Something dark and a little spooky – a ghostly road trip out of Sydney

By Australia / New South Wales / Sydney /

Angela De Lyon grabs a rental car in Sydney and heads down a notorious road offering not only spectacular views but also some dark and spooky history.

THE steep descent from the upper Blue Mountains at Mount Victoria into the Lithgow basin has always been a notoriously hazardous one, with more than its fair share of accidents, particularly among truck drivers. But could the high fatality rate on Mount Victoria Pass be due to more than just dodgy road conditions and speed?

According to legend, this strip of highway is haunted by a rather nasty spectre – the Lady in Black. Since the mid-19th century, travellers have spoken of a mournful figure dressed in black that clings to the back of vehicles, causing drivers to plummet to a fiery death. Immortalised in Henry Lawson’s poem, The Ghost at the Second Bridge, the phantom is believed to that of Caroline Collits, a local lass from the Hartley Valley whose beaten and battered body was found beside the road in 1842.

Rain has been falling as I take on this notorious stretch of road, and an eerie mist swirls around my tyres. But as I approach the peak of the Blue Mountains at Mount Victoria, the glorious views across the Hartley Valley take away any feeling of trepidation as I begin my slow and steady descent. This really is a gorgeous, unsung part of outer Sydney – mind-blowingly beautiful, tranquil and oozing with historic charm.

At the bottom of the hill – yes, I made it without incident – I swing left to explore the historic Hartley Valley. I wind my way through emerald meadows flanked by the dramatic escarpment to Hartley Vale, where the most prominent building is historic Collit’s Inn, dating to 1823 and once home to the young girl who is said to haunt these parts. Recently renovated, the inn is once again open for passing travellers, providing comfortable and atmospheric accommodation both in the inn and its quaint stables.

Continuing back to the main road, I turn right into the historic site of Hartley, a perfectly preserved village from colonial days. There are 17 buildings of interest in the town – take your time to wander around, absorbing the ambience. Tours run by the National Parks and Wildlife Service are available of the old Courthouse, bringing to life the hardships of the early days of the colony.

Beyond Hartley, the highway narrows as the road approaches Jenolan Caves, my final destination for the day. Hairpin bends with dizzying drops into densely vegetated chasms take all your concentration; and passengers, beware – car sickness is practically guaranteed!

The arrival into the legendary Jenolan Caves – the oldest cave system in the world – however, is truly spectacular, with the approach through a massive tunnel known as The Grand Arch revealing historic Caves House in all its faded, Victorian elegance. This wonderful old hotel, now rather shabbily run by the NSW State Government, has some spooky stories of its own, with at least five ghosts said to haunt its creaking hallways.

The caves themselves are also said to be haunted – not by an evil presence, but by the protective gaze of one of the caves’ original caretakers, James Wiburd. Lantern-lit ghost tours of the caves are extremely popular and a lot fun – and the perfect precursor for a night sleeping in a haunted hotel!



Broome to Cape Leveque

By Australia / Broome / Darwin / Northern Territory / Perth / Western Australia /

A HOLIDAY in Broome and the far north coast of Western Australia requires more commitment than any other destination in Australia. This sunny, sparkling city is more akin to an island resort than a bustling hub – totally isolated, surrounded by wilderness, and possessing that chilled ‘manana’ attitude that pervades the South Pacific.

Getting here is not only a chore, but it’s expensive. You either have to take the long haul up the coast from Perth – ideal if you want to take your time and have the luxury of a campervan rental campervan rental in Western Australia – or trek across the Gibb River Road from Darwin via Kununurra: once again, the perfect adventure for 4WDrivers with plenty of time on their hands.

But what if you only have a week of precious vacation, yet still want to see something beyond the town itself? While Broome is a pleasant distraction for two or three days, once you’ve thawed out on stunning Cable Beach, watched the sunset, taken an obligatory camel ride and visited several pearl farms, there’s not a great deal more to do than relax by your resort pool. Not a bad thing in itself, but not everyone’s cup of tea.

Instead, head north to the Dampier Peninsula and Cape Leveque, an amazing destination for people dreaming of that true Robinson Crusoe experience in one of the most beautiful places in the world. Two hundred kilometres north of Broome, access is via Aboriginal land on a largely unsealed (and corrugated) road –a 4WD is necessary, with correct insurances in place. En route there are some fascinating stop-offs, such as the church at Beagle Bay, decorated with mother-of-pearl shell.

Another well-known Aboriginal community is Lombadina, the first on the peninsula to promote tourism. The beach here is mind-blowingly beautiful, and you can join indigenous tours including mud-crabbing and traditional fishing.

While there is simple accommodation available here, most people choose to stay at Kooljaman Resort at Cape Leveque, a wilderness retreat with a range of accommodation to suit every budget. All profits from the resort go back into the two Aboriginal communities that run it, with conservation projects ensuring the environment stays pristine.

Kooljaman has found that nice balance between luxury and wilderness. For those who like their creature comforts, there are stunning safari tents built on hillside decks, all with en suite bathrooms and kitchenettes. At the other end of the scale are thatched beach shelters – as basic as it comes, but unbeatable for views, fresh air and access to the ocean. There’s a store to stock up on supplies, while a new restaurant is the ideal place to watch the legendary Kimberley sunset.

And in the morning, you’re likely to have the whole beach to yourself. Not another footstep to be seen on the sand … pure bliss.


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Brisbane to Bundaberg, and a swim with the loggerhead turtles

By Australia / Brisbane / Queensland /

The strip of coastline between Brisbane and Bundaberg is a veritable Aladdin’s Cave of natural treasures – glorious beaches, pristine patches of wilderness hopping with wildlife, and humpback whales breaching offshore during the winter months.

But we’re here to see another endangered and fascinating marine creature – loggerhead turtles, who choose the beaches south of Bundaberg to perpetuate the cycle of life each summer. Mon Repos Beach is one of the two largest turtle rookeries in the South Pacific, which means it’s one of the best places to see them up close as they lay their eggs in the sand, with the babies hatching several months later.

To capitalise on all this area has to offer, having secured a great deal on our Brisbane Campervan Rental with DriveNow we are driving north,  so we can feel at one with our stunning natural surrounds. That’s the beauty of life on the road – you can pull up where your whim leads you, and with so many holiday parks located in areas of incredible beauty, we’re never disappointed.

It’s nearly a six-hour drive from Brissy to Bundy, but we decide to do it in one hit up with Bruce Highway, then take our time meandering back through the Sunshine Coast.

We’re a little exhausted as we pull into Bangara Beach Caravan Park late afternoon, but excited by what lies ahead. A pretty nature trail links the caravan park to the Mon Repos Turtle Rookery, and we head to the Visitor Centre after an early dinner to take one of their ranger-guided tours. These days, there are strict rules around approaching the massive reptiles as they haul their cumbersome frames up the sand; but it’s an incredible experience to see them giving birth with such dignity and determination.

My kids were a little disappointed they didn’t get to see the babies hatching and running the gauntlet back into the waves; but hopefully we can return one February to see nature’s miracle go full circle.

Taking our time to drive back down the coast, nature continued to impress – the stunning beaches of the Hervey Bay coastline, the wonderful dichotomy of Noosa, its glitz and glam complemented by glorious bushland and achingly beautiful bays; the emerald hills of the hinterland; and the sun and fun of the Sunshine Coast beaches. Australia Zoo is a must-see, as is the fabulous Underwater World at Mooloolaba, a massive aquarium filled with more than 25,000 sea creatures.


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Daylesford Delights – a road trip from Melbourne to Daylesford

By Melbourne / Victoria /

BEING Sydneysiders, we didn’t want to visit another city on a romantic getaway from work and children, but after a friend’s big recommendation we hopped on a cheap flight to Tullamarine Airport in Melbourne after snapping up a hot last minute  Melbourne Car Hire deal from www.drivenow.com.au.

The escape from Melbourne’s hustle and bustle was a breeze for a great Victorian driving holiday  – we picked up the Western Ring Road off the Tullamarine Freeway and followed all signs to Daylesford and an hour and a half later we entered the sleepy country town in Spa Country. It was Saturday morning so there was a gentle hum about the place, busy, but not hectic. The moment we set down our gear at Campari, our accommodation, the R&R truly kicked in.

About 200 metres from Lake Daylesford, and easy walking distance to town, Campari is well priced and cosy.

We spent the first day poking around Daylesford’s quaint shops and sampling some seriously good food. We enjoyed a late, lazy, lunch at Frangos & Frangos (www.frangosandfrangos.com). After kicking off with the F&F Tasting Plate (a selection of local delicacies for two), we then sampled another sharing dish – beware the diversity which will have you deliberating for too long!  – and we finished off with the Gelati Trio before getting back on our feet to keep scouring this town’s offerings.

There are a few places worth the time investigating. Benjamin Bandicoot is a must for gorgeous gifts, so too is Ex Libris Prints which specialise in 17th-20th Century antique prints of Australian, architectural, decorative and botanical subjects. Even if you’re not buying, this shop is worth dropping into for a browse. Sweet Decadence @ Lacantro offers exquisite handmade chocolates and chocolate novelties, cakes, biscuits – all made on the premises.

Being smack in the middle of Spa Country, we thought a massage would be a must for the Sunday but soon found out bookings are made months in advance for the popular Hepburn Spa Mineral Springs Bathhouse and Wellness Retreat so we called Jenny at Abandon Stress who offer a mobile service and arranged deep tissue and relaxation massages for the following day.

After that late lunch we didn’t need a huge gastronomical adventure, so Saturday night dinner was ideal at La Finca Tapas Bar.

After a sleep in Sunday, treatment massages early afternoon we were then back at Tullamarine by 4pm for our flight back to Sydney by dark.

Top 5 to-dos for Daylesford:

1) Frangos & Frangos for modern Australian, Mediterranean, European cuisine.

2) Ex Libris Prints for a gallery of antique and contemporary prints.

3) Sweet Decadence for your sweet tooth.

4) Get a massage! Check out Abandon Stress for an alternative to the region’s retreats.

5) The Avant Garden bookshop for bookworms.



Driving holidays – the Outback (Queensland)

By Australia / Queensland /


As winter approaches, my thoughts don’t turn to snow-capped mountains and log fires, but rather red dirt plains and wide blue skies. The cooler months are the ideal time to explore Queensland’s outback, and hitting its dusty roads is the only way to get to fully appreciate the scale, complexity and beauty of this rugged, wild and bizarre landscape.

After flying into Mount Isa, we pick up our four-wheel drive camper and despite the kids’ pleas to don hard helmets and mining suits and venture underground (my idea of hell!) we press on, keen to embark on the first 300 kilometres of our journey. Signs stating “G’day” and “Welcome to the Min Min Byway” announce the theme of our journey; ahead lies a long flat stretch of tar, disappearing into infinity with nothing but scrub and red dirt on either side.qld4

This is hauntingly beautiful country; massive outcrops loom from nowhere, red boulders stacked randomly as if by aliens; mesas reminiscent of thed Arizona desert catch the afternoon light, turning spectacular shades of red, russet and indigo; while wedge-tailed eagles hover in the thermals above, reading to swoop on roadkill.

The town of Boulia appears quietly, unassumingly, 300km south of Mt Isa. There’s not much to see in this sleepy outpost – a cobweb-covered collection of old farm machinery and dinosaur bones serve as a labour-of-love museum, there’s only one pub, and once a year a couple of camels plod around a dusty racetrack.

But what Boulia does have is a mystery – and a great one at that. The town is home to the legend of the Min Min Lights – inexplicable glowing balls of light that, over the past 150 years or so, have terrorised locals and passers-by. So widespread is the interest in this phenomenon that Boulia has created its own theatrical attraction, the Min Min Encounter, a $2 extravaganza incorporating animatronics and fibre optics that pays tribute to the art of Outback bullshit. Up to 200 people a day visit this museum – not bad considering there really is no other reason to come to Boulia!

To further explore the legend of the Min Min Lights, drive a further 73km east on the road to Winton to the site of the original Min Min Hotel, a ruin consisting of a couple of decrepit graves and a bottle dump.

Legend has it that this was once a roaring shanty, a den of iniquity so notorious for its murders and rapes that it was burnt to the ground in retribution. It was not long after this act of vengeance in 1918 that the strange lights began to mysteriously appear, chasing unsuspecting passers-by who chanced upon the ruins.

While this makes a fascinating stop-off on the way to Winton, we don’t have time to stick around to see if the lights make an appearance. Winton is still another four hours’ drive away; though stop-offs at Cawnpore Lookout (fabulous views across the rugged countryside) and Middleton Hotel make the journey pass quickly.

Winton is home best known as the home of Waltzing Matilda – it was here that Banjo Patterson wrote the famous song we all know and love. A museum dedicated to the song is a must-see attraction in Winton, as is the Qantas Museum, where you can learn all about the history of our national airline and even tour inside jumbo jets. Make sure you do the Wing Walk tour – it’s a fantastic experience and one your kids willqld10remember for years.

The final highlight of our outback drive is a visit to Lark Quarry, the site of the world’s only known dinosaur stampede. The kids’ eyes light up as they hear the tale of the chicken-like coelurosaurs, who, as they were drinking at a lake, were chased by a hungry theropod, leaving a chaotic mess of footprints in the mud which have been preserved by time.

As well as being able to see the whole drama played out in the fossilised footprints, we also get the chance to hold real dino-bones and rocks bearing the imprints of the prehistoric creatures.

Lark Quarry is 110 km southwest of Winton – a day trip in itself. While you can do the trip by two-wheel drive, it’s pretty rough going on mostly dirt roads, but the journey is worthwhile to see a fascinating and under-appreciated part of Australia’s long history.


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Driving holidays – Fleurieu Peninsula (South Australia)

By Australia / South Australia /

It’s the holy grail of travel destinations – a place combining perfect weather, idyllic beaches, great food and world-standard wine. So why aren’t more people flocking to South Australia’s Fleurieu Peninsula?

Southern treasure

I guess I should be delighted that this hidden treasure south of Adelaide hasn’t become the Australian version of California’s Napa Valley, overrun by tourists and subsequently overblown and overpriced. Instead, it’s South Australia’s little secret, one which they seem quite happy to share with just a select few. And for those in the know, it’s quite a find.

A driving holiday is the best way to experience this ‘Land of Milk and Honey’. After picking up a campervan from DriveNow, we headed south on the Fleurieu Way via the Southern Expressway, the road opening to glorious rural vistas within half an hour of the city. There is 170 kilometres of coastline to meander along – stunning beaches pounded by the Southern Ocean offering sublime surfing, sun-worship or beachcombing in any season, flanked by gently rolling rills and peaceful hamlets.

At Old Noarlinga, however, the main road deviates inland via the McLaren Vale area. If you’re a wine lover, it’s definitely worth lingering here! One of the country’s premier wine districts, there are more than 76 cellar doors open to the public – favourites include Chapel Hill (with its cellar located in an old church chapel and a fantastic cooking school onsite) and d’Arenberg (whose restaurant boasts sublime views across the valley).

Markets & hamlets

If you are travelling on a weekend, make sure to stop off at the Willunga Farmers Market, a gourmet’sdelight selling organic vegetables, creamy cheeses, locally grown olive oil and freshly baked organic breads.

If you can drag yourself away from this fabulous part of the world, more coastal delights await – stunning beachside communities such as Aldinga, Yankalilla Bay and down to rugged Cape Jervis, jumping off point for Kangaroo Island.

If you have your family in tow, make a beeline to Victor Harbour, where the kids will love the horse-drawn tram across the causeway to visit the penguins on Granite Island. If you’re travelling between June and October, pause for a while on top of the Bluff on the lookout for whales breaching in the ocean below.

In fact, if you are going to visit the Fleurieu, there really is no better time than in October, when the Fleurieu Fiesta is in full swing. This celebration of local food, wine and culture is a real treat – guaranteed to make you loosen your belt a notch or two!


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Driving Holidays – Cairns (Qld)

By Australia / Cairns / Queensland /

The old adage “it’s a big country” certainly rings true in Far North Queensland, where distances between sights are great and the only way to experience them is by road. But that’s what makes the region north of Cairns such a great place for a driving holiday, with the open highway a journey of discovery and wonder.

When you’re deciding on a vehicle, keep in mind that the further from the Big Smoke you get, the rougher the roads – you may require a four-wheel drive if you are venturing north of the Daintree or up into Cape York.

The journey

After settling on Toyota Camry from Budget at Cairns Airport we began our trip north to Port Douglas on the Captain Cook Highway. This 68 kilometre stretch of road must be one of the most scenic drives in Australia, winding its way through Cairns’ beautiful northern beaches, with great vantage points at Rex’s Lookout and Yule Point back down the coast.

A couple of detours kept the whole clan happy – a visit to Hartley’s Creek Crocodile Farm had the kids awestruck at their first sight of massive saltwater crocs; while I was relished a coffee break at Palm Cove, an exclusive resort destination 25 minutes from Cairns.

Port Douglas is a great place to base yourself if you are exploring the north, with plenty of accommodation and a great central location. Stylish and sophisticated, Port Douglas glistens like a modern oasis, its al fresco restaurants and cafes beckoning travellers to stay and linger.

A rainforest to remember

But we had World Heritage listed rainforest on our mind, and once we’d settled into our accommodation, we hit the road again for the Daintree National Park.

Believed to be the oldest rainforest in the world at around 135 million years old, there are plenty of ways to explore this diverse and beautiful eco-system. A one-hour river cruise on the Daintree River is the perfect introduction and a safe way of seeing crocs up close; take a self-guided walk with interpretive signage providing a feast of information; or visit the Daintree Discovery Centre for an overview of the region.

Adventure lovers can ride a horse on the beach at Cape Tribulation, or dive off the coast where the Barrier Reef meets the rainforest clad hills. But arguably the best way to see the rainforest is on a zipline tour – the new Jungle Surfing Canopy Tours will have you literally flying through the trees, an unbeatable natural high!


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Driving Holidays – South Coast (NSW)

By Australia / New South Wales /

As a kid, I used to make frequent trips down the South Coast of NSW with my friend’s family. Two things are etched into my mind: the lame jokes of my friend’s father about cows with two legs shorter than the others (from standing on steep hills) and the horror of car sickness.

The old coast road from the southern suburbs of Sydney to Wollongong was a spectacular roller coaster, never failing to reduce my Maccas happy meal to a not-so-happy pile of goo on the side of the road. But it was all part of the holiday fun, the rising tide of nausea signalling the start of a great weekend away.

A “Grand” new drive

And so it was with this happy memory that I picked up my DriveNow Britz camper and headed south through the Royal National Park to Stanwell Tops, and the start of the new Grand Pacific Drive. This 140km coastal route has cut out many of the bends and hazards of the old road (no more “beware falling rocks” signs) while retaining the spectacular vistas of the Wollongong escarpment and the shimmering Pacific Ocean, making it one of the most enjoyable and scenic drives in Australia.

Emerging from the Royal National Park – the second oldest national park in the world – you hit Bald Hill, where hang-gliders hover like colourful eagles and the views stretch forever. The road then winds down to the new 665m Sea Cliff Bridge, an engineering wonder that swerves away from the precarious cliffs and hovers over the breakers.

Wollongong – the region’s big smoke

From here, the road meanders through the quaint coastal villages of Austinmer and Thirroul, ideal stops for a quick dip, a scour through the antique galleries or a cup of coffee before hitting the big smoke of Wollongong.

Our destination, however, was further south – Kiama, home of the famous Blowhole. The fabulous views, gorgeous beaches and lovely walks are just as beautiful as I remember, though the town is far more sophisticated these days with a stack of hotels, restaurants and art galleries adding to its appeal as a day trip for Sydneysiders.

Another attraction that has retained its charm is Jamberoo fun park. What started as a regional curiosity has, over the years, become a world-class theme park, with fantastic water slides, wave pools and the new high thrill Taipan ride drawing in the crowds.

Action-packed, adrenaline pumping fun – and all an easy drive from Sydney!


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Driving holidays – Lower Hunter Valley (NSW)

By Australia / New South Wales /

I have a dream of owning my own rural patch of heaven, 30-odd acres of paddocks and bushland where I can keep horses, run a few chooks and write the great Australian novel. And I know exactly where this Tree Change will take place – Wollombi.

This quaint little hamlet 140 kilometres north of Sydney in the Lower Hunter Valley is my secret weekend getaway. There’s nothing I love more than picking up a camper and heading up the F3 freeway, relaxation beckoning with every passing kilometre.

I’m not sure if it’s a psychological thing, but as soon as I turn off at the Calga exit at Peats Ridge, I visibly relax, drawing a deep breath and filling my lungs with the pure mountain air. It’s then a leisurely hour or so through picturesque countryside, lush horse studs and hobby farms flanked by dense eucalypt forest on rolling hillsides.

Wollombi rolls into sight like something from a Tom Roberts oil painting, a genteel slice of colonial history. Its main street is scattered with heritage-listed buildings, honeysuckle-strewn verandas sheltering antique galleries and coffee shops. St Michael’s church, built in 1840, is one of the oldest Catholic churches in Australia. Even the General Store has an irresistible olde worlde air.

The focal point of the town, however, is its pub. It’s impossible to miss – just look for the line of Harley Davidsons out the front! The Wollombi Tavern is the place for motorcycle enthusiasts to gather on the weekend, joining families and other daytrippers having a taste of Dr Jurd’s Jungle Juice.

The ingredients for this world-famous brew have been a closely guarded secret since its creation in the 1960s – but whatever is in this sweet liquor certainly keeps the punters coming back for more. Families, bikies and country folk wearing RM Williams all mix and mingle on the veranda of the Wollombi pub, the quintessential Aussie Sunday experience.

If you can drag yourself away from this oasis, there’s plenty more to see in the region – national parks, boutique wineries, craft and art galleries. Take a weekend to explore this hidden treasure and it’s guaranteed you’ll be back for more … or you will be planning your retirement here like I am!