It was long overdue. A return to the place where my heart beat for the first time and my lungs drew their first breath. “There is something in the water there,” people say, a remark suggesting something supernatural is simmering under the surface, too intangible to articulate. Since moving away, I realize how more and more true that belief is, but am ashamed to think it took leaving to grasp the true beauty and magic of a place that has been there with open arms the whole time. But the fact is, there is something about Australia: the people, the landscape, the isolation. From afar it seems too out of reach, a mere daydream for most.
The weather this time of year is beautiful. The ocean is like a bathtub attributed to the beating sun of the summer just passing. The east coast of the continent is iconic for many reasons – by road, it stretches from the northern tip of Cairns to Melbourne at its south. White-sand beaches are set against subtropical hinterlands amass with pointed trees sprouting fruits as big as pineapples, ombre cliffs, and boundless rock pools that emulate tiny craters. Winding south, the coast boasts larger swells, alluring surfers into coves decorated with crunchy grasses in muted greens and flaking, caramel-textured tree bark.
Having spent so much time on the road in euphoric states of being, we decide to stick to what we know best: renting a vehicle and checking off stops on the map like a cub scout adorning fresh badges of merit. At times we venture away from the roads well-travelled into mountains and unpaved rainforest tracks, and at others, we stay completely stationary by the water, collecting salt on our skin as we lay all day.
A two-hour drive from Brisbane reveals one of the most stunning natural reserves in Queensland’s south east: Australia’s tropical haven of Noosa Heads on the pristine Sunshine Coast. Arriving into the resort town at 9am, the beach is already dotted with a rainbow of color as children partake in surf lessons and seasoned riders carry their boards from their vans across the sand. We take a dip to strip us of our stale airline musk, the temperature of the water feeling more like a heated pool than the South Pacific. Covered mostly in national parkland, the ‘heads’ in Noosa refers to the shape of the coastline as it protrudes from the mainland and circles back around old growth tropical forest. Track the path around the entirety of the reserve to find lazy swimming coves like Little Cove and Tea Tree Bay; the rocks are smooth and charcoal in hue, splattered with bursts of bright orange and jewel moss. Keep wandering and you’ll reach Fairy Pools, where years of purposeful erosion have carved clusters of tiny rock pools for wading in the shelter of the break.
That evening we rest at my Grandma’s house. She’s lived on the outskirts of Noosa for as long as I can remember her living in Australia. When she was younger, she left the country for an American man: a town planner and artist who called the suburbs of Detroit his home. In their older age, they prefer the warmer, tropical climate. Grandma spends her time in the garden, carefully cultivating banana trees and native flowers to encourage green frogs to hang in her pond, while he paints silently in the back sunroom, his whimsical multi-color canvases stacked along every wall.
The following day, we wake before sunrise and head to Sunshine Beach, a stretch of perfect ocean fronting the most eastern point overlooking the Coral Sea. Beams of light slowly pierce the smoky cover of clouds that blanket the pre-dawn sky. We climb the rocks at the top of the headlands and absorb the morning’s cool perfume, savoring every moment we get stay in this heaven of a place.
The drive south from Noosa across the border into New South Wales and the mountain ranges that watch over Byron Bay is short and sweet. Quaint surf-side towns, strung like lights, hug the coast at every turn. Arriving into Byron feels nostalgic, like we have somehow been here before during a summer when we were kids: camping, riding bicycles and showering only in the ocean. With a style that reflects a tone of modern bohemia that has now become signature, living here would feel like a permanent vacation. It’s full-time residents welcome outsiders and are generous with their local knowledge, while the food is green, fresh and full of flavor, and its beaches, unparalleled in their beauty, remain unequivocally remote.
We bypass the popular Wategos Beach close to the centre of town for a loose gravel track that leads us further into the wilderness towards Broken Head and into the arms of Whites Beach. It is like a sight I have only dreamed of – the sand was pure white like fresh linen, and the water so bright and blue it was almost blinding. On such a perfect, sun-drenched day, we identify no more than five other bodies on the shore, leaving no contest for space and privacy – just pure, uninterrupted escapism. Finding our own private cove set against shady vivid greens and overarching volcanic caves, we are in our own world for the afternoon.
Tearing ourselves away from the water for the first time, we venture 30 minutes inland into the hinterlands, where a lush, dense and majestic rainforest is one of the best the country offers. With the sun quickly dropping, we make our way up a steep 4WD track, edging us closer to the mountain top, as the moon quickly takes charge of the darkening sky. Overlooking the valley and the haze of an endless ocean on the far horizon, we reach our accommodation for the next few days. Greeted by friendly moths and delicate leggy spiders, we sleep with the window open, enclosing ourselves in the netted canopy as our only protection against the gentle elements. The sunrise is nothing short of one of the most stunning vistas of my short lifetime. Our cabin, propped on wooden stilts that had once been living in this very patch of fold growth forest, resonates with amber light as it floods the windows and makes it a glowing box of gold.
For breakfast, our hosts pick greens from their garden and fix us brunch with fresh eggs from the chicken that freely roam the property. Robin is a man who decided to live off the grid many years ago, and now thrives on rainwater showers, solar energy and produce from his garden. As we eat, he tells of us of a waterfall nearby, that few from the public know about or can access due to the difficult terrain and some very protective neighbors. We hike 40 minutes into the valley of forest, armed with machetes to conquer the tall, wispy grasses that cover our path. Packing salt to ward off the leeches, it is no match for them as multiple attach themselves to our legs and feet, even creeping beneath our shoes. The waterfall is hidden, veiled under shady palms and twisted vines that hang from the looming canopy. The temperature is much cooler than the humid grasslands from where we had just hiked above, but the gentle spray of the fall reaches our faces in relief, signaling the genius in nature’s perfect balance.
Central Coast to Never Never Creek
Storms begin to set in as we depart Byron Bay to continue moving south. The Central Coast is an iconic destination in itself, thanks to boundless dreamlike beaches that stretch the drive enroute to Sydney. Only sprawling national forest stands between us and the ocean that calls our name, but we are on a mission to The Promised Land. An area of pristine valleys and plateaus north of Bellingen in New South Wales, we pass Coffs Harbor and weave inland, the coast turning to farmland and rolling green fields on either side of our windows. We can feel it the moment we enter. Never Never Creek has an air of magic that touches our skin and instantly instills a cool calm. The deep, dark greens of the shrouding trees and forest floor act like a curtain from the day’s light, leaving only enough to sparkle atop the clear, fresh babble of the water that gently runs downstream. Finding our way to the swimming hole, a homemade rope swing dangles from a thick, gnarly tree, where a leathery Lace Goanna lazily holds guard at its base. Here in our own company, we strip bare to swim only with the tiny fish that shimmer past our moving limbs.
The air is muggy and damp as we emerge from the shaded river onto the stony roads of the Promised Land. An afternoon sun-shower spots our windscreen as its rays finally bleed through the heavy grey clouds that have lingered since morning. A rainbow appears as we set off again with the sunset behind us and the lure of a beachside camp in front of us.
Booti Booti National Park
We pull into Booti Booti National Park in the dark, gliding through fog as we drive onto the peninsula that juts into the Tasman. Looking out, the bodies of water on either side of us appear only as vortexes of vast, black nothingness, and as we pull into our beachside camp, a flame-haired dingo darts across the headlights.
Waking up to the ocean is one of the most revitalizing feelings on this earth. The sun pries our eyes open with a film of gold that lingers at the tips of our eyelashes, awakening our bodies more than the scent of a morning espresso ever could. Elizabeth Beach is a half-moon shaped bay surrounded by bushy, crunchy forest of native Spinifex, Banksia, Coast Wattle and Tea Tree, all dry from a long and successful summer. The transparent aqua of the water forms perfect curls as it rolls into shore, and nudists take refuge in the hidden coves that stretch along the length of the peninsula. We run on to the sand and keep running, wanting to make it to the other end of the beach to somehow absorb every possible inch of this paradise through our senses. Cautiously dipping my toes in the ocean’s foam to test, the water is warm in the shallow surf, and it takes every morsel of my being to not dive in right then. I could lie and stare at the swirling color of the ocean all day, and I silently whisper in this moment, “please, never end.” Yet we can’t spend the day, we have to move on. I look back on the beach as we pack up and drive away, regretful, with the pain of not knowing when we may next see each other again.
Sydney has a scent that we start to trace from across the bridge; the suburbs becoming greener and leafier as we travel from the dusty roads of the Pacific Highway. Overgrown Jasmine, draping Red Gums, Royal Poinciana and Illawarra Flame Trees intertwine with waify willows that smell of peppermint to create an urban forest amongst Victorian terrace houses and pastel art deco flats. A city built by the water, salt wafts through the air, reminding us the beach is always close, but the gardens of the city provide a welcome distraction. We float across the harbor via the iconic Harbor Bridge and gaze up at the impressive steelwork, the sun flickering onto our faces as we cross. The view of the Opera House to the left was also surreal, its structure imitating ivory sailboats in a moment of time. We decide to rest nearby at Millers Point, one of the city’s oldest suburbs set on the docks of the harbor to eat, dance and drink for the night. The rooftop view from Hotel Palisade is unbeatable; the haze of the afternoon sun softening the horizon as we watch ships pass through the harbor and the distant skyline illuminate with the glitter of lights from the city’s high rises.
Sydney’s beaches are unlike most cities; they are vibrant with surf and unrestricted to the full force of the ocean. They are eternally a warm shade of gold, like a faded old photograph, and while they are constantly peppered with visitors regardless of season, the shore from Bondi to Bronte are charming escapes from the bustle of their urban surroundings. We ride the coast until we reach Coogee, a more low key destination than the beaches closer to town and enter Wylie’s Baths, one of a number of historic ocean pools built out from the natural rock pools of Sydney’s cliffs. Retaining original retro fittings and kiosks stocked with childhood favorites, the seaside baths are a slice of quintessential Australiana. We lay a towel under the shade of the deck and sip a lime granita as we watch the waves crash over the barricade, guarding swimmers from the unrelenting ocean currents. After some laps we are cool and salty, our skin ripened to crispen under the high sun. I wander over the rocks to McIver’s Baths next door, the last remaining women’s only seawater pool in Australia. Children play and ladies lay across boulders like elegant muses from an oil on canvas, taking in the sun’s light as their tops lay lifeless beside them.
Melbourne & Mornington Peninsula
The sky is grey as we land in Melbourne, the air damp and fresh with eucalyptus. The city is the heart of this town, its gridded streets like a maze of vessels, pumping with sound and color. It is Sydney’s chic older sister – more mature and brooding, it’s widely considered the cultural capital of Australia with thriving arts and music scenes. It is also a mecca for coffee and fine food, and I refer to a long list of must-try cafes I have scrawled in my notebook to retrieve our first cup. Melbourne is my hometown, and therefore my heart. It is the antidote to any fears and insecurities that have come with living so far away, and it instantly instills a comforting sense of familiarity. But in the two years I had been gone, so much has changed and I cannot wait to start exploring.
We hit the ground running and escape the finesse of the city south, to the Mornington Peninsula: a plateau of stunning wilderness surrounded by lazy blue ocean. There are fewer people down this way, and the sleepy seaside towns reflect it. Kangaroos graze in the open fields and solitary fisherman hold lines from the docks of the yellow shores, the sand more like tiny pebbles flurried with speckles of rose-tinted shells. We camp the night on the foreshore of Point Leo, a small beach consisting only of a general store and small boat club. From our glorious bell tent overlooking the Bass Straight, we take in the gentle sea breeze; the scent strong with seaweed and the spray of distant waves. We lay and look up at the chattering trees above us for the afternoon, and after sundown, fill our bellies with a pub meal in the neighboring town of Flinders. It was a new moon, and we retired to the Peninsula Hotsprings, a private compound of natural mineral pools, where we soak until our bodies are soft and fingertips textured like prunes.
Laying inside our tent that night, listening to the whistle of the wind, I realized this is the part that means our trip is coming to an end. But then I thought about when I was a little girl, I thought paradise was a real place. I begged my mum to tell me where it was, to show me on the map, so we could go one day. She would tell me, it wasn’t any particular place, that it could be anywhere I wanted. I didn’t really grasp that concept then, and maybe as I have grown, I still haven’t. On a constant search for the new and exciting, it is possible paradise is a place I have already found.