What is the most jaw-dropping sight you can imagine after 2 weeks of mind-boggling, scorching, glorious road trip through the mighty Australian desert that filled our eyes, minds, memory cards and a quite bit of our campervan with bright red dust? It was late afternoon on a sunny day in September when we followed the snaky Flinders Highway round a hill and there it lay before us: the majestically vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean.
If you're wondering what you've just started reading, keep going, it's going to be awesome! We are good friends and film team Saxon & Nicola (Hi! Nice to meet you!) with our trusty Highball Mighty Camper called 'Rhino'. We're driving across Australia, all the way from Darwin to Sydney. If you haven't read Part 1 of our Mighty Australian Road Trip yet, you can catch up here. If you wonder how both parts connect, after leaving Uluru we headed back north up the Stuart Highway to Threeways and cut across to western Queensland for 3 days, via Camooweal (population of 187!), vast prairies, mining country, an amazing camp site in Julia Creek and through Richmond for an encounter with Australia's incredible dinosaur fossils. But enough of technicalities, we had an ocean to explore.
Our first destination has firmly earned its place on the backpacker hit list. Cairns boasts both funky and trashy entertainment options at night, and a gateway to a vast array of outdoor activities during the day. We didn't waste any time and jumped onto a dive boat headed for the world famous Great Barrier Reef. Whilst the most spectacular sites for advanced divers can be found on the outer reef and take a few days to explore via live-aboard (that's a dive boat you stay over night on), the coral and fish we saw snorkelling and scuba diving around Norman Reef and Saxon Reef were beautiful (no wonder with that name!) and the Tusa 6 team were fantastic.
29 degree water? Yes please!
The next day a very early start put us in front of a giant gumboot, frog and all. This first glimpse of Australia's obsession with 'Big Things' is 2 hours drive south of Cairns and marks the record 8m high 1950 floods of Tully, which residents (surprise) claim is the continent's wettest town. The gumboot was ironically nearly washed away by the 2011 cyclone and our first indigenous champions experience saw us making good use of the region's waterways as we kayaked through thick rainforest whilst learning all about local aboriginal culture with Ingan Tours. A stop for lunch and a swim in crystal clear waters made the experience all the more magical. With little time to waste, we headed back up to Cairns for a must-do Aussie experience – a BBQ by the beach with other camper friends we'd met on our road trip. Pick up food, a BBQ, your mates and some beers? Oh yeah, no problem. We have Rhino! Oh, and did we mention we popped in to say hi to the Mighty team in Cairns for some local tips and raided the 'sharing' shelf again? 3 types of ketchup. Win.
We had a whole East Coast stretched ahead of us, but we just couldn't get enough of stunning tropical North Queensland. The Mighty team in Cairns had told us about an aboriginal walking tour even further North in Port Douglas, so we booked and headed up one hour of stunning scenic winding coastal road (make time for stop offs!) early the next morning. Juan from Walkabout adventures spent the next 5 hours guiding us barefoot around mangroves and low-tide sand flats, opening our eyes to the abundance of amazing food and medicine all around us. "Rub this leaf on mozzie bites", "these clams taste like chorizo, we'll cook 'em later", and "eat this ant, its butt tastes like lemon sherbet!" all intermingled with awesome stories and incredible scenery. "I've just spotted a mud crab…" TWWWWWACK, and Juan's bamboo spear comes down expertly on two huge bucks. "That's $80 per piece in a restaurant", we learn later, when mouth-watering smells fill the kitchen. And boy, was it delicious.
Scenic stop off on the way from Port Douglas
With the incredible meal still in good memory, we set off down the coast to sample another of Queensland's best foods. About ½ an hour north of Townsville, Frosty Mango doesn't just serve incredible homemade ice cream (try the sour sop and never look back!), but also marks the turn off road to local secret Crystal Creek. A 20-minute windy road into the hills of the Paluma Range National Park leads to a car park, a bridge and one of the most beautiful cascading rock pool waterfalls in the region. It's small, but very local and a real tourist-free treasure. A quick lunch later, we were on our way to Townsville's harbour to catch a ferry (Rhino can come too!) to mysteriously named Magnetic Island, home of fluffy koalas, cute possums, magnificent tropical birds and huge fish including Marlin, Sailfish, Giant Trevally, Dogtooth Tuna and Mahi-Mahi. The island also happens to be Saxon's adventure playground due to his having grown up in Townsville, so our experience could not have been more local.
Maggie Island's only campervan park is Koala Bay Village, and we were in for a treat. Camping beneath the lush jungle canopy, surrounded by wallabies, curlews, cockatoos, rainbow parakeets, fellow backpackers and a visit from the cutest possum yet (who shamelessly clambered into the back of Rhino and over Nic's legs as we sat working on our laptops, just to check out our awesome setup), we were truly on Dr Doolittle's paradise island. In the morning we had breakfast with the Koalas, run by the adjacent Koala Village wildlife sanctuary. Whilst enjoying yummy bacon, buns and local fruit we were introduced to frill-neck lizards, snakes, blue tongued skinks and local koalas that had been taken in after being injured by cars or had lost their parents. It was amazing to see all these animals looked after in their natural surroundings, and mingling with other wild animals that lived just meters away in the bush.
Sax getting an earful
Maggie Island also has beautiful beaches, coral reef snorkelling around Horseshoe Bay and its own full moon party once a month. Whilst our dates didn't coincide, we loved the island so much we decided to stay another day. Handy to have your house with you! The same family that run Koala Bay Village also run the Billabong Sanctuary just south of Townsville, and for a Brit like Nic, feeding kangaroos and hugging a koala was on her bucket list so we transferred back to the mainland the next day. Ever seen an echidna? They're pretty amazing. A snoring wombat? Fed a black cockatoo? Watched crocs snapping at junks of meat or Cassowaries nibbling at some foliage? Don't miss out.
We took around 5 hours to drive to Airlie Beach, so arrived just in time to stock up and check into our campsite before dusk and settle down to what had become one of our favourite campervan meals. We're not taking baked beans, as we'd found Rhino's kitchen surprisingly well stocked and functional. How's lamb steak on runner bean, caramelized red onion and pawpaw salad for an on-the-road dinner?
Spot the electric palm tree
Ever dreamt of being a pirate? Well, your dreams are about to come true, for Airlie Beach is the gateway to the stunning Whitsundays, a group of 74 tropical (mostly uninhabited) islands surrounded by crystal clear, turquoise water, multicoloured coral and white sandy beaches. And we were exploring them aboard the Derwent Hunter, a 1946 tall ship (aka 'pirate ship' for newbies like us) that took us snorkelling with turtles on Langford Reef and Bali Hai, sunbathing on pristine empty white sand beaches, whale spotting and taught us how to put the sails up and down. If that wasn't enough of a photo opportunity, then it turned out the following day was international pirate day!
Parrot and eye patch provided on the day
Unfortunately we had to press on to our quick stopover in Mackay and a long drive the next day to reach our true blue Aussie inland experience. And once again we were so glad we'd kept flexible for on-the-road recommendations but had some sort of plan of what we wanted to see, because our next stop was one of our favourites of the entire journey. For the first time on this leg we were leaving the water behind to head inland to the Kroombit Tops National Park, where we were going to have the unique opportunity to join a working cattle station and become Aussie cowboys for the day.
The next part of our journey is both heart warming and a little sad. Heart warming because through our day of goat mustering on horseback we were thrown into some of the most stunning scenery we'd ever seen, through our evening of goat rodeo, trap-shooting, sunset gazing, authentic cowboy fire-cooked dinner, chatting, square dancing, whip cracking and electric bull riding, we got to know the family that had been running the cattle station for generations, and the backpackers who formed the vital lifeline to enable outsiders to experience this important part of Australian culture. But it was also sad, as a few months after we had such an amazing experience, Kroombit Lochenbar Farmstay was hit hard by a cyclone and is taking a long time to re-build. There are other providers along the route, and the experience is not one to be missed. Kroombit are now open again for camping (and it is beautiful!), and for other activities, do watch this space.
Maxie comes with in-built GPS
It was our 10th day since starting our 2000km long 2nd Leg of the Mighty Australian Road Trip in Cairns, and the first time we were going to set eyes on a city. The drive to Brisbane was long, and we stopped off overnight in Gympie and for lunch in Noosa Heads and an awesome seafood snack on the Sunshine Coast (the esplanade has great fresh fish!). "If we had had more time" is a sentence you hear more than enough. And in our case, Fraser Island was the destination we had to cut out in favour of seeing other places.
But we were very happy with our choices that had in some way or another all been connected to the abundance of water around the tropical end of Australia's east coast. As the bright lights of the city sparkled ahead of us and reflected beautifully in the aptly named Brisbane River from our high lookout on Story Bridge, we marvelled at how far we had come through this incredibly diverse country. And the best bit was, we still had a whole 3rd Leg ahead of us.