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16 Day Itinerary: Cairns to Sydney

When mentioning a trip of 16 days in length to cover Cairns to Sydney (or vice versa), most people would say that it is just not enough time to get the job done. On the other hand, 16 days is often more holiday time than some people get in an entire year, so for those, the 16 day itinerary can be a great way to experience the variety of the east coast.

My pal, Heather, and I just undertook the journey ourselves, self-driving in an Autobarn Wagon. This is the path we took that you can use to draw up your own itinerary, but just be warned that a trip like this takes a bit of forethought and a lot of picking and choosing. You definitely can’t do it all, but you can do a lot!

You might want to grab an East Coast Australia guide book for further assistance on the road.

Guurrbi Tour
Our Guurrbi Tour from Day 2

Day 1: Cairns to Cooktown

We picked up the Autobarn Wagon in Cairns and started the 4.5 hour journey of driving to Cooktown pretty much immediately. Once there, we checked in to the Cooktown Caravan Park, set up camp and then set out to see the town. We watched the sun set at the lookout point on Grassy Hill (incredible views!) and had an amazing dinner at 1770 on the waterfront.

Day 2: Cooktown to Port Douglas

Our Guurrbi tour in Cooktown started at 7:45 am and went to 1:15 pm. We both learned heaps about the Aboriginal way of life. Heather got to feed a cute lizard a drink of water, while I got to lick acidic ant guts off my fingers. After that, we caught a quick bite at Nature’s Powerhouse for lunch before making the 3.5 hour journey from Cooktown to Port Douglas. Since it was a weekend during the high travel season in Port Douglas, we were forced to stay in a Big4 Caravan Park a little outside of town, so book ahead.

Day 3: Port Douglas to Cape Tribulation to Port Douglas

In order to save money, we decided to do a self-drive tour to Cape Tribulation. Our “Do It For Less” tour started at 8 am by having breakfast with the birds, literally, at Rainforest Habitat where a sneaky bird stole my cinnamon roll. We made the 30 minute trek to the Mossman Gorge section of the Daintree National Park for an hour hike, and then commenced the drive to Cape Tribulation, which involved a ferry crossing and a long and curvy road.

If you have time, you can sign up for an hour-long Daintree River Cruise along the way to hopefully spot some crocs!

Day 4: Port Douglas to Cairns

Heather and I made the 1 hr 15 minute drive from Port Douglas to Cairns along the windy Captain Cook Highway. At 8 am, you get glorious views of a sunrise over the ocean. Our Sunlover Reef Cruise departed Cairns at 10 am, so that gave us enough time to rent an underwater camera at the wharf terminal before boarding. I snorkeled the heck out of the Great Barrier Reef, while Heather had an introductory dive. Back in Cairns, we spent the night in a 5 star caravan park.

termite avenue
Termite Avenue outside Jacques Coffee Plantation

Day 5: Cairns to Granite Gorge

We recreated the first part of the drive from day 1 from Cairns to Mareeba, making sure to stop off at Jacques Coffee Plantation, Coffee World (a must-do!), and the Golden Drop mango winery along the way. We were a jittery mess before finally getting to Granite Gorge (10km from Mareeba) where we held chickens, fed rock wallabies and became expert rock climbers. All in all, it was a great day and night… until the kookaburras and turkeys sang us a wake-up song at 6 am.

Day 6: Granite Gorge to Mission Beach

We drove the inland route from Mareeba to Mission Beach so we could get a better glimpse of the Atherton Tablelands area. We stopped to enjoy the local products at places like The Peanut Place, Humpy Nut World, Gallo Chocolate and Cheese Factory, and the Murdering Point Winery. Once we hit Mission Beach, we hit the beach for a much needed nap and an afternoon of doing absolutely nothing.

Day 7: Mission Beach to Mackay

We made the long, 7-ish hour, drive from Mission Beach to Mackay (pronounced Mackai). As we passed through Bowen, we found the Giant Mango, took some dorky photos with it, and enjoyed delicious mango sorbet. In Mackay, we found a nice place to camp at Central Tourist Park and also tried some 7 out of 10 Mexican food at Cactus Jack’s.

Day 8: Mackay to Eungella National Park to Mackay

The “lunch with the platypus tour” wasn’t running that day, but the information lady let us know that we could easily drive out to the Eungella National Park (72km west) and see the platypus on our own… FOR FREE. Unfortunately, the best place to view a platypus doesn’t always mean a platypus will be seen. Saddened, we drove back to Mackay, but not without discovering the amazing Pinnacle Pie. Only $6 and quite large — it far exceeded my expectations.

whale watching in Hervey Bay
Whale Watching in Hervey Bay

Day 9: Mackay to Hervey Bay

The route from Mackay to Hervey Bay was long and brutal as I can now say it is one of the most boring drives in the world. In Hervey Bay, we found a nice place to camp outside of the Colonial Village YHA, ate dinner, and drowned our stress in a nice XXXX Gold… Queensland’s best?

Day 10: Hervey Bay

Our long-awaited whale-watching tour started in the afternoon on the Spirit of Hervey Bay. Note: Bring warm clothes when going out on the boat! We made it to the Fraser coast and began checking out pod after pod of humpback whales doing their thing – even saw some breaching! Awesome experience, which was only made better by a glorious sunset viewed on the deck of the boat.

Day 11 + 12: Fraser Island

We spent these two days on the magical Fraser Island as part of a Cool Dingo Tour. We basked on the white sand beach of Lake McKenzie, climbed sand dunes, swam in the Champagne Pools and spotted whales, sharks, turtles, fish, dolphins and dingos. It was all made better with an amazing (and totally eccentric) tour guide, Dave, who seems to know anything and everything about… everything! The end of day 12 put us back at Hervey Bay for the night.

koala hospital
Patient at Koala Hospital in Port Macquarie

Day 13: Hervey Bay to Brisbane

We made the 5 hour drive from Hervey Bay to Brisbane, making sure to stop at the delicious Ginger Factory in Yandina along the way – mmm ginger scones! In Brissie we checked in to the YHA, stuffed our faces at Govinda’s Vegetarian Restaurant and had a bit of a tweet-up at Jimmy’s on the Mall.

Day 14: Brisbane to Port Macquarie

It was a pretty laid-back drive down the Pacific Highway to Port Macquarie with not much excitement except for the stop at the Big Banana! We arrived in Port Macquarie near 6pm, and unfortunately that was the time that almost all of the caravan parks closed down their office. Luckily, we found a spot at the Leisure Tourist Park where we set up camp for one last, FREEZING night.

Day 15: Port Macquarie to Gloucester

We stopped off at the Koala Hospital in Port Macquarie, which was both heart-breaking and inspiring at the same time. After that, we hit up lunch at the Pancake Place, and then partook in a tasting at The Little Brewing Company (I recommend). After that, we headed south-west to the small town of Gloucester about 2 hours away to visit friends. Along the way, we got to drive on The Bucketts Way – aka THE WORST ROAD IN NSW. At least the scenery was beautiful!

Day 16: Gloucester to Sydney

The Gloucester to Sydney drive took a mere 3 hours, but the whole process of getting the car cleaned, getting our stuff home and then DRIVING IN THE SYDNEY CBD was more work than we both bargained for. It ended up being a pretty full-on day, but now we at least have time to look back and reflect on the awesome trip we just had.

Follow Up: Read about the things realized after an east coast road trip in Australia.