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A 'DOWN UNDER' ROAD TRIP
By Cherie Thiessen
For Travel Writers' Tales

We love our feisty little rental camper conversion. It's just so Aussie - friendly, bright, laid back, and no worries.

We're driving east from Melbourne. Our zigzag route will take us to Wilsons Promontory in Victoria to explore some of this fantastic coastline, then north to ogle New South Wales's Blue Mountains. This visual feast will be followed by a more epicurean one, tasting wines in the famed Hunter Valley. Our northernmost reach is Bundaberg in Queensland for a Great Barrier Reef excursion.

Two hundred kilometers east of Melbourne, the national park of Wilsons Promontory, with 130 km. of shoreline, is the largest coastal wilderness area in Victoria state. We wind our way here with the intention of squeaking some of that white quartz beach sand underfoot, of being bombarded by Tasman Sea rollers, and of spotting parrots in the Tidal River's mangrove swamps, and koala bears in the gum forests.

The brimming park has 484 campsites and we're the smallest 'rig' in the place. No worries, though, with the Aussie weather strolling toward autumn, we can pretty much live outdoors, and the van makes a cozy crib. We also discover propane barbecues and picnic tables everywhere.

Lofty Katoomba, around 800 kilometres distant, is the most visited town in the Blue Mountains, (so called because of their blue haze, caused by oils released from the Eucalyptus.) It perches at 1017 meters, and for us that's two days leisurely soporific driving.

Once here, so many choices of adrenalin rushes! We could take the steepest cable car in Oz, the 545-metre Sceniscender; or the short railway, crawling up the steepest incline in the world; or the scenic skyway, suspended across the Jamison Valley. There's also a perpendicular 800-step descent to the valley. We do 'em all and add a 45 min. trail to the famed 3 Sisters, pinnacles of rock jutting over the chasm and transfixing visitors from around the world.

The campsite is busy, but our microchip of a camper fits anywhere, and doesn't need hookups.

A few days later, calves aching, we drive through Bathurst and soon burst forth into the well-known wine-growing region of NSW's Hunter Valley. With close to 200 wineries, most advertising 'cellar doors' (read 'wine tastings') we were glad the distance today was short. Soon, after after finding a campsite in nearby Cessnock, we're slipping through cellar doors.

The thing about wine tastings in Oz is that they're as big as the continent. No mere " in the bottom a glass here, and always an expansive selection waiting to be sniffed, swirled and swilled.

Many larger wineries tempt us with delicious lunches, shops, and even gardens; after the frenzied activity of the last few days, a relaxing break. We both conclude there is no bad wine 'down under'.

Now the 3-day, 1100 km. dash to Bundaberg.We plan to experience a small southern part of the extensive 2600-km Great Barrier Reef. A bus scoops us up at 6 AM and disgorges us 90 minutes later at The Town of 1770, where The Spirit of 1770, a high-speed 22-metre catamaran, awaits. It bounces into the Coral Sea rollers, bashing its way to Lady Musgrave Island, 32 nautical miles offshore, almost a 2-hr trip. Eventually we find ourselves in a picture postcard setting: no rollers in this blue sapphire lagoon, the only navigable lagoon in the whole of the Great Barrier Reef, we're told. Nearby Lady Musgrave island looks the perfect model for paradise: exotic flora, a tumble of bleached coral, and a finger of beach as pale as some of our seasick passengers.

We tie up at a floating dock, complete with changing rooms, shaded picnic tables, lofty lifeguard chair, and cupboards crammed with aqua toys: crocs for guided trips ashore to explore the atoll; flippers, snorkeling equipment, lifejackets, scuba diving and fishing gear and boats. One glass bottom launch takes us to shore in shifts, while the other - a nifty little semi submersible explores the pastel coral with its curious and colourful fish.

Even with five hours to play in the water, many of us have to be eventually lured out of the tepid sea, and away from its underwater delights with promises of prawns and cake. It's an awesome end to an idyllic trip.

Next day, heading south on the coastal road to Sydney and its airport, the days pass in a haze of white sugar beaches, sudden sights of aquamarine waters, yew trees and koala spotting. The 'Land Down Under' is a road tripper's paradise.

Travel Writers' Tales is an independent travel article syndicate that offers professionally written travel articles to newspaper editors and publishers.

If You Go:

  • Tourism Australia site: Extensive site with maps, routes, and constant updates: www.australia.com
  • Air Canada: The only airline that flies direct to Australia from western Canada) www.aircanada.com.
  • Van rentals: Choices abound. We were happy with the service, the east coast locations, the vehicle and the prices at Jucy. Good off-season discounts and no charges for different pickup/drop off locations. www.jucy.com.au
  • Lady Musgrave Island, Southern Great Barrier Reef tours: www.spiritof1770.com.au Interested in road tripping? The visitor information centres found in almost every large town provide great free maps and info.

    Photos by Cherie Thiessen

    1. Looking for blue Fairy Wrens in the mangrove swamps at Wilsons Promontory.
    2. Squeaky Beach
    3. The 3 Sisters at Echo Point in the Blue Mountains.
    4. Hunter Valley, with its hundreds of wineries, all offering tastings. Where to try next?
    5. Our floating playground in the lagoon at Lady Musgrave Island, The Great Barrier Reef's southern extremity.
    6. We saw one! A Koala at last

     


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