The coastal drive between Brisbane and Cairns is one of the most popular in Australia. The combination of lovely beaches, beautiful islands, national parks, Australian history, Australian wildlife, the Great Barrier Reef and gourmet food experiences make the drive an attractive option for many visitors.
Interestingly most of the best places to visit are within a short distance of the main route so to make the most of the trip you need to be prepared to go on regular side trips. All options described in this article are accessible by 2WD vehicles such as cars and vans.
This article provides a detailed overview of the main Bruce Highway route and side trip options between Rockhampton and Bowen. Future articles will cover the remainder of the route north to Cairns.
Bruce Highway Route Overview
The major route between Rockhampton and Bowen is the Bruce Highway which can be travelled in as little as 5:37 hrs over the 519 km, 323 mi distance.
The Bruce Highway consists of mostly single carriageway roads with regular overtaking lanes and where you have to slow down to travel through towns.
The Bruce Highway is well serviced by government funded roadside stops which contain toilet facilities, picnic tables and some also have fenced playgrounds for young children. The stops are well signposted so you can plan your drive.
During peak times (school holidays and major public holidays) the Driver Reviver program also operates, which encourages drivers to take regular rest stops as they drive long distance. The Driver Reviver program offers a free cup or tea or coffee for a small donation.
There are always sections of roadworks occurring somewhere along the Bruce Highway so be prepared for periodic delays.
View larger map
When to Visit & Dangers
The Bruce Highway is accessible all year round. Spring, Summer and Autumn are the best time of year to swim at the beaches from a water temperature perspective.
In Summer (December to February) temperatures are regularly in the 30 – 40 degrees C (86 – 104 degrees F) range, so ensure you carry extra water and food in your car in the event of any traffic delays.
A traffic delay can sometimes cause you to wait for hours, particularly during school holiday periods. Where possible avoid travelling on the Bruce Highway at the beginning and the end of the Queensland school holidays and long weekends.
Cyclones or Hurricanes
The entire Queensland coastline can be affected by cyclones (or hurricanes or typhoons) between November and April.
From November to June is the lethal stinger season in North Queensland when both box jellyfish (very large) and Irukandji jellyfish (very tiny) can be found along beaches, in river inlets and offshore. During November to June you should not swim in unprotected or unpatrolled beaches or river mouths. Recently (Jan 2013) two people were stung by irukandji jellyfish in two separate incidents near Fraser Island, well south of the usual known danger areas.
People are recommended to only swim at patrolled beaches inside a stinger net (note that irukandji jellyfish can get through a stinger net, so ensure that area has been cleared for use prior to swimming). More information is available from the Queensland Government Fact Sheet.
North Queensland is the home for both freshwater and saltwater crocodiles which can attack and kill humans and animals.
From the Gladstone region through to Cairns you should not swim in rivers, swamps or lakes unless you have been advised by a reputable source that the water is crocodile free (just because you cannot see them does not mean they are not there). Sometimes crocodiles can also be found on beaches and around offshore islands.
Do not assume that there will be signs warning of danger. Both types of crocodile can live hundreds of kilometres inland from the coast. The Department of Environment and Heritage Protection – Be Crocwise website has more information to help you to stay safe.
I have also found an article which aggregates the information about both non-fatal and fatal crocodile attacks in Australia since 2002. Don’t let it be you…
Exploring the Rockhampton Area
Rockhampton is the beef capital of Australia with many cattle stations in the local area. Rockhampton sits on the Tropic of Capricorn, so from Rockhampton and to the north is in Australia’s tropical zone. Mt Archer provides a spectacular backdrop to the Rockhampton township, and the Mt Archer National Park is easily accessible to observe the expansive view.
The following link contains the best Rockhampton Area Map. Information about the local National Park options around Rockhampton is available in the Rockhampton and Capricorn Coast Parks and Forests Guide.
Side Trip Option – Yeppoon
From Rockhampton a worthwhile side trip to the east (36 km, 22 mi, 0:30 hrs each way) is to visit Yeppoon. From Yeppoon the 18 Southern Barrier Reef islands of both Great Keppel Island and the Keppel Bay Islands National Park are easily accessible by boat.
Side Trip Option – Thunderstones, Gold Mine and Dinosaur Fossils
From Rockhampton a worthwhile side trip loop to the west is to visit Mt Hay, Dululu and the Mount Morgan Gold Mine. The total trip is 168km, 104 mi, 2:19 hrs.
The road continues via the tiny town of Dululu and loops back to the township of Mount Morgan to see the old gold mine workings and other local historical attractions. The now defunct Mount Morgan Gold Mine is accessible twice daily via TMC Tours, which must be pre-booked. During the tour you can visit Michael Durant’s World of Fossils displays, which includes dinosaur footprint casts and fossils found on the site.
View larger map
Bruce Highway – Rockhampton to Mackay
The main route using the Bruce Highway is the direct drive from Rockhampton to Mackay, a major sugar town (330km, 205 mi, 3:31 hrs). Ensure you fill your car with fuel before departing Rockhampton as there are not many stopping points along the way.
Barely 0:23 hrs north of Rockhampton and only a short distance off the main route are the Capricorn Caves. The Capricorn Caves are a unique cave system situated above ground level in a limestone ridge with easy access for visitors. Regular tours are available most days.
You will also pass through the town of Marlborough, but apart from that there is little for a tourist to stop and visit along the way.
View larger map
Exploring the Mackay Area
Mackay is in a sugar cane area, with easy access to tropical rainforests, beaches and islands of the Great Barrier Reef.
The Pioneer Valley Way is a great local exploration option which is a round trip of 161km, 100 mi, 2:12 hrs. Highlight include a tour through the operational Farleigh Sugar Mill (July to November only), visiting the Mirani Museum and see the birthplace of Dame Nellie Melba, going zip lining at Finch Hatton Gorge (or go for some short walks to see the spectacular waterfalls and rainforest), and viewing wild platypus in the rainforest at Eungella National Park.
While there are many Great Barrier Reef islands offshore from Mackay there are no transportation options which are readily accessible by the public.
View larger map
Bruce Highway – Mackay to Proserpine
The main route using the Bruce Highway is the direct drive from Mackay to Proserpine (127km, 79 mi, 1:29 hrs).
A short distance north of Mackay you have the option to take a short side trip to the beachside Cape Hillsborough National Park which will add 29km, 18 mi, 0:45 min to your driving time. The Cape Hillsborough National Park contains many short walks across a diverse ecosystem and the opportunity to explore tidal pools and see kangaroos on the beach.
View larger map
Side Trip Option – Airlie Beach and the Whitsunday Islands
From Proserpine most tourists will take the side trip to visit the township of Airlie Beach, the gateway to the Whitsunday Islands (26km, 16 mi, 0:24 hrs each way). If you are heading north from Airlie Beach there is an option to bypass Proserpine and rejoin the Bruce Highway at Gregory River. You could also take a side trip to Hideaway Bay, which is 55km, 34 mi, 0:54 hrs north of Airlie Beach.
The Whitsunday Islands are a group of 74 islands which are easily accessible by boat from Airlie Beach. Options to explore include chartering a sailing boat (either with or without crew) or purchasing a ticket on a vast array of tour operators. The Whitsunday Islands are so close together that people can easily cruise from one to the next, and choose whether to find a secluded beach or visit islands with gourmet restaurants, nightclubs and other tourist attractions.
The better known islands include Daydream Island, South Molle Island, Hayman Island, Hook Island, Hamilton Island and Lindeman Island. Whitehaven Beach on Whitsunday Island is regularly rated as one of the best beaches in the world and is easily accessible by boat.
View larger map
Bruce Highway – Proserpine to Bowen
The route from Proserpine to Bowen on the Bruce Highway consists of a drive of 68km, 42 mi, 0:48 hrs. Bowen is a beautiful tropic town with easy access to many tropical beaches. Just before you enter the township of Bowen you will be greeted by the sight of the Big Mango – which doubles as the tourist information centre. The popular ‘Kensington Pride’ stringless mango was developed in Bowen in the late 1800s.
Bowen is also well regarded for the series of 24 murals depicting the towns settlement history.
Get Ready for the Awesome Australian Road Trip from Bowen to Cairns!
Awesome Australian 2WD Road Trips: Bowen to Cairns will be published shortly.
Subscribe via Email to ensure you receive future Awesome Australian Road Trip instalments along with other travel articles. You can also follow Pretraveller via Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest and RSS Feeds.
Have you experienced the Brisbane to Cairns road trip? Share your experience in the comments below.
Category: Road Trips