The must do stops from Hawks Nest to Coolongatta…
- Seal Rocks
- Booti Booti National Park
- Forster Tuncurry
- Crowdy Head National Park
- Camden Haven
- Lake Cathie
- Port Macquarie
- Point Plomer
- Limeburners Creek National Park
- Crescent Head
- Hat Head National Park
- Smoky Cape
- South West Rocks & Trial Bay in Arakoon National Park
- Coff Harbour
The East Coast of Australia is gigantic and to paint the picture, if you were thinking of travelling it in one hit, it would take approximately 30 hours of nonstop driving, just between Sydney and Cairns.
Having travelled this coast on a previous trip our plan was make our way to Cairns hugging the coast as much as possible then head through the Daintree to Cape Tribulation and Cooktown, hopefully tackling the track on our Cape York adventure before the school holidays commenced.
There was so much to see on this coast and most of these towns were just little coastal towns that attract the surfing population cruising up and down the coast looking for the perfect wave; but beautiful towns nevertheless and well worth a second visit from us!
Reluctantly leaving Mungo Brush and continuing our journey north, our next stop was a sightseeing visit to Seal Rocks, which incidentally was only just a hop, step and a jump along the beach from where we were camped, and a bit of a bugger because we couldn’t cut across country to get there.
At one stage there was a 4×4 track from where we were camped, but now there is a gate to prevent vehicle access to the bush track meaning with the ferry closed due to strong winds, we would have to take the long way around through Hawks Nest, Tea Gardens and back to the Pacific Highway… just to get to the headland at the other end of the beach!
Still in Myall Lakes National Park, there wasn’t much in the tiny, isolated fishing village of Seal Rocks other than beautiful beaches, a few houses, a lighthouse and some campsites but it was well worth the detour off the highway.
Apparently the community here refuses to let the developers in so the natural beauty is still intact… there was one road in, one corner store, Sugarloaf Point lighthouse, which is obviously it’s main attraction, and a relaxing, layback atmosphere… and as the name depicts, seals often frequent the rocks below the lighthouse!
Since growing up on Flinders Island, a small island between Victoria and the north east coast of Tasmania, lighthouses have always attracted and fascinated me and as images of passing ships and distant encounters with migrating wildlife come to mind , I couldn’t help entertaining the romantic notion of living in another isolated area, only this time being responsible for keeping a light going to save all those souls at sea through storms and gales.
Perched high on a cliff overlooking a rugged coastline, Sugar Loaf Point Lighthouse, built in 1875 (after a number of incidents including the shipwrecking of the SS Catterthun and the Rainbow), is now a heritage listed lighthouse and one of only two in Australia with an external stairway.
Pulling on our walking boots we headed off to the lighthouse on a lovely, peaceful walk along a road that cut its way up a hill bordered by magnificent trees, the calm only broken by the deafening sound of a spectacular display by Mother Nature as the ocean surged through a tunnel carved at the base of an enormous, naturally formed rock wall. As the bushland cleared, we were privy to amazing views of remarkable rock formations created by extensive weathering over thousands of centuries.
Arriving at the keeper’s cottages we then had the steep climb to the main attraction ahead of us. The very attractive Lighthouse Keepers’ quarters and outbuildings were full of character having been beautifully restored by the National Parks and Wildlife, and now offering upmarket accommodation with stunning views.
A short but steep walk to get to the lighthouse passed a deep gorge complete with blowhole and although the last 100 metres following the grassy slope and cliff edge was a bit of a climb it was well worth the effort for the stunning views of the coastline and surrounding National Park and beaches.
Not far from the village was Treachery Campground where we had camped last trip, and further on was Yagon Campground. Nestled behind the dunes this beautiful campground would be a perfect spot to pitch our tent and would definitely go on our list as a favourite campsite to stop at another time.
Continuing on we turned north at the sign for ‘Seal Rocks’ and followed The Lakes Way through Pacific Palms, Forster and Taree and on to Crowdy Head, detouring along the way to check out the view from Cape Hawke Lookout.
Making our way a short distance through dense, regenerating littoral rainforest we found ourselves at the bottom of an 8 metre tower and standing way above the trees on the very top we were rewarded with amazing 360 degree views along the magnificent coast… and it was worth every one of the 420 steps to get there.
At Forster we stopped for a cuppa near the surf life saving club. Last time we were here we had stopped on the beach front for a swim in the waterside pool but it was blowing a gale this time, in fact so hard we set fire to the dry ground around the trangia and melted it’s base!
Just over the bridge from Forster was Tuncurry. Separated by a very large concrete bridge across Wallis Lake the two coastal towns, known as twin towns, sit to the north and south of Cape Hawke Harbour and at the entrance to Wallis Lake, which stretches for 26 kilometres down the coast.
Continuing on we came to Taree, a major city set on the Manning River. Surrounded by lush rolling hills this town was the perfect base for exploring the stunning Manning River Valley and Coorabakh and Tapin Tops National Park.
From Pilot Hill Lookout at Harrington we had views over the river delta and we spent a moment at the graves on the hill to remember the pilots whose task it was to guide the boats over the bar. Close by over 50 ships floundered between 1824 and 1942 and 3 wrecks still lie buried under the sand today.
Just five minutes from Harrington was another lighthouse at Crowdy Head. Sitting high on the headland the lighthouse provided more views of the coast, this time looking south to Forster and North to Port Macquarie.
Back at Harrington we turned on to a gravel road and followed the signs through the Crowdy Bay National Park passing the turnoffs to Kylies Beach and Diamond Head campgrounds as we headed to Camden Haven. We had camped at nearby Crowdy Bay Campground in the National Park once before but this time there was aerial spraying happening and the campground was closed.
The rugged shore along this coast shelters many beautiful inlets and coves that were just begging to be explored so we took time along the way to stop at many of the beaches and enjoy the scenery… and the lack of people.
We eventually reached civilisation again at Laurieton and continued on to another two really great lookouts.
Camden Head Lookout gave a high up, spectacular view of the coastline where way off in the distance we could look back at Crowdy Head and the whole of the national park we’d just driven through.
A 5 kilometre drive along a steep winding road inside the Dooragan National Park to North Brother Mountain and Laurieton Lookout was next on our map.
North Brother, Middle Brother and South Brother are three mountains just south of Port Macquarie. The mountains are the focus of a dreamtime story told by the local Biripi people, in which three brothers are killed by a witch and buried where the mountains now stand. When Captain James Cook passed the area in 1770, he named the three mountains the Brother Mountains. While Cook was unaware of the dreamtime story associated with the mountains, he chose the name because, he said, ‘these Hills bore some resemblance to each other’.
We knew from last trip there were some great little walks and viewing platforms around the top of this mountain and the views from the lookout did not disappoint; they were absolutely beautiful; and although a little hazy due to fires burning further inland, we still had panoramic views of Camden Haven Inlet and Queens Lake and far in the distance, Crowdy Head.
This holiday-cum-urban development of Camden Haven and Laurieton spreads through Lake Cathie, Bonny Hills and North Haven and is where the water from two lakes, Queens Lake and Watson Taylors Lake enter the sea through a narrow passage between North Haven and Camden Haven.
North Haven, located on the northern shore of Camden Haven and just over the bridge from Laurieton was our next stop for the night at the lovely North Haven Reflections Holiday Park situated on lots of shady bushland between the Camden Haven Inlet and Grants Beach… and a great place to get our bikes down and explore the area.
Cycling is great mixed with camping for just about every age and ability and it doesn’t have to be about taking it very seriously. It is quicker than walking but slow and gentle enough to take in the sights and sounds of both the animal and human kingdoms while unwinding after a long day of driving!
We love the exercise and it gives us opportunity to explore the quiet lanes and trails where we camp and appreciate the beauty of these places… the rivers, seashores and mountains come to life when we’re on our bikes.
The following morning we continued our drive to Port Macquarie.
Port Macquarie was established in 1821 and is one of Australia’s oldest penal settlements outside of Sydney.
It is a great surf location for surfers chasing waves but of course there’s more to Port Macquarie than surf beaches. It was actually a really nice city situated on a high headland with great views over the beaches and coves below.
One place definitely worth a visit was the Koala Hospital where sick or injured koalas are nursed back to health and then released back into their original habitat… although there was the odd permanent resident who couldn’t be released for one reason or another, but they were very well looked after. This hospital takes in koalas from all over New South Wales and the dedicated workers sometimes drive for anything up to 4 hours to rescue an injured koala.
From Port Macquarie we were headed to Crescent Head crossing Hastings River on the Settlement Point ferry which was located just 5 kilometres from the town centre.
There were two roads linking Port Macquarie to Crescent Head.
The easiest way to get to Crescent Head once you have crossed on the ferry is along the Point Plomer Road that leads to the Maria River Road. We had travelled this road last trip along a 17 kilometre stretch of unsealed road (with a few corrugations) taking us south into the Limeburners Creek National Park through ti-tree plantations, cattle paddocks and coastal scrub. Although gravel this road is quite accessible for 2WDs most of the year… but it does pay to check the road conditions with the National Parks and Wildlife Service before you head in, especially if there has been a lot of rain.
The more adventurous route is to head north from North Shore along the Point Plomer ‘route’… renamed ‘Point Plomer Potholes and Sandpit’ by those of us who are unlucky enough to be caught up in the sand bogs.
As you have probably gathered, this route requires a high clearance 4WD. The track is quite rutted with deep sandy washouts in several places and once you hit the start of this 4WD track there is no turning back… it takes about 45 minutes of slow going along a narrow and rocky track, occasionally driving close to uncrowded beach in places, but mostly through mud and huge sandy ruts.
From Point Plomer we drove through the National Park for another 17 kilometres passing other great campgrounds before exiting on the outskirts of Crescent Head.
This sleepy little village is Australia’s long boarding capital, blessed with a great right hand point break… and this point break is the wave the town is famous for.
Arriving, we drove to the beachfront where the caravan park was located. The park was absolutely packed! It was it full of tents, caravans and holidaying families and lots of surfers of all ages… and way to many people for us so we decided to have lunch then head further on up the road.
Adjacent to the caravan park was the National Surfing Reserve (named because of the great right hand point break), where we sat for a while and watched as people floated in the creek and long boarders rode the point break… but the temptation was too great and we just had to try it out too, and while we wouldn’t call ourselves surfers we did catch a few good waves for a couple of mature aged bodysurfers like ourselves to ride into shore!
Having visited Crescent Head before we couldn’t leave without a walk along the beach and across the golf course to the lookout where we were privy to a wonderful view over the town, the creek and the beach on the other side.
Next along the road was Kempsey, an attractive town in the Macleay River Valley with an unspoiled hinterland who claims two quintessential Aussies as it’s own. Singer Slim Dusty who was born here in 1927 and died in 2003 and still remains one of the country’s best-loved country singers… and the Akubra Hat that originated from our home state of Tasmania but has been made here in Kempsey since 1974.
It was getting late as we made our way along a 5 kilometre gravel road to Hungry Gate campground.
Only a short drive south of the small coastal village of Hat Head at the southern end of Hat Head National Park was one of our favourite campgrounds that we had visited last trip and where we planned to stop for a few days.
Finding these camps is fantastic; this one had great wood barbecues (need to bring your own firewood though), picnic tables, long drop toilets and an open, spacious feel about it and apart from two other campers over the other side of the campground, we were the only other people there!
With an endless beach and some great campsites, Hungry Gate was a hidden paradise that truly was beautiful. Protected by sand dunes and surrounded by a thick vegetation of established fig trees and paperbarks it was home to a variety of birdlife and animals. Brahimy kites circled above us and goannas and kangaroos were very fond of the area, the latter grazing around our campsite for most of the day while the goannas would wander through, sun themselves for a bit then move on, oblivious to any activity going on around them!
The beach was just a 20 minute walk away over the sanddunes and we spent most of our days beachcombing and collecting shells, we drove the short distance to the lighthouse to photograph the impressive tower in the soft light of a beautiful evening and we relaxed around camp with a good book then on our last night we were treated to our first big thunderstorm and a spectacular electrical display.
As the sun disappeared and dark thunderclouds rolled in, our secluded home surrounded by forest soon become a dark place without the sun’s rays shining through the dense canopy… only to be lit up by the continuous flashing of lightning!
Deafening thunder soon followed the flashes and then the rain started – softly at first – but soon it was bucketing down, flooding the area around our car and causing the water to pool in our awning. A quick dash outside to drop one side of our awning soon resulted in a quick drenching, but as suddenly as the storm erupted, calmness soon returned… along with an eerie silence only to be interrupted by the constant dripping from the tree branches and our rooftop tent.
The campground had come alive with birds and wildlife next morning and the deserted beach was truly a magical place, the sea so flat, only the gentle lapping of waves on the white sand, and there was nothing more relaxing than sitting on a secluded beach listening to the ocean and watching seagulls swoop over the sea in search of breakfast!
Everyday was full of surprises for us and we were never sure what mood Mother Nature would dish up for us from one day to the next. As we have moved from south to north on our travels we have continually been left in awe of what a beautiful country we live in… from the dry landscapes to the lush greenery, to endless white sandy beaches with turquoise waters and mountain backdrops, this land of ours is truly spectacular but with still more beauty awaiting us we headed north of Hat Head to Smoky Cape headland, and another lighthouse. Smokey Cape lighthouse was built in 1889 and was only replaced with modern technology in 1962.
Captain Cook first spotted and named Smokey Cape in 1770 when he saw the local aboriginals burning off the scrub, and this little venture off the track was well worth the detour if only for the 130 metre hike straight up hill from the ‘Captain Cook Monument’ to explore the old lighthouse and capture the stunning views along the coast in both directions.
Our next stop was South West Rocks; another quaint little seaside town with stunning coastline and mountain views.
South West Rocks sits on the coast where the Macleay River enters the ocean. It is approximately 40 kilometres from Kempsey and is home to some fabulous natural attractions; beautiful beaches, spectacular national parks… and yet another lighthouse! In fact this one is one of Australia’s tallest lighthouses.
It is said that South West Rocks most likely got its name from the captains of passing ships, who claimed it was safest to moor vessels near the rocks, south west of Laggers Point, the point on which Trial Bay Gaol is built. Another theory is that their moorings would be safe if they kept the rocks to their southwest.
As well as the gaol there is a great campground here, in a great location with sea views, good amenities, powered and unpowered sites, a camp kitchen and a safe swimming beach but it does pay to book in advance in the busy period. We found this campground quite expensive too!
Named after the shipwreck ‘Trial’, Trial Bay, situated midway along a busy shipping route between Sydney and Brisbane was the location chosen to constructed a breakwater to protect ships during storms and bad weather, hence a gaol was built between 1877 and 1886 to house prisoners to build this wall.
Then the start of World War I brought a new and sad use for this site when more than 500 men of German descent from the Australian and German colonies in Asia were interned in the prison. These internees were an elite group of academics, professionals and craftsmen who had been classified as ‘enemy aliens’.
In May 1918 the men were moved to Holsworthy and 4 years later the gaol was decommissioned, its buildings stripped and its contents auctioned. Today the impressive buildings stand as a testament to those who lived and died here, some in exceptional circumstances. Of the 5 men who died during their internment a monument was erected in 1918 then in 1919, the monument was blown up, most likely due to anti-German sentiment. It was some 40 years later in 1959, after a visit by the consul-general of Germany, when a decision was made to restore the monument.
The walk to this granite obelisk on Monument Hill was short but steep, along a tree lined path of casuarinas, heathlands and flannel flowers planted by the internees because they reminded them of edelweiss and of home but it was well worth the effort just to pay our respects and be rewarded with spectacular coastal views, and an impressive view of the old gaol that along with the monument provided an insight in the plight of these men.
The first inhabitants in this area were the Dhanggati Aboriginal people and signs along the headland and coastal walk explained the plants and how they used them for food and as medicines.
With this visit over, we then pointed ‘Harry Hilux’ towards Coffs Harbour and headed along the Pacific Highway bypassing the turn off to Stuarts Point which was just 10 kilometres east of the highway. We had visited Stuarts Point, Grassy Head and Scotts Head a few years back and decided we would call in on our way south later in the year!
Stuarts Point village is little more than a general store, newsagency, butcher, chemist, takeaway, bowling club and a tavern and if I remember righty it sits on a river very close to the ocean. Further north Grassy Head is also little more than a few houses and a caravan park then Scotts Head, which again is very small, is a very popular surfing beach.
Continuing on through Macksville, which sits on both sides of the Nambucca River, we took a quick detour into Nambucca Heads then continued along the Pacific Highway bypassing Sawtell turnoff and setting our sights on the ‘Big Banana’.
Sawtell is a lovely little town 15 minutes drive south of Coffs Harbour and has a very famous and lovely picturesque main street divided by big fig trees, with plenty of cafes and shops lining both sides of the street. It is well worth a visit but knowing we would be back this way later in the year we decided not to drop in this time.
Now Coffs you have to pass through whether you want to or not!! Coffs Harbour is the hub of the thriving banana industry and home to the first of ‘Australia’s Big Things’ hence the ‘Big Banana’ has turned into one to Australia’s national icons.
Australia has many ‘big things’ around the country, ranging from sheep, prawns, bananas, pineapples and bulls etc but it seems the ‘Big Banana’ happens to be the most well known!
Coffs other claim to fame is it’s legendary sub-tropical climate, reputedly the most perfect in Australia. Beautiful in winter, not too hot in summer but be warned, it is a high-rainfall area, and sometimes when it rains … it really rains.
Lovely Diggers Beach located across from the ‘Big Banana’ was a great sheltered beach and busy with kids swimming and playing on the sand. It is also a popular surfing spot for the locals and great for a wind-free beach walk to the Macauleys Headland which runs between Diggers and Park Beach.
Coffs is where the mountains meet the sea and, despite its beach paradise reputation, it had a lot more to offer than sun, surf and sand and one of our favourite walks was to Muttonbird Island.
We didn’t even know about this island until we went for a walk along the break wall at the marina and the walk to the top gave us incredible views up and down the coast and over the mountains. Mutton-bird Island Nature Reserve is great for bird lovers, being one of the only easily-accessible places in NSW where the migratory wedge-tailed shearwater nests.
If you like boats and towns with a marina and jetty then Coffs had a really nice one… although the distruction from Cyclone Debbie, which devastated far North Queensland, was still very much evident here. After being downgraded to a tropical low, Debbie saved a special serve of wild weather for the northern NSW coast as her leftovers headed south.
Before leaving Coffs we stopped at the ‘Big Banana’ to grab a photo opportunity and to use the loos and and from here it was on to Red Rock just 30 minutes up the highway and our next favourite spot on the map where we planned to set up camp for a few days.
Follow us to Red Rock…
We hope you are enjoying the ride!