Driving the Oz East Coast? Here's a Guide for Your Trip

Top tips including, how long it will take and the highlights to capture along the way. Includes an itinerary for Melbourne to Cairns by a World Nomad who did it.

Australia - you want to see it all, experience everything; the bush, the desert, its cities, beaches, rainforests and snow (yes, Australia has snow!). Which makes a driving holiday a great option. So go on, get yourself a motorhome (Aussies call them campervans) and hit the road. 

But to make sure you don’t run into trouble – and to make sure you don’t miss the best bits – check out these tips from someone who’s done the iconic Aussie trip up the east coast, including where to stop, what to see, how long it will take and what precautions to take.

(Image: Our author enjoying her east coast road trip. Follow her on Instagram)

Brazilian travel blogger Raquel Furtado from www.vamospraonde.com travelled from south of Melbourne to Cairns (almost – she ran out of time). Here’s her take on driving the east coast of Australia.

After over 10 years of traveling I finally got the chance to do something I’ve long wanted 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.

Best way to travel around Australia

Motorhome was the way I did it. It allowed me to travel at my own pace and explore everything I wanted.

(Raquel's motorhome on the road south of Melbourne)

Driving a car is also another great idea, but I believe traveling by motorhome gives you more freedom and comfort in terms of overnights stays, bathroom needs and food.

If driving is not an option, or if you're traveling solo, I suggest you take a look at bus tours. Contiki is a very well respected company that I've used in the past.

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 26,000km! Which is why most people restrict their travel to just the east coast. There is a great route of around 4,000km from the Great Ocean Road near Melbourne to Cairns – the best starting point to explore the Great Barrier Reef.

Give yourself at least a month. Trust me. The east coast has a lot to offer and you will want to spend many days at each destination.

It’s also important for a trip that involves so much driving that you rest 3 to 4 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 instead of a tourist. This will renew your energy to continue the journey.

Itinerary for travelling Melbourne to Cairns

Mine went like this, and it worked perfectly, so feel free to be inspired:

  1. Wilsons Promontory National Park and The Great Ocean Rd. 7 days. 500km.

About 2 and-a-half hours south-east of Melbourne is Wilsons Prom’. This is the place to go if you love nature and want to see some wildlife, especially kangaroos, wallabies and wombats.

We’ve spent 4 days there at the Tidal River campground. Choose the areas near the beach, they’re the best spots for sure!

Enjoy Squeaky Beach, which is easily accessed by car and a 300m trail.

If you’re a hiker, dedicate 3 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 250 km stretch of road along the southern coast of Victoria.

(The 12 Apostles - don't count them, it's just a name!)

Drive through the Great Ocean Road slowly - it hides more secrets than you imagine.

Surfers can’t miss Bells Beach - home of the Rip Curl Pro Surfing Competition since 1960.

Next on the road look for Kennett River, it has loads of koalas hanging in the trees.

The 12 apostles (rock monoliths which stand in the ocean just off the coast) are also a must. There are MANY spots and lookouts in the area, but because of the beach access, Loch Ard Gorge was my favorite. We spent the night at the Apostles Camping site. 


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

  1. Melbourne to Sydney. 4 days. 1,100km


You can head straight up the Hume Highway in 9 to 10 hours, but you’ll miss everything. Instead take the Federal Highway to Canberra the national capital, then head to the coast at Batemans Bay.

One hundred kilometres north of Batemans Bay is our favourite part of New South Wales – Jervis Bay.

There you’ll find the Booderee NP - which is a pristine wonder - Hyams Beach - renowned for having 'the whitest sand in the world’ -,Cave Beach - a surfers’ favorite - and Green Patch beach - where we've camped (Green Patch Campground). It’s all pretty close, just drive for 22km and you’ll see all those beaches.

There is a great camping at Cave Beach, but cars are not allowed. The car park is about 300m away, so, if you chose to stay there, I recommend you have a trolley to get your gear in and out.

About 50km away, there’s Honeymoon Bay (on the opposite side of Hyams Beach, still in Jervis Bay). It’s a little beach with crystal calm waters, perfect for kids and for renewing your energy.

If it’s a very hot day and you’re into rock pools, Kiama, 80km further north, has a few. There you’ll find the blowhole too. Depending on conditions, it can spray water up to 25 meters into the air!

Another 90 kms north, and closer to Sydney, is The Royal National Park (entrance fee: $12 per vehicle per day). Drive to the Wattamolla Beach! There’s a waterfall and a river with unique scenery! You can find some great cliffs for jumping into the ocean.

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

Try seeing the Figure Eight Pools - rock pools forming a perfect, impressive, number "8". You’ll need around 3 hours and be prepared for quite a hike (bring lot’s of water), but it’s worth it. Start at the Garawarra Farm car park (10.3km south of Wattamolla). It might be hard to find the pools, so use your GPS. Please go at low tide. It’s a rocky path by the ocean (where big waves may rise). Check the tide height and wave size before going. Take it seriously! 


  1. Sydney. 5 days - Our relaxation break.

Don’t miss the Coastal Walk from Bondi to Coogee and spend a day at Manly beach (take the 40-minute-ferry at the Circular Quay). The ferry is a high point because you have a beautiful view of the Harbour Bridge and the Opera House. Restaurant advice? Go have some kangaroo meat at the Meat and Wine Co.

  1. Sydney to Gold Coast. 5 days. 800km.

This is the Legendary Pacific Coast.

90 minutes out of Sydney visit the Central Coast region and don’t miss a walk in Bouddi National Park, especially if you're nature lover. If you’re into wineries, the Hunter Valley another hour north deserves a visit as well.

We missed those and drove all the way up to Port Macquarie (about 380km from Sydney). Once there, find a campground, and do the 9km Coastal Walk from Town Beach to Tacking Point Lighthouse. The walk offers beautiful beaches and views. We even got to see whales.

We've stayed at the Sundowner Breakwall campground. Although reading some bad reviews about it, we had a positive experience (it’s just super busy, but that wasn't a problem for us). Location is their highest point.

While driving north, we came across the Belwood Park in Nambucca Heads. This wasn't on our itinerary but we couldn't just ignore it.

Nambucca river offers such clear and blue water we had to spend a few hours in the area. My advice is to have a picnic there and swim a bit. You'll love it.

After another 270km, you’ll reach Lennox Heads (basically a mecca for surfers) and a little further on, Byron Bay.

Both destinations are pretty laid back, but Byron has a more alternative, hippie style. It’s one of the most popular destinations in Australia - you must check it out! My advice regarding Lennox is not to miss the Pat Morton Lookout. You get to see not only a beautiful view, but also hang gliders and paragliders taking off.

In Byron Bay, go have a burger at the Beloporto - it’s a tiny "not fancy at all place", but a local’s favorite. Don’t miss Wategos Beach and Tallow Beach. The Cape Byron lighthouse is the furthest easterly point of the Australian main land - and it’s on the top of a cliff, so it offers an impressive view! If you’re there in March, don’t miss the Byron Bay Bluesfest.

We’ve stayed at the North Coast Holidays Park, a beautiful place walking distance to town, with direct access to Clarkes Beach - and full of wildlife.

But remember to secure your food or bush turkeys will be around your tent all the time!

  1. Gold Coast, Brisbane & Moreton Island. 6 days. 80km

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

Go explore the Springbrook National Park - specially the Cougal Cascades for a swim (very easy access by stairs).

The Killarney Glen Falls (located in Canungra, 35km away) are a hidden treasure - it’s a heart shaped waterfall, but it’s in a military area so it may be closed. Call Canungra Information Centre for updates. Choose a sunny day to visit - rains make the blue water become brown and not so pretty. To get there, type "Marian Valley, Beechmont Road" on your GPS - the car park is just in front of it. Park and walk 850m. To see the heart shape, have the waterfall on your left.

Another beautiful destination not known by many is Moreton Island. Drive to Brisbane (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 (there are fifteen vessels there) - it’s different and beautiful.

My personal advice: don’t leave the island before 7pm - that’s when the dolphins appear, every single day, in front of the Tangalooma Resort looking for food. Tourists can feed them (for a price, of course).

The Tallebudgera Creek, about 30mins from Surfers Paradise, is a great place for kids and SUP activities - very calm clear water.

Surfers shouldn’t miss Mermaid Beach and Coolangatta while kite-surfers should explore Narrowneck.

  1. Sunshine Coast, Fraser Island, & Town of 1770. 6 days. 600km.

Head north from Brisbane towards the Sunshine Coast. Some travelers might pass by Noosa, but I don’t want you to make this mistake!

Noosa Heads is just incredible. A SUP experience in it’s waters from Main Beach to the Tea Tree Bay is a must for every lover of clear turquoise waters.

The Coastal Walk to Alexandria Bay is also a must, especially because of the Fairy Pools - easily missed by many since it’s not seen from the trail. To access it, pay attention to a bench close to a "warning - unfenced cliffs" sign right after Picnic Cove. Leave the trail and walk towards the ocean over the rocks. You will "climb" the rocks a bit and then you'll start going down - that’s when you'll see the pool (less then 3 minutes walk).

Note: you might see another pool from the trail - that’s not the one I want you to visit, the right one is hidden just on the right side of this one. Go during the morning when the sun lights the whole pool - shades make it less beautiful and may "ruin" your photo.

Fraser Island also can’t be skipped.

You need a high-clearance 4WD to access the island, so leave the motorhome behind and go with a tour operator. I’ve done a 2-day-tour departing from Rainbow Beach (130km from Noosa, overnight at Debbie's Place). You can also join a tour at the nearest town, Hervey Bay, which is a whale watching centre.

On the island enjoy the popular lakes and please go to the Indian Head Lookout - the view from there is spectacular! You might see sharks, stingrays and turtles through the crystal water. I did! It was pretty special. Prepare you camera zoom for awesome shots!

Personal advice? Do the 15 minute scenic flight over the island! You get to see the forest and the lakes from the top (the surprise is the heart shape of Lake Mackenzie - incredible).

  1. Town of 1770 and Lady Musgrave Island. 2 days.

Another 250 kms north of Hervey Bay is the town of Seventeen Seventy (1770).

(Ed note: the village was renamed 1770 in 1970 to commemorate the bicentenary of Captain Cook’s landing there.)

Do the 1 day boat cruise to Lady Musgrave Island (it departs from the 1770 Marina). It is surreal how clear the water is there. It also offers amazing snorkeling experiences - I even got to swim with a turtle! I don’t recommend the scuba diving, though, no need for that - the reefs are really close to the surface. If you get sea sick, think twice before going - the trip till the island is quite a bouncy adventure. But it’s worth it, I guarantee!

  1. Seventeen Seventy to Airlie Beach. 1 day. 700km

There isn't much to see along this route – which will take 9 hours to drive! Rest on the way. Eat well and stretch a little.

You’ll go through Rockhampton, which is the administrative capital of central Queensland. It sits on the Tropic of Capricorn, but inland from the coast so it’s incredibly hot. It’s also the centre of beef production in Queensland, and they boast you can get Australia’s best steak here.

  1. Airlie Beach and Whitsunday Islands. 4 days.

Airlie Beach is the place to go if you want to explore the Whitsunday Islands. We took a 3-day cruise, but if you have the skills (and the money) you can charter your own sailboat.

You have to do a boat cruise that includes Whitehaven beach. It’s a must see, portrait of Australia – blue tropical water, white sand and stunning scenery. Words cannot describe it.

Important: From Whitehaven beach, there is a trail leading to the famous lookout. Go to the lookout when the tide is not very low nor high. Everybody wants to see the blue water mixed with white sand. If the tide is low, there isn't much water so it looks like it’s green instead of blue; and if it’s high, the amount of water hides a lot of the white sand. The in-between is the perfect moment.

Now I hope you have some extra cash, because another must do activity is the scenic flight to the Great Barrier Reef. Seeing the heart reef from the top, and all those corals close to the surface is surreal. It’s pricey, but totally worth it. Options are helicopter, seaplane (if you can afford it, do this one) or regular small planes (cheaper option).

If you’re brave enough, consider doing the aerobatic flight - and buy the video! What an experience!

Sadly, that’s where my trip ended (we ran out of time!)

If you want to scuba dive and see more of the Great Barrier Reef, go all the way up to Cairns and do another boat cruise, maybe a live aboard.

It’s a 610km drive or a 1 hour flight from Airlie Beach.

Australia road trip safety tips

Australia is one of the safest countries in the world - it is actually in the top 10 according to the "The Institute for Economics and Peace”, having the ninth best Global Peace Index (GIP) in 2015 - so enjoy it!

As a woman, I felt safe enough to easily travel solo around the country. You should always have some safety tips in mind, of course, (sleep in proper places, not to walk alone late at night, let a friend or family member know your itinerary and send them regular OK and address messages) but basically relax in Australia. It is really safe.

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Road safety in Australia

Australia is a very big country. Although driving is fun and exciting in this beautiful land, it might take you a while to get from point A to B. Respect your body needs and stop every time you fell tired.

Road safety is taken pretty seriously. Speed limits are strictly enforced. Please obey them. Fines are very high and speed cameras are everywhere.

Road conditions are great and well marked (always drive with a GPS, though). There are signs reminding you to "drive on left", as well as "powernap now” messages to alert you if you’re tired.

Do not 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 get fuel whenever the opportunity arises.

Respect the wildlife you encounter on your trip. Kangaroos are cute but may be violent. At night they might bounce right in front of your vehicle, so be aware.

Take good care of your motorhome. It is your house now. Keep it clean and tidy.

Don’t just stop anywhere you want, it’s not legal. Look for the free maps most states produce 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.

Keep in mind 24-hour-stops are permitted at sites along the road where you find picnic tables and public toilets - take advantage of these!

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 campground with dump stations, as you'll probably need one every two days.

In case of emergency dial 000 or 112 (the GSM standard emergency number) 911 won’t work ;-)

Wear lots of sunscreen and enjoy the journey! 

11 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!

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