Shoestring road trip – Byron Bay to Noosa Head

Holidays to Australia are not possible at the moment, but we’ve got our old trips to talk about. I never blogged about the time I lived and studied in Sydney Australia, but I want to revisit the time now. 

Over the spring break in 2017 two of my university friends and I decided to hire a van and drive up the East Coast of Australia – at least some of it. It was a very low-budget road trip, but it wasn’t like Jack Kerouac’s crazy drug and party-filled adventures although our van might have indicated differently.

We hired a Wicked Camper’s van. The company is quite controversial as their vans are covered in colourful, often insulting artwork. The worst ones with offensive slogans are actually banned in some parts of Australia (for a good reason I think). We didn’t get to choose our camper and ended up with a van that was not too rude, although some might have noticed subtle intertextual references to a certain TV series.

We hopped on the front bench, two of us had valid driving licenses so we were going to take turns driving. It was the first time I was driving a van, but it was all okay since the rattlebox didn’t go faster than 80km/h.

Day 1 – Byron Bay 

We started from Byron Bay and visited the easternmost point of mainland Australia. From there we simply started driving up the road to Noosa Head. Flight and bus journey to Byron Bay, search for the van rental petrol station, and grocery shopping stole a big chunk of the day so we didn’t drive far.

On the first night, we stopped at a truck layby just before dark. The kiosk was just closing but the toilets remained open, so we stayed for the night. Later that night vans drove by slowly looking for spaces but the car park was full already. 

When I say that the budget was low, I mean it. We all three slept at the back of the van and made sure not to spend money on anything unessential.

Day 2 – Gold Coast

On the second day, we drove through Gold Coast. This means long golden beaches and skyscrapers. We stopped along the way, first at the Coolangatta beach to walk around the rock pools and then to visit the Burleigh Head National Park where we sheltered from the rain at a barbeque spot. Because of the poor weather and red flags, we sat on the beach at the Surfers Paradise but didn’t feel like swimming. 

After some loitering at cafes, we headed away from Gold Coast and past Brisbane to find a free camping spot at Anzac Memorial Park. Soon it got dark and we noticed that our little van had only one headlight and it was dangerously dim. We drove on the narrow road slowly all eyes alert and made it to the campsite. No more night driving then. 

To our delight, the camping spot had hot showers. Not a bad feature for a free camping spot. 

Day 3 – Glass House Mountains to Noosa Head

In the morning, we packed up again and drove to Glass House Mountains National Park. We took a small backroad that quickly turned into a bumpy dirt road. The van was struggling on a rocky road as we crawled on.

Finally, we made it to the lookout point from where you can see the remaining cores of old volcanos that protrude from the parkland. There would be nice climbing and scrambling opportunities in the area but we only went for a walk around the lookout point. If we had had more time, we could have spent a lot longer there. 

The next stop was Mary Cairncross Scenic Reserve Rainforest Discovery Centre. 

It was brand new at the time and the staff was eager to explain and elaborate the displays in the centre. The trail map shows you what you can see in the rainforest and to our delight we spotted some red-legged pademelons running around. 

The day was not yet over and we went for one more walk, this time to hunt waterfalls. A great spot for such activity is the Kondalilla National Park where the 80 metre high Kondalilla fall rushes down. The trails in the park were more to my liking than the paved trails at the rainforest centre and I even dipped into one of the ponds after I saw some boys jumping off the cliff. 

Somehow we managed to drive all the way to Noosa Head, sit on the beach, and walk around the Noosa National Park in search of the Fairy Pools, which were very disappointing on a stormy and cloudy evening, before we had to start looking for a campsite. 

We parked at a Landsborough Rest Area for the last night in the van. It was an odd spot. The tap water didn’t look quite right and there were no lights so all sorts of critters took shelter in the toilet hut.

Day 4 – Brisbane

On the last day of the shoestring road trip, we drove back to Brisbane to return the van. Apparently, we should have called the rental place once we noticed that the lights were not working and they would have sorted it out for us. Oh well. Having said good-bye to the uncomfortable and slow yet practical van, we headed to our final destination: Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary. 

Most Australian states don’t allow visitors to hold koalas, but it is possible in zoos and sanctuaries in Queensland. My friends queued to hold koalas but I skipped it this time. I did feed and pet kangaroos on the field where tourists were allowed to roam freely among the kangaroos. However, most of the roos didn’t much care about the snacks people offered them –treats cease to be treats if you get them every day I suppose. 

I’m not a huge fan of zoos, but when you call the establishments sanctuaries it seems less cruel to keep animals in cages. I hope that the kangaroos, wombats, Tasmanian devils, and all other creatures in Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary were cared for. 

Top tips to be uncomfortable and save money

  1. Cook your own food – A camping stove is superb. Noodles, pesto pasta or vegetable rice for dinner, home brand hazelnut spread and sliced bread for breakfast and lunch… You’ll survive a few days.
  2. Use bubblers/drinking fountains to fill up the water bottles 
  3. Use free laybys and campsites – we used an app (CamperMate) to find camping spots with toilets, and even shower, facilities. You might have to share it with spiders and possums, but hey it is free.
  4. Make sure your headlights work so you don’t have to waste precious daylight hours for driving and then sit around at a dark campsite
  5. If the car doesn’t have a charging point, charge your phone at cafes, libraries, and shopping centres. They might even have a wi-fi (you might get kicked out though)
  6. Take advantage of broken parking meters – can’t pay if they can’t charge you

Quick Look

  • West coast of New South Wales and Queensland, Australia
  • Day 1 – Byron Bay
  • Day 2 –Coolangatta Beach, Snapper Rocks, Burleigh Head NP, Gold Coast, Surfers Paradise
  • Day 3 – Glass House Mountains NP, Rainforest Discovery Centre, Kondalilla NP, Noosa Head NP
  • Day 4 – Brisbane, Koala Sanctuary

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