Australia: Cairns to Brisbane in a Campervan –April 7 – 21
Over the past year we have traveled by planes, trains, buses, tuk-tuks, boats, 4WD Jeep, vans and cars (private, taxi and tour company vehicles). We have slept in hotels including one built of salt, guest houses, hostels, condos, apartments, airports, boats, trains, planes and buses. So why not a campervan? It’s a perfect home on wheels. We thought this change of travel mode would be fun. We could go at our pace, stop when we wanted and of course cut down on some costs. We were excited to explore Australia by campervan.
We were to pick up the camper on April 7th in Cairns. How hard could it be to grab a taxi to the pickup location, sign a few papers, grab the keys and be off? Well, at least that’s how it played out in our mind. But in reality it did not run that smoothly, it never does! Instead, it played out like this. We checked out of our hotel at 10am (left our luggage in storage at the hotel), found a mall to buy a cheap GPS and grabbed a bite to eat. By this time it was almost 2pm and we were to pick up the campervan at 2pm and not a minute earlier (or later). We grabbed a taxi and got dropped off. We were all stoked and ready to hit the open road. However, our campervan was not like the one in the glossy brochure or even the one in the showroom. It was the lemon of the bunch, the last one that was available (as we were travelling during Easter school vacation). It had seen a few miles in its day; many miles actually. I would have been OK with a few bumps, scratches, and fading of the fabric. But on top of that there were a few things wrong with the electrical and the warning lights.
By the time we finally pulled away from the shop it was almost supper time. We quickly returned to the hotel to pick up our luggage, grabbed a few groceries set up the GPS and we were off, heading North to Port Douglas. Even with all the beginning bumps off the start we were all still so excited. There was a new sense of freedom to being in our own vehicle and hitting the open road. The kids found “their” spots in the back, pulled out their Lego and books and settled in with big smiles.
We slowly weaved our way North on the Captain Cook Highway, as we watched the sun quickly going down. Before we knew it, we were driving into the darkness, so we decided to give the WikiCamps app a try to find a campsite, because we were headed somewhere, but we had no place to spend the night. The app indicated that the nearest camp was the Glengarry Holiday Park which happened to be about 10 minutes away. The app led us right to the entrance, where we found out the cost for the four of us to camp at a non-electric site was $65 (that included a bit of a discount too, believe it or not!!). We were in shock. Never had we paid, nor had we expected to pay that much to camp for one night… but it was still cheaper than any hotel we ever found in Australia; so after weighing the pros and cons we decided to stay the night. Partly because the kids saw the water spray park and the giant pillow (much like a trampoline but it was inverted.) and partly because it was 8pm, it was dark and we were tired. We found our camp site, had a quick bite to eat and got ready for bed.
When we woke the next morning we had to hurry and vacate our site before 10am. Since we arrived so late the night before, the camp manager gave us permission to let the kids play in the splash park in the morning once we pulled our campervan out of the site. So that is exactly what we did.
We played in the park for a few hours before getting back into the camper to continue on towards a river ferry and then up to Daintree National Park. Along the way we stopped a number of times to take in the sites, like the Walu Wugirriga, which means “look about” (Mount Alexandra lookout). Before we knew it, it was time to find another campsite.
This time the WikiCamp app led us to Lync Haven Rainforest Retreat… and retreat it was, right in the middle of a rainforest. This is where we spotted our first kangaroos and wallabies, rescued animals that the Retreat was caring for. The campground was smaller, the bathroom and showers were in need of a little updating, but we were happy with it and we got settled before the rain started. We enjoyed listening to the sounds of the rainforest and visiting with fellow campers. In true rainforest fashion, it rained on and off most of the night and morning.
While packing up to leave in the morning a Cassowary and her baby wandered through the camp sites. We quickly grabbed our camera and snapped a few pictures before they were gone. We had heard that some Australians have never seen a Cassowary. Everyone at the campground was so excited. This sighting was definitely a highlight of our time in Australia.
Before leaving the campground in the morning we stopped to check out the animals the owners had rescued. There were kangaroos, wallabies, snakes, lizards and birds.
We spent about an hour walking round just looking at the rescued animals before we started heading north to the Daintree National Park. There we walked along the Dubui Boardwalk in the rainforest, and along the beach. It was such an amazing feeling to walk through a rainforest then out onto an expansive sandy beach with large whitecaps rolling into shore. It was a perfect day. Although it wasn’t a beach for swimming (posted warnings about potential crocodiles and stingers) we had a wonderful time exploring and playing in the sand. We didn’t see any crocodiles, but heard that one had been seen the day before and were told they frequent the river mouth just down the beach from us. We stopped a number of times alongside to road to admire the beautiful scenery, but time was not on our side as we had to get the ferry back down to Cairns. We had a big day planned to for tomorrow.
We arrived back in Cairns in the early evening and found a spot at a Cairns Holiday Park. We quickly made supper and got ready for the next day as we were off to the Great Barrier Reef, but we will share our experience about this tour in the next blog posting. So stay tuned.
We spent two nights at the Cairns Holiday Park. The campground was a large and mostly paved, but had great bathrooms, showers and laundry facilities.
Before leaving Cairns for the second time, Noah asked if we could make a quick stop. You see a few days earlier when we were in Cairns we came across a music store and we always seem to stop and check out the music stores. The electric violin hanging in the window had caught his eye and we went in to take a closer look. After standing there admiring it, he mustered up the courage to ask if he could give it a try. He has been playing violin since he was 3 ½ years old, and this has been the longest he has been away from his violin. I know he has missed playing and had mentioned it a couple of times over the past few months so I wasn’t surprised that he wanted to try it out. After a short while he passed the electric violin back to the sales clerk and walked out of the store. We followed behind not asking anything. When we returned to our campervan he asked if he could buy it. Since we planned to return to Cairns in a few days we asked him to think about it and if he still wanted it we would stop then so he could buy it. So today was the day. We were stopping to buy an electric violin. I never would have imagined we would be returning home with a violin, but we were. He decided to use his remaining savings to buy it and he couldn’t have been happier. Now we have to worry about a violin getting too hot under the blazing Australian sun … in a campervan… no problem!!
Now that everyone was happy and the violin was carefully stowed, we were on our way again…heading south along the pacific coast highway.
As we drove along the Pacific Coast Highway, we didn’t get far before we stopped to see Josephine Falls. It was a short windy walk up to the falls and once up there we felt sorry we weren’t wearing our swim suits. There were a number of people sunbathing, sliding down boulders into the water and others just sitting enjoying the scenery. We stayed for as long as we could, letting the kids jump from huge rock to rock. I just was waiting for one of them to fall and get wet, which would have led to swimming. Fortunately, this did not happen. This little side trip was so worth the stop, just sorry we got such a late start and missed the other waterfalls along the way.
We spent the night at a free camp site, which was just small spot off the highway near Innisfail. It turned out to be not too bad, even the bathrooms had toilet paper. So we couldn’t complain. We drove less than 100 km today.
Realizing we had to make better time we decided to make today a driving day. We were determined to make it to Townsville. We stopped a few times to let the kids burn off some energy and appreciate the views and of course, to have a picnic. Using the Wi-Fi on our phones we tried to reach campsites, but getting internet access was a bust. If the wind was blowing just right we finally got Wi-Fi on our phones. It was after 8pm when we finally pulled up to another free campground just outside of Townsville. The WikiCamps app really was helpful for us in finding places to stay.
We’ve been camping for 6 days now and the “fun” has officially worn off. We are feeling very cramped in our “… 5 person campervan…” which we “somewhat affectionately” named, Bernice. At night it is so hot that the kids are sweating up in the loft. There is more bickering in both the front and back seats. We are all getting grouchy and needing more space. I was looking forward to our next adventure, but it is has also put a bit of strain on our travel speed. Knowing we don’t travel at warp speed, we should have planned more time between scheduled adventures.
We had heard and read that Airlie Beach was one on the places we “must” stop at and it just so happened to be the place that our next tour of the Great Barrier Reef took place. The faithful “WikiCamps” app led us to the Seabreeze Tourist Park where we stowed Noah’s violin in the air conditioned camp office and we played in the pool, showered in the amazing showers, and did a bit of grocery shopping at the shops next to the campsite. Even though it was on the pricey side, the Seabreeze Tourist Park was a perfect spot for us. It was within walking distance to amenities and the beach. The facilities were clean. It was nice to have a pool and a hot shower. The kids spent hours in the pool. We spent two days at Airlie Beach and wished we had more time to explore and enjoy the beaches, but it was time to move on.
After picking up Noah’s violin we were off again, driving down the Sunshine Coast. The short break from driving rejuvenated us. There were smiles on our faces again and we didn’t mind getting packed up and seat belted in again. Our goal for the day was to get as far as Rockhampton. It was a very ambitious goal, but we felt the adventures we had on the reef would keep us going. While we watched Australia pass by us through the campervan windows, we couldn’t help but smile at just how beautiful this country is. It was a very long driving day, but the road signs keeps up occupied.
Stopping only for quick breaks, gas or to use a restroom. By the time we arrived at our rest stop for the night we had driven over 400km. Our campsite for the night was a free stop just off the side of the highway, just outside Rockhampton. The grass area was covered in cane toads. The toads were huge, some of them were up to 6 inches long. We had read that in the 1930s the cane toad was introduced to Australia from Hawaii in an attempt to control the cane beetles that were killing the cane crops. Now the cane toad has become a high population nuisance in Australia.
There’s not much sleeping in when you spend the night in a sweltering hot campervan alongside a highway. We had a quick bowl of cereal and were back on the road and before we knew it we were in Rockhampton and heading straight to the Rockhampton Zoo. The zoo had just reopened after the cyclone storm that ripped through the communities in late 2014. Many exhibits were still closed down and damaged. We did see lazy koalas sleeping in trees, giant emus sauntering around, kangaroos resting in the shade, a friendly gorilla who was so happy to see us standing at the window and a lonely crocodile sunbathing by the pond. While walking through the Aviary we got a glimpse of over a dozen species of colorful birds from the Australian Rainforest. The Dingo exhibit was badly damaged from the cyclone, and unfortunately we did not get to see any Dingos. Overall, even though the zoo was small, it gave us a good opportunity to get a closer look at some of Australia’s wildlife. We spent over two hours walking around the zoo, observing the animals and birds, watching the zoo staff trying to trap an unwelcome Eastern Brown Snake (the world’s 2nd most venomous snake) and chatting with maintenance staff as they repaired zoo enclosures that were damaged in the storm. Well worth the stop.
Back in the van, and before we knew it we were stopping again. This time at the Tropic of Capricorn. Oh, I love these moments on our trip when we can teach our kids about the world. How often does a Canadian get to stand on the Tropic of Capricorn? What a learning opportunity to talk about geography in this way. We have experienced traveling through Ecuador, standing on the Equator and now the Tropic of Capricorn. Inside the tourism office we spoke with the friendly and informative staff, one of whom was a retired school teacher who was very familiar with Saskatchewan and Western Canada. What a breath of fresh air, someone who knew of our home province.
Back on the road. Our travel goal was to get as far as Agnes Waters, about 225 km south of Rockhampton. With the number of stops we made throughout the day, we arrived in Agnes Waters well after supper time and it was so dark out we could barely see anything. Once at Agnes Waters we pulled into the huge campground and it was packed. There were tents and campers squished into camp sites. Colorful beach towels hanging from makeshift clothes lines and kids running around. It was at that time we remembered it was Easter break and I think every family in Australia was out camping. Len went in search of someone that worked at the campground, while I kept the kids trapped in the van for fear of losing them in the darkness. Len returned about 15 minutes later, only to inform us that the campground was full and there may be spots left at 1770, (yes, that is actually a town, named after the sailor, James Cook who landed at the site in May 1770).
Into the darkness we drove again, this time in search of the Captain Cook Holiday Village, located just outside 1770. We registered at the entrance and went in search of our campsite, which proved to be very hard in the dark. The campground map was of little help and as the campsite numbers are painted on the concrete slabs, we kept jumping in and out of the van looking for our site. We finally found it tucked in behind some trees. Under the light of the moon, Len tries backing the campervan into place, alongside the concrete slab and without taking out any of the trees. After a number of tries, Jo, a fellow camper who had been watching us struggle, comes over and offers to back our campervan into the site. Defeated, Len hands over the keys and Jo hops in and within seconds has our van parked perfectly into the site. We thanked her for her help and before we knew it we were invited over to their campsite for supper. How can you turn that kind of generosity down?
April 17th (And by chance we’re in 1770 nonetheless)
We were up early the next morning so the guys could try their hand at surfing. You see, the night before I noticed a sign when we pulled into the Agnes Waters campsite for $17 surf lessons. For that price, how could you not try?
Learn to surf in Australia, what an awesome opportunity. Noah wanted lessons for sure, but Len, not being a strong swimmer wasn’t so sure. After speaking to the instructors, seeing their passion for the sport and being told that the beach is very flat, the water is only waist deep and that you only go as deep as you are comfortable with, Len decided to give it a try. In addition, according to the tourist information we had seen so far, this surf school at Agnes Water and 1770, was one of the best places for beginners to learn to surf and also the cheapest. So Noah and Len signed up for our first ever Learn to Surf Lesson, offered through Reef to Beach Surf School & Sporting Goods. After signing the usual release of liability forms we all assembled at the shop (ranging from young kids to older people like Len) to get a briefing from the instructors from where we walked down towards the beach, picked up our surf boards (out of one of the instructor’s garages) and got down to the beach, to get started. It was a very relaxed small town intimate experience. Aurora and I followed the massive group a surfers down to the beach to watch the lessons.
Here is Len’s take on the day:
“The weather was perfect, hot and sunny, but the wind was a little stronger than usual, which made for bigger waves than usual (according to the instructors). The beach was awesome, a large open sandy area. We started with the basics (of course in the stability of the beach sand), how to lay on the board and how to hop to your feet, balance and stay standing. At first it seemed pretty straight forward, and I walked out into the waves, thinking, “I can do this” and I’m pretty sure Noah was feeling much the same way. As we walked out into the water, you had to remember to point your board directly into the waves and to not hold it parallel to the waves; I got knocked over a couple times before I totally appreciated the strength of the waves. As Noah and I had never tried this before and we had no comparisons to make it to, so the waves did not seem that bad. I guess though, our height helped too, being over 6’ tall, makes the waves a little easier to take. Try and try and try as I did, by the end I was not able to get up to standing and riding a wave in. I could ride in laying on the board but as soon as I tried to get up I’d veer off left or right and ultimately end up standing in the sand. Noah did better though, he managed to get standing a few times. Despite being the first time he tried it and the fact that he got up a few times, Noah was disappointed in how he did with the lesson. I think he had an image of mastering surfing much better on first crack. I was a little disappointed to not have stood on the board, but despite that I was very happy to have tried this, as it for me was an experience not to be missed.
The lesson was only a few hours, and I would have liked to book another day at our campground, to try another lesson the next day. However, we had to keep moving South towards Brisbane as our Campervan return date and flight out of Australia was quickly approaching.”
In the morning, Aurora and I were both up so we decided to take a walk down to the beach which was about a 20 minute walk. We had fun, following the path through the campground, down through the trees until we finally were walking in sand, letting us know we were getting closer to the beach. We could hear the waves crashing in to shore, telling us the sea was rough, too rough to swim in. We trudged on until finally we got a glimpse of the beautiful sunrise reflecting on the sea. We stopped to admire it for a minute, breathing in the sea air and listening to the sea and birds chirping. We walked the last few meters to the shore and were greeted with an entire beach to ourselves. We walked along the shore, jumping waves and looking for the best seashells. These quiet one-to-one moments have been some of my favorite memories that I will always cherish. Thanks for the walk girl, enjoyed our girl time together.
By the time we returned to the van, it was starting to rain. We got the boys up, had a quick breakfast, showered and packed up. It was time to move on. We set our sights on Hervey Bay, a 240km drive, and very close to Brisbane where we had to drop the campervan off in a few days. We thought Hervey Bay would a great place to spend a few days before leaving Australia. It was a nice leisurely drive and the scenery was so beautiful.
We were all a little sad. Before we knew it we were in stopping at the tourist information centre on the outskirts of Hervey Bay. We decided to stop in and check on campgrounds. We were just going to ask about campsites, but the next thing we knew we were booking another tour for the next day. We had heard so much about Fraser Island that we decided not to pass up the opportunity. (Check back, because we will definitely be posting about this tour as it was without a doubt one of our favorite tours to date. Loved. Loved. Loved it.)
The tourist information centre staff called ahead and arranged a campsite for us, at the Scarness Beachfront Tourist Caravan Park. It was on the beach facing the sea. We couldn’t have asked for a more perfect spot. We arrived early enough in the day to let the kids swim while we prepared for supper and for our tour to Fraser Island the next day. Perfect Day!
We spent two days at the Scarness Caravan Park swimming, geocaching and visiting with fellow campers. We packed up and piled into the van for our last time on Monday morning, April 20th. We needed to be in Brisbane by 2pm in order to return the camper. It was a quiet drive, a little too quiet, probably because we all knew this was our last day of touring Australia and no one was ready to leave. The backseat bickering had stopped, the complaining about the lack of space had stopped and we all had our eyes fixed on the scenery out our windows wanting to soak up as much of Australia as we could in our last kilometers of the open road.
We arrived in Brisbane as scheduled, emptied out our campervan, left it at the shop and caught a taxi to our hotel. We explored the local area around the hotel on foot in the evening and the next day, April 21st, as our flight out of Brisbane was not until late in the evening. Also managed to do some laundry and television watching at the hotel. We packed up our bags and weighed them as usual, so we were ready to just load them into the taxi on the 21st and head to the airport.
After 13 days, and 2330kms later, we had finished our Australian road trip. There is no doubt that we were all ready for a little more space, we were tired of having to rip the seats apart to dig in the compartments to get to our luggage and without a doubt, our butts were sore from sitting so much. That being said, I wouldn’t change much of our two weeks exploring Australia; except maybe adding a few more weeks or months and trading in the campervan for an actual camper trailer.
Australia is an amazing country, far better than I really expected. I am so glad we decided to explore it in a campervan. It was a nice change to be travelling and be in control of our own transportation, when we leave, when we stop, what we stop to see, it was a “Road trip with some spontaneity”. We were our own guides, at the wheel, instead of being in the back seat of a crowded van or bus with a guide talking to us through a microphone. There are so many breathtaking views along the way and there are so many things to see and do. We initially thought that 13 days in a campervan would be enough time to allow us to see and do all the things we wanted to, but in reality it wasn’t. I don’t think there is a “right” amount of time. There was just more to see and do than one would have time for. I am sorry that we missed the sugar cane museum and seeing one of the larger zoos, but when you are travelling with kids you seem to start later in the day, have more rest stops and spend longer times at the sights. I’m not complaining about those things, they are just our reality. On the flip side, not having seen everything gives us a reason to possibly return one day and see what we’ve missed, or even head inland to a completely new area of Australia. We are so glad to have had the chance to explore some of the beautiful parts of Australia’s East coast, the Land Down Under, definitely many good memories coming home with us.