East Coast Australia

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HOW’S THE SERENITY?

We spent two weeks living with my step-dad’s family near Coff’s Harbour up the coast. Corindi – the tiny suburban town where they live, hasn’t changed in the slightest since I visited when I was ten. There’s still only one shop, duly called ‘The Shop’, which sells the same meat pies and potato scallops with chicken salt, one post office and of course the nerve centre of the town – the local pub. No doubt one of the highlights of our trip was winning the ‘Amble Inn’ (for ten years I thought it was the Ann Boleyn) breakfast meat raffle.

Our days took on a standard routine pretty quickly – wake early to the most chaotic and deafening dawn chorus I’ve ever heard, drive up the headland to check the surf, back to the house for breakfast, and then amble down the wide streets with their low wooden houses and immaculate lawns (hosting frequent Kangaroo visitors) to the beach – our home until lunch. Contrary to some misleading pictures, going to the beach in Northern Australia is not a sexy affair – it feels like going into battle. Walking down in our pasty factor 60+, comedy-size hats, long-sleeved shirts and multiple sun-blocking accessories felt more Mr. Bean than Baywatch.

The beach here is interactive – nobody just lays back and tans – it’s a way of life. Everyone born here is expected to learn to surf or at least try, and for most, the thrill of riding along the limits of the ocean is one they seek forever. In few other sports is the goal so dependent on and shared with nature – a brief tussle for control to secure that hard-won victory of total weightlessness. And here I’m told – the waves are perfect…The official shark copter keeps an eye out overhead, and if there’s anything suspicious it will fly in a circle as a warning. One day as we were floating in the shallows the helicopter did exactly that, and of course not a single surfer left the water. Ahh it’s only a shark mate, no worries.

When we weren’t hiding under the beach umbrella from the relentless sun we played in the rock pools with the girls, overturning rocks to discover strange, slithering life-forms and squishing the ‘Gungy Boy’ anemones. We made wigs with spotty seaweed that looked like it belonged in an aboriginal painting.

Afternoons were hot and lazy – a sleepy, anxious interim between lunch and the first cold beer of the day before the mandatory BBQ prep. Even the unbelievably coloured lorikeets joined in, becoming increasingly raucous as they got drunk on fermenting fruit. We nursed our hangovers together.

BYRON BAY (CAVVANBAH)

We reluctantly left Corindi on the Greyhound from Coff’s Harbour and started making our way up the coast. First stop – the inevitable Byron Bay and shining beacon of (formerly hippy) hipster heaven. The vibe is creative professional, which to us suggested that we must start chilling out first thing in the morning, with a jog and a coffee at one of the many, many coffee-shops. We did the famed lighthouse loop – starting along the beach at dawn, as the sand and clouds turned varying shades of pinky lilac, and then the Lighthouse Road up to the pristine and still functional Cape Byron Lighthouse. From here, the Easternmost point of Australia, the view of the surf-battered cliffs and unbroken ocean is spectacular. Walking back down via the coastal route (Cape Byron walking track) we saw two dolphins playing in the distance and at Wategos beach we spotted a White-breasted Sea Eagle. Watch out for trees full of sleeping flying foxes – we thought that it was some sort of gigantic fruit before we noticed furry squirming! We finished at the Pass, a perfect white-sand beach and watched the surfers enjoy the famed right-hand point-break.

Where to eat: 

Cheeky Monkeys:

We were on a budget and had a discount with our YHA stay so we went here for dinner. It’s got mostly terribles on Tripadvisor and is apparently for ‘immature travellers’ according to one review. I’m not sure what that means but we had cheap drinks, fun with the table Jenga and an average meal. It has lots of party events.

Bay Leaf Cafe

We  had a much more typical Byron Bay brunch the next day at the Bay Leaf Cafe.  Poached eggs, avocado and sourdough toast. The food and coffee was delicious. We didn’t get the banana bread but I got a waft of some freshly baked stuff and my God it smelled good. The juices and smoothies looked good too.

Where to stay:

Byron Bay YHA

We stayed pretty much only at YHA’s for our Australia trip and they were great. The rooms are predictably basic but the facilities are good. This one’s pretty chilled out and has a pool and snooker table. The only bummer is that they charge for luggage storage and don’t have wifi in the rooms.

FRASER ISLAND (K’GARI)

Before hopping onto the 12h Greyhound to our next stop Hervey Bay we stocked up on some supermarket liquor – because 12 hours, and because nobody should ever have to drink Goon. “Produced with the aid of milk, egg, nut, and fish products and traces may remain. Sugar added.” We walked past a girl who remarked of her Goon cocktail; ‘but why does it smell like feet?’. Yes alcohol is stupid expensive in Australia, but it’s worth the extra 2 dollars for almost the same alcohol content in a bottle of rum.

12 hours and a crazy bus driver later, we were in Hervey Bay – main launchpad for Fraser Island. There’s not much going on in Hervey Bay, but we did have a nice walk to the pier in searing middle-of-the-day heat where we saw two enormous Manta Rays, and at our YHA we spotted a beautiful, shy possum and had resident, not-so-shy peacocks.

Our main reason for staying here was to rent our Land Rover and have our safety briefing for Fraser Island – the main message of this being ‘please for the love of God put the hand-brake on when you park on the barge’ and ‘don’t drive onto the beach when the sand is wet, you will get stuck, and the car will be destroyed’. Apparently two different groups ignored the handy tips, and the rest you can imagine.

Fraser island is the largest sand island in the world. There are no paved roads. When the tide is out, there is a window of time in which you can drive on the beach and it’s smoother than concrete. Fraser island is the wildest, most unspoilt place I have ever seen on my travels, and was without doubt the highlight of our Australia trip. With a crackling radio struggling to pick up any signal, the massive 4×4 skipped over tree-trunks as if they were toothpicks while we drove past bizarre, Jurassic Park-style scenery. Our biggest threat was succumbing to soft sand. After seeing barely a person all day, we pitched up our tent at one of the wild-camping spots along the 75-mile beach. We must have inadvertently set up our tent on a horsefly nest as 5 minutes later we were attacked by a manic swarm, forcing us to cook dinner on the beach as we watched an oncoming storm.

Things to do in Fraser island:

Lake Mckenzie (Boorangoora)

Lake Mckenzie is made up solely of crystal-clean rainwater, tinged Caribbean turquoise around the edges. The sand is entirely white silica and the water is so pure it’s said that only a few species of fish can survive in it. It’s too clean for life. Allow at least a few hours for all manner of selfies.

Sandblows

Sandblows are enormous sand dunes that blow across the island according to the wind and the tides. Burying forests as they move, the dateless tree-tops emerge post-apocalyptically from the wind-blasted sands. The lack of wildlife and eerie quiet makes these mobile deserts even more otherworldly. Lake Wabby off Hammberblow is slowly being engulfed, which is bad news for its little catfish inhabitants.

Eli creek

Each day, Eli creek spills out 80 million litres of beautifully clear rainwater into the Pacific ocean. You can float along the stream amongst the tangled vegetation down onto the beach, where you’ll see small aircraft land on the sand by the shore.

Maheno Shipwreck

Maheno was a New Zealand Naval ship that was washed ashore by a cyclone in 1935. 82 years later, it’s rusty skeleton remains, battered daily by the surf along 75-mile beach.

Where to eat:

Tent/beach/forest/car. Watch out for dingoes. We had one coyly come up to us on the beach – understandably tempted by our lunch of canned fish and beans.

Where to sleep:

Tent/beach/forest/car. There is a main campground with showers in the middle of the island.

WHITSUNDAY ISLANDS:

Another long Greyhound night bus and we were at Airlie beach to set off on our 2-day boat tour of the Whitsundays with Silent Night. J hurt his back badly on the morning of our trip, and since it was too late to cancel or go to the doctor’s, we headed to the booze shop instead. We stocked up on a bottle of whiskey and two bottles of rum. Note: This is definitely not recommended self-medication for slipped discs under normal circumstances. When I saw the sleeping arrangements – a minuscule corner berth by the engine – I was grateful for our choice of impromptu meds.

We met the group and then started our sail towards our first snorkelling trip and mooring spot for the evening. This is where I have an embarrassing admission to make. Having heard so many nightmarish stories about lethal jellyfish in Northern Australia, I never actually went in the water on this trip, not even with the tempting offer of the full-length wetsuits. This made me the ONLY wimp in our boat group to not go underwater. I charged J with the Gopro and sipped my cocktail on the gently rocking sailboat with a strange mix of regret and utter peace. My excuse is that I’d already been snorkelling in the Whitsundays when I was ten and fearless. I’m sticking to it.

In any case I was told that the snorkelling was good – but not great. The best spots are widely regarded as being further up the coast towards Cairns. The ultimate way to see the reef if you’ve got the cash is by airplane, watching the the ancient coral below curl like tendrils around myriad hues of brilliant cyan.

The next morning after breakfast on board we started our sail to inimitable Whitehaven beach. A short walk through forest brings you to Hill Inlet viewing point, where you’ll see the famously white Silica sands bleed into the turquoise waters of the inlet. From here we walked onto the beach where we spent a few hours walking through the glittering, squeaky sand (walking on it has somewhat of a nails down a blackboard effect) and admiring the sheer blue of the ocean blues. Round a hidden bay behind some rocks we found two lemon sharks exploring the shallows. The rest of the day I spent not snorkelling in another beautiful location.

While the crew was really attentive and great fun, it was all things considered quite an expensive trip for scenery and activities that you can get elsewhere for cheaper. I don’t mean this boat tour in particular but rather the Whitsundays in general. If I were to revisit the Whitsundays again however I’d do a bigger, cheaper party boat.  If what you want is a more relaxed trip with with great crew and fewer people however, then Silent Night is the tour for you.

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Sydney (On a budget)

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Our 6 month trip through Australia and Asia started in Bondi, Sydney. I’d lived in Bondi for almost a year back when I was ten, but this was a different place – unfailingly charming and friendly as ever, but more self-conscious, and achingly hipster.

Does anyone know of anyone on the wholesale end of avocado/sourdough/big lightbulb retail in Oz because it’s got to be lucrative? I could do with a job. I could be a professional avocado smasher for hire, it sounds therapeutic and I’ve got references.

Bondi was always health and fitness conscious. I remember as a London kid in the nineties wondering why everything here wasn’t slathered in layers of I-can’t-believe-I’m-eating-this margarine, but this current trend seems more about identity than aesthetics. We were asked, in utter seriousness, whether we wanted our coffee in ‘paper or ceramic?’ My embarrassment and confusion must have been as plain as the marble decor – ‘to have in or take away?’ ‘Ceramic please, I want to make the most of my $4.50.’ Ten minutes later we had our Ethiopian-bean coffees, brewed in a contraption that looked like it had come off the set of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. It turns out Ethiopian bean tastes quite bitter; ‘could I get some sugar, please?’.’We don’t serve sugar in this establishment’. The Oompa-Loompas would be horrified.

The food is delicious and so are a lot of the people that make it; I’ve never seen so many good-looking people in such a short space of time. I’m assuming this fact and the sunshine puts everyone in good mood as the friendliness is relentless. I wanted breakfast with some artisanal component but also I was poor – people actually have a good wage and standard of living in Australia so stuff is expensive. I was that annoying person at the front of queue trying to figure out how to cheat the menu and get everything for nothing. Just I was just getting ready to scowl passive-aggressively at the non-existent tut-tutters behind me I was rewarded with a free breakfast and a dazzling, knowing smile. I realised then I wasn’t in London anymore.

Top FREE things to do in Sydney

Bondi Beach

Sydney is a subtropical city where urban life and nature merge into something really quite beautiful and unique. There aren’t many cities I can think of where you can walk straight onto the sand and into the ocean. Bondi is the most famous and busy of the Sydney beaches but there are countless others (see below). If you want to people-watch however then this is the beach to go to. Ubiquitous sun-kissed surfers, body-builders (I recommend the outdoor pull-up bars), all manner of beautifully tanned beach bums, yogis, picnicking Aussie families – you’ll find them all here. And when you can’t sleep due to jetlag, check Bondi out at sunrise.

Bondi to Coogee coastal walk

A well-trod and stunningly picturesque coastal route that winds past dramatic cliff-faces, rockpools, countless beaches and the beautiful houses of Sydney’s suburbs. Even the historic cemetery (Waverley) with it’s sweeping ocean views is incredible. The start of the walk goes past the legendary Instagram mother of all swimming pools – the Bondi Baths, then upwards to Marks Park, where you’ll find Aboriginal rock carvings and is one of the prime whale-watching spots from May-November. The first major beach is Tamarama (small but stunningly framed by cliffs either side), nicknamed Glamourama because of the trendsetters and wannabe trendsetters that hang out here. Be careful of riptides. Further along is much larger Bronte beach and then tiny, peaceful Clovelly, which is perfect for swimming. Stop half-way at Bronte to have lunch in one of the many cafes and say hello to the most glamorous residents, Mango and Crush – two enormous blue Macaws that sit by the railing near the beach and watch the world go by. They’re very friendly and love to hang out with passers-by.

Sydney Opera House and The Rocks

You’ve seen it in pictures a thousand times, and it certainly doesn’t disappoint when you see it upfront. You can check out the Opera House lobby for free and don’t miss the view of it from the Harbour Bridge. The Rocks is Sydney’s oldest neighbourhood, where European settlers first arrived in the late 1700s. Wander down cobbled paths and narrow alleyways of colonial-era pubs and gothic sandstone churches. The area sits directly underneath the imposing Harbour bridge and is in surreally stark contrast to the modern buildings that surround it. It’s definitely one of my favourite areas of Sydney.

Check out the Australian hotel – knocked down during the plague outbreak in 1900, it was rebuilt during the Edwardian era and retains a lot of the original features. The sloping bathrooms look like they haven’t been changed since. Sit at the window and people-watch as the sun streams through (you might actually have to pay for a drink to do this unless you’re feeling brave). The ‘I’m Free’ Walking tours leave from this area and they’re great. They’ll show you places you might otherwise have missed and are really informative. They’re technically free but you’re encouraged to give what you think the tour was worth at the end.

Manly and Northern Beaches on a Sunday

Use your Opal card (capped at $2.50 on a Sunday) to get the Manly ferry from Sydney Harbour to the golden-sand beaches North of Sydney. It’s also an excellent way to see the harbour cheaply.

Blue Mountains

Just 2.5 hours North of Sydney by NSW train and you’re at the quirky Blue mountains launchpad town of Katoomba. The vibe here is more chicken-salt scallop and formica diner than smashed avocado and reclaimed wood, or maybe that’s just where we ate. Check out Greco’s for cheap burgers served by bored and friendly teenagers. A free shuttle bus goes from here to the most famous landmark – the Three Sisters at Echo Point – a stunning and unusual sandstone rock formation formed by wind erosion over millennia. Catch them at sunset or under evening floodlight, but be warned – the crowds will be massive.

The blue mountains are so called because of the blue haze that hangs silkily over them, formed due to oil droplets evaporating from hundreds of thousands of eucalyptus trees. From Echo point there are a number of possible hikes – we took the steep and narrow Giant Stairway trail past Katoomba falls and the Scenic Railway. Whichever path you choose you’ll see stunning views of the Jamison valley and the sheer, sandstone rock faces that frame it. We went during a rainstorm and the tropical smell of wet soil and eucalyptus was beautiful. Listen out for hundreds of echoing tropical bird calls. Once at the bottom you have the option of taking the scenic railway to the top or walking the Furber steps back up to Echo point. The railway looks fun but is quite expensive. We chose to take the Furber steps which are amazingly secluded and take you past some magnificent waterfalls. If you happen to be there in the late afternoon you’ll be rewarded with some incredible views where the orange light intermingles with the dark blue hues of the valley.

We stayed in.. The Beach Road Hotel. If you’ve had enough of (but really just can’t afford) the boring pleasantness of boutique hotels try the sticky floors and genuine stale-beer scent of the Beach road Hotel in Bondi. It’s basic and cheap..for Sydney, and they do free gigs on Wednesdays and Thursdays. It’s also perfectly located just off the main drag and the staff is great.

We ate in.. Bonditony’s Burger Joint. Great, big greasy burgers named after rock bands accompanied by some awesome tunes.

Emperor Garden BBQ and noodles. Chinatown in any city is normally our go-to when we want something delicious and inexpensive. Turns out chinatown in Sydney isn’t exactly cheap but it was delicious. The hand-made noodles with duck were thick and chewy and amazing.

Le Paris-Go Cafe’. Our inevitable hipster breakfast was probably one of our best meals of the trip. We shared The smoked salmon/scrambled eggs and avocado on toast/poached eggs and it was fantastic. Simple menu and ingredients and perfectly made. Also has a really nice family and locals-what-brunch atmosphere.

Sydney (On a budget)