Learned a few lessons about online trip planning: don’t let the google algorithm choose the vendor of your rental camper van and do not save $2 a day choosing the bottom-dollar cheapest airport parking. When I pulled into the Inglewood (always up to no good) parking lot, the attendant was yelling at a customer because he lost their keys.
I departed LAX at 11:30pm…13 hours and a missing day later, landed in Brisbane. Ubered across the city to pick up my camper van. Wicked Campers, a company proud of the headlines they receive for the misogynist and obnoxious slogans painted on their vehicles. I prefer to remain low-key while traveling, especially carrying new camera equipment…this vehicle was ummmm, not so low-key.
About the whole “driving on the other side of the road” thing, from my experience, it is properly sketchy to start. I had a 2 hour drive to Noosa out of Brisbane, I white-knuckled the whole way and only hit one curb while trying to stay away from oncoming traffic on my right. I made one stop in the Glass House Mountains and enjoyed their striking silhouettes. I arrived in Sunshine Beach that afternoon, relieved and exhausted. I briefly checked the surf forecast for the coming week and was disappointed by the lack of swell energy…but I refused to let that impact my exploration of a new coastline.
I fell asleep at 8pm that night and woke at 4am heading directly toward Noosa National Park. I watched the sunrise over the headland at Main Beach and then grabbed a coveted parking spot at Nationals. I hiked the 4 miles to Alexandria Bay and found a glassy mini wave breaking inside Granite Bay. At Hell’s Gate, I first learned that humpback whales famously migrate along this coast and witnessed some breaching. I was also intrigued by the bird activity: native, vibrant rainbow lorikeets screamed at each other from tree to tree, Aussie magpies intelligently fooled children into giving up their biscuits. Australian pelicans are at least 3x larger than our brown pelicans. The coastal rainforest here had me spellbound.
The next morning, I prepared to move south toward the Gold Coast. I made a few phone calls and finally had my camper situation figured out. Wicked set me up with a free upgrade to a premium van. I pulled into Burleigh Heads that afternoon. This is the stretch of coastline that I had most mythologized. Breeding ground of world champion surfers and perfect, barreling, sand-bottomed points breaks. Although I didn’t find any of that, I very much enjoyed my two days in Coolangatta.
As a surf fan, one of the reasons I enjoy this kind of travel is simply being able to put a face to the name of famous surf spots. I wanted to see how Snapper Rocks is situated with Greenmount and Kirra and imagine catching a wave that connects them all. I wanted to see the strange Surfers Paradise skyline up the coast, that I’d puzzled over during contest webcasts and surf videos. I found fun, peaky waves each morning at Duranbah and discovered an ephemeral slab shorebreak at Froggy Beach that probably isn’t always there as the sand moves around. I also enjoy the simple things in travel like long discussions with local surf shop managers about epic days and random conversations with retired couples at dinner that have local knowledge of areas of Scientific interest.
I departed the Gold Coast with a quick stop at Fingal Head to see the unique columnar basalt cliffs and next made my away south to Byron Bay. The wind was blowing 20+mph from the north…I had picked up some info that those north winds are directed around the Byron Bay headland and become offshore on Tallows Beach. I was continuously blown away by the clarity and beauty of the water on every beach I explored in Australia. Tallows is one the most beautiful. After a quick swim in the “Corner” it was time for my first meat pie. I asked some kids in the parking lot where to grab the best and without hesitation they answered Suffolk Bakery. The hype is real! Meat pies are delicious, flaky Aussie burritos.
My awesome airbnb had a bicycle for my use, so that evening I went and explored the town of Byron Bay…a classic mix of traveling hippies and boutique shopping. Colorful and interesting but at the same time commercial. The offseason weeknight was quiet, which i’m ok with, so i was asleep early and up early. I had a hunch that all that north wind might create a short window of windswell for the dawn patrol. I arrived back to Tallows before sunrise and continued my infatuation with the very dark and clear southern hemisphere skies. There are astronomical objects not visible in the north and I observed them deeply. The sunrise was spectacular and as soon as I could see the water, my hunch was correct. Chest-high peaks met offshore wind and the glorious very first light of the Australian day.
I ran back to the “Corner” and like something from a dreamy, cheesy movie, a beautiful woman was surfing a peak by herself. I kept my distance to start but eventually we chatted. Her vibrance was clear and her passion for the Ocean was obvious. We made plans to grab a drink later that night. Next, I rode the bike to the Byron Bay headland to hike around the whole thing. Walking past The Pass and Wategos Beach, I made my way to the easternmost point on the entire Australian coast. I was mesmerized by the refracting and shoaling waves crossing perpendicular to each other. Such a dynamically stunning coastline!
I met my new friend at The Pass in time to watch the sunset and then we had a delicious Thai dinner in town. The conversation was lively, artistic, smart and inspiring. The next morning I had scheduled a 10am trip with Byron Bay Whale Watching. The captain is a former whale researcher and a fantastic guide. After 45 minutes of anxiously scanning the horizon, we found a pair of humpback whales headed north. The captain attempted to keep a respectful distance as we followed along with their “footprints” but it seemed every time we moved to the side, they diverted their path to swim under our boat. Like we were playing a game with a pair of 40ft. whales. Incredible!
I began to realize that I still had 9 hours of driving to arrive in Sydney in time to explore and catch a flight. So I quickly found a beautiful, fun wave down the dirt road at Broken Head and then set off down the A1 Motorway. A local tip directed me 7 hours south toward a rural, coastal area known as Seal Rocks. Somehow I found my way down a dirt road, strung out in the dark and found an empty state campground called Yagon on Submarine Beach. I walked out onto the beach and dropped to my knees almost in tears. The sky was very dark and very clear. Neon blue bioluminescence exploded in the shorebreak. Nobody within a couple miles. Perseid meteors crisscrossed the sky. Venus, Jupiter, Saturn and Mars framed the bright southern Milky Way and the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds presented themselves the brightest I’ve witnessed. I stayed up later than I had all trip and reluctantly crawled into the back of the van to sleep. Cosmically satiated.
I woke at dawn and went for a snorkel/bodysurf in the crystal waters around Seal Rocks. A white-bellied sea eagle cruised the empty beach and a green sea turtle munched algae nearby. It was then time to head into the big city. After a three hour drive, I found my way to Bondi Beach on the coast of Sydney. I began my urban walkabout that evening with the famous Bondi to Coogee Coastal Walk. The area reminds me of La Jolla, San Diego with rocky shoreline, potential for heavy surf and affluence. The Waverley Cemetery was an unexpected highlight.
Dawn the next morning, I headed to the Sydney Opera House. How many photos of a single object is enough? I don’t know the answer, but I took them all. It turned into an 18 mile urban hike with a ferry ride to Manly Beach, including explorations of The Royal Botanical Garden, Circular Quay, The Rocks, The Sydney Harbor Bridge, The Museum of Contemporary Art and The Sydney Observatory. Sydney is an amazing city.
The next morning I flew to Auckland for a quick adventure on the North Island of New Zealand. I asked my Uber driver for the best place to watch the sunset with a view of the city. Without hesitation he suggested, Mount Eden. I picked up my new camper van from an awesome company called Spaceship Campervans (I’ve always wanted a Rocketship) and drove directly to Mount Eden: a 650ft. cinder cone volcano overlooking the city and all the surrounding waterways. Its an excellent spot for a first view of New Zealand.
My plans for NZ were loose. After checking the surf forecast and weather, the west coast had surf potential the next 2 days and then a strong weather front was predicted. I woke before dawn and headed for a beach an hour west of the city. Turned out to be one of the most stunning beaches I’ve ever seen and the best waves I scored all trip. Overhead waves with offshore wind on a black sand beach framed by stunning sea stacks.
That afternoon, I drove two hours south to New Zealand’s most famous surf community, Raglan. Set amongst the shire, Raglan is an enormous point break, like 5 Rincons stacked on top of each other. I watched, mesmerized as head-high sets wrapped down the point, the longest waves I’ve ever witnessed. The next morning, I was in the chilly water before the sun came up. After attempting to latch onto the end of a set wave and cruise for 100 yards on the open face, I found myself sitting deep in the lineup. A set loomed up the point at the indicator…I swam wide as a wave refracted into the Bay. I was in the spot, nobody else nearby. I kicked and found myself gliding as the wave gathered momentum. A section opened up and swallowed me into a glorious tube ride directly illuminated by the sun rising over the hill. My favorite single second of the trip.
Outside of Auckland, I do not think there is a straight road in New Zealand. I drove 2 hours to the geothermal wonderland of Rotorua. Steaming fumaroles, boiling mud pools, nose-burning sulphur and the mighty Pohutu geyser are a strong reminder of Earth’s power. Sitting in a natural, hot-spring, mineral pool provided an excellent refuge from the building storm front.
With 2 days left in my Oceania adventure, I checked the map and plotted a path to check out the east coast. I picked a random beach with a nature preserve attached and drove back through the shire. En route, I spotted a volcano near what had to be the beach. I diverted paths, drove to the volcano, found an epic campground on the beach, under said volcano. I immediately set out exploring the gorgeous community of Mount Maunganui and the volcano known as Mauao.
The next morning I set off to find the aforementioned coastal nature preserve near Waihi Beach. I arrived along with passing rain squalls and rainbows that seemed to last for hours. I hiked to Orokawa Bay to find the most idyllic empty beach possible. I found perfect sand banks with glassy, peeling waves going both ways (although ankle high) and a vibrant double rainbow. I then made my way up stream to the William Wright Waterfall. After a while of bushwhacking and slippery stream crossings in the rain, I found it much easier to just walk in the stream. I arrived back to the van drenched, muddy and extremely grateful for an amazing trip to Oceania.
I drove back to Auckland that night, turned in the Rocket camper van and headed to the airport at 11pm in preparation for my flight at 6am. I arrived in LAX 2 hours before I departed…that always trips me out. A few generalized observations: the dynamic coastlines I experienced are forever ingrained in my psyche, Aussies and Kiwis are very, very serious about their coffee, Kiwis are aggressive drivers, Aussies are warmer and friendlier than Kiwis, the van-life travel culture is alive and vibrant in Oceania. Next time, I want multiple months to explore the entire continent.
Final trip stats:
-800 miles driving in Australia
-450 miles driving in New Zealand
-12 surf spots surfed
-100 miles of hiking
-4 dark, clear astronomy nights
-Humpback whales, sea eagle, kiwi, monitor lizard, bush turkey, rainbow lorikeets, corella, cockatoo, Australian pelican
-Columnar basalt, Pohutu geyser, meat pies, Sun Xun art, delicious coffee