East Coast Road Trip – Magnetic Island to Bowen

Day 2

Balgal Beach to Magnetic Island

The sunrise eased its golden glow through a gap in the curtains to unveil our surroundings. We’d camped just yards from the beautifully secluded Balgal Beach. It was a pleasant surprise to find ourselves in such a picturesque location. Our arrival the night before had been under the cover of darkness and all we’d seen was the road beneath our headlights.

The morning sun was warm and bright, which made dragging back the covers to snatch that first breath of fresh sea air, the easiest thing in the world. A grassy verge sloped down to the sand and signs warning of crocodiles made us wipe that last bit of sleep from our eyes. We ambled along the wild beach toward a headland which arced back behind our campsite. Here a lazy river merged with the sea through a minor marshy estuary.

Balgal Beach meets the Estuary

It was exactly the type of place we’d hoped find ourselves. A place we had no need to go to and would likely never visit again, but a place that existed to be found. We doubled back on to the campsite and thought with vein hopes that the little camping shop might serve fresh coffee. It did! But it came from a jar and the coffee snob in me just couldn’t! I’m unashamedly a spoiled Melbournite who requires good coffee to function.

Lesson Number 3 If you are a coffee snob, like me,  who needs something a little more authentic to kick start your day…you’ll need to bring it with you! On nights when you stay a little off the beaten track you won’t have that handy coffee shop to satisfy that morning craving. I lamented the fact that I hadn’t brought along my Aeropress coffee filter.  You will always have access to hot water with the cooking stove, so all you need is the beans. Some things like washing, eating …breathing, you can go without. But good coffee is crucial.

We continued our tradition of cooking breakfast with a view and rustled up some eggs and bacon on a picnic table overlooking the beach.

Cook Up at Balgal

After breakfast we hit the road and drove a quick 60kms down to Townsville to catch the ferry over to Magnetic Island. We’d heard great things about Magnetic Island but had always been sceptical as to whether it was going to be a bit touristy. To be safe we scheduled just a day on the island. From the ferry terminal in Townsville it’s just a short 20 minute hop over to the Island on the Sealink Ferry. It costs about $30 return and then $8 to park for the day, which on the whole isn’t terrible. With our early start we managed to catch the 10.30am ferry and arrived in Nelly Bay just before 11am. We had deliberated at length as to how we were going to get around the island. We considered bringing the car over, renting a scooter and even renting a pushbike. But in the end settled on getting a one day bus pass ($7), which turned out to be a great choice. If you have a larger budget though, renting a little Vespa ($40 p.day) to help you zip around the island, would be amazing!

Our first stop was in Picnic Bay, a quiet, sloping beach on the islands southern coast. We walked from the pier at one end to the headland at the other before jumping back on the bus for the 40 minute ride to Horseshoe Bay.

Picnic Bay

The bus struggled up the islands steep, narrow inclines which prompted intense relief that we hadn’t rented push bikes. At the bottom of the climb we arrived in Horseshoe Bay, a small beachy suburb which was bustling in the lunchtime rush. The main road behind the beach, was lined with cafe’s, bars and restaurants, all lively and spilling onto the street. We wondered first along the beach, through a maze of market stalls which sold crafts and bohemian jewellery.

By now we were both absolutely starving and so we grabbed a bag of fish and chips to eat on the sand. We found a little shaded spot under a palm tree and tucked into our lunch whilst watching the boats whizz across the bay. As our attention slipped from the chips to the ocean we noticed two noses bobbing in and out of the water about 50 meters from the shoreline. We strolled down to the water’s edge and inched our way in to the cold water. At first we thought they were Dolphins, but were soon corrected by an interesting, elderly lady who we met standing in the shallows. She identified them as Dugongs (Sea Cows). It was incredible to see how close the Dugongs came to the shore despite the boats and jet skis skimming across the surface. We chatted to the friendly lady as our ankles lost feeling in the icy water and were soon gripped by her enriched life. She had worked as a nurse for the Peace Corp throughout central Africa. Having worked in this war torn region for over 30 years she now had a strong realist view of the world which made it hard to settle back in to western society with all its red tape and regulations.

As the clock ticked into the afternoon we decided to head south down to Alma Bay. The crescent moon beach was clamped between wild rocky outcrops and was much more picturesque than Horseshoe Bay. In an effort to avoid baking in the afternoon heat I went to explore the beach’s rocky surroundings. I clambered across the rocks to get a picture of the beach from above.

Alma Bay

The water glistened under the dazzling sun, but despite its inviting blue shine, it took every ounce of effort to wade into the desperately cold water. The initial discomforting shock was far overshadowed by the refreshing waves which washed away the heat of day.

After a few hours at Alma Bay, a swim and a snooze under the shadow of the rocks we headed back to the bus and then onto the ferry. As the ferry pulled away from Nelly Bay we were treated to a beautiful sunset as the red blaze of the day’s dying embers disappeared behind the island.

We spent the night enjoying the hospitality of family friends on the outskirts of Townsville. On the menu was kilpatrick oysters, roast pork and good red wine. A far cry from our usual camping cusine.

Day 2 –  60km’s


  • Horseshoe Bay
  • Alma Bay
  • Bungalow Bay Koala Village (Wildlife Sanctuary).

Where to Eat – ‘Horseshoe Bay Fish and Chips

Where to Stay – Base Hostel on Magnetic Island is situated right on the beach between     Nelly Bay and Picnic Bay. It is unrivalled for location and is also the home to the monthly ‘Full Moon Party’.

Day 3 

Townsville to Bowen

Before setting off on our 200km jaunt south to Bowen we made a begrudging coffee stop at Mcdonalds. Desperate times! Driving along the infinite Bruce Highway was pretty mundane, despite the invigorating morning weather we’d been treated to.  The small communities of Ayr and Home Hill were our only breaks from the highway but, we decided not to stop or detour from the route. However if anyone has a bit more time I’d highly recommend making a detour from Ayr and heading out to the coast to see Alva Beach. It is a long, untamed stretch of sand which dishes up spectacular sunsets. It is also home to Yongala Dive Centre who specialise in scuba dives to the SS Yongala shipwreck just off the coast.

Our visit to Bowen had of special significance to me on this trip as I’d lived in this little country town for 4 months back in 2012. As a tourist destination, it’s pretty unknown, but it attracts a good number of backpackers each year due to its abundance of available farm-work which backpackers use to gain their 2nd year Working-Holiday Visa.

Pulling into a parking spot on Herbert Street was like arriving at an old friends house. Everything was familiar and comfortable. It was as though the town had stood still, awaiting my return. We wandered through the town towards the harbour. By day when the farms are active, the streets are desolate. I couldn’t help but reminisce about the great times I’d had in this sleepy town. We made an obligatory picture stop at the newly installed ‘Big Mango’, just one of the many ‘big stuff’ you’ll see on Australia’s East Coast.

After exploring the town we decided to find a camp spot for the night so that we could then enjoy the day without worrying about where we were going to sleep. Originally the plan had been to find a quiet side street to park up by the roadside for the night. However we continuously ran into signs warning of $2000 fines if caught in a no camping zone. We thought better of it and instead found a cool little campsite just off the Bruce Highway heading out of Bowen.

Lesson Number 4 – One of the best things about having a camper is the freedom to just pull up at the side of the road in a beautiful spot and set up camp for the night. However in Australia, and particularly on the East Coast there are heaps of regulations. You can’t just pull up in the most picturesque spot. Always check for signs warning against overnight camping. If you are caught camping somewhere you shouldn’t there will be a hefty fine, which will probably be more than you budgeted for your whole trip. It’s better to budget a little each night for a spot on a campsite or go a little out of the way to find a designated free camping zone.

At just $25 for the night we couldn’t really complain. It was a great little sight with nice facilities and a big open grassy space to camp on. We booked our spot and then sat down to plan our afternoon. What isn’t really known about Bowen is that it is actually situated on a particularly beautiful headland, just North of the Whitsunday Islands. The beaches on this headland are really spectacular and well off the beaten track.

Having spent many a day off from the farm lazing about on these beautiful beaches, I was really keen to show Liska the best side of Bowen. The peninsular comprises of three great beaches. Queens Bay, Rose Bay and Horseshoe Bay (yes another one). I couldn’t for the life of me remember which one I’d preferred, but after unearthing a bit of local knowledge we chose Horseshoe Bay and were soon basking in our decision.

Horseshoe Bay (Bowen)

Lady luck shined down on us and we managed to grab a parking spot right next to the beach. Before heading down to the sand we whipped out our cooking stove and sizzled up some sausages on a patch of grass behind the beach.

A glorious afternoon at Horseshoe Bay

The afternoon could not have been more perfect. The beach was empty aside from a few elderly locals and the water was perfectly cool and calm, glistening in the afternoon sun.


To work off our sausage sandwiches we decided to explore the rocky clifftops overlooking the bay. We clambered through jagged rocks covered in sharp molluscs and hopped from boulder to boulder as the waves charged through the rock-pools below us. From the top we could see along the rugged coastline towards Rose Bay. We took a moment to absorb the views around us as we looked out towards the Whitsunday Islands way out in the distance. The descent was considerably more treacherous and by the time we reached the beach again we were absolutely desperate to cool down in the ocean. The rest of the afternoon was spent enjoying the simple pleasures of a quiet afternoon on the beach.

Front row seats for the Sunset

As the warm evening approached we headed around the peninsular to watch sunset. The day had been perfectly clear, leading the way for a sublime show of colours. We parked up by the boat ramp overlooking a smaller beach and watched as the sun melted into the serenity of Queens Bay.


In the pitch dark we headed back to our campsite to set ourselves up for the night. The mosquitoes were out in force and so we decided to use the camp kitchen to rustle up a stir fry before heading to bed.

It was a pretty restless night! What we’d failed to comprehend, in our haste to pick a camping spot, is that pitching up so close to the HIGHWAY, is a bad idea!! Highways are noisy! Especially highways running through rural farm towns where huge trucks are a constant visitor.

Lesson Number 5 – select your camping spot wisely. The best spots will always be near to a toilet block and as far from any roads as possible. 

Day 3 – 202kms

Highlights – Horseshoe bay

Where to Eat – The ‘Grand View Hotel’ has great pub grub.

Where to stay – Bowen Palms Caravan Park

One Comment Add yours

  1. Penelope Schramm says:

    We live your trips through your blog, love reading them.

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