sunsets of my entire trip in Australia on Bribie Island: the sky turned successively to purple, rose and orange, and with the silhouettes of the Glass House Mountains in the background the sight was really stunning.

Brisbane (2 days)

brisbane-signBrisbane is the 3rd largest city of Australia, with more than 2 million of inhabitants. Built around the meanders of the Brisbane River, it’s a very liveable city thanks to a perfect weather throughout the year: Brisbane has almost 3,000 hours of sunshine, 400 more than Sydney and almost twice as much as Paris! Even in winter (June to August), the average highest temperatures don’t drop often below 20°C.

The river is in the heart of the city: its banks offer great walk, jog or cycling opportunities. A nice way to explore Brisbane is to take a public transport ferry, especially the free City Hopper. It’s a very green city, with the gorgeous Botanic Gardens, the Roma Street Parkland above the huge Roma Street train station and last but not least, the entire suburb of Southbank. Just in front of the CBD, you’ll find there an artificial lagoon, a nice and relaxing park, the Brisbane Wheel, an Art Centre and the Queensland Museum, the Brisbane sign and dozens of bars and restaurants with cuisines from all around the world (Italian, Indian, Japanese, Spanish, French, etc…). The most enjoyable part of Brisbane!

Have also a look at the city centre and its nice pedestrian streets. Appreciate the contrast between ancient buildings and modern towers and don’t miss the huge Town Hall.

brisbane-bridge-night-2If Brisbane is already nice during the day, it gets even better at night time. The lighting of the bridges is beautiful and changes every night, especially on the iconic Story Bridge. Here’s a little tip to get one of the best views over Brisbane, in a hidden place where no tourists go. Search for the Wilson Outlook Reserve: this tiny park is directly in front of the Story Bridge with the bright lights of the CBD just behind. At night time, the view is unbeatable (picture below).

brisbane-night-story-bridge

Another great spot to admire Brisbane is from the Mt Coot-tha lookout, West of the city. It’s a perfect place to enjoy the sunset and that moment at dusk when the lights of the city slowly turn on in front of you. Don’t come too late if you want to have the best view as it’s a very popular and sometimes crowded lookout.

North Stradbroke Island (1 day)

A favourite week-end destination for Brisbanites! North Stradbroke Island is connected to the mainland via a ferry running every hour during the entire week, leaving from Cleveland, a suburb of Brisbane. If you’re coming from the city centre, take the train until Cleveland station, then a bus or a 25-minute walk will get you to the harbour. Once you’re on “Straddie”, the nickname of North Stradbroke Island, catch a bus to Point Lookout. That’s where the beautiful Gorge Walk starts: an easy hike with gorgeous coastal views, impressive cliffs and a very rich wildlife: kangaroos, birds and if you’re lucky even whales or dolphins.

If possible, try to take the ferry back to mainland around sunset to appreciate the colours of the sky from the boat.

Springbrook National Park and Mt Warning (2 days)

For the majority of people, the touristic itinerary between Brisbane and Byron Bay will include the tall buildings, the crowded beaches and the theme parks of the Gold Coast and Surfers Paradise. I preferred travelling inland, where many hidden natural wonders can be found. I already introduced you to them in a previous article.

The main attraction of this part of Australia is in my opinion the Springbrook National Park with its many lookouts, waterfalls and beautiful hiking tracks. Highlight of the park: Natural Bridge, a natural arch and a waterfall inside a cave created naturally by erosion. If you come at night time you can even observe the fairy lights of the glow worm colony living there!

Not far from the Springbrook National Park is one of Australia’s best kept secret: the Heart Pool. Will you be able to find this beautiful place without any other information than this picture? This is what I challenge you to do!

Heart pool

Finally, for the best view over the surroundings, climb to the top of Mt Warning (also known more poetically as Wollumbin which means “cloud catcher” in aboriginal language). The hike to the summit is relatively hard and the last part is more climbing than hiking but even clumsy people subject to fear of height like me can manage it so don’t be too scared. The 360° view from the summit is worth the effort! If the climb itself isn’t challenging enough, try to do it in the dark super early in the morning: because of its location on the most eastern part of the country, the summit of Mt Warning is the first place in Australia where you can see the sun rising.

Byron Bay (2 days)

Byron Bay was the very first place I visited in Australia and because of that it will always remain special to me. There’s an indescribable good atmosphere here: does it come from the perfect weather, the amazing location or the hippie vibe of the friendly community? Or more likely a mix of all of the above… Byron Bay is a place that either tourists, surfers or artists will enjoy, and one of the best spots on the East Coast to spend a relaxing couple of days.

Among the things to see in Byron Bay, there’s of course the iconic lighthouse located on top of Cape Byron. You can hike all around the cape to enjoy the gorgeous landscape and stand at the most easterly point of the Australian mainland.

If you’re in Byron between April and October, the chances are high that you’ll see whales migrating, sometimes very close to the coast. Once again, the best place to watch them is from the lighthouse.

Finally, both sunsets and sunrises are amazing in Byron Bay. Can you guess the moment of the day when the pictures below have been taken?

Bonus: Nambucca Heads and South West Rocks (2 days)

As I explained in the introduction of this article, I didn’t spend enough time exploring the coast between Byron Bay and Sydney to be able to write about it, but I stopped in two amazing places that I’d still like to introduce to you. Both of them are completely off the beaten track and you won’t find many tourists there.

The first one is called Nambucca Heads. It is located between Coffs Harbour and Port Macquarie, 290 kms South of Byron Bay and 490 kms North of Sydney. It’s a lovely harbour, with an extraordinary jetty called the V Wall: 600m of rocks painted with flags from everywhere around the world, love messages and even some artistic masterpieces. Beautiful and completely unexpected!

Climb also to the Captain Cook Lookout just above for a gorgeous panoramic view of the mouth of Nambucca River on one side (it kind of reminded me of Whitehaven Beach) and Shelly Beach on the other, a beach so beautiful that it has been ranked 8th best beach of Australia in 2017!

Shortly after Nambucca Heads, South West Rocks was probably one of my favourite places of Australia. If I had to make my own list of the 20 best beaches of Australia, Little Bay in the Arakoon National Park would be very close to the top. The beach itself is absolutely stunning but icing on the cake, dozens of kangaroos can be found laying on the grass all around it!

There are a couple of hiking paths starting from the beach and following the coast, with more gorgeous panoramic views. A 6-kilometer walk to the South (or a 15-minute drive) will lead you to the Smoky Cape Lighthouse, very similar to the Byron Bay Lighthouse… but without the tourists.

I’ll end this article with a picture of the fabulous sunrise on the beach of Little Bay, still the wallpaper of my laptop more than 2 years after I took it and one of my best memories of Australia. Enough to convince you to visit South West Rocks?

I hope this article will help you plan your holidays on the Australian East Coast, a trip that you’ll never forget!

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5 thoughts on “From Cairns to Byron Bay: one month of road trip on the Australian East Coast

  1. J’aime beaucoup votre blog. Un plaisir de venir flâner sur vos pages. Une belle découverte et blog très intéressant. Je reviendrai m’y poser. N’hésitez pas à visiter mon univers. Au plaisir.

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