English speaking, easy to get around and lined with long, sandy beaches, Australia's East Coast is perfect for inexperienced travellers. The distances should never be underestimated, but buses are simple and for the slightly more confident, it's perfectly possible to hitchhike. Big hostels often attract a young, party crowd though older travellers can always find smaller, independent accommodation or even better camp.
This post will focus on some of the East Coast's islands and backpacker highlights that I loved on my first trip to that side of the world. If you're trying to plan a gap year, this should be perfect for you. Hopefully, more experienced travellers will also appreciate the stunning coastal scenery, brilliant snorkelling opportunities and unique wildlife.
The two major starting points for an East Coast adventure are Sydney and Cairns. My friend Ailsa and I were travelling North and started our journey in Australia's most iconic city. It was everything I could have imagined, with more green spaces and a lively atmosphere. On a sunny day, the seafront is dazzling and I couldn't help being struck by its instantly recognisable skyline.
There are thousands of things to do in Sydney. For a little bit of context, the Australian Museum, oldest in the country, has a baffling collection of natural and cultural exhibits; those which include indigenous heritage may help to explain some of Australia's history.
This year my favourite exhibition of all time, the Wildlife Photographer of the Year Awards, is also on until the beginning of October.
Manly Beach, a hot-spot for surfers and holiday makers alike, is worth a visit for the ferry ride alone. Taking you past the Harbour Bridge and Opera House, it's best if you can you can save the return journey until sunset and watch the angular silhouettes as the sky's colours fade into water and spot giant fruit bats flying high overhead.
Due to their "confidence and manly behaviour", the English Admiral Arthur Phillip is said to have named Manly after the indigenous people originally living there.
Very good of him...
The chilled out backpacker Mecca of Down Under- a perfect place for solo travellers to meet up, with cocktails sold in jam jars and a gorgeous beach to recover on. Rinse and repeat until you're forced to move on.
Having just praised Byron Bay for similar reasons, I can't quite justify my problems with this beach party destination. While I was there, the backpackers seemed more obnoxious, the seafront is lined with sky scrapers and even its name is tacky. Mostly I was too tired to embrace it, so maybe you'll get a different impression. Let me know?
As the only large city between Sydney and Cairns, Brisbane has a lot to offer. For free things to do try looking for water dragons in Mt Coot-Tha Botanic Gardens or wander along the river through South Bank. To cool down or for pure novelty value, the riverside "Streets Beach" is worth a visit even if you don't fancy sharing it with the excitable crowds for long.
At a massive 1840 km² Fraser island is the largest of the East Coast's islands and is thought to be the biggest sand island in the world. Across the varied landscape, you can find small rainforests, eucalyptus, mangroves, sand dunes and sea blown heaths. Much of the foliage is thanks to unusual fungi living in the sand- these organisms spread nutrients between the roots of plants and help maintain a healthy ecosystem.
Typically, backpackers without their own transport hire 4x4s in groups and spend a couple of days camping and exploring. Depending on your new found friends this could be the most memorable part of your entire trip, so make an effort to find like-minded people if possible.
Use as you would Google Maps to locate the places I mention below...
Seventy-Five Mile Beach is a ridiculous sandy highway where the driver can basically behave however he/she likes as long as they give way to landing aeroplanes. It's so big that you can camp up by the dunes and easily forget it's used as a road most of the time.
The SS Maheno, once an ocean liner, has sat on the fringes of Frazer Island since it was lost in 1935.
Arguably more picturesque now than it was in its heyday, the wreck is an obvious landmark on miles of otherwise indistinguishable sand.
About 5km north of Maheno Shipwreck, you'll find these sandstone pinnacles. Formed by centuries of erosion, they have been beaten into their impressive structures by the ocean winds and rain. The
coloured banding reminded me of those tiny bottles of sand you can sometimes find as souvenirs.
Lacking sharks, poisonous jellyfish or
perilously strong currents, Fraser Island's beautiful lakes make much better options for swimming than the surrounding ocean.
With a backdrop of sand dunes that made me feel like I'd stepped into a scene from Star Wars, a green oasis and water dyed brown by cleansing tea tree oil, Lake Wabby felt magical. Let the
water sooth your sand-fly bites and look out for wildlife like these terrapins. >
^ The view though my salt-encrusted viewfinder.
With white sand and clear, sparkling water, Lake McKenzie is the largest on the island and has a seaside air despite its fresh, flat calm water.
The wide beach's fine sand is known to act as soap for your hair, teeth and tarnished jewellery, but be careful as it is death for waterproof cameras!
You can also take a dip in the gentle stream at Eli Creek or head to the Champagne Pools for safe sea water.
On a calm day it's apparently possible to spot sharks and rays from Indian Head. The sea was too rough while we were up there, but it's worth the climb for views over the whole island.
Touristy hop-off for the Whitsundays and Great Barrier Reef, Airlie Beach is a fun place to meet other backpackers and have a bit of a party before being baffled by nature again. There are colourful birds and as the beach is frequented by box jellyfish between November and May, they have built a swimming lagoon next to the sea (similar to the larger one in Cairns actually).
Personally I couldn't help but fall a little in love with the Whitsunday Islands. If you are on a tight budget then this is the place to save up for. Unless you can find alternative means of transport, the most common way to see this part of Australia is to spend a couple of days on a boat.
If you're looking for an 18 to 35 holiday type vibe then go on one of the big party boats, but Ailsa and I wanted something a
little quieter (/less annoying). We spent a large portion of our budget for the month on being part of a smaller group on a sailing boat and never regretted for a moment.
However you make it there, I'm pretty certain the endless turquoise will be stained into your memory forever...
Having broken two cameras by this point (one to the sands of Lake McKenzie and another off the side of a boat around the Whitsundays, oops...) we have few photos to remember Magnetic Island with. It is however an amazing place to visit for wildlife, incredible mountainous views and a rest from partying. I remember the huge boulders tossed across the island, golden beaches, rock wallabies, kookaburras and tall wading oyster catchers.
The Great Barrier Reef
Last but certainly not least- the World's largest coral reef, I've written
about it before, but being the main reason I first wanted to visit the East coast, it doesn't seem right to leave it out here. We visited from Cairns, but the reef is so extensive
that there are several other options. Be concious of your environmental impact while visiting- coral is under threat from global warming, pollutants and our growing population.
I've deliberated over this post as it's difficult to find anything that hasn't already been written about backpacking up Australia's East coast, but maybe for some of my readers, those who are yet to make a big trip, it might prove to be a little motivation?
Australia's seasons are obviously opposite to those in the northern hemisphere...
On this trip we bought a hop-on/hop-off bus ticket from Greyhound, but if I was to do it again now I'd probably try and hitchhike. More recently, Dan and I had a successful time of it between Sydney and Melbourne and on the Great Ocean Road. The East coast is a popular route for road trips, so I think it would be easy enough.
The Australian Museum is free, but unfortunately you have to pay to get into the Wildlife Photographer of the Year Awards. You can buy ticket here.
We sailed with Freight-train through the Whitsundays, but there are many other options.
For much more of Australia...
Advice for even cheaper ways to travel in Australia...
Other incredible coastlines: