Driving the Legendary Pacific Coast (day 5): Burleigh Hill, Fingal Head & Byron Bay

With every day of our road trip proving better than the last (despite every day also feeling like it can’t get any better), Diana and I set out this morning with high expectations. We’ve got a fair bit of ground to cover as we drive from the Gold Coast all the way to Port Macquarie, but our real priority is squeezing in a few scenic stops, a kayaking tour, and lunch at our favourite café in Byron Bay along the way.

Early morning light at Burleigh Hill

Burleigh Hill

Rolling away from our hotel in Runaway Bay around 6am, we reach Burleigh Hill (in Burleigh Heads, just south of the Gold Coast) not long after sunrise. I read about this beautiful beach, sweeping lookout, and a few nearby coastal walking trails on another travel blog, and instantly knew we’d need to make a stop. Still, the early morning scene is better than I could have imagined: dozens of eager surfers dot the waves right in front of the hill, riding through perfectly-formed barrels and cruising gracefully back towards the shore; enormous piles of black volcanic rocks frame the beach, contrasting perfectly with the light sand and blindingly white seafoam; the Gold Coast skyline rises up in the distance; and everything is bathed in a golden, early-morning light that lends the landscape an additional air of magic.

After running around on the rocks for a hundred photos and delighting in another great road trip stop, we head over to a map of the park to suss out our next move. We had originally planned to take the 1km Oceanview Walk over to Tallebudgera Creek and back, but that quickly proves impossible, as the pathway is closed not 100m from our starting point due to rockslides. Only somewhat discouraged, we drive around to the other side of the walk in the hopes of getting our creek views, but walking 15min along the path, we run into the same track closure before we ever reach the lookout we’re after, and have to settle for the (still lovely) Tally Creek from ground level.

Amazing basalt columns at Fingal Head
Enjoying the view from Fingal Head

Fingal Head

Continuing south a further 30min, our next stop of the morning is Fingal Head, recommended to us a few days previously by a Sunny Coast local who took our photo as we balanced atop the white pillar at Look At Me Now Headland. Going through plans last night and mapping out our drive for the day, we quite nearly cut Fingal Head right off the itinerary—it was an obvious choice, given that we knew nothing about it and had only gotten a passing recommendation from a stranger—but a quick google search convinced me immediately that this was not “just another headland”.

Arriving to an empty carpark, we walk along a relatively short path to reach Fingal Head, whose entire cliffside below the little lighthouse is dominated by thick basalt columns, a remnant of local volcanic activity some 23 million years ago. We are stunned speechless by the landscape, so unlike anything I was expecting (even though I googled it) and unlike anything I’ve ever seen in Australia before. Closer to the edge, the interlocking columns descend into the ocean, where the brilliantly blue water whips into a white foam over the eerily symmetrical (yet suitably wild) black rocks. I hop all the way down to the water on the perfect hexagons, taking in the otherworldly landscape from every possible angle and feeling a swelling sense of amazement with every step. To say we are impressed is a ridiculous understatement.

Having visited Ireland and the Giant’s Causeway this July, I was amazed to discover that Australia has its own collection of hexagonal basalt columns rising out of the sea, forming a causeway only slightly smaller than its exponentially more famous counterpart. What really sets Fingal Head apart from the Giant’s Causeway, though, is the complete and utter lack of tourists. Rather than cropping a dozen people out of your photo or queuing to stand on a particular rock, this incredible natural wonder appears to be well under the radar, so much so that we actually wait 40 minutes for a single person to come along and take a photo of me and Diana together.

If you read my blog regularly (or know me well), you may recall that my dad is a geologist and that I often get him to write quick explanations to include in my posts of how a particular mountain was formed or how a cliffside has eroded. As much as I may have rolled my eyes as a teenager, I’ve come to really appreciate the history and science behind all of these incredible natural wonders, and now I routinely call on dad to make sense of it, both for me and for my readers. In my opinion, basalt columns are one of the most fascinating geological phenomena of all time, so I’ll share again what dad wrote for my post on the Giant’s Causeway:

“Hexagonal basalt columns are formed when molten lava cools and shrinks slightly. As adjacent portions of the lava shrink, it cracks into individual columns. Because the cooling stresses act in a radial fashion, there is a tendency for the columns to be circular. However, you cannot form an interlocking pattern with circles; only identical (same size and shape) triangles, squares, and hexagons will form a perfect interlocking pattern (think of all the bathroom tile you’ve seen). Of these three geometric shapes, hexagons most closely resemble circles. Therefore, the basalt columns are nearly always hexagonal.

Another feature of basalt columns is that the size of the columns is commensurate with the rate of cooling; large columns are the result of slow cooling, and small columns are the result of rapid cooling. The relatively small columns seen at Giant’s Causeway [as well as Fingal Head] indicate that the lava cooled very rapidly.  In other locations, where cooling was very slow, it is not unusual to see basalt columns that are 10 to 20 feet in diameter.”

— my father (seasoned geologist, mountain man & all-round rock lover)

Byron Bay

After losing track of time at Fingal Head (and still feeling like I could have spent another two hours just soaking all the magic in), we hastily get back into the car for the one hour drive to Byron Bay. Both Diana and I have spent time here before; in fact, this is probably my fifth visit to what has become northern NSW’s best-loved hippie/health hot spot. Overflowing with gourmet cafes, trendy boutiques, and an assortment of beautiful beaches, it’s unsurprising that tourists flock here in huge numbers. Surprising or not, though, I hate battling the backpacker crowds, so it’s a relief to find the town considerably sleepier and more relaxed than it is in summer, just another reason we are feeling lucky to be making this drive in September.

We’re booked onto a kayaking tour this morning with Go Sea Kayak that departs at 9.30am, but after we’ve found free parking a few blocks away, changed into our swimmers, and jogged over to the departure point, we are the last ones getting into our wetsuits, sneaking in just in time for the safety briefing. Despite the fact that I’ve kayaked quite a bit, both in lakes and the ocean, I’m a bit apprehensive about making it through the waves on the beach, but we sail smoothly through and ride the current out towards Wategos Beach. We are fortunate to have a relatively small group this morning, as well as a pair of extremely zen guides who know a lot about the local marine life, so I’m hopeful that the same luck will bring plenty of dolphins, whales, and turtles our way.

The company actually has a come-back-for-free policy if you don’t spot any aquatic life, and just as I’m wondering when I’d be able to come back, we catch sight of a large pod of dolphins surfing on waves in the distance. There’s plenty of hooting and shrieking in the group, particularly as the dolphins swim closer and closer until they are practically next to us, and even though Diana and I saw dolphins yesterday at Amity Point, we are probably responsible for 90% of the noise.

The 2.5hrs immediately following the first dolphin sighting is a blur of animals, most notably the half a dozen or so humpback whales that visit us throughout the morning, sometimes getting close enough that I could reach out my paddle and touch them (although I obviously do not..). I saw heaps of humpbacks on a whale watching cruise out of Sydney Harbour a few months ago, spotting the pods travelling north to breed and mate in the warm waters off Queensland during the winter. Now, we are seeing those same whales make the long return journey back to Antarctica, many with little whale calves in tow, and it truly feels as if we’ve come full circle with the whales (plus or minus the 10,000km of swimming they’ve had to do).

The video above hardly does the day justice (the fisheye lens makes everything look farther away, but I swear those whales were practically in our kayak). All the screaming in the background of the video, however, is a very accurate representation of the excitement levels both Diana and I are experiencing out on the water as we spot more than a dozen dolphins, 8 humpback whales, and 3 enormous loggerhead turtles. By the time we cruise back into shore (thankfully avoiding a flip in the waves, although other boats aren’t so lucky), I can’t even believe that there was ever a moment I thought I might get to come back for free because we saw no animals. Perhaps we are enjoying a long streak of good luck or perhaps Byron Bay is the place to be for wildlife, but either way, we have our cheek-splitting smiles back on.

Surf’s up in Byron Bay

Fisherman’s Lookout

After our incredible morning in the water and brunch at Bay Leaf, the plan is to stroll along the Cape Byron Walking Track all the way to the lighthouse for even more impressive scenery. Both Diana and I have done this walk in the past, but it was cloudy during my last visit, so I’m really hoping to enjoy clear skies and sunny weather alongside the coastal views. Nature, of course, has other plans, so we only make it as far as the Fisherman’s Lookout on Clarkes Beach before an enormous cloud rolls in and we have to call it an afternoon. Still, we are ecstatic about all the experiences we’ve had today and there’s absolutely nothing that could detract from this feeling of pure joy. It’s 3pm by the time we leave Byron behind, cruising onwards to Port Mac, and the entire 4.5hr drive flies by in a blur of happiness.

Read more about our Legendary Pacific Coast road trip: