A Guide to Driving the East Coast of Australia

Brazilian travel blogger, Raquel Furtado, planned to drive all the way from south of Melbourne to Cairns. She shares her top tips on things to see and do along the way, and we find out what cut her trip short.

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After more than 10 years of traveling, I finally got the chance to explore the Australian east coast by motorhome.

Australia is the perfect country for a road trip – the roads are excellent, the country is full of great campgrounds, and the nature is unbelievably inviting.

Our author, Raquel, enjoying her east coast road trip. Follow her on Instagram

Best Way to Travel Around Australia

I did it in a motorhome which allowed me to travel at my own pace while exploring everything I wanted to see.

Raquel's motorhome on the road south of Melbourne. Photo credit: Raquel Furtado

You can rent a car (or buy a car if you're here for a while), but traveling by motorhome will give you more freedom and comfort in terms of picking where to stay, the sudden need for a bathroom in the middle of nowhere, and cooking your own food.

If driving isn't an option, or if you're traveling solo, check out bus tours. Compare prices and find the operator that's right for you, but a few options include Greyhound, ContikiLoka Travel, and OzExperience

How Much Time to Allow to See Australia

Australia is a huge country. If you were to drive the entire coastline, you’d cover a total of 16,155mi (26,000km). This is why most travelers choose to drive the east coast. The route covers2,485mi (4,000km) from the Great Ocean Road (near Melbourne) to Cairns, the best base to explore the Great Barrier Reef and Daintree Rainforest.

Give yourself at least a month. Trust me – the east coast has a lot to offer, and you will want to spend a number of days at each destination.

It’s also important to rest three to four days for every 10 days of travel. Rent a place, leave the motorhome for a while, enjoy a bit of comfort, and live like a local. This will renew your energy to continue the long journey.

Itinerary for Traveling Melbourne to Cairns

My itinerary went like this, and it worked well – so feel free to be inspired.

1. Wilsons Promontory National Park and The Great Ocean Road

Time to allow: seven days

Distance: 500km

Wilsons Promontory. Photo credit: Raquel Furtado

Just 2.5hrs south-east of Melbourne,  Wilsons Promontory is the place to go for nature and wildlife, especially kangaroos, wallabies, and wombats.

We spent four days at Tidal River campground. Choose a campsite near the beach to be nice and close to the waves. Not too far away, be sure to check out Squeaky Beach, which is easily reached by car and a 300m walking trail.

If you enjoy hiking, dedicate three hours of your day for the walk to Sealers Cove. The reward is a spectacular golden beach with crystal-clear water.

Back track to Melbourne and head to the south-west to Torquay – the official start of The Great Ocean Road – a spectacular 155mi (250km) stretch of road along the southern coast of Victoria.

The Twelve Apostles. Don't count them, it's just a name. Photo credit: Raquel Furtado

Drive the Great Ocean Road slowly, it hides more secrets than you could imagine. Surfers can’t miss Bells Beach, home of the Rip Curl Pro Surfing Competition since 1960. Next, look for Kennett River – with loads of koalas hanging in the trees.

The Twelve Apostles (rock monoliths which stand in the ocean just off the coast - although there aren't 12 anymore) are also a must. There are many lookouts in the area, but for beach access, Loch Ard Gorge was my favorite. We spent the night at the Apostles Camping Park. 


The Great Ocean Road ends close to Warrnambool, where you can turn back and do it all again, or take the inland road back to Melbourne via Geelong.

2. Melbourne to Sydney

Time to allow: four days

Distance: 1,100km


You could drive straight up the Hume Highway in about 10 hours, but you’ll miss everything along the Federal Highway – which goes through Canberra, the capital city of Australia. Here you'll find the National Gallery of Australia, the Australian War Memorial, Parliament House, and Questacon The National Science and Technology Centre. Once you've stopped off in Canberra, head to the coast and stop off in Batemans Bay, a lovely coastal town with a snorkeling trail.

About 62mi (100km) north of Batemans Bay is our favorite part of New South Wales, Jervis Bay.

Walking along Jervis Bay. Photo credit: iStock

Here, you’ll find Booderee National Park, Hyams Beach – which is renowned for having the whitest sand in the world – Cave Beach, a surfers’ favorite, and Green Patch, a beautiful beach and campground in Booderee National Park. All of these beaches are close, along a 13mi (22km) stretch of road.

There's great camping at Cave Beach, but cars are not allowed and the car park is about 300m away, so, you have a trolley to carry your camping gear in and out of the campsite.

About 31mi (50km) away, see Honeymoon Bay, which is opposite to Hyams Beach, still in Jervis Bay. The water is calm here, perfect for kids and a bit of relaxation.

On hot days, find the rock pools at Kiama, about 49mi (80km) north. Here, you'll also see the famous Kiama blowhole, which, depending on the conditions of the ocean, can spray water 82ft (25m) into the air!

Another 55mi (90km) north, head into the beautiful Royal National Park (AU $12 per vehicle, per day). Drive to Wattamolla Beach, where there’s a waterfall and a river with unique scenery. There are cliffs here where travelers and locals jump into the water, however there have been many incidents of people getting seriously injured. Be careful.

If Wattamolla is your first stop at the park, bring cash, as they don’t accept credit cards at the entrance.

If you want to see Figure Eight Pools – rock pools forming perfect, impressive, figure eights – you’ll need around three hours for the hike, so bring lots of water. Start the hike at Garawarra Farm car park (6mi/10km south of Wattamolla). Always check the tides before you go, never attempt to explore the rock pools during high tide. Again, many injuries have occurred down here. Use extreme caution and only attempt to go at low tide, when surf conditions are flat. Follow the rocky path by the ocean, and watch out for big waves that might be on the horizon – never turn your back to the ocean, and never go alone.

3. Sydney

Time to allow: five days of relaxation

Sydney is an hour north. Don't miss the Coastal Walk from Bondi to Coogee, which takes in lovely beaches, and views along a clifftop walk. Spend a day at Manly Beach – take the 40-minute ferry from Circular Quay.

The journey on the ferry is a highlight, as you bump along the waves with views of the Harbour Bridge, the Sydney Opera House, and Sydney's many harbourside suburbs, many with beautiful houses.

4. Sydney to Gold Coast

Time to allow: five days

Distance: 800km


This is the Legendary Pacific Coast.

Just a 90-minute drive north of Sydney is the Central Coast region of NSW known for its beaches and small coastal towns. While there, don’t miss a walk in Bouddi National Park, or, if you’re into wineries, head north-west into the Hunter Valley, just an hour north, a great destination for food and wine.

We stayed on the Pacific Highway and kept going north to Port Macquarie (236mi/380km north of Sydney). Once there, we found a campground and did the 5.5mi (9km) coastal walk from Town Beach to Tacking Point Lighthouse. The walk offers beautiful beaches and views of Port Macquarie. Plus, we saw whales frolicking offshore!

We camped at the Sundowner Breakwall campground. Despite reading bad reviews, we enjoyed the campsite. It was really busy, but the location was well worth the crowds.

While driving north, we came across the Belwood Park in Nambucca Heads. This wasn't on our itinerary, but we couldn't ignore it. The Nambucca River offers clear water that we couldn't stop ourselves from spending a few hours in the area. My advice is to have a picnic and go for a swim before getting back on the road.

After another 167mi (270km) drive, you’ll reach Lennox Heads – a mecca for surfers – and a little further away, famous Byron Bay.

Shopping at the markets in Byron Bay. Photo credit: iStock

Both towns are laid back, but Byron has a more alternative, hippie vibe. It’s one of the most popular destinations in Australia, and you've got to see it for yourself. If you're spending time in Lennox Head, don't miss Pat Morton Lookout where you'll see hang gliders and paragliders taking off.

In Byron Bay, grab a burger at the Beloporto – a local’s favorite. Don’t miss Watego's Beach, Tallow Beach, and the Cape Byron lighthouse – which is the furthest easterly point on mainland Australia. If you’re there in March, don’t miss the Byron Bay Bluesfest.

We camped at the North Coast Holidays Park, a campsite within walking distance to town and with direct access to Clarkes Beach.

Remember to secure your food while camping or bush turkeys will visit to inspect your supply of food! Never feed the local wildlife.

5. Gold Coast, Brisbane & Moreton Island

Time to allow: six days

Distance: 80km


From beaches to waterfalls, hikes, and mountains, the Gold Coast area offers it all.

Waves crashing on the Gold Coast. Photo credit: iStock

Explore Springbrook National Park and check out Cougal Cascades for a swim, easily accessed by stairs.

The Killarney Glen Falls (located in Canungra, 21 miles away (35km) are a hidden treasure. This is a heart-shaped waterfall, but it’s in a military area so check in advance to see if access is closed – call Canungra Information Centre for updates (07 5543 5156). If it's been raining, the clear blue water will become murky from the runoff, and won't be so pretty. To get there, search "Marian Valley, Beechmont Road" on the GPS. A car park is just out front. 

Another beautiful destination, not known by many travelers, is Moreton Island. Drive to Brisbane (49mi/80km from the Gold Coast) and take a catamaran from the Port of Brisbane. It takes about 75 minutes to get to the island. Go snorkeling around the Tangalooma Wrecks, where there are 15 vessels to explore underwater.

Tallebudgera Creek, approximately 30 minutes from Surfers Paradise, is a great place for kids and stand up paddleboarding, thanks to calm waters.

Keen surfers shouldn’t miss Mermaid Beach and Coolangatta, while kite surfers should explore Narrowneck.

6. Sunshine Coast, Fraser Island & Town 1770

Time to allow: six days

Distance: 600km

Head north of Brisbane toward the Sunshine Coast. Head for Noosa Heads, a beautiful destination on the east coast. Try a stand up paddle boarding experience from Main Beach to Tea Tree Bay, a must for anyone who loves the water.

Take the coastal walk to Alexandria Bay, and check out the Fairy Pools. Often missed by many, since they can't be seen directly from the trail, to access Fairy Pools, pay attention to a bench close to a sign reading "warning - unfenced cliffs", right after Picnic Cove. Leave the trail and walk toward the ocean over the rocks, a quick three-minute detour.
Note: be careful, many accidents happen when people go too close to cliffs – hence the sign.

Fraser Island also can’t be skipped. Photo credit: Raquel Furtado

You need a high-clearance 4WD to access Fraser Island, so leave the motorhome behind and go with a local tour operator. We took a two-day tour, departing from Rainbow Beach (80mi130km north of Noosa). You can also join a tour at the nearest town, Hervey Bay – which is also where you can organize whale watching tours.

On the island, check out Lake Mackenzie, Champagne Pools, Central Station, and see Indian Head Lookout for spectacular views. You might see sharks, stingrays and turtles through the crystal water. Prepare your zoom lens on the camera for epic shots.

If you've got cash to spare, enjoy a 15-minute scenic flight over Fraser Island. You get to see the forest and the lakes from above, and you'll find out Lake Mackenzie is actually heart-shaped when viewed from the air.

7. Town of 1770 and Lady Musgrave Island

Time to allow: two days

Another 155mi (250km) north of Hervey Bay is the town of 1770. The village was renamed 1770 in 1970, to commemorate the bicentenary of Captain Cook’s landing there.

Snorkeling at Lady Musgrave Island. Photo credit: iStock

Take a one-day boat cruise to Lady Musgrave Island, which departs from the 1770 Marina. Go snorkeling to see turtles, coral reefs, and many species of fish beneath the clear water. If you'd prefer to go scuba diving, just know the reef isn't far from the surface of the water, so you might be wasting your money.

You'll also have the option to catch a smaller vessle over to the island, which is covered with coral, so take a pair of flip-flops. On the island, a guide will tell you about the local bird life and plants that thrive in the ocean.

If you get sea sick, think twice before going – the boat trip out to the island is quite a bouncy adventure.

8. 1770 to Airlie Beach

Time to allow: one day

Distance: 700km

On the nine-hour drive from 1770 to Airlie Beach, you’ll pass through Rockhampton, the administrative capital of central Queensland. The town sits in the Tropic of Capricorn, but is inland from the coast, so it’s incredibly hot. It’s also the center of beef production in Queensland, and it claims to be the home of Australia’s best steak.

9. Airlie Beach and Whitsunday Islands

Time to allow: four days

Airlie Beach is the jumping off point to explore the Whitsunday Islands. We took a three-day cruise, but if you have the skills (and the money) you can charter your own yacht.

Whichever way you explore the Whitsundays, be sure to check out Whitehaven Beach. With clear-blue water, white sand, and stunning scenery – there's no surprises this is printed on postcards for Australia.

The Whitsundays. Photo credit: iStock

Note: From Whitehaven Beach, there's a trail leading to a scenic lookout. Check the tides before you go to the lookout, as right between high and low tide is the best time to see the water mixed with the sand. If the tide is low, there won't be much water, so you'll see a shade of green instead of blue. During high tide, the water hides a lot of the white sand. In between is perfect.

Taking a scenic flight to the Great Barrier Reef might set you back a bit of money, but seeing the heart-shaped reef, and all the corals beneath the surface is surreal from above. Compare prices and tour inclusions, but your options are helicopter, small plane, or seaplane. Or, if you’re brave, consider taking the aerobatic flight.

Sadly, our trip ended in the Whitsundays, as we ran out of time.

If you're a keen scuba diver, and want to see more of the Great Barrier Reef, drive further north to Cairns and check out the tour operators in town. Word of warning: you might never want to leave – there's a reason Cairns' bars are staffed by people from all over the world.

Cairns is a 380mi (610km) drive, or a one-hour flight from Airlie Beach.

Australia Road Trip Safety Tips

Australia is one of the safest countries in the world. As a woman, I felt safe enough to easily travel solo around the country. You should always have some safety tips in mind, including; sleep in established campsites or accommodation, don't walk alone in dodgy places late at night, let a friend or family member know your itinerary, and send them regular updates. Avoid touching, feeding, or tampering with local wildlife – Australia's natural ecosystems are pristine, and shouldn't be messed with.

Road Trip Safety Tips

Although taking a road trip is great fun, in Australia it will take you a long time to get from one place to the next. Allow a sufficient amount of time to rest on longer stretches of road, and stay alert if you're driving at dusk and dawn – when Australia's wildlife are most active. 

Road safety in Australia is taken very seriously. Speed limits are strictly enforced. Obey them, or else be prepared to pay a hefty fine, as speed cameras and police are everywhere.

Road conditions are excellent and well marked, but a GPS will come in handy to be sure of where to go. There are signs reminding you to "drive on left", as well as "Stop, Revive, Survive" billboards, encouraging you to take a break.

Never assume fuel will be readily available or easily accessible when traveling far from major cities. Even though we didn’t have trouble during our journey, I’d advise you to refuel whenever the opportunity arises.

Respect the wildlife you encounter on your trip. Kangaroos are cute, but may be violent – never approach them for a selfie or with food. At night they will bounce right in front of your vehicle, so be aware of any animals beside the road.

Take good care of your motorhome. It's your home. Keep it clean and tidy.

Don’t stop anywhere you want, it’s not legal. Look for free local maps detailing where rest areas are, and whether overnight stays are permitted.

Take a look at what time your chosen campground reception closes, it's better to call them before and inform your anticipated arrival time. They can always drop keys and instructions in a letterbox for you when you arrive after hours.

Utilise picnic tables and public toilet facilities along the way – in remote locations, these are great places to stretch your legs and take a break from driving.

Handy Tips to Avoid Trouble

If your driving license is not in English, an International Driving Permit (issued in your home country) is required.

Pay attention to campgrounds with dump stations, as you'll probably need one every two days if you're in a self-contained vehicle.

In case of emergency dial 000 or 112. The GSM standard emergency number, 911, won’t work.

And don't forget, the Australian sun is powerful, wear lots of sunscreen.

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12 Comments

  • Juliana França Koch said

    Perfect tips! I am gonna do this trip with my husband on December! We are a Brazilian couple as well!

  • Angel Pena Ruiz said

    Thanks! Very useful!

  • Gert said

    This information makes me even more excited to go there !

  • chris said

    hi - great post - i appreciate costs may well have changed, but some approximate costing would be really (really)appreciated. many thanks

  • Lucy Dunthorne said

    Great blog post. I too will be travelling lone female and this post made me feel right at home 😊😎

  • Not at Fault Accident Rental Car said

    Many people literally count the 12 Apostles, thank you for clarifying it that it is not totally 12 at all. The great ocean road is a dream for many traveler to experience the beauty of the ocean with the great view while on the road. Camper-van looks cozy and comfortable. Trying to rent one of those with a group of friends this coming July. A week probably not enough to explore Australia.

    -Not My Fault
    https://www.notmyfault.com.au/

  • Kevin said

    thank you so much for this information. My wife, daughter (Holly the dog) and I will be driving from Melbourne to Cairns early 2018 for our big move to Port Douglas 🌴.
    It will now make my research into dog friendly camping grounds and places of interest so much easier 😊

  • Theo Veltman (Amsterdam, NL) said

    Thank you. We just did a 6 week tour zt the west coast from Darwin to Margareth River with a 4WD Camlervan. We recognize your safety travel tips. They are very worthwhile and necessary to take notice. Thanks for your tips in regards of theeast coast.

  • Mike said

    Thank you for your detailed report. My wife and I will be doing a three week road-trip from Melbourne to Cairns. I know this is less time than you recommend, but it's all we could spare. We will use your advice for stops along the way and campsites.

  • Liquid Snow Tours said

    Japan is one of the most interesting holiday destinations worth-exploring as it lets you enjoy its sights, sounds and tastes. Staying cooped up in your room will never be a part of your to-do list as there are numerous outdoor and indoor activities you can consider especially if you explore Hakuba Valley, the home to the most spectacular and awe-inspiring resorts in Japan.

  • Peter said

    Yeah, Australia is a really wonderful place! Got nothing to say! I've been there this month having the best vacation in my life!
    Even for natives this land is not discovered completely. Hard to imagine how full it is of different attractions and entertainments,  I tried almost everything described in this article except of sailing. But I'd really like to) May be next time...
    That was my second trip to Australia, and I couldn't imagine how cool it could be. The country got its own specificity. I mean It's not completely desert, as lots of people think, it's just small percentage of urbanization comparing with continent(!) size. So you can easily combine city entertainment with nature time passing. So we(Me, my Wife and two Children-boys) decided to visit couple of wild places first. Kayaking sounded really good, but it appeared much better! I can't describe what we feel feeling during all way down the river. Amplitude of feelings was just amazing! The best part is that even if u are completely inexperienced(as we were), you still got the opportunity to ride that gorgeous river. Short-term briefing and you are one of the best kayakers all over the world) The rest of that day our team spent in camp frying barbecue and having fun.
    As we'd made a plan for our trip carefully and visiting some town was in it, we picked Cairns up. Besides, we were kayaking not far from it.
    Australian city can offer a lot of really different amusements, so, back in Cairns, we were wandering through the city, shopping, watching some interesting places, sightseeing. And later in hotel we divided into two groups for some time:) Casino is my passion so my way was clear for me, my children and wife went to their apartment. I spent my evening amazingly(200$ win) and went back to our room. it was my first time staying in casino hotel. Here I found some more https://www.katiewager.com/best-10-casino-hotels-australia, next time could help, and might be useful for u guys. I'd like to add them to mustvisit places except of yours, as I haven't ever heard about such places except for in Vegas ones)

    Anyway, next couple days we've stayed in Cairns. We managed to visit Great Barrier Reef. Diving, fishing and just swimming gave us so much expressions, hard to say! Also we went to Rainforest, it was a bit scary, but really interesting. That's a place u can feel nature closely, be a part of it.
    So Australia can give a lot of experience for any traveller, not depending on what he's seen during his journeys. And, for sure, there are really a lot of stuff to do in there!

  • Karen said

    Great Post, I’ve recently returned from my first visit to Australia, first solo long haul to. I stayed in and around Umina Beach, NSW, visiting family. But I visited Sydney on 3 separate occasions just for the day. Using public transport is so easy here. I was there for just under a month, not long enough so I’ll be staying for longer next time.

    I’ve definitely been bitten by Australia and can’t wait to return. So your post is really very helpful as I’m planning on traveling down the East Coast & seeing as much as I can before ending up in Umina with family again.

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