A guide to backpacking the Australian East Coast

If you’ve been with me since the beginning you’ll know that the first stretch of travelling I did in Australia was the trip from Sydney to Cairns along the Australian East Coast.  It’s a hugely popular backpacker route so if you’re a solo traveller staying in hostels you’ll meet lots of people along the way in the same boat – and probably keep running into them as your trip progresses.  You’ll get used to answering the question “Are you going up or down?”  Add it to the list of those introductory questions you answer every few days that you’re sick of hearing.  However if you meet someone travelling in the opposite direction to you make sure you pick each others brains for recommendations, or more importantly what to avoid, when it comes to tours, places and accommodation.

As it’s always handy to get the low-down from someone who’s been there I’m going to share my complete East Coast itinerary.  I’m not recommending that you do all of these tours or stay at all of these places; you’ll see that when you read the comments that some were really good and others I wish I’d done differently.

 

HOW TO TRAVEL

I don’t drive and so I travelled the east coast via the wonder of the Greyhound bus service.  Greyhound runs services all across Australia and you can buy tickets for individual journeys.  However if you’re doing a long trip with multiple stops they offer passes, which will save you money.  For this trip I purchased the Sydney > Cairns hop-on hop-off pass for $425.

if you do drive you could rent a car or a few friends of mine rented a camper-van.  Be wary though, it sounds idyllic but there are some very long stretches of driving involved in this trip and you’re not supposed to drive through the night as it’s dangerous.  Therefore you need a good amount of people in the camper/car to take turns.

 

THE ROUTE

SYDNEY

I stayed for 9 nights in total in Sydney, broken up by a spell at Surf Camp a couple of hours down the coast. I’d recommend spending at least a week in Sydney, and you might want longer if you’re not on a time constraint, because there really is so much to see and do.  I knew that I would be going back to Sydney at the end of this year so I wasn’t worried about having such little time there.

Most of my time was spent at Sydney Central YHA.  It’s a little on the pricey side for a hostel but it is well-located.  It’s huge and I generally find that this means other people aren’t all that talkative so not the ideal place to make friends.  This was okay with me because I knew other people staying there are the time.  The hostel itself is very nice, it’s clean and there’s a huge common area with free wifi, a rooftop pool and cinema.  The on-site cafe also serves really good food.  The range of activities is good.  We did the free walking tour from Bondi to Coogee when we first arrived and our guide was so lovely – although I don’t think she actually works there she was on loan from Wake Up! round the corner.

Speaking of which, I also stayed at Wake Up! for a couple of nights and much preferred the YHA.  My Wake Up! experience involved some girls having a party in my room with some boys they’d met until 2am and the bathroom was covered in cheesy wotsits (or the Aussie equivalent) when I went in there in the morning – on both days?!!

Sydney Australian East Coast

 

BYRON BAY

I stayed in Byron for 5 nights which, in hindsight, was probably a little bit too long.  Byron is very popular and you hear about a lot of people arriving and staying for months.  It’s easy to see why because it’s a lovely place and the attitude is very laid back but really there isn’t much to do there.  I spent most of my time on the beach and then strolling into town in the afternoon, which was amazing for me at the time having not been on a beach holiday in years!

When I was in Byron it was the long weekend or half-term or one of the seemingly many public holidays they have here and so I stayed at Byron Beach Resort because it was really the only place left with beds.  It’s a little way out of the centre of Byron which is the only reason why it’s less popular because it’s absolutely lovely.  I actually think it worked out all the better because it had less of a party vibe than in the centre of town.  The beach was also directly on the doorstep and it was the other end of the beach from the town so much less busy.  It also wasn’t completely inaccessible despite the distance.  You could walk into town along the beach in about 15 minutes – although it felt longer that time I did it in a downpour of rain without an umbrella on my way back from Woolworths!

Byron Bay Australian East Coast

 

 SURFER’S PARADISE

Surfer’s takes the crown as my least favourite place in Australia so far (still waiting for it to be topped…) so, although I’d be tempted to tell you to avoid it altogether, if you absolutely insist on going there don’t stay for long.  Not unless you like clubbing and drunkenness or have a burning desire to visit every theme park in Australia.  That’s really all that’s there.

And here’s a place you don’t want to stay… Backpackers in Paradise.  There be backpackers but it sure ain’t paradise.  I picked this place because it’s the closest hostel to the Greyhound bus stop and I thought there was nothing worse than having to carry my backpack around in the thirty degree heat.  It turns out there is something worse and it’s staying at this place.  Firstly they didn’t have a key for my room so I had to wait while they sent someone to get one cut for me.  Ten minutes later we finally get in and it looks like the room hadn’t been cleaned in months.  To be fair my two room mates were really nice (until the guy brought a Swedish girl back at 3am who had no idea what whispering was).

Surfers Paradise Australian East Coast

 

BRISBANE

I was only in Brisbane for 1 night because I was told that if I’d been to Sydney then Brisbane was nothing new and I didn’t need to stay there any longer.  I actually really enjoyed my brief time in Brisbane and would’ve definitely spent an extra day or two here if I’d known.  There might not be as much to do as in Sydney or Melbourne but it’s a nice city and the Southbank is one of the liveliest and prettiest areas of a city I’ve come across.

I stayed at Brisbane City YHA and it’s really nice.  It’s not that centrally located but it is near the train station where the Greyhound bus stops, which is excellent because it’s often hot in Brisbane.  There’s a rooftop pool and an outdoor seating area next to the kitchen.  The only downside is that the wifi is only located on the ground floor and it’s a very small area where everyone wants to be.  A lot of backpackers opt for Base as an alternative because it’s much cheaper than the YHA but I’ve heard several horror stories about the Brisbane Base – it seems to be a particularly bad one for attracting terrible behaviour.

Brisbane Australian East Coast

 

NOOSA

I think I spent a grand total of 6 nights in Noosa.  Now you’d never ever need 6 nights in Noosa, there’s not enough to do there.  I spent 3 of those nights bush camping and kayaking in the Noosa Everglades so you can immediately discount those nights.  I would say 2 nights in total is long enough for you at Noosa, even though it was undoubtedly my favourite place on the East Coast.  A lot of people skip it altogether if they aren’t doing anything specific there.

My 2 nights prior to the bush-camp were spent at the Noosa YHA, also known as Halse Lodge.  It was one of the best hostels I’ve stayed in.  It’s located in Noosa Heads but they’ll pick you up and drop you off from the bus station.  The National Park and the beach are on the doorstep and there is a wonderful on-site restaurant that’s pretty reasonably priced.  I spent a couple of evening eating on the veranda looking out at the scenery surrounding the hostel and it was just idyllic.  Afterwards skip dessert and head to the little shopping street a few hundred metres away which is aligned with restaurants and always buzzing, there are several great gelato places.

After my bush-camping experience I had to book another night in Noosa because of the way the bus times worked and Halse Lodge was completely booked up so I ended up staying at Noosa Backpackers Resort which is in Noosaville.  It’s located right on the Noosa river and there are numerous restaurants down the main road with seating out front so you can enjoy the views.

Noosa Australian East Coast

 

HERVEY BAY > FRASER ISLAND

Hervey Bay is a departure point for Fraser Island but there is nothing else there.  The only people who stop and stay there are going to Fraser Island and most of them are staying at the Palace hostel, because they’re a major provider of one of the tours.

I booked the 3 day/2 night 4WD tour with Palace Adventures to Fraser Island and that includes 2 nights of accommodation at the hostel.  If it didn’t include those 2 nights nobody would stay for them because there really only is a beach.  Luckily if you’ve booked the tour your days end up being occupied because of all the organising before and after the tour.

If you want to go to Fraser (which of course you do) your options are the self-guided 4WD tours or a larger coach tour.  I don’t know anyone who’s done the coach tour.  The main providers of the 4WD tours are Palace and Dingo Adventures.  I have a friend who went with Dingos and they had access to enclosed accommodation, showers and toilets.  With Palace you really are camping in a tent, and yes you might have wee on the beach in the dark while your friend watches for dingos – but hey that’s all part of the fun right?

Fraser Island Australian East Coast

 

AIRLIE BEACH > THE WHITSUNDAYS

Airlie Beach is the place to go to get on a boat that goes to the Whitsundays.  I stayed in Airlie Beach for 2 nights, 1 before and 1 after my trip, which I think is just about enough time.  Most boat trips leave in the morning so you’ll want to arrive the day before and if pushed for time you could shave a day off the other end if your trip arrives back early enough.  I didn’t realise that mine got back at 10am so I didn’t really need to stay the extra night but we did have an after party and I got to travel with a friend to Townsville by coincidence so it worked out well for me to not leave the same day.

My 2 nights were at the Airlie Beach YHA, which was okay.  It was quiet and I was pretty lucky that on arrival my room mates gleefully informed me that you could pick up the wifi in our room because we were above the kitchen area.  When I checked in again 2 days later I had the room below the one I’d stayed in last time so an even better signal, which was lucky because it monsooned and I spent most of the day taking advantage of glorious free internet – a luxury you never appreciate until it’s gone.

As for the Whitsundays trips there are so many available to choose from.  I went with OzSail on their Avatar trip and had an amazing time.  I know people who went on numerous other vessels and after hearing their experiences I’m convinced this is the best trip if you’re a backpacker.  It’s a smaller group, you get to do more snorkelling and you get to be on Whitehaven before anyone else.

Whitsundays Australian East Coast

 

MAGNETIC ISLAND

To get to Maggie Island you’ve got to get the bus or drive to Townsville and then get on the ferry.  It’s not necessary to stay in Townsville on the way there or back because the ferries are pretty regular, you just have to be a little careful to get the one back in time for your Greyhound connection (because these are not very regular).  Buy your return ticket on the way there.  It’s valid for return within 30 days and that way if you do almost miss you connection you don’t have that added stress.

There are only two hostels so far as I’m aware on the island: Base and the YHA, often referred to by it’s name Bungalow Bay Koala Village.  Backpackers far and wide sing the praises of the Base on Maggie but I can’t because I never stayed there.  Apparently it’s good and I gather the night life is wild (beware if you use a base jumping discount card though because my friend got shoved in the metal shed accommodation which is not so nice!)  I stayed at Bungalow Bay, which is pretty quiet and a bit of a dream.  I was in a 3 person room, which was only ever occupied by me and 1 other person.  Each “dorm” is it’s own little wooden hut and the sides are completely open apart from being covered by bug nets so you aren’t bitten to death in your sleep.  You wake up when it’s light and to the sounds of the animals (mainly the loud-ass koalas) in what feels like the middle of nowhere.  Possums come climbing over the bar at night and wallabies will hop across your path on your way back to your room in the evening.  There’s also a real community feel because it’s a smaller hostel and quite isolated.  It was the place where I probably met the nicest people of the whole trip (that I wasn’t forced into a tour situation with).

The 4 nights that I did was a bit much for the little there is to do on the island.  There are plenty of pretty beaches but you can visit them all in a day if you rent a car and even if you do half of the island is only accessible by off-road vehicles.  There are also some nice walks but it was just way too hot to be out in the sun for any substantial period of time when we were there.

Magnetic Island Australian East Coast

 

MISSION BEACH

I only went to Mission Beach to do my skydive.  Everyone who goes to Mission Beach is only there for that reason.  There’s really nothing else there except the beautiful beach.  The town is extremely quiet and seemed a little odd?

I stayed for 2 nights at the Mission Beach YHA.  Not my favourite YHA to put it mildly.  I’ve never been bitten so much in my life by mosquitos and it was definitely happening in my room.  No amount of insect repellent was putting them off and I left with my legs covered in bites.  I had to wrap my entire body in clothes and my blanket to try and prevent those nasty things from getting me and it was already hot.  Another side note the guy at the desk seemed to give me a housekeeper’s key so I’m not sure about the security of the place(!)  I only realised this because my room was hidden when you turned the corner so I kept going in to the room next door by mistake.  They probably thought I was the housekeeper but I can only imagine the look of confusion on my face that the key had worked by the room looked completely different.

The hostel situation at Mission Beach is a bit odd.  The place obviously wasn’t built to be a stop on the backpacker east coast route because it’s the only place where the Greyhound stop is a good 20 minute drive from the main town – all hostels pick up and drop off.  While the YHA is located in the town the other hostels such as Jackaroo are in a completely different area, which is too far to walk I think.  There’s not a lot in the town anyway so you’re not missing out if you stay there instead but it seems a bit odd to build a hostel in an area with no nightlife whatsoever.

Mission Beach Australian East Coast

 

CAIRNS

I spent a week in total in Cairns which I would recommend as a good amount of time.  Cairns itself is a day’s exploring but it’s the day trips that you will need the time for as this part of Queensland has some of the best surrounding areas and you don’t want to miss them.

Uncle Brian’s Fun, Falls & Forests trip was undoubtedly the most fun of them all and is popular with backpackers for a reason.  I’d recommend it to anyone (so long as you aren’t adverse to group participation, in which case you might be uncomfortable).

I took the Skyrail and Railway to Kuranda, which was great and less a day trip more of a drop off and pick up at the necessary points to reach everything yourself.

Cape Tribulation was a very different trip to Uncle Brian’s and had a different dynamic of traveller but it was still great.  I believe all of their guides have Aboriginal heritage and their knowledge of the land is fascinating.  I definitely learnt the most on that trip from our guide George and his sense of humour was wonderfully dry.

My Great Barrier Reef scuba-diving experience was the best thing I’ve done probably ever but that was down to pure luck.  There are numerous reef trips and some of them take you to much more remote sites than mine with Down Under Cruise & Dive, which was quite a big boat.  However I can’t deny I had a great time and what you don’t know you don’t miss?  I think it was pretty well organised and I would recommend them as a company to go with unless you want a really personalised experience.

During my time in Cairns I stayed at Castaways.  Lots and lots of backpackers stay at Gilligan’s.  It has a reputation for having the best atmosphere and it certainly looks very impressive.  I know some people who loved it and some who hated it.  If you like parties then stay there.  If you don’t then Castaways is a lovely hostel.  It’s a little bit far out of the centre of Cairns but that’s really my only qualm about it.  It’s a short bus journey (5 mins) from the centre in an evening, otherwise it’s not too far to walk (15 mins) and when it comes to tours they all pick you up and drop you off from your accommodation.  Castaways is family-run, it’s small and homely, there’s no bunk beds and there is free wifi everywhere.

Great Barrier Reef Australian East Coast

 

IN SUMMARY

Note that where the box is left blank this is because I wouldn’t recommend where I stayed or what I did and I haven’t made any other suggestions because I can’t base them off my own experiences.

SPEND STAY TOURS/ACTIVITIES
SYDNEY 7+ nights Sydney Central YHA
BYRON BAY 3-4 nights Byron Beach Resort
SURFER’S PARADISE 1 night
BRISBANE 2-3 nights Brisbane City YHA
NOOSA 2 nights Halse Lodge / Noosa Backpackers Resort
HERVEY BAY 3-4 nights Fraser Island with Palace Adventures
AIRLIE BEACH 4 nights Whitsunday Islands with OzSail
MAGNETIC ISLAND 3 nights Bungalow Bay Koala Village
MISSION BEACH 1 night Skydive with Jump The Beach
CAIRNS 6-7 nights Castaways Backpackers Uncle Brian’s Waterfalls Tour
Kuranda Skyrail & Railway
Cape Tribulation Tours
GBR with Down Under Cruise & Dive

 


4 Responses to A guide to backpacking the Australian East Coast

  1. Jess says:

    I only went as far as Airlie Beach and I so so regret not going further! Ahhh well. I used the Greyhound to get between Bundabery and Sydney and it wasn’t too bad really. It’s comfy, has wifi and is pretty reasonable price wise!

    • Kat says:

      It’s pretty decent. Wifi is a bit sporadic but other than that the USB charging points are useful! Cairns is pretty great for day trips (not so much as a place!) because there’s so many different types of environment so close! Daintree + Cape Trib is really cool.

  2. Marie says:

    Lovely article kat. I travelled the opposite way in 1999 via greyhound. You brought back some happy memories and yes, surfers paradise was that bad back in my day too!! Ha ha, i feel old now.

    We are about to embark on a world trip with our kids this time. Less partying.. more adventure!! Keep having fun!!
    Marie

    • Kat says:

      Oh Marie thank you for this comment, it was so great to read. Isn’t Surfer’s the worst? Haha! Glad it wasn’t just me.

      Your world trip sounds amazing. I am all for less partying more adventure… can’t get much exploring done on a hangover 😉 Hope you all have a fantastic time!

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