It was day four of The Big Walkabout, and having just completed an exciting morning of surfing, (and leg breaking for one unfortunate member of the group; we all seriously admired her bravery as she continued, albeit hobbling, on the tour with us) it was time to drive two hours to our next destination; Byron Bay.
En route we passed The Big Banana, one of Australia’s first “Big Things” (a group of 150 large structures around the country, with many people making it their aim to visit each one of them).
Upon arrival, we walked up to Cape Byron Lighthouse. Dating back to 1901, it is the country’s most powerful lighthouse and the easternmost point of mainland Australia. The view was spectacular and the sea was a dazzling blue, sparkling in the sunlight.
Though it is known as a one-street town with just 10,000 people, Byron Bay is a really popular tourist spot, attracting 1.5 million visitors every year. I could see why, as it boasted endless beaches and there were quirky shops and eateries on every corner.
After a wonderful lunch, we explored the town, took advantage of a free BBQ at our hostel and then sampled Byron’s nightlife. It was a great chance to bond as a group.
We were meant to kayak in the stunning blue sea the following morning, but the weather forecast forbid it due to unsafe conditions; and sure enough the heavens opened, it began to pour and we could understand why. This wasn’t just any rain, this was as torrential a downpour as I think I’d ever seen, but it stopped as quickly as it had started and we were soon heading off to a new destination.
We weren’t just leaving Byron Bay, but also New South Wales, as we embarked on an hour’s journey to the state of Queensland. Nicknamed The Sunshine State, Queensland is fittingly blessed with 300 days of sunny weather each year (almost unimaginable to us Brits, who are probably more likely to get that many days of rain!).
Our first destination in Queensland was Surfers Paradise. Situated on the Gold Coast, it is known for its surf beach and high-rise buildings, with some calling it the Vegas of Australia.
We were certainly here at an interesting time, as it was the end of school for final year students in Australia and many of them celebrate this with week-long holidays in places such as Surfers, in a tradition known as “schoolies”. Therefore, most locations in the town were densely populated with students and those amongst them who had not just finished their final year of school (AKA us), were laughed at and referred to as “toolies”!
Trying to ignore our “toolie” status, we enjoyed the sunshine on the long stretch of beach and got ready for the evening’s activity. Those who had opted in were going to Dracula’s Cabaret, a vampire-style night of entertainment, acrobatics, themed food and cocktails, complete with a ghost train and hilariously horrible waiters. It was a weird and wonderful show, and it inspired a mixture of laughter, shock and amazement.
After the cabaret had finished, the night had only just began and we joined the rest of our group at Retro’s Nightclub, becoming “toolies” once more as we were surrounded by far too many teenagers! Luckily, the great deal of cheesy music made up for the crowd.
The subsequent day we visited Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary. Built in 1947, it is a heritage-listed zoological garden which is home to many types of animal, housing one of the largest collections of Australian native species in the world. I had the opportunity to hug a koala called Walter. The guide told us that he loved to be hugged, and he was even reluctant to let go.
We were also fortunate enough to see bush turkeys, Komodo dragons, grey kangaroos, red kangaroos, joeys, an emu, parrots, a peacock, a southern hairy-nosed wombat, many exotic birds, a Mertens’ water monitor lizard, eastern long-necked turtles, snakes, crocodiles and wallabies.
Upon returning to Surfers Paradise, a few of us found ourselves at the Hard Rock Cafe for food and cocktails. We also bid farewell to three members of the group who were leaving us here.
The evening flew by and we woke the next morning ready to depart Surfers Paradise and the Gold Coast and head to Queensland’s capital city, Brisbane.
Referred to fondly as “the greatest place on earth” by our leader Jill (she is unsurprisingly from this city), Brisbane started as a penal settlement but is now known for its art and culture, its amazing climate and its man-made, urban beach in the middle of the city.
Though it was only a quick stop, we tried to see as much as possible and a few of us walked through the city centre, explored the botanic gardens, came across Queensland University, took pictures with the much-loved Brisbane sign and finished our tour by dipping our feet in the refreshing waters of the man-made beach. There were people doing aqua aerobics here and I could only imagine what a brilliant lunch time activity that would be, stepping out from an office job into the sensational sunshine.
Leaving beautiful Brisbane behind us, we boarded our coach once more and drove for approximately two hours to Noosa Heads. Located on the Sunshine Coast, it is a small, very natural town with picturesque coastal walks and yet more beauteous beaches. We made a quick stop at one of them, enjoying the warm water and golden sands.
That evening we were staying in cosy cabins in an eco-camp and we ate traditionally Australian pavlova and chatted around a campfire, toasting marshmallows and unwinding from the day, whilst sharing our excitement for the following morning’s excursion to Fraser Island.
After a 5:30am wake up, we took two safari vehicles to Fraser Island, or K’gari, which means “paradise” in the language of the Butchulla people who first inhabited the island.
It is the world’s largest sand island at 1,840 km² and has a beach stretching over 120 kilometres, as well as a “sand highway” that runs the length of the island. The sand is 500,000 years old on one side of the island, and 800,000 years old on the other. One cannot swim on the beaches as there are no lifeguards, many sharks and unpredictable currents.
Fraser Island became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1992 in recognition of its natural values. Its main industry used to be logging timber, but it is now made up entirely of tourism as it is a protected area. The island consists of rainforests, eucalyptus woodland, mangrove forests, wallum and peat swamps, sand dunes and coastal heaths. Unlike many other sand islands, there is an abundance of plant life on Fraser Island due to a naturally occurring fungi present in the sand that essentially feeds the plants.
Well known for its dingoes (though we were unfortunate, but perhaps lucky not to see any, as tourists must exercise great caution if they do come across one), Fraser Island is also home to a diverse range of birds, reptiles and amphibians, including the occasional saltwater crocodile. It only has a human population of around 200 people.
After a long drive in our safari vehicles (our vehicle’s air con was broken which made for a pretty uncomfortable drive in the near 30° heat), we crossed into the island on a small ferry and stopped on the beach for refreshments. We then went on a 45-minute hike around one of the rainforests, before swimming in the incredibly clear blue water of Lake McKenzie.
The beginning versus the end of our day trip to Fraser Island
This had been an extraordinary experience in a truly fascinating place, and after a long drive back to Noosa in our safari vehicles, we finished the day with dinner at a surf club.
Tomorrow we would be hitting the road once more and beginning our next leg of the journey, starting with the chance to explore and taste the wares of a uniquely Australian winery. Watch this space for more Aussie Adventures!