East Coast Adventuring: From Sydney to Brisbane
On April 29, my sister, Bethany, and I embarked on a three-week journey up the East Coast of Australia, departing from Sydney and heading to Cairns. We planned our route carefully after consulting travel agents, fellow travelers, travel blogs, and Lonely Planet. The drive from Sydney to Cairns is a long one – 29 HOURS! – so we opted for the Greyhound’s hop-on / hop-off pass. We’re coming for you, Great Barrier Reef!
The bus pass allows travelers to travel in one direction, either north or south, along the coast, stopping off at any of the several stops offered via Greyhound. Greyhound makes booking easy with the option to confirm your seats online. I made our itinerary about three weeks prior to departure and had booked our seats for each leg of the journey as well. I prefer to know where I’m going ahead of time and allow for some flexibility during the travels. We’ve been on the road for just over a week now and I’ve already changed our itinerary twice based on local recommendations and timing options.
I’m breaking up the journey with highlights of places to see and things to do along the road from Sydney to Brisbane. I’ll continue to post about the journey as we go but here’s what we’ve accomplished so far.
I love this city. After traveling around much of Australia for 3 months, I was excited to not only be back in Sydney but also to show my sister around all of the city’s iconic spots. We spent a brief 2 days here and will have a bit more time back in the city at the end of our adventure. My past post – Love Letter to Sydney – details all the best things to do but for this short stay we hit up the top sites including: The Opera House and Harbour Bridge, The Opera Bar, Royal Botanic Gardens, Darling Harbour, Newtown, Surry Hills, Bondi to Coogee Coastal Walk, Bondi Beach, and Coogee Pavilion. Needless to say, we were ready for our 10-hour overnight bus trip by the end of the two days!
Yamba is a small surf community tucked into New South Wale’s north coast. While planning my East Coast Adventure, I’d heard one person mention Yamba as a great place to check out. Yamba is a surfer’s paradise and home to Mr. Billabong himself. It is also home to several epic surf breaks and protected parks resulting in the fact that, while it’s often photographed, it cannot be named. This lack of direct publicity keeps the crowds away. Yamba is most commonly found through word of mouth.
The town is comprised of a few short central blocks and several beaches. There is little nightlife – the locals live for the surf. If you’re looking for a party, Yamba isn’t for you. It is a destination of natural beauty with several active activity options to choose from. Here are your must-dos:
1. Shane’s Tour
My sister and I stayed in Yamba for one night and, not being passionate surfers ourselves, felt we had sufficient time there. The best thing we did was opting to pay $15 for Shane’s Tour via the YHA hostel. Shane is one of the owners and to say he is a character is putting it lightly. Upon introduction, Shane shares that he is ADHD and has been banned from drinking Red Bull before his tours. As we are about to leave, he tells our group that he is waiting on his coffee (with 6 extra shots!) and shows us that he snuck a bottle of Red Bull into the van as well. At this, we all exchange looks of slight concern. The last thing this naturally energetic man needs is more caffeine! It was quite a way to start a tour.
Over the course of the next four hours, Shane shares an important motto with our group: “What happens on Shane’s tour, stays on Shane’s tour.” Because of this, I won’t reveal much else but I will say that it was one of the most fun tours I’ve been on and I left feeling exhausted and energized at the same time. One secret from the tour that I will reveal is our opportunity to cliff dive into the Blue Pools. A definite must-do, even if you are crazy enough not to do this tour! Honestly, there isn’t much else going on in Yamba and most backpackers arrive ready to sign their names on the list for this incredibly hyped tour. Word of mouth is a powerful tool.
2. Surf, SUP, Kayak
A few other Yamba notables include options for surf lessons, stand up paddle boarding, kayak rentals, and $10 dinners at the YHA. Several people in the hostel were long-termers because of the easy-going surfer lifestyle but, like I said, if you’re not looking to fill your days with surfing, one or two nights will be more than enough for Yamba.
Byron Bay is another surfing town along the northern coast of New South Wales with a greater recognition for the sport as well as, more recently, shark attacks (just saying…). Byron has more of a scene going on with backpackers a-plenty and several hostels, bars and restaurants to entertain them all. My Byron Bay picks are included below:
1. Surf Lessons
Byron is where I learned to surf…and by “learned” I mean took my first lessons. I booked a three-hour lesson with Black Dog Surf School and headed out to The Pass one cloudy afternoon to begin. While the overcast kept the bathers away, it was the perfect setting for our lesson with a beautiful hazy sky as the backdrop and hardly any other surfers fighting for the same wave.
Our lesson included myself, my sister, and three other newbies, all ready to try. After failing the first go-around, I was up by the second and practicing my balance on the oversized board. Because of our small group size, we had several opportunities to flex our surfing skills and wrapped with our instructor gently forcing us to catch our own waves rather than being pushed into them. It was a memorable afternoon!
My sister and I ventured into a joint called The Cheeky Monkey in search of a free drink, courtesy of our hostel. I was immediately transported back to my college days with a cover charge, loud music, shirtless male bartenders, and tabletop dancing. Yes, I am getting old. We finished our free glasses of sparkling and quickly moved on. One of the best parts of Byron is the nightlife options. Not into the club scene? The hotel bar down the street has a live rock band tonight. Want more of a lounge space? Byron has that too! There seemed to be something for everyone.
3. Cape Byron
In addition to the surf, Byron Bay is also known for its iconic lighthouse strategically placed on Cape Byron. A 45-minute walk along a boardwalk and past several beautiful beach coves leads you to the most easterly point of Australia and the home of the Cape Byron lighthouse. Make the trek just before sunset to enjoy the 360-degree views of the bay, Pacific, and surrounds as well as the pink and purple hues of the setting sun.
Crossing the state border into Queensland (I’ve now visited 7 out of 7 states!), our first stop is Surfer’s Paradise. Located on the Gold Coast, Surfer’s Paradise, or Surfer’s for short, is a flashy stretch of beaches lined with high rises and water-side shopping malls. Upon first view, I turned to my sister and said, “Where are we? This doesn’t look like Australia”. The vibe reminded me a lot of South Florida with all of its toned bodies and greased up styles. While it may feel like a different world to some, Surfer’s is another great spot for surfing, beach-going, and coastal walks; all perks of Australia I’ve grown to love.
1. Burleigh Beach
The main beach at Surfer’s is a bit of a tourist trap. Skip it and head just south to Burleigh Beach. There are great fish & chips to be had, walk and bike paths, less crowds, and killer views of the Surfer city skyline.
2. Burleigh Headlands Walk
Just beyond the beach lies a headland walk shaded by mangrove trees. There are multiple paths to choose from with a loop option and several lookouts over the ocean. The walk takes about an hour or so to complete and is likely to be followed up by a jump into the cool blue ocean below.
Brisbane is Queensland’s state capital and home to 2.1 million Australians. With only 48-hours to enjoy, here’s how I spent my time:
1. Mt Coot-Tha Lookout
Step One: See it all at once! Bum a ride, ride a bike, or jump on the bus up to the lookout point on Mt Coot-Tha. These views offer a 360-degree look at the city, surrounding mountains, neighboring towns, and the Pacific Ocean. It’s the best way to start (or end) a visit and would likely be even better at sunrise! I didn’t bother waking up that early during my short stay but imagine it would be worth the early alarm. The sun rises in the East, remember?!
2. City Views from Eleven Rooftop Bar
With such a quick visit, I took advantage of any opportunity to see as much of the city as possible; Eleven Rooftop Bar offered me just this. A relaxing lounge-type bar with excellent city views make this rooftop spot a must-see. Brisbane has a few key rooftops worth visiting but this is the only one I enjoyed. I’m glad I did.
3. South Bank
Home of the Instagram-famous “Brisbane” sign, South Bank is the place to be. It offers a variety of bars and restaurants as well as pools, a man-made beach, and great city views. Located across the river from downtown, South Bank can be enjoyed both day and night.
4. Day Trip to the Australia Zoo
I do not typically visit zoos because they often feel depressing to me. I hate seeing animals pacing around small spaces with minimal resemblance of their natural habitats but when I realized the Australia Zoo was Steve Irwin’s zoo, I knew it would be worth the visit. We spent the entire day at the 100-acre Zoo, enjoying the animal shows, encounters, and amazingly natural spaces. The Zoo itself is located amid a mountain range and jungle, making the zoo even more accommodating for its animal inhabitants.
The Zoo offers guests opportunities to get up-close with many of the native Australian animals including koalas, kangaroos, wombats, and snakes. I chose to hold a koala and was surprised by both its heavy weight and soft fur. My koala moment was my favorite of the visit, although I really loved the entire day. I was so impressed by the obvious care taken with the animals as well as how happy the staff appeared. It was an awesome visit both honoring Steve Irwin’s memory and contributing to wildlife conservation – one I would be happy to do again.
The next stretch of the trip takes us from Brisbane to Cairns with several overnight tours planned along the way. Check out my posts about the rest of my trip including Fraser Island and Whitsundays trips as well as snorkeling the Great Barrier Reef and a visit to the Atherton Tablelands!
Playing in The Pinnacles
5 Reasons to Love Perth
Large enough to be its own country, Western Australia offers much to explore. Situated in the southern half of WA, Perth is the state’s capital city and is my favorite among them. Throughout my travels I’ve met Australians and fellow backpackers alike who state ‘Perth is just too far away’ as their reason for not visiting, but I say it’s more than worth the visit!
4 Places Worth Visiting In Australia’s South West
A quick two and a half-hour drive south of Perth opens up a gorgeous stretch of land waiting to be explored. This is Australia’s South West and it is filled with crystal clear turquoise beaches, famous surf breaks, unique wineries, ancient caves, and classic towns to visit. A perfect weekend escape from the city life, the South West region has much to offer. The South West is a new Australian favorite of mine with my suggestions of 4 places worth visiting included below.
Continue reading “4 Places Worth Visiting In Australia’s South West”
Discovering the beauty of Rottnest Island
I created my Australia bucket list in April 2015, five months prior to beginning my adventure, and without much knowledge of the great country that is Australia. I had a few ideas of what I wanted to see thanks to the help of travel blogs, Lonely Planet guides, and Instagram, and from there, I created a top 10. I recently looked back at this list and, while there are several amazing additions I’d now like to add, I’ve been productively checking off the adventures on the list.
Continue reading “Discovering the beauty of Rottnest Island”
Finding Stability While Traveling
Stability is a part of life that we often don’t realize we need until it is stripped away, whether by choice or circumstance. When we lack stability, we are often in search of it again. The art of traveling is, at its core, the opposite of stability, and yet, even while on the road, we still crave it.
Top 5 Outback Moments
Wine Tasting in Yarra Valley
Australia is home to more than 60 wine regions throughout the country, several of which are world-renowned for their top quality tastes. One of the Australia’s largest wine regions is located in the great state of Victoria, about an hour outside of bustling Melbourne.
Exploring New Zealand’s North Island
Auckland was my introduction to New Zealand, and a well-received one at that. This city gets a lot of flack from travelers and Kiwis alike, but I felt it had much to offer, particularly with all of the islands to explore dotting its harbor. I arrived late into the city and settled in, ready for the next day’s trip to Waiheke Island.
Waiheke Island is located 40-minutes west of Auckland via ferry and features great skyline views of the city on the ride. I purchased a round-trip (called ‘return’ over here) ferry ticket and all-day bus pass for $45. Not a bad deal, except I had to wait for the bus several times to get around the island. It’s much larger than you’d think and requires some mode of transportation. I’d recommend renting a bike or scooter instead.
Known for its beautiful beaches and unique wine region, Waiheke Island was an easy choice on my itinerary. The island is filled with small, quiet beaches and numerous vineyards throughout. On one beach in particular, I had an unexpected surprise. While aiming for the perfect shot to capture the gentle crashing waves along the shoreline, I noticed an older gentleman on crutches hobbling toward me. As I tried to focus my shot while cropping him out, I realized he was fully nude! Apparently this portion of the beach was clothing optional. Not the image I was looking for.
After my morning of sun and sand (and naked old men), I waited for the bus to head over to a few of the island’s vineyards, choosing to jump off at Wild on Waiheke. This vineyard was adorable with beanbag chairs, barrel tables, giant chessboards, and archery. I sampled a selection of wines and found myself most enjoying the Pinot Gris. I’m typically a red wine drinker but this glass was filled with fruity and light flavors, perfect for the warm summer day. I relaxed here for a bit before making my way back to the city in the late afternoon. A day well spent.
I’d finally found sheep! I’m four days in to my trip and the only livestock I’d seen were cows. This country is filled with 40 million sheep, none of which seem to live anywhere I’d been so far. Rotorua is a town located in an active volcanic area and is filled with bubbling mud and hot water pools. It smells of sulfur (read: rotten eggs!) and steam can be seen billowing up out of the ground in several areas around town. Rotorua is also home to the largest Maori population, New Zealand’s indigenous people, and is the best place to learn about their history and culture.
One of the optional activities in Rotorua was an overnight stay at the fortified Tamaki Maori Village, with dinner and a show included. I chose to participate in this overnight stay and it was one of the best things I did in New Zealand. The stay began at about 4pm with the nomination of a chief and a welcome into the village. A group of about 45 of us had opted to participate and were expected to select a chief among us to introduce our group to the Maori leaders. Our chief represented us for the remainder of our stay, being responsible for several other roles throughout the evening as well.
After our introductions, our Maori “guides” told us about their tribe’s history, offered us tea, coffee, and cake, and helped us settle in to our accommodations. I was thrilled to find that our stay consisted of large log houses with single beds, air con and real towels! Pure luxury for a backpacker! Next, we split into two groups to learn a song (to be performed in front of 150 strangers at dinner) and play a few traditional stick games.
As we moved into the evening’s events, we had the opportunity to meet each joining group’s chief. Just as we had done earlier, each visiting group (or busload of patrons, really) had to nominate a “chief” to represent them as well. Before meeting the leaders, we were warned that this was a traditional and serious introduction; the tribal warriors would take any sort of movement or smile as a challenge. This was meant to be a simulation of what it was like for tribes to approach each others’ villages many years ago.
The tribal leaders and warriors arrived via canoe and challenged our newly appointed chiefs to determine if we had come for war or peace. After a few moments of intimidation, a peace gift was placed on the ground by one of the warriors. We knew that if our chief picked up this gift, we would be welcomed inside. If not, things would become much more interesting…thankfully our chief picked up their offering and we were all welcomed into the village.
We spent about 45 minutes inside the village, moving from one hut to the next, learning about the Maori peoples’ history and customs, including the Haka. As described on NewZealand.com, “the haka is a type of ancient Maori war dance traditionally used on the battlefield, as well as when groups came together in peace. Haka are a fierce display of a tribe’s pride, strength and unity. Actions include violent foot-stamping, tongue protrusions and rhythmic body slapping to accompany a loud chant”. Today it is used in ceremonies and celebrations, just as I would see during my visit. The national rugby team has even adopted it as part of their tradition before a match.
After our time in the village, we sat down to a brief show filled with song and dance before heading to dinner. The evening’s meal consisted of chicken and roast as well as salad and veggies, all of which were delicious and filling. The dinner ended with a few more songs, including our own performance of the song my group learned earlier in the day.
My favorite part of the evening happened next when it was announced that one of the team members was leaving the “village”. As a way of saying farewell, several men performed the Haka, with the departing team member joining in as well. At this point, I had seen the Haka performed several times, but none was as emotional or moving as this. It was heartfelt and gave me chills. The men were no longer performing; they were putting their true emotions into it as they said farewell to their friend and colleague. It was an honor to watch.
This marked the end of the night for most of the guests but us over-nighters jumped in the hot tubs and grabbed a few drinks to end our evening. The next morning we were treated to breakfast and a ride back into town to end our visit. It was truly an experience that I will cherish always.
Taupo is a small town located on the lake of its namesake. Lake Taupo is massive – larger than all of Singapore – and offers the typical lakeside activities including catamaran cruises and parasailing. The most popular activities in Taupo though are skydiving and tackling New Zealand’s best day hike, the Tongariro Crossing. Can you guess which one I did?
My 4:30AM alarm seemed to come too soon and shortly after I herded onto a shuttle heading to Tongariro National Park for my 19.5km hike. The Crossing took 6.5 hours to complete, not including the two optional mountain summits. The hike consisted of several challenging stretches as well as easier walks. The scenery throughout was beautiful, much more than I’d imagined. I was familiar with Mt Ngauruhoe, affectionately known now as Mt Doom, as well as the Emerald Lakes, but apart from that, I didn’t know what to expect.
Our shuttle driver handed out a one-pager explaining the various parts of the walk including each segment’s difficulty level and estimated travel time. After reading about Mt Ngauruhoe’s “dangerous ascent” I knew that optional summit was off the table. I had every intention of taking on the second summit though – Mt Tongariro – said to be a “moderate ascent”. However, by the time I walked up to the turn off, there was no way I was adding on any extra time.
The most challenging part of the hike was up the Red Crater Ridge. Not only was it a steep incline, the ground was made of small rocks rather than a man-made track and I either slid or tripped every few steps. After reaching the top, the descent was not much easier because it was mostly volcanic sand all the way down. A sand board would have been incredibly useful here!
While this portion was the most difficult of the day, it was also the most rewarding. Walking across the red crater felt as if walking on another planet and the actual mountain itself was stunning in its deep red color. Upon reaching the summit, the Blue Lake came into view followed by the Emerald Lakes, each sparkling in the sunlight. The air smelled of rotten eggs due to the sulfur and my shoes filled with volcanic rock as I cautiously trekked downhill, but the view was well worth it. Simply amazing!
The final hour led us downhill, through the valley’s forest. By this point, every part of my body from the hips down was aching. I was ready to cross the finish line. After nearly an hour of switchbacks through the valley and numerous steps down through the forest, the trees cleared and I saw the car park ahead, my muscles rejoicing. The end was a welcomed sight. Our hour-long shuttle ride back was packed with 50 accomplished hikers, all fast asleep.
One of the greatest aspects of Kiwi Experience is all the small town stops and unique destinations you are privileged to encounter. The tiny rural town of Taihape is one of those excellent small towns. Located in the Ruapehu region, Taihape is home to River Valley Lodge, nestled along the Rangitikei River. Our bus traveled down a long, narrow, winding road leading deep into the valley and to the isolated lodge. What were we doing there, you ask? White water rafting, of course!
I joined my tour group at 8:15AM the next morning to suit up, feeling a bit nervous, as this was my first time rafting. Thankfully my river guide, Janie, was calm, experienced, explained each section of the river and rapids, and made me feel confident. The rapids ranged from grades three through five, making it a lot of fun to travel down stream. Our 2.5 hours on the river seemed to fly by and without any feeling of danger. This was another of my favorite activities of the trip and it provided excellent photo mementos, too!
Wellington, located at the bottom of the North Island, is New Zealand’s capital city. As we arrived into the city, our bus driver explained that Wellington is the second windiest city in world as well as the shakiest city with multiple fault lines running through it. Wellington was the first place I noticed having instructional signs for what to do in the event of an earthquake. The signs made me both nervous and intrigued, interestingly enough. Lonely Planet dubbed Wellington the “coolest little city in the world” and with its immense coffee culture, hipsters, urban street art, lane ways, and arcades, it pretty much is.
The minimum days on a Kiwi Experience ticket only offers you one night in Wellington. Being the city girl that I am, I knew I’d want more time and opted to stay an extra night. I had a full day to explore the city (as well as do laundry!) and I spent it walking down lane ways and popular streets like Hannah’s Lane Way and Cuba Street. I loved the harbor and mountain views with the cool breeze running through, a breeze up from Antarctica and through the Cook Strait no less.
I decided to take the famous cable car up to the mountain to the cable car museum, planetarium, and botanical gardens. For a cheap $7, you get awesome views of the city and a fun ride on the car. Originally created to transport locals up the steep hills, the car is a popular tourist attraction now as well. That night, I treated myself to an Italian feast. Two ladies dining next to me struck up a conversation, asking why I was eating alone if I was traveling with a bus full of other people. I explained to them that that was exactly why I was dining alone. I’d been saving money by cooking in the hostels thus far and deserved a night out on me. Sometimes you just need to treat yourself, you know?
Kia Ora (Maori for ‘be well’), North Island! I love your cities, beaches, rolling hills, and sense of adventure. Off to the South Island next – read about my (mis)adventures here.