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Kelsie DiPerna | 06.24.2019

The country of Australia is incredibly diverse, the only country on Earth that also qualifies as its own continent. The sheer distance between states and towns makes Australia an ideal location to rent a car or camper van of your own to drive and explore the countless natural wonders and environments that abound.

We’ve outlined a 14-day itinerary to visit some of the best sites that coastal Queensland has to offer, traversing over 1,600 kilometers between Brisbane and the Sunshine Coast in the south up to the lush rainforests of Tropical North Queensland. There are incredible adventures that abound along the route north: hikes up craggy volcanic peaks that erupt from the plains, encounters with humpback whales as they make their migration north from Antarctica, and dives beneath the sea to explore massive sunken ships and the iconic Great Barrier Reef.

Sound like fun? Grab your passport and get ready to head down under!

 


The queen's colors fly high above Fraser Island. Kelsie DiPerna.

Logistics

Brisbane, the bustling capital city of Queensland, will likely be your airport hub if arriving internationally. There are a multitude of car and camper van rental agencies throughout Brisbane, with many arranging airport pick-up for ease. There are options for every budget, from cheap car rentals starting at $20 per day to luxury camper vans fully stocked and ready for you to set off on your adventure straightaway. Many rental agencies will allow you to drop-off your vehicle in another city, so careful planning can spare much time and effort from having to make the return drive.

Accommodation can be notoriously expensive throughout Australia, and a great way to mitigate this cost is to take to the road and stay in the many campsites available along the way. The government of Queensland operates a great online resource to book campsites within the many national and regional parks, forests, and reserves across the state.

It is advantageous to reserve camping passes before arrival, especially if you are heading to Queensland during the high season. Prices are under $10 per person for tent camping and vary for camper vans depending on the site. Pets are prohibited in all national parks, and there are differing amenities, rules, and logistics for each area. Deciding on what gear (tent, sleeping bag, stove, etc.) you will need to bring, rent, or purchase before heading off is a key planning point. Hiring a fully-loaded camper van may in the long run save money by eliminating the need to buy or fly with all of your own gear.

 


Gorgeous evening light strikes the area surrounding Mount Ngungun. Kelsie DiPerna.

Day 1: Brisbane + The Glass House Mountains (Sunshine Coast)

Arrive in Brisbane, gather yourself and your car or camper van rental, then head out on your adventure! There are many activities and excursions in and around the capital city of Brisbane for all types of travelers. I chose to explore the huge Brisbane Botanic Gardens at Mount Coot-tha, which feature the largest collection of Australian native rainforest trees and subtropical gardens in Queensland. Head to one of the many microbreweries in Brisbane scattered throughout the city to get a brew and a bite to eat before hitting the road.

For one of the most brilliant sunsets atop craggy volcanic peaks that rise abruptly from the plain, head to the Glass House Mountains National Park in the afternoon. It’s about a 1-hour drive heading north from Brisbane and an absolute treasure to celebrate your first day in Australia with a technicolor sunset from the top of a 26-million-year-old volcanic core. Allot about 2 hours for the 2.8-kilometer trail to the summit of Mount Ngungun (253 m), the sixth tallest peak of this range that offers unparalleled views of the taller peaks.

Underneath the shadow of the Glass House Mountains are the Beerburrum and Beerwah State Forests that encompass the area surrounding the peaks. Relax in the pine and eucalyptus forests, then camp along peaceful Coochin Creek.

 


Sunshine strikes white-sand beaches and turquoise waters on the Sunshine Coast. Kelsie DiPerna.

Day 2: Noosa Heads (Sunshine Coast)

Explore more of the subtropical national parks and beaches that populate the Sunshine Coast by driving 1 hour (75 km) from the Glass House Mountains to the shores of Noosa Heads. This is a hotspot for tourism, surfers, and beachgoers with its moderate temperatures and pleasant atmosphere on the Sunshine Coast. Visit Noosa National Park, whose rugged coastline offers hiking trails along the ocean, through the forest, down to tidepools teeming with life, and to secluded surf spots. Watch the sunset from one of Noosa’s many gorgeous sandy beaches and stay the night in or around town.

 


Whale watching in Hervey Bay gets up close and personal. Kelsie DiPerna.

Day 3 to 4: Hervey Bay + Fraser Island (Sunshine Coast)

Continue up the Sunshine Coast from Noosa 2 hours (180 km) to Hervey Bay, one of the best locations on the planet to spot humpback whales. The whales stop here for weeks as they make their migration from the cold waters of Antarctica north to the warmer waters off the Great Barrier Reef to teach their young acrobatics such as breaching and fin slaps. Take a full- or half-day whale watching tour out of Hervey Bay, then take the next day to visit Fraser Island, the largest sand island in the world. It is well worth at least a day of your time to four-wheel drive on iconic 75 Mile Beach, swim in pristine rainwater lakes, and explore the many other activities available on the island.

Fraser Island itself has 45 campsites to choose from (permit required), and also hosts two resorts. Hervey Bay is also great to make your base for two nights to explore the area and take a day trip out to Fraser Island.

 

Day 5: Rockhampton

The stretch of highway heading north from Hervey Bay to Airlie Beach will take around 9.5 hours (850 km), and there are a few locations to stop so that you can break up the drive, such as Rockhampton or Mackay. Rockhampton is a nice halfway point to stop in and explore for the afternoon. Some fun activities include a hike through Mount Archer National Park, visiting the Capricorn Caves, and exploring the Rockhampton Botanic Gardens. It’s about 4 hours (382 km) north of Hervey Bay and another 5 hours (480 km) to Airlie Beach and the Whitsunday Islands.

 


The view from Mount Rooper overlooks the Whitsunday Islands. Kelsie DiPerna.

Day 6 to 7: Airlie Beach + the Whitsunday Islands

Drive the remaining distance up to Airlie Beach, the quintessential tropical holiday hub that serves as the gateway to the marvelous 74 Whitsunday islands that lie offshore, as well as the lush, emerald rainforests of the Whitsunday Coast. Snorkel or dive in the warm, crystal-clear turquoise waters with schools of tropical fish, dolphins, humpback whales, turtles, and dugongs that come to play alongside you above the beautiful coral reefs. Participate in the myriad of other adventure activities such as kayaking, fishing, skydiving, jet skiing, wakeboarding, parasailing, or exploring the secluded beaches and bays of the Whitsunday Islands.

While it’s true that Airlie has a reputation for being a bit of a beach-side party location, there is always a way to avoid that scene if you so desire. For something extra serene, take a hike up the summit of Mount Rooper ​​​through diverse forest landscapes to catch panoramic views over the coastline, Whitsunday Passage, and many offshore islands.

There is plenty of accommodation in and around Airlie Beach, and also overnight camping available in Whitsunday Islands National Park right on the water. There are a few other national parks on the islands open for camping, or you can stay in Conway National Park on the mainland.

 


Diving the S.S. Yongala shipwreck. Kelsie DiPerna.

Day 8: Townsville

Scuba divers, listen up! On the next leg of your journey north toward Townsville, make a detour to dive the S.S. Yongala shipwreck, considered to be one of the greatest wreck dives in the world. The S.S. Yongala is the largest and most intact historic shipwreck in Australia, and hosts an incredible density of marine life and megafauna like giant trevally, manta rays, sharks, Maori wrasse, and giant Queensland groupers. Dive charters should be organized ahead of time with Yongala Dive for a two-tank dive from Avila Beach in Ayr (30-minute boat ride from the dive site). Full-day charters are also available from Townsville or Magnetic Island.

It is about 3 hours (275 km) directly from Airlie Beach to the gloriously sunny coastal city of Townsville, a great place to spend the day walking the many trails or relaxing in a seaside cafe off The Strand. Hike up Castle Hill in the center of the city for a beautiful panoramic sunrise or sunset. Townsville also is the hub for visiting Magnetic Island, a quintessential tropical paradise.

 


The overlook at Wallaman Falls, Australia's tallest single-drop waterfall. Kelsie DiPerna.

Day 9: Wallaman Falls 

Head north from Townsville (2.25 hours, 162 km) then cut inland to visit Australia’s tallest single-drop waterfall, Wallaman Falls, falling 268 meters to the forest floor. Follow the Djyinda Walk Trail (3.2 km) from the edge of this massive river gorge overlooking the falls before climbing down the valley walls to stare straight into the face of the falls. Located within larger Girringun National Park, there are multiple lookouts, hiking trails, picnic areas, and waterfalls to enjoy. Wildlife within the park includes platypus, saw-shelled turtles, eastern water dragons, and the endangered southern cassowary.

Spend the night camping within Girringun National Park at Wallaman Falls or at one of the hike-in bush camping sites along the Wet Tropics Great Walk.

 

Day 10: South of Cairns (Tropical North Queensland)

Heading north from Wallaman Falls, explore the UNESCO World Heritage-designated Wet Tropics of Queensland, an area that runs up the northeastern side of Queensland and consists of 8,940 square kilometers of Australian wet tropical forest. An incredible amount of biodiversity is present here in the oldest rainforests on Earth in the multitude of endemic plant and animal species that are found nowhere else. Spend the day driving through and exploring the many national parks, majestic waterfalls, and lush green rainforests that are present here. Noteworthy sights of interest include:

  • Millaa Millaa Falls: idyllic cascading waterfalls (18.3 m) with a pristine pool suitable for swimming
  • Paronella Park: castle built in perfect synchronicity with the lush rainforest
  • Tully Gorge National Park: densely-forested hotpot for birdwatching and the 300-meter Tully Falls

 

Day 11 to 14: Cairns to Cape Tribulation (Tropical North Queensland)

The final leg of your journey ventures into the region north of Cairns, with marvelously lush jungles, white sand beaches, and the Great Barrier Reef to explore. Make Cairns or Port Douglas your base of operation, then venture out for the day in whichever direction suits your fancy. The distance from Cairns to Cape Tribulation is about 3 hours of driving (141 km), and there is much to see in between in this part of Tropical North Queensland. Some highlights include:

  • Kuranda: Take the Kuranda Scenic Railway from Cairns up to this charming mountain town with aboriginal and artisanal markets and the Australian Butterfly Sanctuary (largest in the country).
  • Port Douglas: Dive or snorkel the outer Great Barrier Reef to experience the healthiest reefs in the region.
  • Daintree National Park: Visit the world’s oldest tropical rainforest that inspired the movie “Avatar.”
  • Cape Tribulation: The headland where the rainforest meets the ocean with opportunities to go bushwalking, kayaking, snorkeling, or take a boat tour onto the Great Barrier Reef.

Take advantage of the natural beauty and outdoor activities that proliferate up and down the coast of Queensland and hit the road!

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