Freedom of the summer road trip

The days start early now; the cool dimness of the first light is refreshing and promising, than the sun sparks up, rises higher and higher above the red roof tops and green tree tops. The Australian sun does not waste any time, and gets to its most intense and ferocious as soon as it passes the tops of Eucalyptus trees. The heat is excruciating by the middle of the day, and in truth, rewarded are those who rise to enjoy the early start to the day, and wind down in the balmy darkness of the evening, to the accompaniment of cycadas.

Moonee Beach, near Coffs Harbour

Summer is sun. Summer is hot. Summer is beach, water, the wide open road and freedom. That’s summer Down Under. With the East Cost of Australia offering over 4000kms of beautiful, open coast, much of it empty, untouched, just calling to be seen and explored, it would be insanity not to take advantage, jump in the car and with the sun just rising over the city, just go, hit the road.

It was on one of these fine mornings that we did just that – we hit the highway. With 1300kms in front of us, it was a road trip. Split over two days, so that we can take in what comes up along the way. People ask – “Aren’t you flying?” and “Why aren’t you flying?”. And only those understand who appreciate that it is not the destination, but rather the journey in itself which provides the greatest adventure. On a normal weekday morning, as others are going to work, or are fighting their phone alarms, we were driving out of the city. That is a priceless moment, short, difficult to capture, but so liberating.

Sunset over Hervey Bay, view from Urungan Pier 

Our destination was Hervey Bay, a town of around 54,000 people on the central coast of Queensland. It is one of ‘our’ spots in the world, a place we love to come back to. It is a relaxed seaside locality, stretched along a quiet, flat coast line which is protected from the open ocean by the landmass that is Fraser Island, the world’s largest sand island. This means there are almost no waves hitting the mellow beaches of Hervey Bay, and the water is warm all year around. One of the great things about the place is a walking/riding path which runs along the entire stretch of coast here. That is over 14 kilometres of flat path, with rest areas, piers and constant view of the water and beach along the way. A perfect way to explore and relax.

The drive up from Sydney starts with the Newcastle-bound highway, chisled away laboriously in slabs of ochre sandstone, creating ‘corridors’ with upright stone walls; it flows up and down along the valleys and peaks of the surrounding National Park. With 270 kilometres behind us, we stop for breakfast. The sun is high up now blazing down in an all encompassing, pale brightness. As we cross the Manning River, the turn-offs off the highway get more enticing, these are all places with magnificent beaches and relaxed oceanside aura – Port Macquarie, Hat Head, South West Rocks, Nambucca Heads. Exploring all these wonderful spots would make the 1300km trip into a month-long odyssey  – and how enjoyable that would be!

Coffs Harbour. The highway makes it impossible to bypass it, as it goes right through the city. With 68,000 inhabitants, the city is the largest settlement on this stretch of coast. We are 540kms north of Sydney, and it is a beautiful spot, not untouched by any means, with numerous resorts, hotels and expensive display of formidable residences and summer oasis of the wealthy, but nevertheless a fantastic spot, worth a look. Coffs Harbour enjoys great weather conditions with more sunny days per year than Brisbane, and average temeratures in winter at a very cosy 18 degrees celcius. Surrounded by lush green hills, this is a sub-tropical environment, and seeing the banana plantations all around proves it. Right at the end of the city, around the last bend (coming from the South), on you left-hand side, is the city’s famous landmark – The Big Banana. It’s not so big, but its a nice place for a photo, and perhaps a start to your adventure exploring Australia’s trail of ‘big things’ – keep reading, there is a big one coming up on this trip!

Big Banana, Coffs Harbour

Past Coffs Harbour the highway drifts away from the ocean, but before it does there are places such as Moonee Beach, Safety Beach and Mullaway, all offering easy access to beaches and great picnic spots to enjoy an afternoon break.

Past Grafton, we enter the Northern Rivers country. The landscape changes, it becomes flat again, the highway at times goes back to a single lane, and winds its way through towns, crosses the Clarence River a couple of times, and runs accross Harwood Island. Driving through here I think of blues, landscapes surrounding New Orleans and the Mississippi. It must be the sugar cane, the flatness and the abundance of rivers and water. As the sun sinks behind the gumtrees, and the landscape darkens it is time to consider our sleeping options. Could I keep going, and get through the remaining 480kms? Maybe, but why rush it, and miss out on all the discoveries we could be making the following day?

Woke up in Ballina, a town on Cape Byron, which is Australia’a most easterly point. Ballina is set on the shores of the Richmond River, and while it is close to some excellent beaches, the sprawling town seems more a commercial centre with a riverfront as its attraction. If you are in the area for a little longer, near by is the famous town of Byron Bay, a kind of ‘Mecca’ for hippies, surfers, music lovers and those keen on an alternative lifestyle.

The stretch of highway between Ballina/Byron Bay and Hervey Bay is fairly diverse in terms of scenery and attractions. First up, just past the Queensland border is Gold Coast. Australia’s city of sin. Starting at its southernmost suburb of Coolangatta, just past the border, Gold Coast is a 40 kilometre stretch of beaches, resorts and skyscrapers. The highway is set far from all the action, so if you want to engage in all the fun, shopping, surfing, partying, gambling or whatever else you maybe into, you will need to venture off your path. We keep going, past the amusement parks and into the sprawl of Brisbane’s suburbia. Brisbane is the capital of Queensland, and the third largest city in Australia. It is situated on the banks of the Brisbane River, with a large proportion of the city sitting on floodplains with numerous creeks and estuaries exposing the residents to potential rising waters and flooding. Indeed the city had been hit with crippling floods in 1974, and again in 2011.

North of Brisbane the landscape again becomes lush green, tropical, with the Glasshouse Mountains shooting up above the greenery in a random sort of way. This area is an absolute treasure trove in terms of places to see and explore – from beautiful beaches, to lush green bushland, to numerous old settlements steeped in history.  First stop should be Caloundra, with its grand Kings Beach, than the beaches of the Sunshine Coast. Plenty of sand for everyone here, with this popular stretch of coast running for almost 60 kilometres, all the way to Noosa Heads.

While enjoying the beaches and ocean views is all great, you should not miss the turnoff for Nambour, especially if the big banana ignited your taste for the big things in life. Just off the highway awaits a giant suprise in the form of … “The Big Pineapple”. Far better than its banana cousin, the pineapple and the surrounding pineapple plantation and mini-zoo is definitely worth a visit.

Big Pineapple, Nambour, Queensland

Having sped past Gold Coast and Brisbane, we were starved of attractions, so following a long visit to the big Pineapple, the next stop was only a few kilometres away in a town called Yandina. The town has a fairly long history with European settlement dating back to 1850s. To step back in time, head to the railway station in the centre of town, its wooden structure was erected in 1917. Once the railway station was built, there was a need for a hotel and a fine dining and drinking establishment, so the Yandina Hotel was moved to its current location in the same year. Having felt the nostalgia of standing on the platform waiting for a train to 1917, head over the road and mingle with the locals over a cold glass of the local XXXX beer.

Yandina Hotel, Yandina

Yandina was a great find, and it seems there are a few more gems of this kind in the area with the town of Imbil first on the list for my next trip up here. Yes, that is typical, I have not yet reached my destination and already am planning the next trip. Imbil, Rainbow Beach, Tin Can Bay – these are the top three places to vist next time the road call me up north. For now we were in Maryborough, with Hervey Bay only 30 kms away.

Urangan Beach, Hervey Bay

There was so much more to see along the way, so many stories, so much history and so many beautiful sights. Too quick, too little time. And so many reasons to hit the road again!