‘Van Life’ is a phrase that has grown in popularity over the recent years. For many, Australia embodies the Van Life ideals of endless road trips, wide open views, and breathtakingly remote camping spots all to yourself. We spent three weeks driving a campervan down from Cairns to Brisbane. Our East Coast van life road trip remains one of the highlights of our time here in Australia. We had breakdowns, thunderstorms, and near misses with the fuel tank. But we also had kangaroo neighbours, empty beaches, and total freedom.
Here, we share with you our top stops along the way, as well as some of the campsites we stayed at. Before we begin though, our best advice for camping in Australia is to download the WikiCamps app and also Fuel Map Australia. Make sure you also download both maps to your phone, so that you can still use it in areas of no phone signal. The reviews of sites by other campers will assist you no end on your own journey.
It’s also handy to have a non-techy guide too, so grab a copy of Lonely Planet’s East Coast Australia guidebook, for handy information on towns and areas you may pass through, or even this definitive guide to
Our East Coast Van Life Road Trip Route
We adore Cairns. (Click here and here for more blog posts about Cairns!) In total, we’ve spent about two weeks there but we could easily double or triple that. There is SO much to explore in the area, and the chilled tropical vibes are infectious. We picked the campervan up from Cairns after we’d completed our regional work in Cape York, and decided to stick around for a few more days. This was partly so that we could soak up the satisfying feeling of ticking off our 88 days, but also so that we could get used to the van before heading off into the wilderness.
We stayed for a couple of nights at BIG4 Ingenia Holidays Cairns Coconut Resort on a powered grassy site. We weren’t far from the amenities at all, and the park was pretty quiet. It is a short 15 minute drive from the town centre, but there is plenty of parking by the marina and also down some of the residential streets. Overall, it was a good space for us to settle into campervan living, having never done anything of the sort before.
Reef trips book out quickly, especially in peak season, so to avoid disappointment book yours here:
After Cairns, we drove an hour up the coast to Port Douglas. We had visited before for the day, and knew we wanted to go back. Port Douglas isn’t a cheap destination, and camping spots come at a premium. We opted to be closer to town, meaning we sacrificed our budget and the size of the site a bit. However, it was totally worth it to be a few minutes walk from Four Mile Beach the next morning.
We had heard that the staff at Tropic Breeze Caravan Park could be a bit unfriendly, but our experience of them was the opposite. Sam spent so long chatting to the lady on check-in that Kez started to think something bad had happened! She gave us a handy map of the town and also told us that all the locals go and watch the sunset by the marina. Being on the East Coast, good sunsets aren’t easy to come by, but as Port Douglas is on a headland it enjoys priceless views of the sun dropping down behind the rainforest-covered hills beyond.
There are some really good Reef trips out of Port Douglas, and some of them go out to the outer reef to get to all the really good places to dive. Book your trip here:
Driving another hour south of Cairns, we hit the jackpot with our first free campsite. Down a dead-end road just past Josephine Falls is an area called Golden Hole. You can camp for free at the end of the road on the bitumen (tarmac), and there are toilets and BBQ facilities. We had a super chilled evening here, watching the day disappear behind Mt Bartle Frere (the highest mountain in Queensland), and crocodile hunting in the nearby river.
Due to the camp’s proximity to Josephine Falls, we arrived there at about 7.30am and had the entire place to ourselves for a while. It does get very busy here during peak times, which isn’t really our thing, so it was amazing to be alone in nature surrounded by such spectacular scenery. If you’re lucky, you’ll be able to slide down the rock face on a natural pool slide!
Hands down one of our favourite places on our trip. We actually ended up extending our stay here because we couldn’t get enough. We stayed at the council-run caravan park, which backed right onto the beach. It was perfect for us: not too crowded, decent facilities, and within walking distance of the cluster of bars and eateries down the road. One evening we purchased fish and
Psst! Get your own camping-friendly wine glasses here – they are totally worth
Located on the Cassowary Coast, it isn’t unusual to spot these huge, prehistoric-looking birds strolling down the sandy beach of a morning. We went out early for a wander each day ourselves, but sadly didn’t see any. We were happy enough to just soak up the tropical scenery by ourselves.
Mission Beach is famous for skydiving, where participants land on the beach below. We saw a few coming in and it looked awesome!
If you’re a
thrill – seeker, book your skydive here:
We visited Magnetic Island for a day trip, leaving the van parked in the casino car park. We had stayed overnight at another free campsite called Bluewater, just north of Townsville. It’s a super popular spot; people were arriving in the afternoon after us and having to leave again as there weren’t any spaces left.
You can actually stay on Maggie Island; there are hostels and hotels, plus iconic electric cars you can hire. It’s also the place where you are more likely to spot a wild koala. Take the Forts Walk and keep a lookout in the surrounding trees.
Book your ferry transfer to Magnetic Island below:
Airlie Beach & The Whitsundays
Being another popular tourist spot, be prepared to pay premium rates for a campsite in Airlie Beach. Even more so if you want to be within walking distance of the town. We pitched up at Seabreeze Tourist Park for a couple of nights. It was close to shops and also within walking distance of the town along a purpose-built boardwalk around the coastal path.
We went out to the Whitsundays on a day trip. Being one of those touristy ‘must-sees’, we were prepared to be totally underwhelmed by, but it blew us away completely. The water was cleaner and the aquatic life more visible than the Great Barrier Reef section we had visited from Cairns. The tour operator we went with was awesome. Super friendly staff and the fastest boat in the area meant we could take in loads of the Whitsundays all in one day. We had lunch on Whitehaven Beach, snorkelled two amazing sites, and enjoyed a cheeky cocktail at an exclusive island resort. It was definitely money well spent.
Book your own incredible Whitsundays experience here:
We cannot and will not stop going on about Carnarvon Gorge. Even now, we are STILL sharing photos on Instagram from our time there. We only wish it could have been longer.
It was a commitment to drive there in the first place, and we split that up over two days. The first night we stayed at the back of the local pub for $10. We could shower and bought a hot meal. Technically it was a powered site, but the power cable provided by most rental companies will not work for less commercial campsites i.e. the ones in the middle of nowhere. Something about the power being different in remote place to the power provided in big towns.
When we arrived at the Gorge, it was low season. This meant that all but one of the campsites in the park were closed. There are a number of council-run campsites there, but these are largely only open during school term time, and some need a 4×4 to access. We ended up staying at the Takarakka Bush Resort. Understandably, it wasn’t cheap, but it was absolutely beautiful. There was only a handful of other people staying there, so we had a lot of space all around us. In the morning, we woke up to find the entire area filled with grazing kangaroos. We also walked down to the river (which is safe to swim in) and were lucky enough to see a duck-billed platypus. It was a magical place, and one we would encourage everyone to visit on their own East Coast van life road trip.
1770 & Agnes Water
The town of 1770 and its neighbour, Agnes Water, are both tiny little seafront settlements. It is named 1770 because it is built on the site of the second landing in Australia by James Cook in May 1770. We stayed at another council-run site in Agnes Water. The ranger comes around daily to collect your fee, which was about $12 for the two of us. It’s a popular site though and it can get very full.
It was largely empty when we arrived though, as there was a huge bushfire blazing nearby. Some towns on the road into Agnes Water had been evacuated. The whole area was full of smoke, which had understandably put a lot of people off from paying the towns a visit. This meant we had the little beach nearest to the campsite pretty much to ourselves, although what with the thick smoke in the atmosphere it wasn’t optimal beach weather! Both Agnes Water and 1770 have pretty small town centres, so it would be wise to stock up at a big supermarket before arriving.
Renowned for its colourful cliffs, Rainbow Beach is right next door to our next recommended stop, Fraser Island. In fact, where we camped, we could see the Island across the small estuary between us. It was close enough to see the 4x4s racing across the beaches.
We camped at one of the council-run sites just up a bit from the main area of the town, called the Inskip Peninsular. You need to purchase and ideally display your camping permit at all times. These can be purchased online or at the ranger station as you come into Rainbow Beach. Information regarding the accessibility of the sites was somewhat confusing. They are largely on the beach or in sandy areas just back from the beaches. For this reason, it isn’t recommended that non-four wheel drive vehicles enter most of the sites.
One of them, M.V. Sarawak, seemed to be relatively ok for our two-wheel drive camper. We gingerly drove around the site looking for a spot, and on numerous occasions almost bogged ourselves in the sand. Sam had to put his foot down, and we skidded onwards at an alarming speed in between huge pine trees. Not recommended. We found what we thought was a sensible spot to set up camp, however upon trying to vacate the site the next day, we almost bogged ourselves in again. Be mindful that most hire vehicles have a strict ‘DO NOT DRIVE ON SAND’ policy…
There are loads of activities on offer in and around Rainbow Beach. Take a look at some of them and book online here:
Confession time: we never went over to Fraser Island. Having lived up in the Cape York Peninsula for ten weeks, we had experienced more than enough driving on sand, rainforests, and gorgeous beaches. For our time restraints and budget, we couldn’t justify spending the day there.
However, it goes without saying that it comes highly recommended. As the largest sand island in the world, it attracts its fair share of tourist attention. If you have more time and money than we did, be sure to pay Fraser Island a visit on your own East Coast van life road trip.
Book your own Fraser Island tours here:
We loved Noosa. The river, the town centre, the beaches…. it made us feel like we were on a holiday within a holiday. But because of the luxurious image it presents, it comes with a hefty price tag. Sadly, we could only afford one night there, and there was so much of the area that we missed out on. If you are able to spend more time there, we’ve heard that the Fairy Pools out by Noosa Heads coastal path are well worth a visit for a spot of wild swimming.
We stayed at Noosa River Holiday Park, which according to its website when we tried to book was full. However, ever the optimist, Sam drove there anyway and managed to bag us a small campsite for the night. The facilities are really good and the scenery is second to none, however because it is so popular you have little space between sites.
After leaving Noosa, we spent the day at Australia Zoo. From there, we carried on inland and set up camp at a free campsite. It was right by the road, which contrary to what we expected did not quieten down much as the night went on. We accidentally befriended a slightly odd individual who kept insisting we tried some of his favourite weed with him. We politely declined, went to bed, and were up early to make the most of the day in the nearby Glasshouse Mountains.
It’s no secret that we love hiking. Anywhere with a hill, and we are trying to get up it to enjoy the scenery from the top. They are called The Glasshouse Mountains because apparently James Cook thought they looked like the glass factory chimneys of Yorkshire. Each to his own. We opted to climb Mt Ngungun, and although the ascent was only about 4km, it was STEEP. It’s definitely best to begin any hikes or climbs in Australia as early as possible, otherwise it’s just too hot. In all there are 13 peaks in the Glasshouse Mountains to conquer, some more challenging than others.
Brisbane marked the end of our van life road
After we had returned the campervan, we set up base in an Airbnb in an area called Fortitude Valley. It was really easy to walk into the city from there, and we spent a lot of time over the river on Southbank. The first city we had been in since leaving Cairns, we were surprised by how much more expensive it was. Until we got to Sydney, and realised the true meaning of expensive, but that’s a story for another time.
When we speak to people about our three weeks travelling down from Cairns to Brisbane, some are surprised that we took three weeks to do it. On paper, it takes less than a day to drive (18 hours). But we packed in so much, and in some instances we were true slow travellers.
See more of what Brisbane has to offer, and book your own trips here:
We chose to spend longer in some places. We purposefully planned stops that were no more than 2 hours away. The longest time we drove for was 6 hours, and that was to get inland to Carnarvon Gorge. We learned how to slow down, to take our time, and to appreciate each and every moment. We woke up with the sun at 5.30am, and went to bed with the moon at 8pm. We survived off of sardines on toast and tuna pasta, and lived in an area not much bigger than your average double bed. And we’ve never felt happiness like it.
Things We Couldn’t Do Van Life Without
There were a few items we bought en route which turned out to be absolute lifesavers (like the aforementioned wine goblets). Van Life can be sticky and hot, and it can be hard to find a shower if you’re staying in free campsites. The good news is that it’s usually pretty hot between Cairns and Brisbane, so hooking yourself up with a solar-powered camp shower is a pretty decent option.
Also, the camp tables you can hire from the van hire places are, to be honest, pretty shit. Get yourself a decent-sized, foldable camping table which will be big enough for you to eat dinner and play cards on. It will also double up as a countertop when you’re preparing meals too.
We also bought a simple gazebo too, to help shelter us from the baking hot sun. Be aware though that some campsites don’t let you put up non-fixed gazebos in case they blow away, but we only
Have you done your own van life road trip? Is Van Life something you’d like to experience? Where would you go? Maybe you already have! Tell us where you hit the open road on an adventure of your own!