Australia, the only country that is also a continent, famous for the Great Barrier Reef, the Outback, ancient tropical forests, vast deserts, endless beaches and so much more. The country is so vast, it was still high on my travel destination list, even though I had been to the Southern part before. This winter, the long Christmas holiday finally offered the chance to (semi-spontaneously) explore the Eastern coast, from Southern Sydney up to Cairns in the North, and in particular to see the Great Barrier Reef, one of the wonders of the world and threatened by extinction.
Trip Date: 2018
Trip duration: 10 days
Vacation required: 5 days
Trip cost: 250€ / p.P. / Day (high) (all in, all tips, drinks, taxis etc. included)
Day 0: Stop-over Shanghai
Day 1: Sydney
Day 2: Sydney
Day 3: Sydney
Day 4: Brisbane / Moreton Island
Day 5: Brisbane / Fraser Island
Day 6: Whitsundays
Day 7: Whitsundays
Day 8: Cairns
Day 9: Cairns
Day 10+11: Stop-over Shanghai and Return
Day 0: Shanghai Stop-Over
Australia is a long flight from Germany, with well over 20hours, and usually at least one stop in between. However, you can combine this with a stop-over in several great cities. The usual choices are Hong Kong, Singapore, and, more recently, Shanghai. Chinese airlines are aggressively competing for customers, which means you can get the return flight, including the stop-over, for well below 1000€, unimaginable in the past. For a couple of years now, Shanghai is allowing a Visa-free visit for 72hrs (now just recently extended to 144hours) if you have a connecting flight into a 3rd country. Perfect for the stop-over and we made use of this opportunity to visit old friends in Shanghai on the way.
Day 1: Exploring Sydney
After our short Shanghai visit, we fly into Sydney on Christmas morning. Staying in CBD (central business district) is a great way to experience Sydney. It is a melting pot of all the immigrants (mostly Korean and Chinese), which means bustling life and amazing food, and you have all sights in walking distance. Public transport is good and – in contrast to the rest of the country – you do not need a car to explore Sydney. Christmas Eve, it seems, is the time for a shopping spree in Australia and it was a strange feeling to see Santa’s, Christmas trees and all the decorations while suffering from 30°+ and in shorts. 😉 As we were quite tired from the flight, our main activity was to get some groceries (you can buy excellent fruit in Australia for a good price) and then we went for a stroll to the Rocks district and the waterfront, starting from the Harbor bridge, past Circular Quay and the Sydney Opera House and into the botanical gardens all the way up to Mrs. Macquarie’s Chair. This is one of the essential Sydney walks and I can really [recommend] it.
The Botanical Gardens close at 8pm, so ideal timing to finish up around sunset and hang around at Macquarie’s Chair for Sydney sunset. The place is named after the wife of Lachlan Macquarie – one of the first governors of New South Wales – who supposedly sat there to watch the incoming sailboats and the sunsets. She sure picked a good spot and we shared her view, 200 years later.
On the way back, we stopped at St. Mary’s Cathedral – another tourist spot of Sydney. On Christmas eve they organize a nice light show at the Cathedral, called “the Lights of Christmas”, which is quite well done, and you can get some nice food & drinks at the booths nearby or just sit in the adjacent Hyde Park to watch.
Day 2: Bondi Beach and Darling Harbor
The 11h time difference really hit you for Australia, so we did not accomplish too much on the second day. Unfortunately, my infection came back in full force and the first destination of the day was a pharmacy. After this we took it slow and decided to head over to Bondi Beach. There is a good bus / subway route heading out to Bondi and it just takes half an hour to get there. Half-moon shaped Bondi is one of Australia’s most famous beaches and, due to the consistent waves, a surfer’s paradise. It was ideal weather for swimming, however due to the sharks, the strong currents and the high waves, only small segments of Australian beaches are open for swimmers… and you might say it was a bit crowded:
We instead hit a few of the cafés near the beach and then went for the walk towards Coogee. This is a beautiful coastal walk path of several miles and offers great views. However, there were just too many people and we were quite exhausted. I had also been here before, so we did not do the full walk and stopped for a nap on Bronte Beach and then returned to the city later afternoon.
Australia is famous for many things, but good food is not one of them. Howver, we stayed right in Koreatown, so off to a Korean Barbecue! Next door to our dinner location was a local Cinema and, as we had enough walking for one day, we spontaneously decided to see the new Aquaman. Didn’t disappoint – lighthearted and fun. After the movies it was still a nice 23° outside and we went for a last evening stroll through Darling Harbour, one of the key entertainment districts of the city and a good place for some night shots.
Day 3: Manly Beach
Since this wasn’t our first visit to Sydney, the 3rd day was all about meeting up with friends who had immigrated to Australia and whom we hadn’t seen for a long time. Interesting, how different the experiences can be for people moving into the same country and in similar circumstances. The day was good fun and we combined this with a ferry trip to Manly Beach, which looks almost exactly like Bondi, but has much fewer people.
We had a very early flight into the Brisbane the next morning, we switched hotels to stay at one of the airport hotels for the night.
Day 4: Moreton Island
Still struggling with the jetlag, we got up early and onto a plane to Brisbane. The in-country flights are cheap and frequent due to solid competition, so I would definitely [recommend] this as an alternative to driving, especially if you are only visiting a short time. For Sydney you do not need a car, but for the other locations its pretty much a necessity. We picked up our rental car and headed over to the Tangalooma Ferry pier just near the airport. As I was still very sick, and we were both jetlagged, we spontaneously decided to ditch our city exploration plans and instead went to Moreton Island for a day visit. The Island is a national park but most of it is controlled by the Tangalooma resort. The island is very famous for its beautiful beaches and snorkeling spots with several wrecks just off the coast. However, I have to say I can [not recommend] this. The wrecks are nice, but there are so many boats, jet ski, and other vehicles, it is no fun to snorkel and the waters are so stirred up, you do not have good visibility. The beaches are beautiful, but the resort is very bad. It is a typical all-inclusive place with canteen-like restaurants of very low quality, staff was very bad and ever single item costs extra. There are far better places and more beautiful beaches and snorkeling spots, you can skip the resort.
After returning from the island we had a long drive ahead of us, but there was one more stop: Shorncliffe Pier in the Northern suburbs of Brisbane. The historic pier is made entirely out of timber. None of its owners was ever able to make a single dime with it, but I think it is very beautiful. Bring some fruit and drinks, sit on the pier and enjoy the cool ocean breeze to watch the last light of the day disappear.
After this we went on the 3hour drive up North to Hervey Bay – which is the access point to Fraser Island.
Day 5: Fraser Island
Fraser Island is the largest sand island in the world and UNESCO heritage. It is one of the most recommended places to visit when in Australia. There are two main ways of exploring the island – with your own 4WD vehicle or which a guided tour. I was originally all psyched about driving the 75mile beach with my own jeep, but we wanted more relaxation on this trip and I read lots of people get trouble with the cars, so I finally decided to go on one of the tours. In retrospect, bringing your own vehicle is probably the better option. All routes were easy and nothing to be worried about. The advantage of the tours is that you do not need to worry about anything. The downside is that you get very short allotted time at each spot and the included buffet lunch is awful.
The main sights of Fraser Island are the 75mile beach with the wreck of the S.S. Maheno, Eli Creek, the pinnacles sand formations and Lake McKenzie. I found Eli Creek to be totally overcrowded and not that impressive at all, it is just a maybe 20m long shallow creek in which you can float. [not recommended]. The Pinnacle – colorful sanddune formations – are also much less impressive that you might imagine. Why visit the island then you might ask? Because of the two remaining spots. The endless sand beach with the very impressive Maheno wreck and – especially – Lake Mckenzie are absolutely stunning. Check for yourself:
You are not allowed to fly your drone on the beach sadly, because they have local airplanes land on it and fly on low-altitude. But if you desire the bird-eye perspective – the scenic flights are quite reasonable. And flying the drone around lake McKenzie is no problem. While you are not allowed to swim in the ocean, swimming in the Lake is a must! The water is mostly rainwater and incredibly soft.
The day tours normally last until 5 or 6pm, but we had an issue with the ferry that evening and got back well after 7pm. Time for another long road trip back to Brisbane and we were really exhausted when we reached our airport hotel and fell right into bed.
Day 6: Whitsunday Islands and Great Barrier Reef
Another early flight further North into Mackay. Mackay is one of the larger cities in the southern Great Barrier Reef and an ideal airport to access the Whitsunday islands. The Whitsunday islands are another must-do for an Australia visit, with postcard-perfect pure white beaches and turquoise waters. They are part of the Great Barrier Reef and one of the largest sailing regions in the Southern hemisphere. We drove up to the tourist town Airlie Beach, which is an ideal access point to the Whitsundays and the starting point of the diving and snorkeling tours to the outer great barrier reef. Sadly, the weather turned, and we arrived in heavy rain. The plan was to take the day easy and just explore the town a little and I had booked a sunset cruise through the islands. Even though the waters were quite wild, and it was raining in the beginning, we got lucky and, although we did not see the sun set behind the clouds, still had a great experience on the large sailboat and some nice dramatic shots.
Day 7: Hill Inlet and Whitehaven Beach
Weather seemed a bit better this morning, however when checking the news it was quite the opposite. A cyclone was forming in the sea just off the Northern coast of Cairns. While this was 100s of kms away, the impact was significant and the waters and waves dangerous. We were not too much affected on this day yet, as we had a booked a seaplane flight across the Great Barrier reef. My first ever seaplane flight and an (albeit not cheap) pretty cool experience with airwhitsunday.com.
The flight goes all the way to the outer reef and the famous heart reef.
This is the Southern End of the Great Barrier Reef, which is the worlds largest coral reef system, the only structure that can be seen from outer space and – sadly – one that is pretty much doomed for destruction due to global warming and pollution. I felt really fortunate to have the chance to still see this and the endless reefs are absolutely mind-blowing:
Our flight was scheduled to afterwards fly to Hill Inlet and land at Whitehaven Beach, one of the most popular and beautiful beaches of the Whitsundays. Sadly, the weather had gotten much worse and the waves were too dangerous, so our pilot had to abort the landing and go around in literally the last second. Honestly, a turnaround in a tiny de Havilland 6seater seaplane, when you are already touching the water, is something that gets your adrenaline levels up *really* quick. While we couldn’t land, the aerial views and the last-second turnaround were definitely worth the trip. 😉
We spend the rest of the evening exploring the small town a little an enjoying a drink and a drone flight at the Marina.
Day 8: Drive to Cairns
I had booked an all-day diving and snorkeling trip to the outer reef, but with the abrupt and massive weather change due to the cyclone, the waves were >5m and heading out was far too dangerous. It was probably better this way, because the stirred-up waters allowed for hardly more than arms-length visibility and my infection had spread to my lungs and I was in no shape for diving (or much else for that matter). Drove up to Cairns instead and took it easy, with many stops along the beautiful coast along the way. There are dozens of beautiful beaches in between Airlie Beach and Cairns, but the one I liked most is Mission Beach, just South of Cairns.
The other good thing about our changed plans was that we were able to enjoy New Years Eve in Cairns this way. Cairns does the fireworks on floating rafts off the coat and sitting with thousands of people at 25° degrees to watch the Fireworks was the perfect early start into a fresh and new year.
Day 9: Daintree Rainforest
Light Rain, dark skies, and restless oceans meant it was a simple and clear choice for the last full day: Daintree Rainforest. Daintree is the largest rainforest in Australia and one of the oldest of the entire planet. It is UNESCO heritage and located a 90min drive North of Cairns, easily accessible by car. There are many beautiful walking tracks through the forest and rivers pass through on which you can take cruises.
Big warning: When heading to Daintree just drive straight to the ferry. A return ticket is 28AUD per car. Do not head into Daintree village, this is just a tourist rip-off location and the river cruise offered is massively overpriced (28AUD per person) since you see almost nothing except for crocodiles. The daintree river cruises are [not recommended] and the Northern part of the rainforest, up to Cape Tribulation, is much more impressive and worthwhile. You need a full day to explore all. Go slow and pay attention to the little details of flora and fauna.
On the way back do not forget to stop for local hand-made ice cream. They have amazing and unique flavors (different each day) and sitting in the café, enjoying the crazy flavors, we enjoyed listening to the rain before heading back into Cairns.
Day 10: Departure and 2nd Stop-Over in Shanghai
The last day in Australia and after a relaxing breakfast, it was time to jump onto the flight to Shanghai, with another two days stop-over, before returning to Germany.
Drone photography is very easy in Australia and possible almost everywhere. The aviation authorities even have released an app, called “Can I fly there” which gives you specific instructions. Sadly, some of the most beautiful places are no fly zones. This includes. Moreton Island resort (i.e. the entire island), the beaches on Whitehaven and Fraser, due to the scenic flights and landings on/near the beach. Everywhere else no problem at all.
Now, regarding photo spots:
- On Fraser Island make sure to get a shot of the Mahano Wreck, the endless sand beach and Lake McKenzie.
- Moreton island – on a day with good visibility bring an underwater camera for the shipwrecks. But not that great overall.
- Whitsundays: Hamilton island, Whitehaven Beach, Hill Inlet, Heart Reef, Hook / Bait Reef are the main spots you can shoot from the air. The Marina is also quite nice. Beautiful reefs are Hardy Reef and Bait Reef for diving/snorkeling.
- Cairns: I was told both Fitzroy and Greed Island are great for beach and reef photography, sadly the weather did not allow me to check. Daintree and in particular Cape Tribulation are two other very nice photo spots. Mission Beach is one hour south an also a great spot.
- Brisbane: Kangaroo Point Cliffs Park is a great skyline spot for night shots and do not miss Shorncliffe Pier
- Sydney: Skyline, Opera and Harbour Bridge from Ms. Macquaries Chair or ( if you have a wide angle lens) near Milsons Point on the other side. Darling Harbour is nice at night as are the Botanical Gardens by day. City quarters: The rocks, CBD, Circular Quay, Hyde park to catch some architecture and city life.
- Weather is very volatile and changes by the hour. You should plan accordingly and have a plan B ready for all ocean activities.
- All tours sell out fast and are often changed or cancelled short notice. Reserve several options but ensure you can cancel until 24hrs in advance (e.g. by booking via Viator or something similar)
- Roads are easy, driving on the left is no problem. You need a car in all locations except for Sydney, where the opposite is true, due to expensive parking.
- Hotels sell out very fast, book and reserve everything
- Check weather websites focused on diving and snorkeling. With high waves and restless waters, visibility will be awful and the expensive tours are wasted. Better come back another day.
- There is no need to drive the long distances between the major cities (Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney, Cairns, Brisbane). Domestic flights are very cheap and go almost every hour. You can book these short notice.
- Be careful when planning rental cars, many stations in the smaller cities do no longer offer 1-way rentals (e.g. Mackay). I had major trouble due to my reservation being lost as well.
- Australia is very expensive, so be prepared for high restaurant and hotel prices. B&Bs, hostels and self-cooking recommended.
- Europeans need a visa! While this can be requested for free online and is usually available in a day or two, this should not be forgotten.
- For most other nationalities the process is very long and tedious. Processing can easily take more than 6weeks and the online form to request is very confusing. Do not rely on the given time periods but really plan with the worst case (6-8 weeks) to be on the safe side! It *CAN* be done very short notice, like we did, but that requires excellent contacts and a big portion of luck
- The north-east of Australia, around Cairns, is tropical. This means mosquitos and lots of insects. Bring a DEET-based repellent.
- Wifi availability is worse than you might expect, and I found local cards to be comparably expensive. Network coverage is also not that great. Get used to being offline often.
- 90% of the most poisonous animals live in Australia, be careful outside, especially outside of the cities and at night
- Kangaroo vs. car accidents are very common. Drive carefully
- Road fines, especially for speeding are incredibly high. Do not go over the speed limit, not even a little.
- The sun in Australia is much stronger than in the rest of the world. Skin cancer is common. Bring max. level of sunscreen and apply at all times, even on a cloudy day and to all areas of your exposed skin.
- Aussies are quite laid-back and easygoing, sometimes a bit too much for Europeans. Adjust your behavior and try to avoid being pushy, aggressive or impatient.
- Safety is excellent in Australia, as is medical care and other support. No need for concern even at night.
- Swimming can be dangerous on Australia’s beaches. You have sharks (least dangerous), poisonous jellyfish (more dangerous) and rip-currents (most dangerous). Swim only in protected areas and do not overestimate yourself.
- Major tourist areas are very crowded in Australia. Better come early or late or off-season whenever possible.
- Tipping is not common. Prices (and salaries) are high enough and there is really no need unless service was exceptional.
- Heavy torrential rains and flash floods are common. Check road conditions and come prepared
- While it might be summer in the Northern winter in Sydney and Melbourne, this is rain season for the North (Cairns and up), so actually best travel time for North-eastern Australia is not in winter but rather May and onwards.