Day 8: Katoomba to Putty (Wollemi National Park)
The day started a little bit later than we have become accustomed to, probably something to do with Claire being tired from having to drive the whole of the previous day. Luckily, Sam’s foot was starting to heal and he felt comfortable enough to give Claire a break from the driving. We left the Christian Convention at around 11:00 and wandered down into Katoomba for a visit to the Post Office. After picking up some stamps and discussing the perils of stamp theft with the Post Office clerk we drove west to Mount Victoria.
On the way we stopped at Evan’s Lookout and Govett’s Leap which are brilliant vantage points from which to appreciate the sheer untouched beauty of the Blue Mountains. It would have been even nicer had some local photographer not been loudly discussing an upcoming project on the phone to a colleague… When we eventually arrived in Mount Victoria we turned north along the Darling Causeway to Bell. It was at this point that Claire and I turned to each other with a smile and said simultaneously, “this is more like it.” Having spent the best part of 24 hours in areas of the mountains heavily populated by tourists, we had finally escaped and trust me, it was a real breath of fresh air. The causeway takes you along an old (but seemingly still operational) railway track which bends along a ridge for around 10km. When we got to Bell, we turned east back towards Sydney along Bell’s Line of Road which we had read in Lonely Planet was the best bit of motoring in the Blue Mountains – it was!
Shortly after joining the road, Sam decided to take a slight detour to Mount Wilson. This ended up being the best decision of the day as not only is the town of Mount Wilson gorgeous, the surrounding forests are some of the best we have ever seen. We spent the best part of an hour exploring the “cathedral of ferns” before returning to the main road towards the home of mountain apples, Bilpin. In Bilpin we stopped for a quattro fromagio pizza and potato wedges, had a quick cider tasting and bought a fresh apple pie. Sam also decided he needed a cappuccino for the road, which ended up being more trouble than it was worth as it spilt continuously for the next 50km. After filling up with petrol, we drove back into the wilderness of Wollemi National Park towards our free camp site for the night. Tomorrow we intend to drive an hour and a half to the Hunter Valley and to spend the time back in civilisation tasting wines and playing golf!
Road Kill Count: 2
Day 9: Putty to Pokolbin (Hunter Valley)
To Claire’s absolute dismay, because we did not end up staying at a powered site, the newly bought heater could not be used overnight, so we once again woke up to see our breath in the morning. However, the mood was soon lightened with the sight of local kangaroos and a cup of tea.
We set off quite early, around 8:30, as Sam was eager to check out the golf place in Pokolbin – an hour and fifteen minutes away from where we were according to Google maps, but it took us about two hours because we had to once again take turns at 25 km/h. After almost hitting kangaroos (the first ones to cross the road on this trip), we wandered around the residential areas as we are nosy, and then settled for a pre-competition sandwich. We started by hitting some balls into a lake to try to win prizes (needless to say, we didn’t win anything) then Claire “officially” drew the mini-golf with Sam – though really she won because she was ahead the whole rest of the time AND got a hole in one.
We moved on to Pokolbin Village for a bit of lunch and lemon lime bitters, but beforehand we managed to look around the shops where both of us found treasures. We entered the Alpaca wool shop, where Sam would have spent hundreds if we had not been on a budget, and we found a Christmas shop, where Claire almost cried of happiness (we had to buy a decorative Kookabura holding a surf board and wearing a Christmas hat).
We decided to check out the chocolate and fudge shop, where Sam almost also cried of happiness again whilst walking out with some unusual yet absolutely appealing fudge. We then moved on to our first winery: Peterson House (Premium Sparkling Wine). We got to try what we wanted for free, and we both agreed that it was the best sparkling wine experience in Australia (so far), even better than Chandon. We ended up having to buy a bottle from them, a sparkling rosé, which was the tastiest sparkling out of them all (thanks very much to Felicity). We moved on to Audrey Wilkinson, which is famous in the region for having the oldest vines and the best views of all the wineries, and we were not disappointed. From meeting Phil at the cellar door, who unbelievably didn’t grow tired of our questions (also who reminded us of our best friend Joey), to the best wine we have ever tasted in our lives, we knew we had made the best two stops on this trip.
We ended the day with a couple games of pool at Potters Brewery, in front of the camp where we are staying tonight. For some reason Sam won both the games, but he shouldn’t have because Claire was winning most of the way, as she had with the golf. Now we are enjoying a bottle of wine with dinner, as well as our electric heater.
Road Kill Count: 11
Day 10: Pokolbin to Uralla
We woke up this morning to the sound of our alarm at 7:00 followed instantly by the first raindrops of the day. It was as if the big man upstairs was waiting for us to open our eyes before delivering the bad news – it’s now 18:45 and still raining. Having spent the whole of the previous day in the Hunter Valley, we were a little bit further from Brisbane than we had planned to be at this stage and therefore opted to try and rack up the kilometres by travelling inland.
But before we could leave we had to pack up the van, unplug the electricity and fill the water in the pouring rain. Unsurprisingly, by the time we were ready to leave Sam was covered in mud and stood outside while Claire performed the important task of de-misting the windscreen by sitting in the car with the heater on full blast – oh the sacrifice. We left our lovely caravan park at around 9:30 and drove pretty much straight through to Tamworth, only stopping briefly for a coffee and to refuel along the way. The drive was fairly uneventful, except for one moment of madness where a magpie suicidally threw itself in front of the van – unfortunately there was only one winner in that contest and Sam was pretty sad about it.
However, the thought of the visiting the self-proclaimed Country Music Capital of Australia, Tamworth, soon cheered Sam up. We started our tour of the town at the visitor centre which had a wax museum of country music legends, some Donald Bradman memorabilia, a few signed guitars (one from Keith Urban and another from Dolly Parton) as well as the main attraction – the Big Golden Guitar. After checking it all out, Sam made Claire stand in the road holding up traffic so that she could take a picture of him with whole golden guitar in the frame. We then drove into the centre of town to check out the rest of the sights…
Disclaimer: the following review of Tamworth town centre is neither fair nor kind.
Our misadventures began with the arduous task of finding parking along the high street without impatient locals either stealing your spot or not allowing you enough room to reverse into the bay. We rushed into the shopping centre (because you can only get 1 hour parking) only to find the food court dull and depressing and the bread in Aldi lying on the floor rather than on a shelf (seriously). Not impressed with the cafés on offer, we ordered a takeaway in the knowledge that there was a lookout point only a five minute drive away where we could have lunch. Little did we know, either time moves more slowly in Tamworth or the concept of fast food has yet to take off – we waited nearly 45 minutes for a burger and some chips (which was cold by the time it got to us). We then returned to the dull and depressing rain outside and ventured up the hill to the lookout point where, you guessed it, there was absolutely nothing interesting to look at. It was at this point that Sam started to wonder whether the suicidal magpie from earlier knew something that we didn’t. This theory was further evidenced by our road kill count for the day (a new record) and the inexplicable sight of a dead wallaby, fox and rabbit all within ten metres of each other on the outskirts of town. Safe to say, we won’t be going back to Tamworth any time soon.
However, once we left the town we were reminded of why we had decided to drive inland in the first place; picturesque hills covered in low clouds, kangaroos grazing in the paddocks and interesting towns along the way. We even passed by Josh Hazlewood’s hometown, Bendemeer (they put a big sign up, we didn’t just know that), which Sam of course found terribly exciting. After about an hour of driving we arrived at our stop for the night, Uralla, where we managed to get a lovely powered site next to a creek and had a nice chat with the camp manager. Claire is now cooking a ratatouille whilst Sam plans tomorrow’s drive along the Waterfall Way!
Road Kill Count: 19
Day 11: Uralla to Ballina
The morning started with a trip to Armidale to stock up on supplies and buy some cleaning products for the van (which has become very muddy in the last couple of days). From Armidale, we headed along the Waterfall Way to Wollomombi Falls where after consulting the map we decided to go for a short walk down into the gorge. But before we could get out of sight of the van we were alarmed to notice a group of Chinese tourists attempting to reverse their car out of the parking bay next to ours. They had somehow managed (we still have absolutely no idea how) to orient their vehicle perpendicular to ours and were within seconds of reversing into the driver’s door. Thankfully, one of them sensibly got out of the car and helped the driver get out of what can only be described as a big pickle – Claire made sure to give them the evils as they drove off.
Despite the nearly disastrous start, the walk down to the gorge was lovely and afforded brilliant views of the valley below and jaw dropping rock faces. However, the most interesting aspect of the walk was passing through the “dog fence” which according to the sign keeps wild dingoes away from local livestock. This inevitably raised the question from Claire, “so which side are the dingoes on?” We soon found out when we came across a tuft of beige fur on a bit of fencing – although exciting we may have walked a bit faster down to the gorge than would otherwise have been the case. We then met possibly the friendliest man in Australia who talked at us for twenty minutes before ending with a joke about Queenslanders (a favourite Australian past time) before disappearing in a puff of smoke. We would later see him just down the road at Ebor Falls where he would stick his nose up against our van only to realise we were sitting in it watching him.
From Ebor Falls we drove through some hilly farmland to Dorrigo in order to refuel. It was in Dorrigo that we would make the first wrong turn of the trip and get lost, costing us the best part of two hours. After trying to make the best of the road works and which plagued our unintended route we arrived in Grafton reasonably down beat and tired. We decided to make a quick stop at the visitor centre to look for a map of Queensland. Upon entering, we were greeted by two very chatty women, one of whom gave us directions to the bathroom without either of us having said a word. When Sam corrected her, “oh no, I’m actually looking for a map.” She replied surprised, “oh sorry, 9 out of 10 people only come in here to go to the toilet.” It was pretty clear that there isn’t much tourist activity in Grafton.
After Grafton, we continued on towards our intended destination for the night, Ballina. The sun was beginning to set and this made for spectacular views of the golden sugarcane plantations and Clarence River. By the time we got to Ballina, it was almost dark but luckily we had just enough light to grab a photo of the Big Prawn in all its glory (partly the reason Sam wanted to stay there overnight). We then arrived at our camp site and decided after much deliberation to quickly head to the shops for some laundry detergent so that we could do a load of washing. This ended up being far more trouble than it was worth because not only did it cost us half an hour driving to the store and back, we would later find out that the drier only took $1 coins and we didn’t have any. Sam then spent an hour walking around the caravan park asking for change for a $5 note. On his travels he would meet almost every single person living on site and discover that there is a serious shortage of $1 coins in Australia. Eventually, he befriended a tradie from New Zealand who introduced him to a rugby-mad elderly bloke who had one $1 coin (which got us 10 minutes in the drier). He then noticed our neighbour outside having a smoke so approached her only to find that it was her who was hoarding the country’s supply of $1 coins. Sam got four of them off her and the laundry was finished at 9:30 meaning that it had taken two and a half hours to complete two 30 minute cycles… We were pretty tired by this point so headed to bed soon after looking forward to the drive to Australia Zoo in the morning!
Road Kill Count: 9
Day 12: Ballina to Landsborough
The day Sam had been patiently waiting for had finally arrived – the trip to Australia Zoo. We left Ballina fairly early at 7:30 in order to avoid traffic on our way through Brisbane. Claire wasn’t feeling particularly well but still managed to drive for over an hour whilst enduring Sam’s over-excited singing and general positivity. Luckily there was little traffic on the way and we arrived at Australia Zoo exactly on schedule at 10:45. After getting our things together, we entered the Zoo slowly, painstakingly taking pictures of Sam next to every single image of Steve Irwin.
The zoo did not disappoint. We attended nearly every show and spent over six hours inside, but still feel as though there was more to see. We started our day by walking through the various croc and alligator enclosures which were made famous in the Crocodile Hunter documentaries. It was amazing to see that many of the crocs which Steve wrangled are still in residence today and this was only one way in which his legacy still lives on. We then grabbed some lunch and sat in the “Crocoseum” (a genuine stadium for crocodile shows) for the Wildlife Warriors show. This included a few native birds flying around the audience, some birds of prey, snakes and of course the main event – a live croc feeding. The croc being fed on the day was called Monty and is special because he is the first croc that Steve ever brought to Australia Zoo. It was fantastic to see them up close and watch how the keepers interact with them; keeping a safe distance but still being comfortable enough to get up close.
After the show we visited the enclosures of the native animals; kangaroos, echidnas, wombats, etc. We then went to see the show about koalas, Claire’s favourite. After getting to pet yet another of the furry marsupials, we stopped to see the less popular afternoon croc show where they fed another croc called Aggro (no prizes for guessing why he got his name). Once again, this was unreal to see live and, being so close to the enclosure, we got some brilliant photos. Afterwards, we went to see another group of Koalas on the recommendation of one of the zoo keepers, who told us that one of the females had a joey. When we arrived Claire began to cry at the sight of a small round face with a big black nose hidden in the arms of its mother. Neither of us having seen a baby Koala before, we spent at least twenty minutes enjoying the experience. It was pretty hard to drag Claire away, especially as the joey turned its head to watch us – but really only her – walk away.
After all of this, it was getting on to about 3:30 so we decided to quickly head to the ‘Africa” section of the zoo. Although undoubtedly exciting if you haven’t seen them in the wild, we skipped quickly through the giraffes, zebras, rhinos, etc. Instead, we just enjoyed the walk through the park which, it must be said, is superbly landscaped. By the time we got to the car we were knackered and so settled for a camp site only five minutes down the road – which we were happy to find is really nice! We then spent the evening planning tomorrow’s drive and cooking pesto chicken and mash for dinner!
Road Kill Count: 2
Day 13: Landsborough to Noosa (and back)
We started the day not so early this time, in aims to make it to the local farmer’s market for a late breakfast and to get produce for tonight’s dinner. Somehow, getting food at a market’s seems really fitting with the “van living” lifestyle. Kawana Waters, despite looking obviously newly built up, is actually probably the last nice stop going up the Sunshine Coast until Noosa, but more on that later.
We found everything we needed at the market: from a big Aussie breakfast sandwich, to strong coffee for Sam, and fresh vegetables and gnocchi for dinner. We were soon on our way to Eumundi, the next market on our list – renowned for it’s huge market that has everything and anything you could wish for. On the way we took a slight detour to check out Mooloolaba and Maroochydore. There are no other words to describe our reaction than utterly underwhelmed and glad to get out of there.
Luckily, our next stop, Eumundi, was the highlight of the day. If you don’t come on market day, the Main Street still has a lot of charm to it, but you would be missing out on the main action. We started at the bottom of the market and worked our way up – literally, it was on a slope. If we had lived anywhere in Australia, Claire would have probably justified filling the entire van with items she would have bought then. As you get to the top of the market, that is where you get hit with all smells from the different food stalls, with hammocks up to welcome any person who needed a break from the shopping. You then hit the main road, which has beautiful and quirky shops, as well as the best bookshop we have visited so far on this trip – a must for Claire – as well as its adjoining café.
Sam insisted it was now the start of the “big things” trek, and made us stop at Noosaville in hopes to see the big Pelican before arriving at Noosa Heads. That detour, although a waste of time as the big pelican really was not that big, proved to show us the better end of the Sunshine Coast, so that was a perk. The whole of the Noosa area looked absolutely fantastic, and the weather could not have been better, it was our timing that was not amazing. Of course, we had to come to the best seaside area of our trip on the Saturday afternoon of a long weekend. Needless to say, we could not get one caravan park space, or parking in town, so we settled for the national park to check the beach out. Although amazing, we could not enjoy it fully due to the masses of people and bogans around. We did however decide that we would like to come back one day, but not with a van, as Noosa really not an area catered for that, but when we are rich and can afford a hotel room with a view.
Before coming back to the caravan park we had stayed at the night before in Landsborough, we had to make a last “big thing” detour – Noosa had been so hectic, we had abandoned the idea of going to see the big shell. We made our way to Woombye to see the Big Pineapple, just as the first rains of the next five day deluge descended upon us. Sam was happy, at least that is what Claire had to say to herself whilst trying to take a picture of him from inside the car so as not to get wet.
Road Kill Count: 2
Day 14: Landsborough to Surfers Paradise
Having had a real party the night before – aka a couple ciders and gnocchi salad for dinner – we found ourselves to have slept in enough that we could not go on the planned hike in the Glass House Mountains anymore – also, it still had not stopped raining, so that’s the real excuse. After packing everything up, we made our way to catch the M1 down to Surfer’s Paradise under the worst weather conditions worst possible drivers to have on the road that day.
Finally getting to Surfers, we found Jeannette, family friend of the Platt’s, waiting for us in the rain with her pink hat on. As the garage was too low for our van, we had to unpack all of our things in the open driveway at the front in the pouring rain, before finding a safe spot at the back to leave the van parked for a couple of days. Very kindly, Jeannette offered to share her taxi ride with us to the local Woolworths as the rain made it impossible to walk. We proceeded to get all the meals we could think off that we could not do in the van – meaning needing an actual oven – so we could make the next couple days really worth while.
Getting back to the flat, that Sam’s mum owns, there was nothing to do but watch television as the wind and rains made it impossible to walk even ten feet outside. Thankfully, we found the channel that offered the House Rules reruns, and Claire was happy sitting there and having wine. House Rules, if you are not familiar, is a genius Australian interior design competition that should be a thing worldwide – why isn’t it a thing yet?!
We managed to sneak in a quick walk to the beach – which is literally a street away from the flat – in the only 30 minute interval of no rain we got that day. It was nice, but short, as we soon had to head back because of the dark looming sky above us. The rest of the evening was sadly uneventful, aside from a shocking House Rules weekly finale – oh no, it’s not over yet – and a great roast chicken and potato dauphinoise made by Sam.
Road Kill Count: 0