The drive from Sydney to Brisbane is 900 km of highway filled with so much to do, just about anything is possible.
After picking up Roojin in Sydney, we headed straight up the A1 Pacific Highway. As with most of Australia, however, you have to get off the highway to see something of interest. Most of the time.
Aside from a giant banana, we veered off-route to see some of Australia’s best beaches, hike over sand dunes to get to a shipwreck, and even spot dolphins traveling up the coast.
Stockton Beach dunes and shipwreck
Sand dunes were on the agenda for the day. I had such a great time at the dunes in New Zealand, I had to see what Australia had in store.
We spent the night at a free campsite near Newcastle which is a small coastal town directly southwest of Stockton Beach.
Stockton beach is known for its dunes and hard sandy surface perfect for 4-wheel driving. Driving on the beach is not permitted unless your vehicle has 4WD and a valid permit.
We had neither.
So from a parking lot we walked 15 minutes down the dirt Macs Track to the beach. A police car drove through as we were walking probably to do a permit check so we were glad we didn’t try to go without one!
Emerging onto the beach there was a huge sandy landscape sprawling before us. The hills of solid sand rolled ahead and tufts of beach grass sprang up in spots giving it a desert feel.
We walked in the direction of a gathering tour. There were quad bikes lined up and people were hopping on for rides down the beach. One of the tour operators told me people had signed up for the Shipwreck tour—a $96 per person ride over the sand dunes for photos at a ship wreck down the beach.
“You can see the wreck from here, it’s not far!” he said.
Turns out the walk was a lot farther than it looked. Yes, we could see the wreck from where we were, but the distance was extremely deceiving. We walked for about an hour up and down sand dunes until we finally made it close enough for a few photos.
Sure, quad bikes would have been nice. But with all the driving I was doing, I actually appreciated the workout.
Stockton beach is well known for its many shipwrecks over the last 200 years. The two famous ones are the Uralla and the MV Signa. Roojin and I were standing before the latter of the two.
The MV Signa was a Norwegian bulk carrier weighing in at 53,000 tons when it ran aground during a storm in 1974. The vessel’s remains have slowly been rusting away in the tide ever since, becoming an icon of nearby Newcastle. Pretty sweet.
Mussels at the Rainforest Café
The next day we traveled through Port Macquarie. I had heard there were some great things to do in the area—including views of the ocean where whales and dolphins would be making their annual migration!
After juicing up our devices at the local library, I spoke to a librarian to get some advice on what we could do in town. She was amazingly helpful, pulling out a map and pointing to all sorts of trails and things to do. We decided to check out the rainforest and from there we could visit the lighthouse for supreme ocean views.
It was lunchtime already, so we grabbed a bite to eat at the Rainforest Café.
Roojin and I both had the Australian mussels in a Normandy sauce with chips. Delicious!
I loved this place because we got to sit outside under the jungle trees and really take in the sounds, smells, and aura of the surrounding forest as we enjoyed our mussels.
If you’re willing to pay a small fee, there’s a track you can take from the attached gift shop along a raised walkway through the rainforest. We didn’t take time to do it but I bet it’d be a nice walk especially after a hearty meal.
Dolphins at Port Macquarie
Instead, we took the librarian’s advice and drove straight over to Lighthouse Beach.
By now it was about 3pm in the afternoon and, apparently, everyone had the same idea. There was limited parking and several people taking photos of the coastline and the lighthouse.
It was the perfect time to be there, though, because within minutes after arriving people were pointing out to sea where a spectacular show was taking place. Whales were breaching and slapping their tales on the surface, showing off for a tour boat that had just pulled up.
After about 15 minutes, Roojin and I were about to head back to the car to continue on our way to our next campsite when a woman suddenly said, “Ah. There’s the dolphins coming now.”
I immediately perked up. Total discloser here, I have a bit of an obsession with dolphins ever since I did a project on them in sixth grade. For many years I wanted to be a marine biologist completely because of how much I love dolphins. Of course, swimming with dolphins is (very unoriginally) on my bucket list. But first thing is first, right? I had never even seen wild dolphins before. I at least needed to seem them, and this was my chance!
Looking in the direction the woman was pointing, I could make a few of them out jumping in the waves parallel to the beach.
They were coming directly toward us—and there were so many of them.
I was ridiculously elated. Squealing, actually. Which is why there is music to cover up my embarrassing shrieks during this video I took:
(Pro-tip: Look closely at 1:33 for the dolphin breaching! Ahhh—so amazing!)
The Big Banana at Coy’s Harbour
Australia is big and so are its “things.”
Australia’s Big Things are all over the place. Most of the time you have to get off the highways to see something of interest, but not when it comes to these folk art structures.
What started as a simple road side banana stall in 1964, the Big Banana has turned into a massive tourist attraction.
There are 200 “Big Things” in all of Australia, the first being the Scotsman which erected in 1963. The Big Banana was the second big thing in Australia and the first in the state of New South Wales.
The Big Banana is not just a massive sculpture of a giant yellow nanner. There’s also a banana plantation theatre, a banana tour, and a banana themed souvenir shop. The place is absolutely bananas for bananas! Don’t worry, in case you get a bit overwhelmed there’s also a water park that just opened, a toboggan ride, ice rink, laser tag, and mini-golf.
The Australian Post considers the Big Banana to be among the top 5 most famous Big Things.
One thing’s for sure, a road trip adventure through Australia is simply not complete without stopping for at least one of them. I’m glad we did for this one!
3 beach towns worth a gander
We had heard the beaches in Lennox Head were nice so we stopped in for a peak early the next morning.
At Lennox Point there is a right-hand break in the water that is famous among surfers. They were already out on the water when we arrived.
While it’s an ideal spot for surfers, it’s also popular for hang-gliding!
Lennox Head boasts a nearby 65m cliff adored by hang-gliders who enjoy taking in the views of the white-sand Seven Mile Beach and nearby freshwater Lake Ainsworth from the thermals up above.
This beachside town is huge among Australian tourists and backpackers.
The oceanway, or boardwalk, makes for a lovely walk or cycle to the lighthouse for coastal views. Whale watching also makes up a large part of Byron Bay’s economy.
Tropical warm waters merge here making it an excellent place for swimming, snorkeling and scuba diving.
I didn’t do any of these activities other than check out the beach while in Byron Bay. I was looking forward to diving the Great Barrier Reef off the Northern Coast instead. Oh, but I did get a closer look at this guy in the center of town!
Of course, no road trip is complete without a car breakdown along the way.
Actually, the car didn’t break down. It was just acting wonky enough to make me bring it back to the rental company in Gold Coast for a tinker.
Two hours killed walking down the Gold Coast beach were two hours well-spent. As the second most populous city in New South Wales, Gold Coast is bustling with activities and options for tourists and locals alike. Tourism is its biggest industry.
Gold Coast sometimes gets a bad rap for being a bit kitschy in a Vegas sort of way. I saw plenty of brochures inside the rental company’s building for all of the city’s wild theme parks, extravagant shows, unusual exhibits, and quirky tours offered in and around the area.
From what I saw of Gold Coast, however, it also has an awesome beach, a dramatic skyline (with the iconic Q1 building), and a really sweet lifestyle for the locals.
We saw lots of active locals out that morning. Women were jogging to their iPods. Young teens were riding bicycles. Fathers were building sandcastles with their children.
I imagine living in Gold Coast would be like living inside a vacation.
Although we had only 3 days for this road trip, we managed to get a good taste of the 900km between Sydney and Brisbane. The most obvious feature is the Eastern coastline with beach activities galore.
At a slightly closer glance, we also found some exciting notables, like the shipwreck on Stockton Beach, the dolphins at Port Macquarie, and the roadside Big Banana.
If you ever make it to this part of Australia, I’m sure you’ll find your own adventures along the drive—the options are unlimited!