East Coast Road Trip – Cairns to Balgal

Worn down by grey mundane misery, we defied the birds and headed North to escape the cruel, cold clutches of Melbourne’s Winter.

We hired a camper-van and drove roughly 2000km’s down Australia’s East Coast, from Cairns to Brisbane.

Our route took us South, through the beautifully diverse region of tropical North Queensland down to the Sunshine Coast.

With the obvious attraction of the climate aside, our route served up tropical rainforest, secluded beaches, remote country towns and quaint seaside settlements. We had two weeks and a roughly penciled plan.

The idea was to use the freedom afforded to us by the camper-van, to travel at our own pace and to stray a little off the beaten track. This is the story of our trip (in a few different parts) – the places we saw, the things we did, the highs, the lows and the trails and tribulations that come hand in hand with road tripping down Australia’s East Coast.



Day 1

Cairns to Port Douglas 

 

On the most perfect of mornings we left Cairns, heading North, in precisely the wrong direction.

The Captain Cook Highway led us along an exquisite stretch of coastline towards Port Douglas. Every swooping bend revealed another amazing snapshot of the rain-forest looming above us and the ocean lapping below. Away from the grey of Melbourne, the blue sky seemed bluer and the sun practically danced off the golden sand.

Our excursion in the wrong direction was supposed to last just half a day. But our perpetual downfall on this trip was the freedom to stop where we wanted, which on a coastline like this could easily be around every corner.

After resisting a few opportunities, we pulled over at the ‘Rex Lookout’ where we watched a pair of para-gliders zip across the treetops. When the road eventually dropped down to the shoreline we stopped at Ellis Beach to stretch our legs on the sand. The beach was wild and tangled neatly with the tropical forest. We wandered down the beach for a short while to take in the stunning landscape.

After about an hour of driving we arrived in Port Douglas and were instantly taken by the quaint little town. We wondered along Macrossan Street and mooched through the cool, crafty shops, bars and restaurants all housed in traditional wooden buildings. The slow pace of the town was enticing and perfectly suited our mood. Within half an hour we had decided to throw our schedule out of the window and stay the night.

Even on the first day, we were already lauding the fact that we had the camper. It gave us the ultimate freedom to alter our schedule to suit what we wanted to do at that moment. A quick google search lead us to Dougies Backpackers where we booked a camp spot for the night and then settled in to enjoy the warm afternoon in Port Douglas.

After a bite to eat at the cheap and cheerful ‘Central Hotel’, we spent the afternoon exploring. Our first stop was a short drive up to Trinity Bay Lookout. This scenic view point overlooking ‘Four Mile Beach’ sits at the top of a steep climb. It’s certainly walk-able and the views up top are worth the effort.

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Trinity Bay Lookout 

We were really keen to see as many sunsets as possible on this trip and Port Douglas provided an idyllic location to watch our first. We parked up by the headland at Rex Smeal Park. This lush patch of grass was lined with tall palms and overlooked ‘Morey Reef’. We kicked back on the lawn and watched the sailboats return to the Marina as the sun melted beyond the horizon.

Once the sun had set we headed straight back to Dougie’s to set up camp. Dougie’s doubled as both a hostel and a campsite which was perfect for what we needed. We arrived just as it was going dark which allowed us just enough time to be shown around the hostel. However by the time we came to set up the awning on the camper … it was dark.

Lesson Number 1 – Set up the camper for the first time when its light! Generally they are really easy to erect. But it always helps to have figured out what goes where before you try to do it in the pitch dark! 

It was a bit of a struggle, but with some expert guesswork we managed to figure it out. We were actually delighted with how spacious it was. We cooked up some dinner on our camping stove (again shrouded in darkness) and enjoyed a romantic meal under head torch light.

Lesson number 2 – Bring a camping light or head torch. I will again reiterate that in some locations you will be camping in pretty remote areas. Once the sun goes down, you’ll have literally no light! In the winter months the sun sets by 6pm and so if you need to set up later than that you’ll need some decent lighting.

Rather than sit in the dark, we decided to take a short walk back to Macrossan street for a nightcap. By night the the town was lively with music coming from nearly every bar. We settled in Paddy’s Irish Bar and enjoyed a couple of Guinness’s before calling it a night.

Day 1 – 68kms

Highlights

  • Captain Cook Highway Drive.
  • Sunset at Rex Smeal Park.

Where to Stay – Dougies Backpackers

Where to Eat – Central Hotel, Port Douglas



Day2

Port Douglas to Balgal Beach

 

On the morning of our second day we woke up and hit the road early to make up some time on our schedule. Despite a long day ahead to make it to Balgal Beach, we were determined not to break our leisurely pace. For breakfast we headed back to a beautiful spot at Ellis Beach to cook up some eggs and bacon. It was fabulous to be able to set up our little kitchen in such an idyllic location. Mixing the soft crashing of the waves with the sweet sizzle of bacon has to be the greatest concoction of sounds since The Beatles wrote ‘A Day In The Life’.

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Breakfast with a view

We passed through Cairns and headed south on the Bruce Highway towards the Atherton Tablelands. Our first stop was the quaint town of Babinda. This one road town is most famous for the Babinda Boulders –  three huge granite rocks set into the tranquil mountain water of the Babinda Creek.

We found ourselves in an interesting little craft shop run by a local couple who had moved to Babinda from the Sunshine Coast. They much preferred the small town feel where their lives are quite literally on their doorsteps. This wasn’t an exaggeration! As we stood in the centre of town we could see the hospital, cinema, coffee shop and the famous Babinda Bakery. Everyone we spoke to in town pointed us in the direction of the bakeries famous Pies and Cream Cakes. As it was around lunchtime we decided to test out their credentials and were not disappointed.

 

With our bellies full of delicious local treats, we headed off towards the boulders. It was a pleasant little walk though forest to the Boulders lookout. The snaking path was shadowed by overhanging trees which at every bend allowed a sneak peak of the creek below. In sections, the clear water became a raging torrent and had carved out a path through the smooth rocks. We resisted the urge for a swim but took a moment to drink in the view.

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Babinda Boulders

As the midday heat descended, we drove south from Babinda to Josephine Falls. From the highway we veered onto a country road and slalomed through a beautiful ocean of sugar cane fields. The endless greenery eventually led us to a car park which was a short, scenic walk from the base of the falls.

Desperate to cool off, we quickly clambered over rough rocks and inched our way into the lagoon. The cold was breathtaking at first but after a few minutes of dilly-dallying we managed to submerge ourselves into the intensely refreshing water. Above us the main falls cascaded down onto the rocks before gently dawdling to the pool below.

We scampered up the slippery rocks to the top of the smallest falls to check out the view. The sun’s warm rays burst through the canopy of trees and sparkled across the rippling water. We stood above a spectacular natural paradise. The flowing water had smoothed off a section of rocks creating a slide down into the pool below. Naturally, we took full advantage of the ride down and cruised into the shallow lagoon.

We couldn’t pull ourselves away from the falls. Instead we dried off under the sun, lounging atop huge boulder. We stayed until we heard the humdrum of a tour group approaching. We took this as our cue to leave and so pressed on towards Mission Beach.

It was just a brief stop at Mission Beach, but again it was a place we could have spent much more time in. We had a quick wander down the beach before coming to the realisation that we still had a long way to go to our stop for the night.

On the way out of town we spotted a colourful fruit store at the roadside. We love to see these little stalls selling local produce and so pulled over to see what was on offer. We couldn’t resist stocking up with a batch of fresh, juicy Mangos’s.

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We raced against the setting sun to find a suitable spot to cook up dinner before being immersed in the approaching darkness. In the coastal town of Cardwell we found a quiet parking spot overlooking Hinchinbrook Island. With the efficiency of a German formula 1 team we unpacked the cooking equipment, rustled up a delicious Spaghetti Bolognese, washed up and headed off. It was a treat again to cook in such a spectacular location and to enjoy the last embers of daylight by the coast. By the time we had packed up and left, the light had faded completely. We drove the final 90 minutes along the infinite darkness of a remote section of the Bruce Highway.

Our GPS told us we’d arrived in Balgal Bay, although all we saw was what our headlights revealed. A long straight road cut through the darkness and led into a small pen crowded with campers and trailers. At the foot of a tree we parked in a spot we weren’t sure existed. Scrambling clumsily into the back we collapsed onto our mattress, listening to the faint sound of the waves which sang us to sleep.

Day 2 – 407km’s

Highlights – 

  • Josephine Falls
  • Driving through the cane fields of the Atherton Tablelands.

Where to Stay – Balgal Beach Foreshore Reserve – Free Camping.

Where to Eat –

  • Babinda Bakery.
  • Cook up a storm overlooking Hinchinbrook Island.  
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