10 to 20 February 2020
Newcastle to Port Macquarie, 245km
to South West Rocks, 81km
to Coffs Harbour, 102km
to Ballina, 211km
to Palm Beach, Queensland, 95km
to Surfers’ Paradise, 15km
to Brisbane, 79km
Our plan to spend our last couple of weeks hopping from beach campsite to beach campsite all the way up to Brisbane was somewhat messed up by a continuing forecast of heavy rain. That and the small matter of a cyclone developing off the east coast heading south!
So we rejoined the Pacific Highway, the road we had started on from just north of Sydney and which would take us all the way for our final 800km back to Brisbane.
Along the highway there was no escaping the fact that only a few weeks ago this area was on fire – huge stretches of blackened trees were testament to that – but right now it was heading underwater. This is the Australian experience – the weather seems to be one extreme or the other. People who a few weeks ago were watching fires get too close for comfort were now watching water rise in their fields and towards their doorsteps. But it was hard to complain about the rain when it was filling the dams and rivers and creeks that were so dry and when the rain was making everywhere so lush and green again.
Now I will admit that this trip has made me just a little bit obsessed with koalas. Perhaps it was the seemingly interminable quest to see them in the wild in a country whose road signs promise sightings at every turn but at our first stop in Port Macquarie I wasn’t going to turn down the opportunity to visit a koala hospital. Especially one that was caring for some of the koalas rescued from the recent bushfires.
Fire isn’t the only threat to Australia’s koala population. Habitat loss, dogs, conjunctivitis and chlamydia are all affecting koala numbers across the continent.
Those lucky enough to find themselves at the hospital are nursed back to health and where possible released back into the wild.
Some, like Guyra Allan and Bayabarra Jones, have been left blind by conjunctivitis and glaucoma and will stay at the hospital
and the hospital had several new patients who were burnt during the recent bushfires. They are unsurprisingly a little frightened and spend their time high in the trees so we got to play our favourite game of spot the koala again. Only this time we had a better chance because we knew which tree they were in!
But my favourite koala was Lismore Myrtle, who had been brought in as a Joey with her mother Violet but had failed to thrive so couldn’t be returned to the wild. She looked like she was more than thriving in her new home and was a proper poser!
From Port Macquarie, in the rain, we took the scenic drive off the highway which took us directly along the Macleay River. The water was right up almost level with the road. We were lucky to be able to get through. At its peak the water level would be over the road. This cow was wondering where all his pasture had gone as he and his herd walked the narrow strip left between a flooded creek and the road.
Our plan had been to camp at South West Rocks at a campsite next to the ruins of Trial Bay Gaol. In sunnier times this would definitely have competed for best campsite but the torrential downpours made tent life very unattractive. Instead the rain made the corridors of the old prison all the more atmospheric. Built by the convicts themselves in 1882, it was later an internment camp for Germans during WWI. Now it is home only to a mob of kangaroos.
Another hop up the Pacific Highway we stopped in Coffs Harbour. On a very stormy day with the cyclone directly east of us the sea was high but Coffs Harbour is protected in part by Muttonbird Island. A steep walk up from the end of the harbour took us passed the burrows of the Wedge-tailed Shearwaters and we were lucky to see a number of chicks. The view from the top gave great views back over the harbour and beyond, although the visibility was far from clear.
As fate would have it (although not entirely coincidentally this time!) we were set for another reunion with our friend, Nigel. We arrived in Coffs Harbour on the very day he returned from his epic motorbike trip around Australia and he very kindly invited us to stay with him at his property high above the town. He hadn’t been home since leaving on his roadtrip nine months ago and with his son and friends living in the main house, Nigel lives in the old banana shed just down the drive. From there we had a view of the land that used to be banana plantation and out to a roaring sea.
After a much more restrained evening than that which we had enjoyed with him in Bridport on Tasmania, he took us for a walk down at his local beach with his son’s dog, Summer, who was desperate to get into the surf but it was too dangerous for swimming.
Heading north again we wanted to revisit somewhere that is right up there as one of our favourite places on this trip but one that we had subsequently heard about on the news for all the wrong reasons, Woody Head in the Bundjalung National Park.
3000 hectares of the park had been burnt in a fire during November but driving back down the road through all the blackened trees there was hope – bright green hope sprouting out of the ground and out of the seemingly dead trees. This country is just so resilient and it was incredibly heartening to see.
We stopped off at our favourite campsite to see how the friendly kangaroos were. We like to think that this joey was the one we watched peeking out of her mother’s pouch back in September.
With the ocean raging there was no clambering over the rocks we had explored six months before but we decided against staying in the tent at Woody Head. There were more storms forecast and sometimes we know its best to not to revisit your favourite places because they might never be the same again.
Instead we wound our way around and across the coastal rivers north of Byron Bay and stopped at sleepy Brunswick Heads. At Main Beach the weather had washed up a lot of driftwood but someone had been busy making good use of it and turning it into dens and sunshades.
And just like that we completed our circle and found ourselves back in Queensland and back on the Gold Coast. Almost immediately we felt the increase in temperature and humidity. Queensland is truly tropical in summer.
We whiled away a couple of steamy, hot days at Palm Beach, a great little neighbourhood south of the high risers of Surfers’ Paradise. We even had our first dip in the ocean. The waves were very strong and knocked me off my feet. Wandering further down the beach we happened across a little local festival with some great live music and sat enjoying the tunes, so much so that we bought two of the band’s cds.
Our final stop before Brisbane was a short stay amongst the towers of Surfers’ Paradise from where we had a seventh floor sea view. We found Surfers’ to be fairly quiet which was surprising for one of Australia’s most popular holiday destinations. Chatting to a barman in a near empty bar we learnt that the current coronavirus outbreak is having a devastating impact here on the Gold Coast. Australia relies a lot on its trade with China and tourism is a huge part of that.
Whilst amongst the skyscrapers of Surfer’s Paradise we had a breakfast date high up above it all on the 77th floor of Q1, the Gold Coast’s highest building (for now at least!). The high speed lift even had a glass ceiling to watch its journey upwards.
and once at the top the views along the beach and on the other side over the river to Great Dividing Range behind were pretty special. Breakfast wasn’t bad either!
Our time in Surfers’ Paradise coincided with a fairy tale themed sand sculpture competition and as we walked along the sea front we watched this scene from Aladdin appear from a huge block of sand.
The competition was pretty fierce
but our vote went to the enormous Jack and the Beanstalk.
And that was it, our last stop before returning to Brisbane but we had just one landmark we needed to see before we got there and one more Big Thing to tick off. We had tried twice to find the legendary Yatala Pies on our way down the Pacific Highway but somehow hadn’t managed to locate it. This was our last chance to find it before leaving Australia and after driving 23,000km to get there I had high expectations!
The reason we had found it difficult to locate Yatala Pies was because The Big Pie was no longer big enough to sit above the trees that had grown around it and was therefore no longer visible from the road. We had to resort to the sat nav instead to find it. The pies definitely live up to their hype but probably don’t warrant driving quite so far.
Bellies full, we drove the last 90km back to Brisbane to sell the car and wait for our return flight to the UK (coronavirus permitting!) …