A state nearly seven times the size of Great Britain, five times the size of Japan, and two and a half times the size of Texas! That's right! It's humongous! I have always been in awe of the fascination of blue planet, diving in the Great Barrier Reef has been on my bucket list since. What's better than rubber tramping across the second largest state in Australia - Queensland from Gold Coast to the Great Barrier Reef! I went through the journey and learnt it the hard way - inaccurate information, outdated details, took a bad advise from forum; Hence, I've decided to put this road trip into a travel piece that might help you.
One of the main misconceptions about the Great Barrier Reef is that it is close to everything in Queensland. No, that's not the case, the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) is quite a distance from Gold Coast. GBR starts off at the Queensland's coastline just north of Bundaberg and runs north to the tip of Cape York about 2,300km. Bundaberg is about 6 hours drive, Whitsundays about 15 hours and Cairns/Port Douglas will take you approximately 24 hours of driving! The usual pictures of GBR on postcard or brochure are mainly from Whitsundays Islands (main areas include Mackay, Airlie Beach, Proserpine) and the Outer Reef off Cairns and Port Douglas. There are also some islands you can travel and spend a night at, Green Island, Lady Heron Island or Fitzroy Island - where you can snorkel right off the beach.
Itinerary and Road Map covering 10 days of Gold Coast to Cairns road trip, rubber tramping over 2,022km. Crossing towns, places of interest in sequence from Gold Coast to Cairns. [You can download the hi-res road map here]
Accommodations below are based on 2-person stay. Hostel Dorm will cost around AUD20-30 a night and Hostel private room from AUD65 a night onwards. You can also choose to stay in campervan (best with 4 persons) depending on your preferred mode of travel. Another good alternative for raw cultural experience will be Airbnb.
- Gold Coast - Surfers Paradise Backpackers Resort AUD65
- Sunshine Coast - Airbnb Master Bedroom with Ensuite (Maroochydore) AUD58
- Gladstone - Park View Motel (Gladstone Central) AUD79
- Rockhampton - A Cosy Place Close to Everything (Berserker) AUD51
- Mackay - Beachfront Self Contained Studio (McEwens Beach) AUD77
- Townsville - Frangipani Views (West End) AUD62
- Cairns - Double Bedroom Close to Esplanade (Cairns North) AUD39
- Cairns - Double Bedroom Close to Esplanade (Cairns North) AUD39
- Fitzroy Island - Fitzroy Island Resort (include island transfer) AUD450
- Cairns - The Jack Backpackers (Free Dinner!) AUD50
- Gold Coast - Beachy Lifestyle, Central Location (Surfers Paradise) AUD72
Foods (per person), a restaurant with table service can cost from AUD15-25, Indian/Chinese take-away about AUD10, fast food cost around AUD9, sandwich cost from AUD5-8. If you'd like to save money, you can get ready meal (bakery/pizza/roasted chicken/chicken wings) from Woolsworths or Coles. A ready meal regular pizza can be as affordable as AUD3.5 on promotion!
Transportation - a return shuttle from Gold Coast airport to City Centre will cost AUD44 per person, if you are travelling in a group of 3 or 4, it's more economical to hire UBER. We rented a Hyundai Tucson from Europcar for 6 days around AUD800. Telco. Opt for Optus.
To move, to breathe, to fly, to float, to gain all while you give to roam the loads of land remote to travel is to live. - Hans Christian Anderson
Gold Coast skyline dominated with towering developments, a place with plentiful to offer - varies from national parks, sandy beaches, theme parks, water activities to shopping! If you're not in hurry and a fan of theme park, I would recommend a 3 nights stay at Gold Coast, here's a good 3 days itinerary. We've pre-booked our rental car on the next day, hence we only get to spend a good one and a half day at Gold Coast. Here's our journey; started the day earlier at 630am, craving for a sumptuous breakfast, walk from our hostel to the Surfers Paradise's esplanade (Cavill Avenue) and realised most of the restaurants open only at 8 or 9am. BUMMER! The choices are scarce, we ended up walking back from Surfers Paradise towards the direction of our hostel where we passed by a breakfast joint earlier, so if you're up early, Chickery Chick is probably your only choice (or make your own breakfast!).
Places of interest: Surfers Paradise, Q1 Observation Tower, Broadbeach (al-fresco cafe), Mermaid Beach, Burleigh Heads (surfing), Tamborine Rainforest, Curumbin Wildlife, Theme Parks, Whale Watching.
Photography Tips: Towering Cityscape, Street Photography along the central district and coast. Architecture patterns, leading lines of high-rise buildings and interesting subjects along the street or beach. You'll be able to see sunrise from the sea horizon, check the timing for local sunrise, and dress warm.
Our first stop, two and a half hour drive from Gold Coast to Sunshine Coast. We head straight to Noosa, a little surf town on the Sunshine Coast, it stretches from Caloundra all the way up to Cooloola section of the Great Sandy National Park. Noosa is the perfect addition to our road trip, it offered our first sighting of Australia's wildlife in their natural habitat! We did the coastal route within the park, if you're at the right time of year - whale and dolphin sightings aren't uncommon. There are a lots of bays and benches to take rest along the way so do pack in water, snacks, and swimmers if you fancy a dip.
Places of Interest: Noosa National Park, Sunshine beach, Maroochydore (urban centre of Sunshine Coast), Fraser Island.
Photography Tips: There are several lookout points where you'll be able to see sunset from Noosa National Park, take a beer, picnic and enjoy the gorgeous view. Lookout for wildlife, whale, dolphin, koalas, python and turkey?
Planning for a road trip from Gold Coast to Great Barrier Reef is exceptionally time consuming, no thanks to the overwhelming but outdated travel information. We had heeded the advice from 2 different internet sources (Trippy.com & a random blog) where both highly recommended a night stay at Ban Ban Springs. It's just a 2-hour drive from Sunshine Coast to Ban Ban Springs, thus we have spent our morning longer at Maroochydore and hit our road slightly late. When we got to Ban Ban Springs, it wasn't a town as we were expecting but a small sacred site for Wakka Wakka indigenous people, a tree and a rest house located at the junction of Burnett and Isis Highways. You can't really spend a night here, not unless you're traveling with campervan. I should've known the advice sounded fishy for not being able to find a single Airbnb listing at Ban Ban Springs. We had to re-arrange our itinerary for the day, tried our phones but limited EDGE services at Ban Ban Springs. Wing it and drive to whichever town sign come up along the way. Stopped by Gin Gin for lunch and re-arrange our destination and the town to spend the night at.
Places of Interest: Woolonga, Gin Gin, Tannum Sands, Gladstone Memorial Park, Gladstone Fish Market, Gladstone City Centre
Photography Tips: If you're like most photographers, you try to avoid lens flare, and when you have that senior moment, you probably just delete the photo and grieve. I like lens flare and embrace it. Here are some tips in getting a soft lens flare; the best time to get a moderate lens flare is within half an hour after sunrise or half an hour before sunset. Mount on a prime lens, remove your lens hood, switch to the largest aperture, high shutter speed, point your camera direct into the sun, let there be light.
The journey from Gladstone to Rockhampton was an easy 1.5 hrs ride. However, in Australia everything seem just a little bit more; animals are cuter, insects are deadlier and somehow the roads are longer and boring-er even for a 1.5 hrs drive. Queensland government has erected trivia signs in fatigue zones to keep drivers alert and reduce crashes and fatalities; Floral emblem of Queensland, first premier of Queensland, how long to go mum? The trivia keeps us entertained all the way to Rockhampton! Rockhampton or Rocky is a charming town with a historical architectural streetscape, we went right to the city centre, parked our car at Quay Street and strolled along the CBD grid.
Places of Interest: Botanic Gardens, Heritage Village, Quay Street, Dreamtime Culture Centre, Rockhampton Art Gallery, Mt. Archer (if you have enough time)
Photography Tips: Less is more, a minimalist technique characterised by spareness and simplicity. Before framing the shot, use simple lines, geometric patterns, strong shadows, contrasting colors or lone subject, decide what to leave out of the frame to make stronger image.
Mackay is a vibrant exciting tropical city, booming from richness of sugar and mining. Early pioneers brought sugar cane to the region and began an industry of Queensland's largest sugar producing town. A destination that brings nature to life, from beach-lounging kangaroos, wallabies at Cape Hillsborough National Park and elusive platypus at Eungella National Park. Here, we got our first glimpse of the Great Barrier Reef from the Airlie Beach - a gateway to Whitsundays, is just one in a half hour drive from Mackay town. We booked a private studio by the beach from Airbnb, definitely one of the best Airbnb during our trip at Queensland. Our Airbnb is 15 minutes away from main town, where we drive through a scenic jaunt past the sugar-cane fields to our studio by the beach.
Places of Interest: Cape Hillsborough National Park, Eungella National Park, Airlie Beach, Whitsundays (Great Barrier Reef)
Photography Tips: McEwens Beach at Mackay is the perfect location to see Milkyway, set your camera to Manual, turn to the largest aperture your wide lens can go, start with ISO3200, and follow the shutter 500 Rules to guesstimate your shutter speed (500/lens focal length); for example, i was using a 20mm lens, my optimal shutter speed will 500/20=25 seconds.
Tucked between Airlie Beach (Whitsundays) and Cairns, Townsville is the perfect mix of urban jungle and scenic nature. A major gateway to the Great Barrier Reef, the wet tropics and the Queensland outback, a vibrant city sitting around the Castle Hill.
Places of Interest: Castle Hill, Breakfast at Sandwich Express (town centre), Brunch at Jam Corner, Magnetic Island, Reef HQ Aquarium, Wallaman Falls (2.5 hrs drive from Townsville).
Photography Tips: To avoid aquarium distortion, fix on a shorter telephoto lens (85mm or above) to isolate your subject. Place your camera parallel to the glass wall of the tank. Turn off on-camera flash to prevent reflections. Focus on nearby creatures, the more water in between your camera and subject, the softer the subject will be.
The Great Barrier Reef stretches more than 2,300km along the coast of Queensland's coastline, begins at the tip of Cape York peninsula in the north and extending down to Bundaberg in the south. Almost 6 days on the road we have finally arrived at Cairns, getting our first real taste of the Great Barrier Reef! Cairns is more commercial with hectic tourist scene, heard Port Douglas is more sophisticated and upmarket, i have not been there so can't comment much what you are likely to do from there.
Places of Interest: Diving at the Outer Reef, Esplanade Boardwalk, Daintree Discovery Centre, Kuranda Rainforest Tour, Green Island, Fitzroy Island, Lady Heron Island, Cape Tribulation (where Reef meets the Rainforest) or just chill out.
Photography Tips: One of the biggest challenges in photography is managing the light in your scene. Contrast is absolutely tough to manage on bright days, a graduated neutral density filter (ND grads) will be useful in manoeuvre these kind of situation to balance between dark foreground and bright background or vice versa.
We took a flight from Cairns back to Gold Coast, and back home. That sums up our 10 days road trip. Often i find myself in a situation where i struggle to gather photography information when i travel to a new destination. I hope this piece of Travel Photography from Gold Coast to the Great Barrier Reef will be able help you in preparing for your next photography adventure.