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Taking a Sydney to Cairns road trip—how to spot cassowaries, platypuses & koalas, plus where to stop during five weeks on Australia’s East Coast

While five weeks in a campervan may sound like a lot, I’ve mentioned previously how I like to travel slowly and take time to get off the main routes and roads as much as I can. So after five days exploring Adelaide, and two weeks in Sydney, I hired a van and hit the open road with a plan to cover the 2,414 kms that make up the drive from Sydney to Cairns. 

dusty brown road with tree shadows in australia on the drive from Sydney to cairns
Taking an unpathed road somewhere near Rockhampton on the drive to Cairns

Why driving from Sydney to Cairns was the best option for me

Campervan hire in Sydney is pretty straightforward with a whole load of companies offering up their vans, I chose Hippy Camper, solely as I was travelling on a small budget and this company seemed to be the most reasonable in price. The freedom of having my own wheels after relying on public transport for months previously was amazing, and for me, the only way to get around while in Australia. I'd considered taking buses, but because I was hoping to hike lots and explore hidden beaches along the way, I decided a campervan was the best option. As well as having a way to get around easily, the van also provided me with a place to sleep each night and the equipment to cook my own meals. My van came with single ring gas stove, pans, plates, cutlery, a small fridge and sink with refillable water tank. 

camper van in australia, used to drive from Sydney to Cairns
My camper van, and home for the Sydney to Cairns drive

Sydney to Byron Bay

After leaving Sydney I spent a few days discovering the bays and beaches of Port Stephens including Zenith beach with its squeaky soft sand, then further north, Myall Lakes National Park provided good walking tracks and stunning scenery, and later Port Macquarie, home to a very sweet koala hospital for ill or injured koalas, is totally worth a stop. The hospital provides a sanctuary for koalas caught in bush fires or car accidents and they offer great free daily guided tours where you get to learn so much about these amazing animals.

koala in tree at port macquarie during the drive from Sydney to cairns
Koala spotting at Port Macquarie Koala Hospital

In the tourist hotspot of Byron Bay, where I stayed for two nights, I got lucky while walking along Wategos beach and spotted a pod of dolphins swimming into shore, these beautiful creatures swam happily alongside surfers and swimmers, jumping in and out of the water—an amazing sight to see and not uncommon in this area of Australia. Byron Bay is also a good place to go out for food and drinks if you’re travelling on a budget, its popularity with backpackers means bars and restaurants are constantly competing with each other on food and drink deals, in some places you can get a meal and beer for as little as $4AUD ($2.75). 

byron bay lighthouse on the drive from Sydney to cairns
The coast of Byron Bay with its trademark lighthouse

Byron Bay to Wollumbin

In-land from Byron Bay and worth a detour from the coast is the world-heritage protected rainforest of Nightcap National Park, with huge waterfalls, hiking trails and lots of kookaburras. I stopped for a day on the way to the ‘hippie’ town of Nimbin, but looking back, I wouldn’t recommend going out of the way to Nimbin. Maybe, in years gone by it was a different, more radical place, but today it feels like a small town with not a whole lot going on, but drive a further forty-five minutes north and you’ll find the majestic Wollumbin looming large over the landscape. I visited Wollumbin (Mount Warning) before it became a nationally recognised place of cultural law and spirituality for Aboriginal People. The 4.4km trek to the top took around two hours and was a hard, steep climb, but nearing the summit you have to scramble across bare rock face and use a metal rope to help pull you up. The wildlife and views here are incredibly stunning and on the day of my hike I saw snakes, red-necked pademelons and brushturkeys, as well as hearing the fabulous-sounding eastern whipbird. It’s not an easy trek and has since been declared a sacred place, so best avoided unless you have permission from the Bundjalung People.

green hills and sky from wollumbin australia on the drive from Sydney to cairns
View from the summit of Wollumbin

Wollumbin to Brisbane

After the beautiful green rainforest of Warning National Park, I drove back to the coast and stopped off for a night in Coolangatta for a campsite sleepover that would enable me to charge my camera, stock up on food and finally wash with hot water after eight days of cold outdoor showers. For the next part of the journey I made an underwhelming stop at Surfer’s Paradise (sounds magical but in reality is a big city full of high-rise buildings), and then drove onto Brisbane. Here, I walked up Mount Coot-Tha for an overview of the city, then checked out the pretty botanical gardens and artsy South Bank, making a stop at the Gallery of Modern Art and Streets Beach—an incredible oasis in the city—complete with sand and pool.

Brisbane to Rockhampton

After a couple of nights in Brisbane, I drove two hours to the Sunshine Coast with a plan to spend some days in Noosa, a totally blissful place. Noosa was one of my favourite parts of the drive from Sydney to Cairns as I spent beautiful sunny days strolling through the national park, finding secluded beaches and swimming in the clear sea, plus it’s also a great surf spot too. As someone who adores hunting out secluded or hidden beaches, I then followed the coast to Rainbow Beach with its interesting nearby Carlo Sand Blow (a huge mass of sand, which covers and kills trees and plants creating a moonscape effect), then onto Tin Can Bay (known for dolphin spotting), Hervey Bay (the stop off point for Fraser Island) and Agnes Water & Town of 1770, before stopping off at the fascinating Capricorn Caves near Rockhampton. These large privately owned caves were only discovered when the guy who bought the land they’re under found them, before mapping them out in secret over the space of two years. Now they’re open to the public so I took a tour of the caves, ending in the fabulous Cathedral Cave, a space that has better acoustics than the Sydney Royal Opera House, meaning many people chose it as their wedding venue. 

eucalyptus tree with pink and orange clouds seen on the drive from Sydney to cairns
Magical sunsets near Capricorn Caves on the drive from Sydney to Cairns

Rockhampton to Airlie Beach

200kms further north, my next stop was Eungella National Park, a place famed for its sprawling sub-tropical rainforest and Broken River, the place to spot an elusive and surprisingly tiny duck-billed platypus. Australia is the only country in the world where you can spot these amazing creatures in the wild and dusk is the best time to see them, so I headed down to the rivers edge to try my luck one evening. After waiting for around 20 minutes and only seeing wild turtles I ventured further and actually managed to spot one, diving up and down from the surface of the river. It was so much smaller than I'd imagined, yet had the fury body and unmistakable duckbill and flat beaver-like tail of the platypus. Later, I spotted two more, so left feeling remarkably lucky and excited that I’d witnessed these rare creatures in the wild. High on my platypus spotting and keen for more excitement, I continued north to Airlie Beach, and booked a trip out to the Whitsunday Islands. I took a day trip that started at 10am, zipping over to Daydream Island by boat to collect another person, then onto a snorkelling spot on the inner barrier reef where I saw bright yellow fish as big as dinner plates, tiger fish, black and white striped zebra fish and pretty pink coral. Back on land the star of the show was stunning Whitehaven Beach with its pure white sand and swirling turquoise waters, it’s one of the most spectacular beaches I’ve seen, right up there with a beach I adored during my four months in South America—Lopez Mendes, near Rio in Brazil. 

whitehaven beach in australia, a good stop off point on the drive from Sydney to Cains
Whitehaven beach on a moody day

Airlie Beach to Mission Beach

Once the trip ended and I was back at Airlie Beach, I took roads inland and drove to a tiny village called Paluma, sitting 1000 feet above sea level. With only 28 permanent residents, it's no wonder I didn’t see a soul the night I stayed there, waking to a misty, eerie morning sky at 6am the next morning. I hit the road soon after and arrived in Mission Beach two and a half hours later. Around this small coastal town I kept seeing signs advising motorists to slow down for cassowaries, and learnt that these amazing endangered creatures are kind of like a two-meter tall emu but with a huge hard cone on top of their head. They have big beaks, red turkey-esque necks and massive sharp claws that can be used to kick predators. I was desperate to see one of these living dinosaurs in the wild so picked up a walking map for a couple of bucks and headed off into the countryside. After an afternoon walking through rainforest, spotting hundreds of wallabies, I drove back to town feeling defeated not to have seen a cassowary, but then, on the side of the road I saw two; an adult with her baby chick, trying to cross the road, I was so happy. Feeling excited, I headed onto Babinda, a place known for its perfectly smooth and round boulders strewn across the river, here I stayed in a free campsite and spent a few days wild swimming at the swimming holes along the river. 

smooth boulders in river at babbinda in australia, a good stop off point on the drive from Sydney to cairns
Swimming hole at Babinda

Mission Beach to Cairns

A few days later I moved onto Crater Lakes National Park, then Mossman, to see the Gorge and it was here that I got to see another Cassowary, very early one morning in an empty car park. This time it was a young bird, as the cone on its head had not yet developed, but it was super inquisitive coming very close to me and the van and allowing me to get some photos—a real treat to see another cassowary in the wild! 

wild your cassowary in australia, spotted on the drive from Sydney to cairns
A young cassowary near Mossman Gorge

Later, I swam in the cold, but perfectly clear and refreshing Mossman Gorge, then drove up to Port Douglas for a look around the farmers market before the final drive to the drop off point for the van, Cairns. My five week road trip from Sydney to Cairns had proved a success, and I’d seen so much of the East Coast, including spotting some incredible creatures and wildlife, that just wouldn’t have been possible had I been taking public buses. For anyone considering the East Coast drive, I can’t recommend it enough.

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