Aussie East Coast Road Trip Part 3: Byron Bay to Cairns

Itinerary: 

  • Days 1-4: Sydney
  • Days 5-9: Tasmania (Strahan, Launceston, Bicheno)
  • Days 10-15: Sydney to Noosa Road Trip (Blue Mountains, Hunter Valley, Port Macquarie)
  • Days 16-18: K’gari Island
  • Days 19-25: Noosa to Ciarns Road Trip (Byron Bay, Bundaberg, Rockhampton, Airlie Beach, Townsville)
  • Days 26-29: Cairns and Great Barrier Reef
  • Days 30-33: Melbourne
  • Days 34-41: Alice Springs & Uluru
  • Days 42-43: Back to Sydney then flying home

RTW Trip 2014: Peru→ Chile → Argentina → Antarctica → Argentina → Uruguay → Argentina→  Chile→ England → Morocco → Spain → France → Belgium → Netherlands → Germany → Czech Republic → Austria → Hungary → Croatia → Italy → Thailand → United States → Thailand → Laos → Vietnam → Cambodia → Australia → Taiwan

Dates: October 23-December 3, 2014

Our Odyssey: 

After leaving the sun-soaked paradise of K’Gari, we were back to our home in the hippie van. And after two nights just to rest in Noosa, we took the hippie van to a place where it fit in quite well- the quirky town of Nimbin west of Byron Bay, a few hours south of Noosa.

For those who know Australian geography very well, you will have noticed that instead of continuing our trip north, we were now going south- even though our final destination was Cairns, way in the northern part of Queensland. When we told people the itinerary for our road trip from the time we left K’Gari on, they were understandably confused. This is because our friends Wade and Suzie, whom we had met on our Antarctic cruise back in March, and then hung out with in London where they live in April, were celebrating Wade’s birthday in Australia (where he is originally from)! With a little bit of extra driving, we were able to spend two days with them in his parents’ home in Ballina, just a half hour south of Byron Bay.

So, I probably don’t have to tell you what makes Nimbin a fitting town for a hippie van, but I will. First, a little bit of history. The town of Nimbin was mostly abandoned until 1973 when it hosted the Aquarius Festival, an Australian festival celebrating sustainable living and alternative thinking. As an example of their progressive thinking, the organizers of this festival were the first in Australia to ask the aboriginal land “owners” for permission before holding the festival here. After the festival, a lot of people simply stayed in Nimbin, where they attempted to establish a society of communal living. Today, the town still promotes its alternative image, and tourists regularly pop in to see this unique area. This is also a popular place to buy drugs, mostly marijuana, since the police generally turn a blind eye to the peaceful community.

When we arrived we first stopped in the tourist information center to get a map and some recommendations on how to spend our time. The young but haggard looking woman recommended several art gallaries, a shop selling educational materials about marijuana, the “famous” candle factory, and a store specializing in lighting that uses alternative energy sources. The main street in Nimbin is highly decorated with rainbow-patterned paint (a tribute to the aboriginal history of the area), symbols of pot leaves, and local “salesmen” occupying benches outside pot-themed stores.

We first headed to the candle factory, a five minute walk off the main street. The candles they make there are certainly beautiful, but given that I have never actually even purchased a candle, I did not find it particularly inspiring. I did read some information they had on display about the sustainable materials they work with to make the candles, and can see why a town like Nimbin would be proud.

We then meandered into some of the shops, where we had the option of purchasing bongs, instruction manuals on how to roll a joint, and t-shirts advertisiting one’s affinity for marijuana. We headed back to the van shortly after, having made no purchases in the store or on the street (despite having been offered several times).

Generally, I am in favor of the laid back hippie lifestyle (though I would not say I identify with it myself), but I had to admit this town had a sad atmosphere about it. Everyone looked run-down, which was a contrast from the happy flowery image I had in mind. And, the town has faced some recent hardships. In August of this year the Nimbin Museum burned down, along with some of the town’s staple shops and cafes. Additionally, we have heard that harder drugs have made their way to Nimbin, initially because tourists were asking for them from the sellers there. We left feeling creeped out by this place that had clearly seen better days, and continued on our way to see Wade and Suzie.

I’ve found that when it comes to hospitality, no one does it better than in Australian. Every Australian we have met along the way this year has generally not only made it a point to see us when we got to their country, but has gone above and beyond to make us feel welcome. This was no exception.

Wade and Suzy greeted us each with a hug and a beer, and the exciting news that Suzy was pregnant! Once we settled into the lovely home and guest bedroom, Wade told us the plan for dinner. He wasn’t sure what we preferred, but he figured we could just have a simple meal at home. So he had bought some prawns (shrimp), and his mom was frying up some calamari, fish and chips (french fries), with homemade seafood sauce on the side. You know, just your typical simple weeknight meal… Needless to say, it was beyond delicious, and the best calamari I had ever had.

The next morning Wade had a full day planned for us to show off the area. We visited Lennox Head overlooking the beach, and then a lake infused with tea tree oil (it seems Australia is blessed with many of these), before lunch in Byron Bay at a popular pub. After lunch, we went out into the bush (the Aussie word for anything related to nature or rural areas, not to be confused with getting into shrubbery), stopping at Nightcap National Park to check out Myrion Falls. A park ranger informed us at the entrance that the falls were only weakly cascading but that we were welcome to go take a look at the view points anyway. The first view point overlooked a stunning valley, with the cliff over which the water runs directly ahead. Ever classy, Wade popped out a bottle of champagne for us to enjoy. We then headed up to a view point closer to the falls themselves that actually looked out directly over them. The view down was nauseating- very steep and very far. We took turns throwing sticks down to watch how long it took to hit the ground- except for Suzie who was not a fan of that steep view down. After leaving the park, we stopped by a local townie pub that reminded me of some of the random rural bars in Wisconsin, then headed home where we ate delicious pizza and passed another evening with great conversation.

The next morning we said goodbye, though I am sure we will see them again soon, and Tim and I headed five hours north to the town of Bundaberg- best known for its rum distillary, turtle rookery and ginger beer. We always like to learn about local wildlife, so we signed up for the tour of the turtle rookery, called Mon Repos. It was early in the season for them to be laying eggs on shore, so we actually were not part of the group that got to see anything. The center had a nice museum about the endangered sea turtle, as well as a ranger presentation and a few documentaries, so it was not a complete waste of time (although Tim was exhausted and slept through most of this). It was interesting to learn about the center, whose primary goal is always conservation. I had to wonder if a crowd of tourists around a mom laying eggs (November to January) and babies hatching (January to March) was really a good thing for the turtles and this nesting site. That said, the moms do not seem to be deterred as they come ashore every year to nest here.

The next morning we went to the local library to use the internet for a while, then picked up some ginger beer and sarsaparilla beer to sample later from the brewery, and headed back on the road for Rockhampton.

Rockhampton is a very boring town as far as we could gather. It’s known for beef, so we ate steak that night and watched episodes of a documentary I had downloaded called “Australia- The First Four Billion Years”. Oh, and we got to see some kookaburras in the trees (a bird I admittedly only know of thanks to the children’s song).

The next morning, ready to get on the road, we were disheartened to find that our van wouldn’t start. We figured we (I) had left a light on too long at some point and that the battery had died. We asked the reception of the campsite if they had any jumper cables and surprisingly they did not. We asked a few folks at the neighboring plots and eventually found a man just across the road from us who was able to help us out.

Relieved to be back on the road, our next stop was to Airlie Beach, a lovely beach town five hours north. The first thing we did after checking in to our campsite was put on our swimsuits and head into town to check out the popular swimming lagoon that is open to the public. Swimming in the ocean in Queensland can be very dangerous thanks to the stingers that occupy the waters during the summer. The box jellyfish in particular is said to cause the most painful death imagineable. Those who have been stung and survived describe the pain as several magnitudes beyond anything they had ever felt before. That is enough to keep me out of the ocean and in the delightful and safe lagoon instead.

That night we enjoyed some Bundaberg rum (enjoy is a strong word here, however, as it was pretty gross) before bed and played cards together in the back of our van. We both talked about how excited we were to get to Cairns and go scuba diving in the Great Barrier Reef, and to sleep in a nice hotel room instead of a van.

The next morning, our battery was dead once again. Tim called the rental company who sent out roadside assistance, and apparently the alternator was no longer charging the battery, so it would continue to die without a tightened connection and a new battery. Thankfully, he could do both, and so we were able to get on the road before too long, with a bit more confidence in the mess of a van we called home.

Our next stop, and final one before Cairns, was Townsville, a very lovely town just three and a half hours north of Airlie. We were able to get there decently early in the day, around 1pm, and were delighted by the shaded pool at our campsite. We spent an hour or so there and then decided to venture downtown. We were both so glad we did. Along the main street on the waterfront, called The Strand, was a lagoon similar to the one in Airlie, as well as an enclosed area in the ocean where people could swim with minimal risk of stingers. The water temperature was perfect, as were the waves, for playing and swimming in.

After our swim we hiked up a small hill next to the lagoon called Kissing Point, had a smooch and enjoyed the views over to Magnetic Island, a popular day-trip spot for tourists.

Shortly before sunset we decided to head up Castle Mountain, which is not a mountain, but rather a 286 meter high pink granite monolith dominating the skyline of the town. It was a great spot to watch the sunset!

The next morning we made our way to Cairns at last! Unfortunately, in the last half hour of our drive, a rock hit the windshield and created a large crack- as if the hippie van wanted to say goodbye with one last mishap…

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