In 2013, I spent four months travelling across the East Coast of Australia. After flying in from Singapore, I knew that I wanted to start my time ‘Down Under’ in Cairns and somehow make it as far as Adelaide. That’s approximately 2555 kilometers to cover in 120 days – not exactly a small undertaking!
Daunted by the prospect, I decided to split my voyage into 3 stages:
Stage One: Cairns – Sydney with a Greyhound Hop-On-Hop-Off Bus Pass (3 months)
Stage Two: Fly from Sydney – Melbourne, where I was to spend 3 weeks with family
Stage Three: A week long road trip across The Great Ocean Road to Adelaide and back
The Greyhound stage was by far the most epic and involved the most time spent on the road. Would I have changed a thing about it? Not at all!
There are various ways backpackers can get across Australia’s East Coast, starting with the budget Premier bus service, and ranging to the more expensive train rides and comfortable flights. We were quick to rule some of these out. Why?
Although cheap, the Premier busses didn’t stop in every town we wanted to visit, and also the stops weren’t necessarily in the best places to get to and from the hostels.
Rail travel was extortionate and again, the stations were often a little out-of-the-way.
Although the idea of flying was appealing, we just felt we’d have missed too much from the air!
With these things in mind, The Greyhound seemed to offer us the best experience for our money.
So how does it work?
For 469 Aussie Dollars (£261), you purchase an electronic Hop-On-Hop-Off pass which is valid on all Greyhound Busses going a set route for 3 months. For us, this route was Cairns to Sydney, but there are various options available including the equally popular and shorter Cairns-Brisbane path.
You can travel in either direction, but the ticket is only valid for one way. This means that you can start in Cairns or start in Sydney, but you can’t backtrack.
You can get on as many busses and make as many stops as you like during the 3 months. While you can just pitch up and get on one on the day, you’re best to guarantee your seat by booking online before. Then, all you have to do is show the driver your eticket (on your phone is fine!) and you’re good to go. Here’s a glimpse of the routes on offer:
What are the busses like?
All Greyhound coaches are air-conditioned, spacious and have reclining seats which are handy if you’re needing to get a little kip in between towns.
There’s a toilet on board, and for long-haul drives there’ll be a convenience stop at least every three hours. Be warned though; these are likely only to be at service stations where the food options are minimal and pricey, so you’re best to stock up on supplies in advance.
These days, the busses come equipped with Wifi and USB charging ports. Travelling in the digital age is a doddle!
How frequently do the busses run?
There are usually 2 or 3 Greyhound services to each stop every day. Many of the long-haul routes run overnight too, which can be a handy way to save money on accommodation.
Where do the busses stop?
The Greyhounds will always stop in at least one major bus station in every town. Some bigger towns and cities will have more than one drop-off point.
My favourite thing about using the Greyhound in the smaller towns such as Mission Beach was that they work in tandem with the local hostels who send out a minibus to pick up guests.
How long will each journey take?
It really depends how often you’re planning on stopping. Because I had three months to get between Cairns and Sydney, I was happy to stop at most towns en route, which meant I was never on a bus for too long at any one time. That being said, Australia is huge, so even if you got off at every stop, you’re looking at a minimum journey time of 1 ½ – 2 hours.
The longest stretch for me was between Airlie Beach and Hervey Bay, which took an epic 9 ½ hours. Worth noting though that I had originally been planning to stop at Agnes Water & Bundaberg en route, but had to change plans after the area was hit by some pretty nasty flooding.
Are they reliable?
I genuinely never had any issues. The whole process was ridiculously slick and delays – unlike flights – were minimal.
We encountered one breakdown in three months, and even then a replacement bus arrived within 30 minutes.
What are the highlights of travelling by bus?
You meet so many backpackers doing the same and become part of a wee Greyhound community. It’s surprisingly easy to make friends and swap stories and advice when you’ve got several hours to kill, believe me!
It’s super-safe. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend The Greyhound to anyone travelling on their own. They drop you in safe parts of town, you can be met instantly by staff from the hostels, and they don’t have nearly the same negative reputation as the company does across the pond in the USA.
This might sound like an obvious statement to make, but you see everything from the road! You pass through beautiful hamlets and shiny cities, by curving beaches and colourful trees. You’ll catch glimpses of wildlife, from gatherings of wallabies to fields of kangaroos and –if you’re sharp-eyed enough – maybe even an elusive koala or two! I loved taking in the changing scenery as we progressed from the tropical wilds of Northern Queensland to the tumbling Blue Mountains which encircle Sydney. Also, you just can’t beat a good sunset shot:
So what are the downsides?
Honestly, there’s not many.
You could argue that the one-way-travel thing is a little restrictive. For example, you might fall in love with Airlie Beach, get to Mackay and decide that that Mackay has nothing to offer so you want to go back and rejoin your pals North for a trip to the Whitsundays. Even then though, you could quite easily just buy yourself a ticket independently and head back.
Bus travel isn’t for everyone. There’s not much to distract you from the fact that you’re on a bus, so if you suffer from travel sickness or have an unchangeable fear of public transport, you might not be in for the best time. Worth noting though that I’m a terrible traveler and coped fine with the roads; because you’re on a highway most of the time, the journeys are very smooth and very rarely windy.
There’s only a few busses each day, so you need to be careful not to miss your booked time or you might find yourself in for a very long wait in the afternoon heat.
Also, prolongued periods of time spent on busses will inevitably lead to cheesy feet. It’s a sad fact of life.
What were my must-see stops on the East Coast?
Mostly because we were able to take a day trip out to the spellbinding Bedarra Island, which was sadly recovering at the time from the devastating effects of a force 5 cyclone. Despite the destruction, this was an unbelievably beautiful spot to escape, with palm trees swaying gently and aqua blue waters stretching as far as the eye could see.
Townsville was a really fun, characterful place with a great promenade. It was also only a short ride away to Maggie Island, a tropical paradise with some of the best walking trails we found in Australia.
The stopping ground for many on their way to the Whitsundays. The weather was awful while we were in Airlie, but that didn’t stop us falling for the town’s charms or venturing across the choppy seas to take in the ludicrously white sands of Whitehaven Beach. You can read more about our colourful snorkelling adventure to The Whitsundays here.
A must-do for all backpackers coming to Australia, the world’s largest sand island sits just off Hervey Bay, and is famed for its wild dingos, Champagne Pools and curious Maheno shipwreck.
A gorgeous chilled wee haven, and also home to the epic Carlo Sandblow.
The surfing capital of the East Coast is also a popular holiday resort; although it’s not the cheapest place to stay on the East Coast I really loved the natural beauty that Noosa and its beaches had to offer. Sadly I never did master the art of standing up on a board.
Chilled vibes are the name of the game in Byron Bay, where the café culture, musical undertones and gentle smell of weed intertwine in a wonderfully pleasing way. Make sure to visit the lighthouse at the top of the hill; the path’ll take you past the most Easterly point of the country.
I spent quite a few days in Coffs as a friend was working at one of the hostels. I found it to be one of the most low-key yet friendliest towns we’d visited. The marina is a gorgeous place to take in the sunsets, and the nearby nature reserve of Muttonbird Island is a perfect place to go whalewatching.