The road most travelled: On the backpacker trail to Brisbane

We check out some of the biggest attractions on Australia’s east coast backpacker trail – from Cairns to the Whitsundays, Fraser Island and the Gold Coast.

A long time coming…

Are the Whitsundays and Fraser Island even popular any more? Our circuit of Australia happened so long ago now (July-November 2016) that I couldn’t be certain. A quick google of ‘gap year in Australia’ reassured me that the north-east coast of Australia is eternally relevant, to backpackers anyway. 

So, doing away with the strange ‘royal we’ that plagued the earlier posts, I (Shelley) am going to finally finish writing about our 2016 Australian road trip in order to move on to the exciting places we’ve been since – New Zealand, the Cook Islands, Chile, Bolivia and Peru, Greece etc. It has to be done, to satisfy my loyal readership of two. Luckily, nostalgia trips are heavily trending atm.

If you’ve already taken the super popular road trip from Cairns to Brisbane, read on to rehash those golden days. 2016-2018 was a great era for #vanlife in Australia. All you had to worry about was where your next wifi was coming from. You may have started the journey puzzling over the origin of the mattress stains in your Wicked camper, wondering if the closest IGA was racially-tolerant enough to stock six packs of Mi Goreng, but these heavy thoughts drift away as the kilometres click over and the sun melts your brain.

For any rogue travel planners who have stumbled across this blog – my mate Kelly  has only just returned (July 2018) from her second tour of the east coast of Australia, and has peer-reviewed the opinions shared below.

Don’t miss these east coast road trip highlights. Or do miss them #goldendays

Explore Wallaman Falls, sky dive Mission Beach and river raft at Tully Gorge

Queensland has some spectacular waterfalls, and there is a bunch of them just south of Cairns in the UNESCO world-heritage listed Wet Tropics. This waterfall circuit includes Millaa Millaa Falls, where Peter Andre famously wanna get close to you, and Wallaman Falls, Australia’s largest single drop waterfall at 305 metres. You can camp at Girringun National Park and if you take one of the walks from the top of Wallaman Falls to the rock pools below you might spot rare Aussie animals like platypus or sugar gliders. I’m usually suspicious of any signposted platypus hotspots, but friends of ours actually saw them here.

Close to the Falls, (by Australian standards) is Mission Beach. It’s quite and beautiful, looking quite similar to some of the beaches at Cape Tribulation. You can even spot some cassowaries here, which is great if you’re not planning to head north of Cairns to their home in the Daintree Rainforest  If you’re into that kind of thing, you can sky dive here too, taking in views of beaches, islands, rainforest and the Great Barrier Reef. If you like your backpacker-approved action closer to the ground, head to nearby Tully Gorge for some river rafting.

Wallaman Falls, Queensland, Australia
Wallaman Falls – a long way down
Tully River, Queensland, Australia
The closer you get the less tranquil Tully’s rapids are
Rafts down Tully River, Queensland, Australia
River rafting – never not fun

Downstream Tully River, Queensland, Australia
Inspecting downstream for rafter remains
Mission Beach coffee, Queensland, Australia
Found a real coffee in Mission Beach – more exhilarating than a sky dive for me tbh

Dive the shipwreck SS Yongala

The passenger ship SS Yongala was lost one year before the Titanic in 1911, after battling a cyclone and sinking just south of Townsville. Located in the late 1950s, the shipwreck is now considered one of the best dive sites in the world. The wreck itself is very well preserved and has become an artificial reef, attracting a diversity of sea life – from rays, turtles, whales and even something called a guitar shark.

You should have an advanced diving certificate to undertake this dive due to to its depth and the strength of the current. It looks like Yongala Dive now accept open water divers with a minimum of six dives if they do some extra training on site.

At the time only Gareth could book the dive, and this turned out to be a good thing because our van Moby chose to die in the very remote town of Alva Beach, where the dive shop is located. I spent the day waiting for the tow truck and tending to a spider-bitten lip which had swelled to comical proportions.

Gareth’s review of the dive? It was choppy AF going out to the site on the rubber dingy and he got very seasick. The dive itself was very cool. Due to the strong current, you hang perpendicular to the mooring line, which is quite thrilling. He found the guitar sharks and giant marble rays particularly impressive.

From my landlubber perspective, Yongala Dive lived up to their PADI 5 Star Dive Resort rating by offering name brand biscuits with tea. They also brought a strong condiment game to the post-dive BBQ.

SS Yongala dive site map
SS Yongala dive site map – guitar sharks riffing off stern
Queensland house with VB tank, Australia
Can’t get more Aussie than a VB water tank

Sailing the Whitsundays

The Whitsunday sailing trip is an obligatory right of passage for overseas visitors and Australians alike. If you come from anywhere south of Brisbane, the Whitsunday islands have an almost mythical reputation as a tropical paradise of unparalleled beauty. 

We discovered that despite its tiny size, Whitehaven Beach is one of the most photographed beaches in the world for good reason. Photoshop has no part to play in its blue lagoons and dazzling white sand. 

So what’s the best way to see it on a backpacker budget? The answer is pick your boat wisely, unless booze cruises are your thing (no judgement but you’re not going to remember much about the landscape after 12 bacardi breezers).

Keen to avoid an overcrowded boat with a high probability of a Wonderwall singalong , we interrogated all of the sailing outlets in Airlie Beach to find the Goldilocks of boats – with companions not too old, not too young, and capable of enjoying just the right amount of alcohol. Turns out we were the booze hounds on our 3 day trip, with a bottle of gin and a six pack of cider between the two of us. The other 8 guests just played cards. Oh well, you can’t win them all. 

For the truly important bits – exploring Whitehaven and the coves of Hayman, Hook and Hamilton Island – our tour with Whitsunday Sailing Adventures was perfect. We even got to use the sails of our vintage sailing yacht.

Whitsundays, Conway National Park, Queensland, Australia
Totes appropriate water bottle
Rainbow lorikeets, Airlie Beach, Queensland, Australia
Rainbow lorikeets enjoying a tasty bread paste
Island view from Conway National Park, Queensland, Australia
Lunging into the Whitsundays
Airlie Beach, Whitsundays, Queensland, Australia
Backyard views for the lucky few in Airlie
Whitsunday yacht, Queensland, Australia
Anchors away!
Whitsunday yacht, Queensland, Australia
Deep thoughts in the deep blue
Whitehaven Beach, Whitsundays, Queensland, Australia
Whitehaven Bay – Gaz looks more Aussie by the day
Whitsunday Island, Queensland, Australia
Watching the colours change at Whitehaven

Explore Fraser Island

World Heritage listed Fraser Island  (K’gari in local language) is the largest sand island in the world. Upon this 123km of sand sit strange and beautiful things – tall rainforests, soundless streams, perched lakes and dramatic desert dunes. 

When I was younger my father had a print of a beach with a dingo on it that said Fraser Island. That was enough to suck me in. Kelly was so enchanted with the place on her first trip to Oz that she flew all the way from the UK to spent her 30th birthday here. It’s just magical.

The options are to join an organised tour, either by bus or 4WD and drive yourself along the beach highway, camping or staying at one of two resorts. We did the bus. Kelly and Joe did the 4WD trip. I think she won. More freedom, more adventure. Less people. 

Lake McKenzie, Fraser Island, Australia
Lake McKenzie – a perched lake, filled only by rain water
Rainforest, Fraser Island, Australia
Rainforest growing on sand, with a silent stream trickling through
Lake Wabby, Fraser Island, Australia
Descending the sand dunes to Lake Wabby
Lake McKenzie, Fraser Island, Australia
The biggest, bluest rain tank you’ve ever seen
Maheno shipwreck, Fraser Island
Rusty skeleton of the Maheno
Fraser Island beach, Australia
Dingo spotting!

Get smashed at Surfers Paradise

Jokes, I honestly don’t think anyone likes this place anymore. Not even package backpackers, not even schoolies. Maybe toolies. This is a shame because the beach is lovely, it’s just been surrounded by a shell of useless tat. Half-empty night clubs, Ripley’s Believe It or Not, Dracula’s Haunted House. The Gold Coast is a hot bed bed for theme parks and franchised ‘attractions’.

Surfers Paradise, Queensland, Australia
Swim between the flags
Surfers Paradise, Queensland, Australia
Sand and skyscrapers
Condom Kingdom, Surfers Paradise, Queensland, Australia
Stay safe in Surfers
Left down the Surfers stretch


From Surfers it’s only an hour’s drive to Brisbane. We took in few popular sites like City Beach and Mount Coot-tha lookout, and then cruised over to Manly to visit friends, pumping the best of Powderfinger all the way.

Jacarandas are out in Brisbane
City Beach, Brisbane – weird and wonderful

5 thoughts on “The road most travelled: On the backpacker trail to Brisbane

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