Lifestyle Travel Motorhomes
New South whales: Motorhome road trip is the perfect way to see the wonders of Oz
A modern camper van is the perfect way to follow migrating humpbacks up Australia’s beautiful East Coast, says Peter Frost
My wife Ann spotted them first. Nearer the beach than you might expect, the unmistakable huge black curved backs breaking the surface.
They were humpback whales – and as we watched in amazement we counted 11 of them.
One or two breached, jumping completely clear of the water. A breathtaking sight.
We had been sitting with a drink outside Fish Heads, the most fashionable fish restaurant in Byron Bay, the trendy resort on Australia’s East Coast.
Watching the whales was all the sweeter because earlier in the day at Cape Byron we had just missed seeing a pod of a dozen humpbacks.
The whale-watching station in the lighthouse keeps a tally and that dozen had taken the season’s sightings just past the 2,000 mark.
Each year between May and November, humpback whales – fat and healthy from gorging on Antarctic summer krill – head north up the East Coast to mate and give birth in the tropics.
Playful family groups can be spotted easily from many of the beaches and headlands. Once you see an adult, up to 50ft long and 35 tonnes, leaping clear of the water you will see exactly why they are called humpbacks.
Each season there will be 17,000 humpbacks making the epic journey. They’ll be joined by other whales, including the amazing sperm whale, twice as big as a fully-grown humpback.
Following these migrating whales was one theme of our three-week holiday. And because we had heard how many campsites had great sea views we had decided to make the trip in a rented motorhome.
It was a good decision. On several evenings we pitched up at a campsite only to be called away from our barbecuing by the shouts of fellow campers alerting everyone to the whales passing the beach.
We would share whale-spotting stories and listen to some real enthusiasts explain all about the whales. They told us that because humpback whales travel close to the shoreline and Cape Byron is Australia’s most easterly point, our sighting outside the restaurant wasn’t at all surprising.
Even in Sydney, where we collected our motorhome, there were whale-watching trips available. In fact the whole city was talking about the sighting in the harbour – home to the famous opera house – of a very rare all-white humpback called Migaloo.
Making almost as much of a splash was our motorhome itself – depending on which one you choose, they can have air-conditioning, heating, a hot shower and working kitchen.
Modern campervans are so good that when you arrive on a campsite and hook up to the electric point, they really are a home away from home. Sydney has a host of sophisticated things to do. Climbing the Harbour Bridge didn’t appeal but the water bus to Bondi Beach certainly did.
Bliss: It’s never hard to find a beach to yourself
We soon left the bright lights for the Hunter Valley wine country. The road map for the area had a good few names familiar to us from the supermarket wine shelves at home. And as we drove up into the hills we spotted our first kangaroo.
Between Byron Bay and Queensland’s capital Brisbane you’ll find mile after mile of Australia’s highly-developed surf beach area. They call it The Gold Coast or Surfer’s Paradise. We called it the Costa del Oz. Yes, there really are miles of wonderful beaches and bronzed bodies and, yes, the meter maids really do wear bikinis!
North of Brisbane are the spectacular Whitsunday Islands, named because Captain Cook reached them on – well, you can guess which day.
The campsite we stayed at organised a boat trip with snorkelling. They provided mask and snorkel but flippers are banned as they damage the incredibly fragile and beautiful living coral that makes up the Great Barrier Reef.
Heading back through Queensland towards Cairns we found ourselves sharing the road with long rattling narrow-gauge sugar cane trains.
Surprisingly, flood warning signs were also common. Driving is easy – they drive on the left – but fuel stations can be a long way apart and some trucks have so many trailers they call them road-trains.
It was never hard to find deserted beaches and seas rich with wildlife, some less welcome than the whales. Great white sharks are often seen. Less spectacular but actually far more dangerous are the jellyfish. Did you know that Captain Cook named one of his most famous landfalls Stingray Bay after the dangerous fish he saw, caught and ate? Only later did he change the name to the far less exciting Botany Bay.
Rest assured more pleasant creatures share the waters with you too.
Playful dolphins are common, coral, turtles and colourful fish make a swim with or without a snorkel a fascinating experience. But we always made sure to stay inside the shark and jellyfish nets. Life, however, isn’t just a beach. Off the Queensland coast we also explored the rich rainforest on a hired eight-wheel off-roader.
Wide waterways like the Daintree river are home to mangrove, tree crabs, tusked wild pigs, and salt water crocodiles. These toothy throwbacks to the time of the dinosaurs can grow to a terrifying 22ft – about the same length as our motorhome.
Harbour view: Sydney Opera House and the downtown skyline.
In the campsite in the Daintree rainforest we swapped travellers’ tales with Scott and Ellie, young Australian adventurers who had taken the route north.
In their 4×4, trailer tent and inflatable boat they were heading even further north for the Cape York Peninsular. The Cape is bigger than the British Isles but doesn’t have a single made-up road. Ellie and Scott live off the land and fish for food.
They introduced us to our first real bush tucker – green forest ants. Their citrus-flavoured bums were not just delicious but also a valuable source of vitamin C.
Tasting this local delicacy was just one example of how our motorhome adventure got us closer to the wonderful Aussie wildlife and the friendly Australians themselves than any other kind of Down Under holiday ever could.
Good to know: Australia is huge. Don’t try to do it all in one holiday. Choose a manageable part to explore and get to know it well. The East Coast provides wilderness country, vineyards, stunning beaches and sophisticated towns and cities along an adventurous 1,700 mile, three- or four-week drive.
Book it: Arrange your motorhome holiday through real experts whose knowledge and advice is invaluable. The leading specialists are Worldwide Motorhoming Holidays from The Camping and Caravanning Club which offers motorhome holidays in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the US, Southern Africa and Argentina. More information on their website worldwidemotorhomingholidays.co.uk
Getting there: Return flights to Sydney with Emirates airline cost from £735. Internal flight from Cairns to Sydney (Virgin Australia) from £170. You can break your journey at some interesting places. virginaustralia.com and emirates.com
The motorhome: Three weeks’ motorhome hire will cost from £1,325, and please allow around £430 for fuel. Driving is easy, no special licence is needed and insurance is included. campingandcaravanningclub.co.uk
Campsites: Campsites average £17 to £20 per night depending on how luxurious they are. Sites vary between sophisticated and basic outback and you rarely need to book in advance.
This article first appeared in the Sunday Mirror Travel Section 24 May 2015.