The Great Australian Road Trip – Part I, Bundaberg to Sydney

We’re back!

After 7 weeks on the road in Glinda, 9,000 km (5,400 miles) on the odometer, in wind, rain, sun, dust and bush fires, traversing mountains, seacoasts, big cities and small towns, sighting koalas, kookaburras and other cool Aussie critters, meeting people, having conversations and making, however briefly, connections, Eric and I are home in Bundaberg aboard Corroboree. This will be the first of several blog posts about our odyssey, and for those who care to consult a map, I’ll include an itinerary at the end of each post. But have no fear that this will be an endless “We went here, we did that” litany. We had an amazing, exciting journey, and via some highlights, I’ll take you along.

We left Bundaberg on 6 October for the first leg south to Sydney. Thanks to its iconic Opera House, everyone “knows” Sydney. But other than Brisbane, which we visited in July-August on Corroboree, what lies in the 1,300 km between Bundaberg and Sydney that makes it worth the drive? What did we encounter that was fun, beautiful, sobering, enlightening and rare?

For a start, there are pretty towns like Childers, where a stroll down the shady main street takes you past historical buildings and pubs, intriguing shops and outdoor art. Intricate metal latticework, we soon discovered, was extremely popular in Australian towns in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. No self-respecting hotel would be without it, certainly not the Federal, below. But one pretty building in Childers was the scene of a horrific act. In 2000, a midnight arson fire at The Palace, then in use as a crowded hostel, took the lives of 15 young backpackers who were working as seasonal fruit pickers. Now a regional art gallery, the building contains a moving memorial that includes a large painting of the 15 backpackers grouped in laughing camaraderie as they take a break from the field. Photos are not allowed, but the sensitivity of the memorial and of the docent who told us the story made it something I won’t forget.

Federal Hotel, Childers 1907
Street art, Childers. The Palace, 1902, is in the background.

Two other small towns with stories to tell are Maryborough and Gympie. The former, situated on the Mary River, has a beautifully restored colonial district and riverfront park, but its bigger claim to fame is as the birthplace of “English” writer P.L. Travers, the creator of Mary Poppins. Along with a mural, a sculpture and several plaques, Maryborough celebrates Travers and her clever nanny with an annual Mary Poppins festival in June/July. Get your umbrella ready! In Gympie, on another bend of the Mary River, the eye-opener for us was the flood marker in the downtown park. The colored rings on the 12-meter pole in the photo below record the height of the water during major floods at the site between 1893-1972. For comparison, Eric is just shy of 6’ tall.

Mary Poppins mural, Maryborough
Mary and me
Flood marker pole, Gympie

Then there’s Woolgoolga, where we had lunch at a Sikh temple. Really! We had been advised by Aussie friends to seek (no pun intended) it out, and when we came upon it just off the highway, the white temple shone like a vision against the brilliant blue sky. Neither of us knew anything about the Sikh religion, so we went first to the museum across the street. There we learned Sikhism was founded in northern India near the end of the 15th century and today is the fifth largest organized religion in the world. It believes in equality and freedom for all people of every race, religion, nationality, gender and sexual orientation. A core principle of Sikh temples is to provide free food without question to everyone who enters, and we partook of this generosity with a meal of rice and vegetable curries served cafeteria-style from a bustling kitchen on the temple’s main floor. Not all Sikhs wear a turban but those who do are expected to uphold a high level of moral responsibility. One sign in the museum advised that if you are lost or in trouble anywhere in the world and you spot a turbaned Sikh, go to him or her and you will be assured of help. What a lovely, comforting thought.  

Guru Nanak Sikh Temple, Woolgoolga
Guru Nanak Sikh Temple, Woolgoolga

Another stop took us to the coastal city of Coffs Harbour, famous for its golden sand beaches. By now we were 750 km south of Bundaberg, and the flat coastline had become punctuated by rocky headlands. The day being very windy, our walk along the marina jetty yielded some beautiful, wave-tossed views. But the real “treat” at Coffs Harbour is the famous Big Banana, a huge ferrocement sculpture at the entrance to the city’s amusement park. Bananas are a prime crop in the area, and according to the signage, the creators of the yellow landmark asked a local banana farmer to pick out a “perfect” specimen so they could copy its proportions. Naturally, if you’re going to have your picture taken in front of it, you should be holding aloft a frozen, chocolate-dipped banana coated with nuts and sprinkles. Built in 1964, the Big Banana, so they say, was the inspiration for other “Big Things” in Australia, more of which will appear in my next posts.

Coffs Harbour marina. Many cruising boats call in here.
The “perfect” banana

Further along the coast in Port Macquarie, our destination was Sea Acres Rain Forest. With a 1.3 km boardwalk through the trees, it was supposed to be crawling with birds, and of course, I’ve been adding to my life list everywhere we go. Well, the birds failed to rsvp in any number, but we did see a brush-turkey and two goannas, and the forest was dense with trees large and small, illuminated by magical, slanting light.

A brush-turkey acts as greeter at Sea Acres Rain Forest.
This sunbathing goanna was about 6′ long.

Afterwards, in the visitors center, we viewed a display of staged aboriginal photos taken between 1910-20 by a white man who felt it was important to record their already-disappearing hunting and fishing practices. Australia is working hard to acknowledge its past treatment of indigenous people, and virtually every government building, museum, garden and park we visited displays a plaque recognizing “the traditional owners of the land” and according respect to its “leaders, past, present and emerging.” Many also dedicate space to aboriginal art and artifacts, teachings and culture. At Sea Acres, a short film included demonstrations of aboriginal sand art, after which we tried our hand at creating our own masterpieces on a light table. Here are the results:

On a second day in Port Macquarie we checked out the regional art gallery and the local history museum, good activities for a day that was pouring rain. At such times, camping in Glinda is not exactly luxurious. Unless the campground has covered picnic tables, you can’t even get out of the car to cook. Windy weather—and the weather was increasingly windy as we headed south—is equally difficult; it’s hard to keep our little camp stove lit. Thus, our modus operandi in adverse conditions is to pick up deli salads at the nearest grocery store, a bottle of wine at the bottle-o, and eat dinner in the front seat with Netflix on the iPad perched on the dashboard. Then we dash out between the raindrops, transfer our backpacks, laptops, cooler and other gear to the front seats and dive into the back for the night with a book. Praise be for novels and Netflix!

The next day was sunny again, and we took our time driving and stopping to admire the stunning coastal scenery. At Cape Hawke Lookout we saw migrating humpbacks just offshore. Some 25,000 whales traverse the east Australian coast at this time of year, heading south to Antarctica for the summer, and we were to see them at several other stops along our route. Here, they were putting on an excellent show for a whale sightseeing boat, and even from our more distant vantage point, we could see them surging out of the water and smashing back into the blue in a flood of foam.

Coastline between Port Macquarie and Newcastle
More coastline

In Newcastle, our final stop before Sydney, we strolled the long causeway to the lighthouse. The terminus is called Nobbys Head, and when first sighted by Capt. James Cook aboard Endeavour in 1770, it was an island in the form of a large spire of rock. Then the settlers got busy altering nature, and over decades they took off the top half of the island—pause and think about that—to create a site for a lighthouse. They also began building a breakwater from the island to shore. This was horrifying to the aboriginal people, who would never do such a thing to nature and had no reason to, but they had no say in the matter. With the lighthouse and breakwater, Newcastle now had an excellent harbour, and we watched several bulk carriers entering and leaving port, aided by a pilot boat and three sturdy tugs.

The art-decorated causeway to Newcastle lighthouse

Near the Newcastle lighthouse is Fort Scratchley, dating from the 1870s and named not for some pompous colonial official as is usually the case, but for Lt. Col. Peter Scratchley, the engineer who designed it. Here, a very nice docent named Ian took us on a personal tour. I love it when you run into one of these volunteers who is so enthusiastic about their subject that they are bursting to tell you about it. We were to meet others along our way—let’s hear it for docents and engineers! From Ian we learned that Newcastle is the largest coal-exporting port in the world, that in its early days it was home to some 1,000 convicts, and that there is a friendly rivalry between Newcastle and Sydney because although Sydney claims to be the oldest settlement in Oz, Newcastle brags that they “built” Sydney because they supplied the convict labor. Ian also told us how the guns at Fort Scratchley drove off a Japanese submarine attack in 1942, and he answered the most burning question of all: Why is the brim of an Aussie soldier’s hat snapped up on the left side? Answer: Because they carry their bayonets on the left side and the blade would poke the hat off. Now you know.

Fort Scratchley, Newcastle

On 15 October, we drove, make that crawled, into Sydney in jam-packed traffic. A route that GPS told us would take an hour and 20 minutes took nearly three hours. But never mind, we were here, and because there are no campgrounds in this city of 5.2 million people, we were forced—forced, I tell you!—to check into a delightful AirB&B in the Surry Hills neighborhood on the south side of the river where sits the one-and-only Opera House, the Royal Botanic Garden, the historic Rocks District, the Sydney Harbour Bridge (aka The Coathanger) and so much more. But that’s for the next installment of our tale, coming soon.

Thanks to Paul and Marg in Brisbane and Rob and Sue in Gold Coast for hosting us for a night.

Our route so far:
6 Oct. – Bundaberg, Woodgate Beach, Childers, Maryborough, Gunalda
7 Oct. – Gympie, Caloundra, Brisbane
8 Oct. – Tamborine Mountain, Gold Coast
9 Oct. – Byron Bay, Grafton
10 Oct. – Woolgoolga, Coffs Harbour, Uranga
11-12 Oct. – Port Macquarie
13 Oct. – Cape Hawke, Elizabeth Beach, Seal Rocks, Smith Lake, Bulahdelah
14 Oct. – Newcastle
15 Oct. – Sydney