After an incredibly comfortable night with family friends in Sydney, we packed up the car once and set our sights north as we continued our journey onwards to Brisbane.
Most of our time in Australia has been spent driving across the remote and unpopulated regions of Western Australia, South Australia and Tasmania. But at this point we found ourselves on its famed East Coast. Not only is it by far the most populated area of the country but also the preferred route of most backpackers. All of a sudden the roads were not so empty, there were towns and shopping malls everywhere and we rarely found ourselves alone in campsites.
The best thing about being in a more populated stretch of land however was that our driving distances could reduce dramatically. No more 5 hour stints between meagre signs of human life. With this in mind we decided to drive just a few hours north to the famous wine region of the Hunter Valley. Like all the wine regions we have visited in Australia, the Hunter Valley was spoilt with natural beauty and idyllic tourist towns. We could have stayed a few days but unfortunately the weather was having none of it. The rain drove into our car relentlessly and made staying overnight a near impossibility. Our only real highlight was watching the spectacle of fighting Kangaroos from the comfort of own car. An Australian safari of sorts.
We gathered we’d have better luck on the coast, where the weather changes in an instant and there are usually some breaks in the rain. We spent the night parked right up on the beach at Nelson Bay. Ryan started his day with a run along the beaches and a swim in the surprisingly temperate waters of the bay. We had a quick drive around the town and nearby peninsula but the bad weather was relentless and drove us even further north in search of more comfortable climes.
A quick skim of our outdated (but timelessly helpful) Australian guide-book recommended the beaches and small town of Seal Rocks. As soon as we arrived the skies cleared overhead and revealed that brilliant blue sky that we had become so fond of. Here were surfers and holiday makers in their masses and the first real warmth we had felt since summer had left Tasmania about a month prior!
Feeling reinvigorated by our brief encounter with the sun, we decided to look for a place to settle down and camp. The real noticeable difference now we are on the East Coast is that the number of free campsites has dwindled and when you do find one, it’s not right on the beach as it was in Western Australia but about 20 km inland. We managed to find a corker though!
We drove inland to the Wingham Brush Reserve which had favourable reviews on Wikicamps and wasn’t too far away from the Pacific Highway which we would be rejoining the next day. We were greeted on our arrival at the free camping spot by an elderly gentleman who bestowed us with leaflets and tourist information about the town and surrounding area. It’s something we haven’t had before on our travels and a small gesture which endeared the place to us straight away.
The best thing about the campsite was that it sat on the edge of a small temperate rainforest which was home to flying foxes in their tens of thousands. We arrived just before sunset and sat with a beer as they flew out in search of food. The sky turned black and came alive with the waking sounds of thousands of the screeching creatures. We even woke up at sunrise to watch them come back in, an event which is even noisier as they fight for their perches on the towering mangrove trees.
We rejoined the Pacific Highway just north of Wingham and continued on, through Port Macquarie to a small surf town by the name of Crescent Heads. We really weren’t sure what to expect. As mentioned above our East Coast guide-book is a good 6 years out of date so when we read that a place has managed to maintain a small surf town atmosphere we are fully prepared to arrive to the site of towering resorts and chain restaurants. But this time the guide book’s advice was truly timeless, the town was exactly what we had been looking for.
Crescent Heads has enough of a buzz around it, with a few cafes and bars lining its main street but never feels too touristy. We decided to stay a days and found a campsite just a few kilometres south of the town, right on the beach. The campsite was honestly one of the best we’ve had yet, in a small rainforest setting and not more than 20 metres from the beach and a surf break which was perfect for our level of experience. With this in mind we did nothing with the next two days but surf and relax on the beach and spend evenings swaying under the stars in our hammock. We loved our visit so much, that it even made last week’s Snap of the Week!
With our brief stay in Crescent Heads we reinvigorated an obsession with surfing and the culture around it and thought we should try out what is possibly Australia’s most famous surfing town, Byron Bay. We only spent a day there, ambling through its streets and boutique shops, pausing for coffee and sushi before spending the afternoon on the beach at Byron Heads. Although we would have ideally stayed longer we knew we’d be back for weekends once we settled in Brisbane.
Already planning our future trips back to Byron, we headed inland to the small town of Nimbin. Adored by new-age hippies, backpackers and curious daytrippers alike, we were curious to see what the town was all about. After hosting the legendary Aquarius festival in the 70s, Nimbin was inundated with hippies and anarchists who advocated alternative ways of living. These people stayed on long after the festival had packed up and left, buying large plots of land and living in communes around the town.
There is still a sense of this today and the town has evolved in order to maintain its status as Australia’s capital of counter-culture. The lax laws on marijuana are what draw in most backpackers and day trippers but that element of the town is more or less completely geared towards tourism, like some kind of village equivalent to Amsterdam’s red light district. The more interesting and relevant aspects of the town lie in its focus on green energy and permaculture and the fact that many of its residents still live in communal groups and strive for alternative ways of living.
With just a day left before we arrived to stay with our friends in Brisbane we decided to connect back up to the coastal highway and make our way through the infamous Gold Coast and Surfer’s Paradise. Living hell might be a bit strong but if places like Byron Bay and Crescent Heads epitomise the Australian dream then Surfers Paradise is the realisation of an Australian nightmare. The foreshore is lined with towering apartment blocks and hotels and the streets devoid of any individuality. Maybe this kind of tourism is lost on us but it resonated of cheap, dirty European resorts on the Greek Islands or in Magaluf. Ryan had an almighty middle-class strop so we had to leave after a mere hour.
Our last stop on our way to Brisbane was up in the hills around Mount Tambourine. The towering hotels and hum of traffic and relentless motorbikes faded away as you entered the serenity of small towns in the hills and temperate rainforests in the valley below. Although we somewhat whizzed through this area, it would be a good bet for a weekend visit once we established ourselves in the city. So we found ourselves a quiet spot and set up camp. A sort of calm before the storm as the next day we would venture into the city and start the cycle of hunting for jobs and houses!