Australia road trip diary 2017

One of my goals for 2017 is to improve my writing, both in quality and in quantity. Luckily a great opportunity to kick this goal off presented itself in the form of a short road trip along the east coast of Australia during the first two weeks of January. I have kept travel diaries in the past, and figured this was a good a time as any to continue the tradition. The diary entries themselves were written at the end of each day with minimal editing, so the style is quite matter of fact. Brew a cup of tea as you’re in for a long read. As always any feedback appreciated. Dave.

Day 1: Melbourne to Brisbane

We landed in Brisbane Jan 1st after some relatively sensible New Year’s revelry the night before. We caught an uber straight to the hotel from the airport. Brisbane airport is ahead of the curve with dedicated rideshare pickup lanes that levy a small toll for use of the lane — having said that, traffic flow was smooth, and transit from plane to car took less than 10 minutes. A very friendly driver picked us up in a brand new top of the range Mercedes, and proceeded to give us a very informative running commentary during our ride into the city. Our hotel was on Albert/Mary street intersection in the CBD (Capri by Fraser). The room was on the 14th floor and much better than expected. Huge bed, panoramic view and much needed aircon. Later walked to through the nearby botanical gardens which were lovely. Lots of ibis birds. Walked over the bridge to Southbank and enjoyed an early meal of seafood at a restaurant called stoke house. I had gnocchi with prawns and Jana had Barramundi grilled with asparagus. Very nice but a tad expensive.

A beautifully plated portion of Gnocci & Prawns at the Stokehouse in Brisbane

Later walked along the south bank which was beautifully done up with plants and bougainvillea. It felt like a very wealthy city, made me wonder who was paying for it all? The skyline has definitely changed since my last visit as a backpacker. Many new glitzy buildings that look like luxury flats. Reminded me a bit of the building boom in Vancouver fuelled by Chinese investors. Stopped off at a souvenir shop to pick up a magnet for the fridge collection. I was then immediately drawn to a neat ice cream shop where they make your ice cream by combining ingredients (fruits, chocolate etc) and fresh cream in a bowl and then adding in liquid nitrogen as they mix it with a machine. Very cool and dramatic. Later walked back to the hotel along south bank and through the town centre. Lots of new high end high street shops and not just touristy knick knacks. Went to bed early as jet lag still kicking me around.

Brisbane Skyline from South Bank

Day 2: Brisbane — Byron

I was up early (pre 6am) so lounged around drinking coffee and researching our route until Jana woke up. Main story on the local news was about a man further north in Queensland that had woken up to find a 3 metre crocodile in his garden, and nimble-mindedly built a containing wall around the croc using laid-down wheelie bins.

We got ready and left for brekki (Aussie slang for breakfast) at 9am. Aimed for a highly rated coffee place which ended up being shut due to it being a bank holiday. Ended up having breakfast at a place right in the middle of the town centre called “Jimmy at the mall” for a lack of finding any hidden gems (it was bank holiday so lots of things were closed). Breakfast was decent but pricey for Brisbane. I had baked eggs with chorizo. Jana had smashed avocado on toast. Headed back to the hotel to get our gear and check out. Caught an uber to the car hire place near the airport. Uber driver was a nice retired gent who told us he drove for uber as a means to pass the time in his retirement. Mentioned that he had a conversation with his wife and daughter about it, and seems to be happy with his decision. Earns money, sets his own hours and gets to meet people. Good way to keep the grey matter fresh I suppose. Good on him.

Surfers Paradise Beach — could easily be mistaken for South Beach, Miami

Picked up our car — a Silver Nissan Xtrail SUV. It was larger than anticipated, but was a delight to drive. Headed down the coast along the highway towards Surfers Paradise. I wanted to show Jana the parallels of this part of QLD with Florida. This place is as I remember it. A bit soulless with lots of high rise apartments everywhere and crowded beaches along the main strip but people seem to like it. Had a spot to eat at Persian restaurant that did a very good chicken skewer grilled over charcoal. Jana had a dip in the sea while I cowered in the shade, then hit the road headed for Byron. The road wasn’t too crowded so was an easy drive for a couple of hours. Got to Byron and were greeted by a fair amount of traffic as a music festival was wrapping up. Parked up in town to have a look. Lots of people milling around waiting for buses and transport. Felt for them — nothing worse than that feeling of being knackered & itching for a shower yet knowing you have a way to go before you’re home. Stopped at a bottle shop (Aussie for off licence or liquor store) and bought some local beers and wrapped up in Byron. Headed to our Airbnb near the town of Mullumbimby on the Gulgan road.

Tawny Cottage near Myocum on Airbnb

Our Airbnb for the next couple of days was a lovely open floor plan cottage in a gated community. The cottage overlooks a green patch of hinterland covered in eucalyptus and other native species. Not many animals to be seen other than the very vocal kookaburras at dusk and dawn. Lovely place, although sadly was not able to take many more decent pictures of it due to the heavy rain during our stay there.

We settled in and had a beer overlooking the view. Later we drove out to nearby Brunswick heads to buy some dinner. Weather had begun to deteriorate with a short lightning storm and a heavy sustained downpour. We stopped at the IGA (convenience store) and got some smoked salmon, bread and avocados to make open sandwiches. Kid at the checkout was ridiculously friendly and eager to chat with us. Drove through the town through the rain and it was pleasant enough. A small carnival glittered in the dark and wet, and was a sad sight to behold. The poor kids manning the rides looked ready to go home. Headed back to the cottage, had a nice dinner and watched some local TV. Fell asleep early due to jet lag.

Day 3: Mullumbimby, Nimbin, Byron Bay

Route options from Mullumbimby to Nimbin

Woke up early again and had a nice coffee overlooking the hinterland and watching the wildlife. Our Airbnb host had provided some nice home made muesli and locally roasted coffee, which I nibbled/sipped on while Jana was still asleep. Weather was grey and overcast with the odd shower, so our original plans of hitting the beach were scuppered. When Jana was up and ready we decided to head to the nearby town of Mulllumbimby and check out Lulu’s cafe (a recommendation from excellent Aussie Danny White) for breakfast. Mullumbimby is a cute little town with a bit of a hippy vibe. Lots of second hand shops selling every possible variation of flower-print hemp-based outfit. Lulu’s ended up being shut, so went to another place nearby which was actually amazingly good. In general I have been amazed at just how good the standard of food quality is here in Australia — not only from a produce perspective but also in creativeness of preparation and presentation. Even cafes and restaurants in small towns display an attention to detail and pride in what they serve that puts places most well regarded places in New York to shame.

Bacon and Eggs at Scarecrow Kitchens in Mullumbimby

It occurred to me that this might only be our perception — as we have been using Foursquare to locate places to go, and therefore what we find is sculpted to our tastes, so perhaps this is our very own foodie filter bubble. On another Foursquare based anecdote — location data seems to be pretty out of date in Australia, with almost no fresh content (tips/checkins) outside the metro areas since 2015. The perils of a crowdsourced service I suspect. After our breakfast and stroll around Mullumbimby we decided to drive west to infamous Nimbin — alternative living capital of Australia. While not very far as the crow flies, the drive took around 2 hours. This drive took us through some beautiful landscape ranging from rolling pastures, macadamia nut plantations to sub tropical rainforest gullies. The moody weather definitely added some drama to the drive with low cloud banks rolling in and out of the green valleys. Once in Nimbin we parked up and went for a stroll. The town itself is perched atop a hill and is relatively small. Famed for hosting the Aquarius festival in the late 60’s the town then became a gathering place for individuals seeking alternative lifestyles. Today the only real trace of that we could see was the hemp embassy which promotes a more progressive stance on cannabis legislation. The town is otherwise a pit stop for travellers and sadly a fair number of people who perhaps have fallen into destructive patterns of drug use. We then headed back to Byron hoping for some better weather, but no avail. We ended up parking up and wandering around the town, having some tacos for lunch (not as good as in the US) and soaking in the atmosphere.

We then drove up the coast to Crabbes creek beach and walked a mile up the long stretch of sand, watching the angry surf and local anglers hook some decidedly odd looking fish. On the way back we stopped at the fisherman’s co-op at Brunswick and picked up a prawn salad for dinner. We then had dinner watching the first episode of The Bachelor US version (Jana insisted) while I typed out my daily diary entry.

Day 4: Lennox Head, Skennars Head, Yamba, Coffs Harbour, Sawtell

We started the day early, as we had a long drive ahead of us. The weather was bright and sunny so we went for an early dip in Byron before hitting the road in earnest. The surf in Byron was gentle, and the beach was quiet. All traces of the bluebottle jellyfish we had seen the previous day were gone. Apparently the jellyfish get blown out to sea when the wind changes direction. After our dip we drove out of Byron, heading south on the scenic highway, taking us past Lennox Head where we stopped for the obligatory check in and quick dip. We also stopped for a quick bite to eat at Skennars head.

We continued south past Ballina, home of the big prawn, where we stopped for a quick picture. The prawn now lives in an unceremonious car park, and not atop a restaurant as I previously remember it. Continuing from Ballina, we continued south and headed towards the Thursday tea tree plantation. The plantation wasn’t much of an attraction, with a small yet interesting series of displays explaining how tea tree came to be a commercial product. Turns out aboriginals used tea tree leaves to treat all kinds of maladies — a trick that early settlers quickly noticed and began employing themselves. Fast forward a couple of decades and tea tree oil has become a boon to the local economy.

Departing the Thursday plantation, the landscape began to change. Morphing from pasture and hinterland to wide open flatlands, dotted with sugar cane plantations. Occasionally we would be overtaken by large cargo trucks who were happy to break the speed limit and overtake precariously on the narrow two lane highway. The sugarcane processing plants (destination for aforementioned trucks) are also noteworthy as they suddenly appear as large industrial structures while you drive through an otherwise sleepy country town making an unexpected contrast.

Codong Sugar Mill off the Pacific Highway

We pull off the Pacific Highway around noon and head towards the coastal town of Yamba, which lies at the mouth of the Clarence river, and appears to be a popular holiday destination for holidaymakers and fishermen. The town center itself is pretty small and nestled just below some gentle hills leading up to the coast. Perched atop one of these hill overlooking the local beach is the Pacific Hotel where we stopped for lunch. The pub is unexpectedly large — probably built that size for seasonal tourist trade — and has a large dining/function room with a stunning panoramic view over the beach below.

The panoramic view of the beach from the Pacific Hotel in Yamba, NSW

After our meals, we decided to walk down the the beach and have a quick dip, as the water looked very inviting. The beach itself was pristine and the surf seemingly not too treacherous. A lifeguard on duty and makes sure people are safe and reminds people to swim between the flags. We only stayed for about half an hour as we still have a long drive ahead of us and needed to hit the road. The remaining portion of the drive to Coffs Harbour took us through some fairly substantial roadworks, where the road is being turned into separate two lane highways from the current single lane highway. This made me wonder what is funding this upgrade in infrastructure in an area that seems relatively remote from any big region of economic activity.

My original photo of the Big Banana in 2007, as we didn’t actually stop for a photo this time

When we began to approach Coffs Harbour we noticed the terrain become more hilly, and planted with what appeared to be Banana trees. We also noticed a large portion of these hills planted with low, squat looking bushes covered with fine mesh. Our Airbnb host would later tell us that Coffs Harbour used to be the premier producer of Bananas in Australia until the market collapsed when the Banana palm was domesticated to grow on flatter parcels of land further north in Queensland, and made growing bananas in Coffs Harbour much more expensive. Our host also told us that enterprising immigrants later discovered that they could grow Blueberries cost effectively in the now abandoned banana plantations therefore revitalizing the region — and introducing the aforementioned mesh nets to keep the birds from feasting on the blueberry cash crop.

That evening, the weather was overcast, so we took a short drive to nearby Sawtell which is a small town south of Coffs Harbour. Sawtell’s population swells during the holidays and tonight was no exception. The small high street was very pleasant and all the restaurants were packed to the rafters — something which took us aback at first, but later made sense when we realized everyone else was also there on holiday. We enjoyed a simple meal at a very friendly Japanese restaurant that managed to seat us, and enjoyed a couple of icy cold schooners (Aussie for pint, or slightly less than a pint) of Sapporo.

Day 5: Port Macquarie, Forster Tuncurry, Seal Rocks, Tarbuck Bay

We packed up our things and were ready to leave Sawtell by 8am, but our Airbnb host had graciously put on quite a breakfast spread for us before we left — an extensive continental breakfast with lots of fresh fruit and 6 different types of cereals, the type you get in individual portion sized boxes. Our host was telling us about her daughter who lived in the caribbean, working in a high flying job. Our host herself was heading out to spend a few months with her daughter and small family, travelling the whole way, with a 6 hour stopover in New York. I was quite impressed that she and her husband (both retired) were so comfortable travelling such a long distance. She quickly replied that living in Australia pretty much everywhere was a long way, so they were used to it. We left Sawtell around 10, and headed into town for a quick coffee. The town was surprisingly busy with lots of people having alfresco breakfasts and getting coffee from the hipster coffee/racing bicycle shop. We left Sawtell, stopping by our Airbnb again to drop off the key we mistakenly took with us and hit the Pacific Highway again, heading South towards our next destination — Port Macquarie.

The drive to Port Macquarie was pretty quick, clocking in at just under 90 minutes, arriving at around 11am. We parked up in the middle of the town — where I had to ask one of the locals if parking was free. She gave me a puzzled look but replied that it was indeed free. I still wonder what she thought when I asked her that, or if indeed paid parking was such an odd concept to begin with. We walked around the town, which is fairly compact, but still has a small central business district, with plenty of shops and restaurants and a small (air conditioned!) mall complex. We had a an early lunch at a waterside cafe called LV’s (very good) and plotted our next section of the trip. We finished our coffees (also very good) and went for a walk to check out the rest of the waterfront.

Port Macquarie waterfront featured many instances of this poster, featuring the local biodiversity

The town also has, as it’s name might suggest, a port which is relatively small and caters mainly to tourists and local fishermen. The tourist influx of Port Macquarie must be pretty large during the summer months with a large section of the town nearest the beach covered in campground chock a block with caravans/RVs. The beach was flanked with large boulders which had been decoratively painted and adorned, presumably by kids from the nearby campground, or travelling backpackers. It made for an interesting foreground. The day was pretty sweltering, so we decided to head back to the car and hit the road again.

We decided not to stop on route to the next destination, mainly because the road was relatively inland, and any jaunts to the towns by the coast would eat up into the beach time we had slated for later that afternoon. We made good progress, and arrived at the adjoining towns of Foster-Tuncurry at around 2pm. The approach into Foster-Tuncurry is very picturesque with the Pacific Highway bridging the two towns, partly on an elevated highway crossing some tidal channels full beautiful turquoise waters.

From Forster we were a short hop away from our destination — Tarbuck bay. We found it on Airbnb and was billed as an ‘eco’ home. It was a large single story house set in the midst of a large patch of rainforest. Our host Judy told us that she and her husband had bought the land many years ago, and lived in a nearby barn for almost a decade as they built the house entirely by hand, using only the materials found locally. The house was built out of hand-made mud bricks made from the earth and all the timber was sourced from the trees they felled when clearing the land. Judy told us that they had designed the property around the principles of permaculture, which are grounded in sustainability and self sufficiency.

I was quite impressed and inspired by the house. It was large and had high ceilings with a central ‘breeze way’ to naturally regulate the temperature and airflow into the house. The house also had solar panels which charged batteries during the day, and fed the house with power and hot water in the evenings. The toilets in the house were self-composting — which I learned is a system which uses bacteria to break down the organic matter were a bit more of a mental barrier than we were used to. The toilet itself looked pretty standard, but once you open the lid, there is a deep pit, and the flush mechanism is a simple bucket of sawdust placed next to the bowl — which is more for courtesy than anything else — no one really wants to see your business when they use the bathroom next time. Having said that, the way it had been designed, the bathroom was completely odorless, due to clever solar powered ventilation sweeping all the offending smells away from the house. The property also boasted a few horses, a 50 strong brood of chickens and two dogs one of which was simply called dog — we never found out the other’s name.

The nearest beach to Tarbuck Bay was a beach called Seal Rocks, which I visited by chance when I first visited Australia in 2008/2009. Seal Rocks was then quite hard to get to as it was on an unsealed road and relatively off the beaten path from the Pacific Highway. This has changed now, and the road to Seal Rocks has been paved, but the beach remains pristine and unspoilt, with gentle swell and lots of room to swim, surf or sunbathe. There is no unsightly build up of houses anywhere to be seen, and the only settlement nearby is a campground where locals and surfers hang out. Seal Rocks was my favourite beach then, and still is, which is saying a lot, as i’m not a huge fan of beaches.

On the other side of the headland lies Elizabeth Beach, which is a bit easier to access but equally beautiful, and seemingly popular with families and kids. Close to both of these beaches was Bluey’s Beach, a tiny town with a tiny high street, which happened to have a pretty good pizza place where we had dinner and enjoyed a few beers before heading back. On our drive back, we made a pit stop at a lookout over Smiths Lake — a pretty lake near our accommodation to watch the sunset.

Once we got back to the house, our host suggested we have an outdoor shower to wash off any sand we may have brought with us from the beach. The outdoor shower was right next to the house and very private and secluded. It was oddly luxurious to have a hot shower out in the open, in the middle of a rainforest, surrounded with nothing but bushes. When I got back in the house I changed while Jana showered in the main bathroom. As I was getting changed I felt a slight prickle on my foot, and went to brush whatever it was away when I felt something slimy on my hand. I looked down at my foot and there was what appeared to be a slender 5 cm leech attached to the base of my ankle. I panicked momentarily while I figured out what to do. My first reaction was to shout for Jana, but I figured she may very well find this situation more gross than I did, so that called for plan B. I grabbed a piece of kitchen towel from the kitchenette and grabbed ahold of the leech and tugged at it. It began to come away from my ankle but it’s jaw was still very firmly dug into my skin. Not knowing what to do I kept tugging until the leech stretched and finally gave way. My ankle then began bleeding, and there I was stood partially clothed holding an angry, writhing leech in my hand. I quickly tossed the leech in the bin and tried to forget it was there. When Jana was done in the bathroom, I played it nonchalant and told her what had happened. Needless to say Jana was not very amused at the prospect of being a leech’s dinner. I suspect the poor leech hopped onto my foot as I brushed past some foliage in the outdoor shower, and counted it’s blessings as it chowed into my ankle.

Day 6: Warimi Sand Dunes, Hunter Valley, Terrigal and Avoca Beach, Yattalunga

Our drive down to the dunes was relatively short, only about 80 minutes. We stopped en route for a quick breakfast at what appeared to be an old macadamia nut plantation which now had little cafe. The food and coffee were surprisingly good, including the biggest bacon sandwich i’ve ever had in my life.

The cafe had all these signs up telling patrons to not touch/look/do anything with the macadamias that were on the trees, or on the ground, which I felt was a tad odd. I settled for taking photos of the unripe nuts on the tree — which kind of look like small, very round limes. I regret not taking one and cracking it open just to see what it’s like inside.

Once I had made peace with the macadamia nuts, we carried onto our destination - the entrance to the Worimi conservation lands next to Newcastle Airport. We booked a quad bike tour of the sand dunes which are the largest on the east coast of Australia and can tower up to 30m high. The setup of our tour was pretty basic — a quad bike, and a helmet, but the tour guides who accompanied us were very friendly and professional. They split the group of about 20 into two smaller groups, according to skill level. We were placed in the ‘skilled’ group which meant our tour guide was confident we could handle some of the trickier manoeuvres on the dunes. As we rode onto the dunes, the landscape became pretty barren and surreal. The dunes themselves were made up of fine white sand, and undulated around us in every direction.

The Worimi Sand dunes — largest moving dunes in eastern Australia

The tour was a lot of fun, and consisted of climbing and going back down large dunes within an allocated section of the nature reserve. Half way through the tour we stopped at the highest vantage point of the dunes and took in the view. The tour guides were chatty and asked where we were from. They told us they had been running tours there for nearly 10 years, sometimes up to 5 times a day. Despite the tour being quite a lot of fun, it made me wonder what the aboriginal owners of the land made of people ripping around on quad bikes, potentially damaging the fragile ecosystem of the dunes. It was hot so I didn’t dwell on that for too long.

Tyrell Estate vineyard and winery, where wine is still (mostly) made by hand

We hit the road again, this time heading for our second destination of the day — the Hunter Valley. As we drove the landscape began to change, and in under an hour the landscape could not have been any more different. From huge sand dunes to lush green vineyards in less than an hour’s drive. We wanted to check out some of the local wineries and pick up a few bottles of wine to take to friends (and back home). We ended up in a town called Pokolbin, and drove around a couple of wineries and had a spot of lunch (and a glass of wine). The debate over who would drive after lunch ended up being resolved via coin toss, which I duly lost. We then drove to Tyrell’s winery where we sampled a few of their red and white wines (the white wines are better here) and then toured their processing facility and vineyards.

No banana for scale, so yours truly will have to do

The facility itself was very interesting to see, for anyone who has tried to make any kind of fermented food. The scale of their equipment was humongous, but in essence, their process of making wine is still reassuringly basic. Grow grapes, harvest, sort, rinse, crush, leave to ferment a bit, then stick in a cask for 6–12 months then bottle. The casks in which they matured their wines were the size of medium sized cars. All in all, a pretty interesting place to visit if you’re interested in seeing how things are made.

We left Pokolbin and headed towards our next destination — Yattalunga, near the southern tip of the Central Coast of NSW. We stayed at an Airbnb run by yet another aussie named Judy, who was very warm and welcoming. Upon hearing an english twang in my accent, she told me her husband was from Surrey, and that her own parents had been part of the ‘ten pound pom’ migration of english folk to Australia at the end of WW2. Airbnb has some shortcomings but meeting hosts who are chatty and interesting is definitely an underrated upside. It completely changes your perception of a home because you also get a fleeting glimpse of who that person is, and how their home reflects that. To me, that’s way more interesting than a sterile hotel. Yattalunga is a small suburb, overlooking a pretty bay.

Avoca beach. Treacherous rip tides lurk below the surface.

We decided to drive out to the nearby beaches to see if we could find somewhere to eat. We ended up at Avoca Beach which was different to the other beaches we had visited earlier in the week. The sand was much coarser and a distinct orange color. The beach itself was also getting pummeled by rough surf and there was a visible rip. Fearing for my safety, we decided to only wade in ankle deep, and call it a day. We ended up having a small picnic out in the garden of our Airbnb watching the sunset, and drinking one of the bottles of white wine we had bought earlier that day. All in all, a very satisfying day.

Day 7: Brooklyn, Whale Beach, Sydney, Waverley Cemetery, Bronte to Coogee Coastal Walk

Our final day featured a short drive south to Sydney where we would conclude our road trip. We set off from Yattalunga at around 9am and headed towards the small town of Brooklyn on the Hawkesbury river. The drive to Brooklyn featured some spectacular views of the area surrounding the Hawkesbury river and all the smaller rivers that drain into it’s gigantic basin. The road must have been a large engineering undertaking as it was mainly made up of bridges and large cuttings through rocky outcrops. We arrived shortly before 10am and settled down at an immaculate little coffee shop for breakfast, where I enjoyed what was almost certainly the best sausage roll I have ever tasted. Brooklyn seemed to be a little town that exists solely as a place to moor riverboats, so once I regained my post sausage roll composure we hit the road again, heading to Palm Beach.

Whale Beach, North of Sydney

Palm beach and Whale beach are two of the prettier beaches within the bounds of Sydney’s metropolitan area, although they are remote compared with Sydney’s other beaches. We spent a few lazy hours hopping between beaches until the early afternoon sun became too intense to bear, and headed to our final destination of Bronte Beach in Sydney’s southeast.

Waverley Cemetary, Bronte (Photo credit: Audrey Low/Flick)

We were greeted by our friends in Bronte who promptly took us for a walk around the area. Our first stop was Waverley Cemetary — a large cemetary full of imposing monuments, perched precariously over the sea. It was a sight to behold, as the monuments made an unusual juxtaposition against the Tasman sea in the background. We were told that Waverley cemetary is hard to get into, and people have been known to pay handsome sums of money to secure plots there. We continued our way along the coastal walkway between Bronte and Coogee (pronounces could-gee) which undulates under and over a series of small inlets carved into the rocky cliffs around Sydney’s coastline. The walk took around 40 minutes and was a great way to work up a thirst, which we dutifully quenched at the Coogee Pavillion, which is by all accounts the largest pub I had ever visited.

The remainder of our trip was mainly centered around Sydney and Melbourne, for which I will be writing another post. If you got all the way down here, well done, and thanks for reading. Dave.