Pacific Highway: Brisbane to Sydney

New South Wales, Queensland

After flying back into Brisbane from Lady Elliot Island, we picked up a car from the airport and started our drive down to Sydney.  The drive would take about 10 hours straight, but we broke it up into three days of driving.  Pacific Highway, or the A1, is the main highway that connect the two, but we took a few detours off the highway to see a bit more of Queensland and New South Wales.

Our first detour was only a couple hours outside of Brisbane: the Gold Coast.  It is the largest non-capital city in Australia and the population is still growing.  Gold Coast is known for their tourism: amazing beaches, theme parks, and nightlife.  High rises line all the beaches, which ruins the otherwise gorgeous scenery.  Its position as an up-and-coming city has been sealed by the fact that it will be hosting the Commonwealth Games in 2018.

The Pacific Highway is close to many beautiful beaches.  We saw this one and had to pull over to see it better.  I can’t remember the exact location, but it was somewhere near Burleigh Heads in Queensland.  The Gold Coast can be seen in the distance on the horizon.

The first stop in New South Wales, Byron Bay is a very popular beach town that was swarming with summer tourists.  A little bit out of town is the lighthouse which marks the easternmost point on the Australian mainland.  Looking out from the point only ocean is visible.

Yamba, New South Wales is a small fishing town on the Clarence River whose population usually triples during the summer months.  Here we saw our first Australian pelicans, which are much larger than any pelican I’ve seen before.

Grafton Bridge is a double-decker (car and train) bridge that crosses the Clarence River.  The bridge also houses a water main and 2 footbridges.  Originally built in 1915, it is the oldest double-decker bridge in NSW.  Nearby is Port Macquarie.  It was founded as a prisoner settlement for secondary offenders; it was very isolated with rough terrain.  However, the settlement only lasted about 10 years before it became a civil town.

Today it has grown into a small city known for its koalas and beaches.

The most isolated spot we explored was Austral Eden.  Architect John Verge received a 2,400 acre land grant on the Macleay River in New South Wales in the early 1800’s.  He advertised parcels of land as Austral Eden, a farmer’s paradise in Australia.

Today it is just as farming orientated as it has always been.  Driving through the area and along the Macleay River, we didn’t see a single car or other person, only some farmhouses, horses, and cows.

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Lady Elliot Island

Queensland

Lady Elliot Island is the southernmost island on the reef and is located in the Capricorn group.  The island is owned by the Commonwealth of Australia, not the state of Queensland, and is in a Green Zone protection area.

Being about 80 km offshore, a plane is the only way to get to and from the island.  We caught our flight on the 12-seater plane from the Redcliffe Aerodrome, just outside of Brisbane.  Most of the flight was north along the coast until the final half hour of the 80 minute flight when we turned east and headed out to the island.  Before landing, the plane circled the island a couple times so we could get scenic views of the picturesque spot.  It was awesome to see just part of the reef from above and see the sheer size of it.

The island is a coral cay, the only coral cay with its own airstrip, and houses the Lady Elliot Island Eco Resort.  Being in a Green Zone, tourism is permitted but with lots of restrictions.  The island only has about 250 people on it at one time including overnight guests, day-trippers, and staff.

One of the interesting activities they had available was the Behind the Scenes Tour to see how an Eco Resort is run.  A barge every 4 months brings most of the supplies, except fresh food which arrives on a daily basis on planes.  Water is made in the island’s own desalination plant from sea water, which we got to see at work–really cool.

After being razed by guano miners in the 1800’s, the current owners of the resort are trying to restore the natural environment once on the island.  This includes planting pisonia and casuarina trees.

Lady Elliot Island is also a sea bird nesting spot.  There are hundreds of thousands of birds on the island including black noddies, lesser frigatebirds, terns, rails, and the rare mutton bird.

One morning we got up at 5 am to catch the sunrise and go for a sunrise snorkel.  That in itself was a breath-taking sight.  However, at that same time, we also got to see a sea turtle laying her eggs up on the beach, bury them by flipping sand to cover them, and then return to the water.  After seeing tons of turtle nests on the island and learning all about the different types of sea turtles and how they lay their eggs, it was simply incredible to witness it ourselves.

Being a coral cay, the beaches are made of coral, not sand.  It could get a little painful trying to walk down to the water without shoes on, but the pure white of the coral was gorgeous.  All of the pictures of the beach below are taken from right outside our room, which was on the lagoon side of the island.  What’s better than being able to walk 20 meters and go snorkeling?  The lagoon snorkeling was tide dependent because at low tide, the reef would be under less than a meter of water.  At low tide, reef-walking was an option–gingerly stepping on sand patches between the coral viewing the wildlife through a large underwater magnifying glass.

The Great Barrier Reef was spectacular.  Luckily, there is no bleaching at Lady Elliot Island…yet.  Our favorite snorkel spot was the lagoon right outside our room because you could enter anywhere.  On the other side of the island, there are channels you have to follow to safely enter the deeper parts of the reef.

The lagoon was especially popular with the sea turtles.  In our time on the island, we saw all three types of sea turtles (green, hawksbill, loggerhead) while snorkeling in the lagoon.  As my mom said, “You know you’re somewhere pretty special when you get blasé about seeing sea turtles.”

There were also huge clams with brightly colored insides that closed up tight when approached, sea cucumbers (one of my favorites!), reef sharks, sandy-colored stingrays with electric blue polka dots, bright blue starfish, and hundreds of different types of fish of all shapes, sizes, and colors.

I also loved seeing all the different types of coral.  Again, there were so many different sizes, shapes, colors, and textures.  The reef really is extraordinary.