Imagine, just for a moment, you’re looking up at a giant, immaculate, powdery-white sand dune that’s over 100 feet high.
Now imagine twenty miles of them, stretching in both directions as far as your eye can see. You might be forgiven for thinking you’re in the middle of the Sahara, particularly when you spot a camel train inching its way across a giant dune on the far horizon. But this is no desert. This is Stockton Beach in the Worimi National Park on Australia’s eastern coast, and these are some of the largest continuously moving sand dunes in the world and I’ve never seen anything quite like it.
They say these giant dunes move north around 13 feet a year and I can believe it, having seen my own footprints disappear in front of my very eyes as a gust of warm wind restores the once smooth contours back to nature’s canvass.
However, I’m not stopping here merely to marvel, I’m going to have some fun sliding down these glorious slopes on a plastic board and a prayer, having survived a 20 minute journey up and down and over them in a 13 seat Hummer. Frankly, the hardest part of sand boarding is walking back up the dune for another go, but it’s well worth the toil. Sand boarding is the highlight of a dunes safari, a Hummer tour that rekindles the ghost of Mad Max (this was where the movie was shot) and negotiating the dunes with surprising ease. The tour also includes a close up of the Sygma wreck, a Norwegian ship blown ashore in 1974, and the remains of the “tin city” the small dwellings built by local workers in the late 1800’s.
Stockton Beach is just one of the many treasures waiting to be discovered along the iconic drive up the Pacific Highway from Sydney to Brisbane. This 750 mile drive may have echoes of the legendary coastal drive along California’s west coast from Los Angeles to San Francisco, but the reality is like comparing chalk with cheese. Australia’s Pacific Highway 1 is not an ocean drive as is the case in California, rather an inland freeway sweeping through dense bush and rainforest. But the stunning beauty of this drive is when you take the numerous brown signposted coastal detours revealing some of the most jaw dropping coastal scenery you’re likely to witness. Miles of it; a masterpiece of natural beauty and I’m taking a week to drive up and enjoy every moment.
Sydney to Nelson Bay
Driving north from Sydney across the harbour bridge for a couple of hours, the highway takes you towards Newcastle, once the working-class centre of Australia’s coal industry, now gradually being gentrified and exploiting its wonderful beachside location. Much of Newcastle’s original turn of the century architecture is still very much in evidence and it’s worth stopping here for lunch and having a wander.
We’re now in the Hunter Valley region, the birth place of Australia’s wine industry and for those of you a little partial to the fruits of the vine, it is worth taking a detour for a day or two to visit the many wineries around here. For me though, I’m continuing northwards heading to the Port Stephens area for my first night in charming Nelson Bay. This is the dolphin capital of Australia, with over 150 bottle nosed dolphins living in the wild around the bay, which is incidentally, twice the size of Sydney harbour. Nelson Bay is a lovely small resort town and a perfect base for exploring the abundant marine life. Dolphin trips abound obviously, some outstanding coral diving and fishing too, but for me, a morning’s kayaking around the bay with local eco guide Mike Hogg was a perfect way to learn about the area
. “Check out those trees ” Mike tells me as we glide past yet another impossibly white beach and spot a grove of trees offering shade to a group of sunbathers. “The Worimi Aboriginal tribe used to take the bark from them to build their boats. They are special trees in their culture, but those sunbathers wouldn’t know that.” We kayak further out into the bay searching for some playful dolphins but today they obviously had better things to do than entertain me.
A gentle afternoon walk on a raised boardwalk up through rain forest to the summit of Tomaree Head reveals a stunning panoramic view right around the coastline. A true South Pacific vista and a perfect place for a spot of dolphin and whale watching.
Nelson Bay has a clutch of restaurants, shops and hotels to suit all tastes and budgets and my dinner at Sandpipers, the locals’ favourite for fresh fish, topped off a great day.
Nelson Bay to Port Macquarie
It’s morning and the quaint towns of Tea Gardens and Hawks Nest are an interesting diversion if you have the time, but for me, I’m back on the highway towards my next stop some 3 hours away at Port Macquarie. Once infamous in 1821 as a particularly brutal penal colony, Port Macquarie has developed into a bustling coastal town; There is water almost everywhere you look, and the mix of urban planning and heritage listed buildings are easily within walking distance.
Koala bears are officially classed as a vulnerable species these days and the Port Macquarie area is one of the few locations in Australia where koala’s still roam in the wild. The koala hospital close to the centre of town, is run almost entirely by volunteers, and I drop in to visit during one of their feeding sessions. The hospital takes in hundreds of injured or ill koalas each year, and whilst many are released back into the wild, there are some that take up permanent residency. Clara is blind in both eyes and missing a limb, but she spends her days contentedly chewing eucalyptus and being fussed over by her keepers. Amazing. Admission is free and there are guided tours each afternoon at 3pm.
Port Macquarie to Coffs Harbour
A new day dawns and I’m back on the road but only for an hour, to visit Trial Bay near South West Rocks. Trial Bay Gaol is perched right on a dramatic rocky outcrop and was a working prison from 1886 right up until after WW1 when it was home to German POW’s. This area is all national parkland and at the Gaol you can pick up self guided maps of over 20 miles of walking trails across craggy coastal cliffs and through rainforest. You’ll spot kangaroos grazing here too and I stroll past to two groups just sitting in the shade enjoying a lazy day just like me.
As I near my next overnight at Coffs Harbour, I’m beginning to sense the spirit of Captain Cook who charted these very shores. There are reminders on dramatic lookouts all along the coast of Cooks’ diary musings, noting landmarks as his ship sailed by and standing looking out at those very same contours and islets, I can’t help but feel a little thrill.
The scenery and the weather is becoming noticeably more tropical now as we inch nearer to Queensland. Coffs is a perfect place to stay a day or two and soak up the tropical sun or indulge in some fun activities. I spend a thrilling afternoon negotiating the Dorrigo Freefall, a guided bike ride down through the Dorrigo National Park. No pedalling needed here, just freewheeling down past waterfalls and bush land with my hands very close to the brakes!
Coffs is adjacent to the Solitary Islands Marine Park, a 50 mile stretch of protected ocean containing a myriad of residents from turtles and coral, to marine mammals of all shapes and sizes. You’ll find plenty of day trips available at the Jetty Centre from snorkelling and diving to deep sea adventures.
Coffs Harbour to Byron Bay
Leaving Coffs, I’m well on my way north now and Queensland is within reach. But there is still one more desirable place to stay a day or two, somewhere I’ve been looking forward to visiting for many years. Byron Bay may be just a three hour drive from Coffs Harbour, but it’s light years away in contrast. Back in the 60’s it was where the beautiful people came, drawn by its natural beauty to free their senses; a hippy hang out where an alternative lifestyle was de rigueur. Today it is still undeniably new age; the hippies may have long gone and the lifestyle more high end, but it’s still a very laid back and spiritual town. Byron Bay, with its quirky cafes and shops, boutique hotels and gorgeous beachfront is without a doubt, a veritable holiday paraside.
Feather is a well known local character I meet down on the beach. Now in her 80’s, she’s been Byron landmark most of her life, spending six hours a day sun bathing and meditating and listening to music on what she calls “ladies rock” a large piece of ancient lava lying close to the sea. “I wouldn’t have it any other way” she tells me having just confessed to a “little skinny dip before brekkie.” You can’t make it up.
The town is lovely to wander around, but the walk along the beach and up to the historic lighthouse, the most easterly point in Australia, is even better. Leaving Byron Bay is hard, but I know in my heart I’ll be back.
Byron Bay to Brisbane
This is where I leave New South Wales and cross into Queensland for the short hop up to Brisbane and journey’s end. It’s been a trip where I’ve literally overdosed on visual stimulus. It is hard to imagine such vast areas of unspoilt beauty can exist in today’s world but Australia’s eastern coast proves they most certainly can.
Getting there: Cathay Pacific flies daily to Sydney via Hong Kong from £927 return.