Camping our way around New Zealand was a fantastic way to spend two months; but as much as we knew we would miss all the great things that come with living in the outdoors, we were somewhat relieved to be packing our tents for the last time and boarding our flight to Melbourne. Our first week in the city was spent catching up with Sarah’s Australian family (to whom I’m still not quite sure how she’s related), getting the boring things like bank accounts and healthcare out of the way and paying a visit to a wildlife sanctuary to get a taste of what was to come on our East Coast road trip (Jen was thrilled to see her first kangaroo, which puzzled all the Australians present). We then picked up our campervans and set about our opposite ways: Kev and Sarah headed for the Great Ocean Road as we drove the other way to our first national park, Wilson’s Promontory. The weather was great and we had a nice day looking around for wildlife, stumbling across some emus, kangaroos and a cuddly wombat waddling around – a perfect start. As much as we liked it there, we had made plans to meet Jade in Sydney three days later and so we drove straight back to Melbourne after one night and spent the following three sleeping in our van parked up outside service stations along the Hume highway. On day 4 we arrived at Jade’s place in Sydney and spent the day touring the city, and had a fabulous evening drinking cheap wine and watching troupes of performers wearing masks, leotards and a lot of glitter marching the streets for the Pride parade.
Once we left Sydney and said our goodbyes to Jade, we could begin to take things a bit more slowly (having driven almost 1000km in our first few days on the road) and we leisurely started making our way west to the Blue Mountains National Park. The entire area was beautiful, and we spent a good couple of days exploring and stumbling across yet more Australian wildlife. A particularly friendly wallaby allowed us to take some selfies with it, and we even spotted the elusive platypus floating around the greenish Blue Lake. He was especially cute , but tricky to photograph as it turns out he’s afraid of everything, even the ducks he spends all day with in the lake.
As was going to be the case for the entirety of our road trip, we only had a couple of days in the area before needing to move on. So, we drove back into and out of Sydney and headed north, towards Port Stephens. It was here that we were hoping to spot a wild koala, the only other classic Aussie marsupial left on our list. We spent the days walking through various nature reserves and national parks, but no luck. The area was pretty nice, though, and we were beginning to get used to life in a campervan. Most nights we found a free ‘rest area’, which usually had a drop-toilet and an outdoor gas barbecue for us to use (and often a creepy lone man in a caravan who had clearly been overstaying and had set up permanent residence by the side of the road). Occasionally we’d get lucky and find a service station with free hot showers and flush toilets – it may sound a touch tragic, but we got pretty into it and it balanced out our hefty petrol expenses quite nicely!
Over the following days and weeks we kept slowly making our way up north, averaging 200-300 km a day. The roads were generally lacking in traffic and the scenery was at times spectacular. We checked in at Port Macquarie for a beach day and a visit to the Koala Hospital; spent a couple of days around Byron Bay to enjoy yet more beach; drove through the relatively underwhelming Gold Coast; enjoyed some city tourism in Brisbane; and paid homage to the late Steve Irwin at Australia Zoo.
The further north we drove, the more the weather worsened. Luckily, we did catch a good spell of almost-sunshine in Noosa Heads. There, we took a few days to get some beach time and walk around the National Park. Again, no Koalas, but we did see a large pod of Bottlenose Dolphins and a couple of Green Sea Turtles, so we were pleased.
Our stringent budget only allowed us to camp out in what was essentially a large car park, and one evening we were invited to a very uncomfortable weekly barbecue (the promise of free sausages swayed us), hosted by a trio of local pensioners who sang old country songs, complained when they suspected we weren’t paying attention and then told racist jokes. The next morning we decided we had spent enough time there and left for Hervey Bay.
We were very unfortunate and caught a huge rainstorm the day we arrived. We had hoped to take a trip over to Fraser Island the next day, where rainforests, shipwrecks and Dingos awaited, but the weather would have made the whole experience miserable and so we decided to camp for the night and left the next morning, after finding out that vipers had been roaming the flooded campsite through the night – luckily neither of us had needed to go to the toilet.
The next stop was Mon Repos, where we had hoped to see the turtle hatchlings commence their huge journey from the beach to the Pacific Ocean. Sadly, they had stopped holding guided viewings a couple of days before our arrival. Somewhat disheartened, we left the following morning and made our way to Rockhampton. We had read and heard about the nice beaches in the area and so decided to check them out, though were left slightly disappointed. We enquired about a trip to the beautiful Pumpkin Island and it was then that we first heard about the approaching Cyclone Debbie. A little bit of research revealed that we were heading straight for it and were due to reach Airlie Beach and the Whitsundays at the same time. Despite this (and mainly because there was absolutely nothing else to do in Rockhampton), we set off and headed north anyway. We made it about halfway to Mackay and had numerous conversations with panicked locals before giving in and accepting that it wouldn’t be safe to continue any further. The northernmost point we could reach was a little town (by this point deserted as all the locals had fled south) where we spent one night in a small caravan park, owned by the resident pensioner couple who had no choice but to remain. The only other guest was a strange Australian bloke who invited us for tea in his caravan. With neither of us having ever been inside one before, curiosity got the better of us and we accepted. That turned out to be a mistake, it was disgusting. It stank, there was crap everywhere (at one point I almost leant on what could either have been an old discarded cigar, an uneaten sausage, or a stale turd on the draining board) and the guy fitted your typical serial killer description. Eventually, after having watched what felt like hours’ worth of insanely boring footage of his holidays, him suggesting we holiday together later in the year and hounding Jen for her phone number, we retreated to our vans, locked the doors and hoped to never see him again. Indeed, our first bit of luck for a few days came in the form of his absence the following morning.
We wished the owners good luck as we retreated south to a car park, where we ended up spending two nights as the worst of the cyclone passed. The roads either side of us became flooded and closed by the police, so we made do with our depleted supply of peanut butter, jelly babies and carrots, made tea with our kettle in the public toilets and found a shower at a seemingly abandoned (and overrun by kangaroos) campground down the road. Three days, two very wobbly nights in our high-top van and one thousand games of Uno later, we woke up to meet our new neighbour – a fallen tree. Hungry and keen to move on, we took it as a sign that the worst of the cyclone had passed in the night and got back on the road, exchanging road updates with Emily and Gemma, our new pals from the car park.
We gingerly drove through a few (at times dangerously) flooded roads to reach Mackay, where we spent a couple of days with Emily and Gemma, before Kev and Sarah caught up with us. During the cyclone, just to make things even more interesting, Jen had developed an infection in one of her kidneys, and since no clinics in the town had any electricity, a visit to A&E was in order. Whilst we dwelled on our bad luck, Jen bonded with a family from a nearby village over a bag of grated cheese (a questionable hospital snack). It turns out one of their kids had been suffering from appendicitis during the cyclone, and had been unable to get to the hospital for days as a result of the flooding. We stopped feeling so sorry for ourselves after that.
We eventually got the all clear from the road police and made it all the way to Airlie Beach. The destruction was immediately evident: palm fronds were everywhere, shop signs were half-missing and we saw a couple of large sailing boats lying astray on the beach and rocks. Electricity and running water had not fully been restored, and the vast majority of shops and restaurants remained closed. At this point, a trip to the Whitsundays was the last thing on our mind, so we left the town shortly after arriving and kept moving north until we reached Townsville, but we’re still hoping to make it back up there later this year.
The weather up in Townsville was better and we finally managed an island trip, over to Magnetic Island. We spent a good few hours on the nice beaches and walking around the national park, where, surely enough, we found our first wild koala (we had almost lost hope by this point!) The views from the top of the hills and mountain on the island were spectacular, and it felt good to be doing something other than driving around in the rain for the first time in over a week.
We left Townsville and drove through to Mission Beach, where we walked in the rainforest and came across a few large cassowaries, and approximately 1,457 mosquitoes. Cassowaries are large, funky coloured prehistoric birds, which are pretty to look at, but also the most dangerous bird on earth due to their sharp front claw and territorial nature, so we were a bit startled when one emerged just in front of us on the path. From there we got some distance between us and the coast and drove west and up into the Atherton tablelands, where we stumbled into Gemma and Emily for the third time. Together we hunted down a small platypus, on which we practiced our selfie skills. With that accomplished, we made our way further on to one of the sketchiest rest areas we had found to spend the night, and left early the next day to make our way to the Daintree Rainforest. By this point, the climate was truly tropical and we were hit by nostalgia as the thick rainforest surrounding the roads and rivers reminded us of our time in Asia. We stuck around for a couple of boat trips to see some crocs from up close and then moved on once again, down to Port Douglas and all the way to Cairns, and were super excited to spot some crocs lazing by the side of the road on the way.
Due to the cyclone, we had gained a lot of time and so had a week before our flight back to Melbourne. We met up with Kev and Sarah again and visited another part of the Tablelands, then returned to Cairns and left for our overnight diving trip to the Outer Barrier Reef. The effects of the cyclone were clear once underwater, and the first couple of dives were quite underwhelming (though seeing a huge Grey Reef Shark was pretty cool). However, once we moved onto our night boat, the conditions improved significantly and we enjoyed our 5 subsequent dives, especially our night dive, for which we had to jump in amongst a group of sharks, and could look up and watch their silhouettes above us during the dive. The sunrise over the barrier reef on the penultimate day of our trip was spectacular and we ended our trip feeling very satisfied.
The following morning we waved good bye to our trusty van, which had taken us 7500km along the Eastern coast of Australia, and boarded our flight to Melbourne.
After a few weeks of apartment hunting and job searching, both Jen and I are now working full-time and are living in Southbank. We spend most weekends sampling various brunch spots and are really enjoying Melbourne life. I’m training for the marathon in October and volunteering as a penguin guide in the evenings, and Jen is doing her. It might be a while before the next update; after all, detailed accounts of our daily work routines can only keep you entertained for so long.