Imagine you’re looking at a giant, powdery sand dune that’s over 100 feet high. Now imagine 20 miles of them. You might think you’re in the Sahara, 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 sand dunes in the world.
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. Frankly, the hardest part of sand boarding is walking back up for another go, but it’s well worth the toil.
Sand boarding is the highlight of a dunes safari, a tour that rekindles the ghost of Mad Max (this was where the movie was shot.
Stockton Beach is just one of the many treasures waiting to be discovered along the legendary drive up the Pacific Highway from Sydney to Brisbane. Australia’s Pacific Highway 1 is not an ocean drive as is the case from LA to San Francisco, rather an inland freeway sweeping through rainforest. But taking a signposted coastal detour reveals miles of the most jaw dropping coastal scenery you’re likely to witness.
Driving north from Sydney across the harbour bridge, the highway takes you towards Newcastle, once the working class centre of Australia’s coal industry and now gradually being gentrified.
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 along the beachfront.
We’re now in the Hunter Valley region, the birth place of Australia’s wine industry and for those of you partial to the fruits of the vine, it is worth a detour to visit some vineyards. I’m continuing northwards, heading to Port Stephens and the charming Nelson Bay. This is the dolphin capital of Australia, with more than 150 bottle nosed dolphins living around a bay twice the size of Sydney harbour.
It’s a lovely resort town and a perfect base for exploring the abundant marine life. Dolphin trips abound, some outstanding coral diving and fishing too, but for me, a morning’s kayaking around the bay was a perfect way to learn about the area.
We glide past impossibly white beaches and 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 hike 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 perfect for dolphin and whale watching.
Nelson Bay has a clutch of restaurants, shops and hotels and my dinner at Sandpipers, the locals’ favourite for fresh fish, topped off a great day.
The quaint towns of Tea Gardens and Hawks Nest are an interesting diversion but I’m back on the highway towards my next stop some three hours away at Port Macquarie. Once infamous as a particularly brutal penal colony, Port Macquarie has developed into a bustling coastal town. Koala bears are officially classed as a vulnerable species and the Port Macquarie area is one of the few locations where koala’s still roam in the wild. The koala hospital is run almost entirely by volunteers, and I drop in to visit during one of their feeding sessions.
The hospital takes in hundreds of sick koalas each year, and whilst many are released back into the wild, there are some that take up permanent residency like Clara, blind in both eyes and missing a limb. Admission is free and there are guided tours each afternoon at 3pm.
A new day dawns and after a detour to South West Rocks a national park with 20 miles of walking trails past grazing kangaroos and across craggy coastal cliffs, I head to Coffs Harbour. Captain Cook charted these shores and there are reminders on lookouts all along the coast of Cooks’ diary musings, noting landmarks as his ship sailed by and 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 I inch nearer to Queensland. Coffs is a perfect place to stay a day or two and soak up the tropical sun.
I spend a thrilling afternoon on a guided bike ride down through the Dorrigo National Park. This is the Dorrigo Freefall — no pedalling needed, just a freewheel 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.
I’m well on my way north now and Queensland is within reach. But there is one place 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 a hippy hang- out where an alternative lifestyle was de rigueur.
Today it is still new age; the hippies may have long gone and the lifestyle more high end, but it’s still laid back. Byron Bay, with its quirky cafes and shops, boutique hotels and gorgeous beachfront is, a veritable holiday paradise.
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.
This is where I cross into Queensland for the short hop up to Brisbane and journey’s end. It’s been a trip where l 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.
STAY: Nelson Resort
Apartments Inn Byron
Anuka Beach Resort
FLY: Cathay Pacific flies daily to Sydney via Hong Kong from £927 return.