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Backpacker's guide to the east coast

The ultimate backpacker bucket list: 14 of the best experiences between Melbourne and Cairns and beyond.

By Lee Atkinson

Wildlife, world-famous road trips, wonderful beaches, island getaways and fabulous nightlife – there's so much to see and do on the east coast of Australia that it can be hard to know where to start. We've put together the ultimate backpacker's bucket list of things to do between Melbourne and Cairns. Don’t go home without ticking off as many as you can.

Video guide: Backpacker's guide to the east coast

Tour the Great Ocean Road

12 Apostles, Great Ocean Road, Victoria

It's one of the best seaside road trips in the world and it starts just west of Melbourne. Famous for the 12 Apostles rock formations, the Great Ocean Road boasts one view after another, as well as glorious beaches and lush rainforests. Hire a car and hit the road with a bunch of friends or join a tour, starting from AUD$99. 

See the penguin parade on Phillip Island

Phillip Island, Victoria

Grab a front row seat at one of the world's best wildlife shows, on Phillip Island. Every night hundreds of little penguins come out of the sea and waddle up the hill to their burrows in a melt-your-heart parade. Tickets start at AUD$25, or join a full day tour from Melbourne from AUD$114. 

Walk the koala trail on Raymond Island

Koala Trail, Raymond Island, Gippsland, Victoria

Raymond Island, a free, five minute ferry ride from the town of Paynesville in Victoria's Gippsland Lakes, is home to one of the largest koala colonies in Victoria; about 300 koalas live in the treetops on the tiny island. Follow the marked koala trail for close-up encounters with one of the Australia's cutest critters.

Climb the Sydney Harbour Bridge

Sydney Harbour Bridge, Sydney, New South Wales

Climbing the Sydney Harbour Bridge with BridgeClimb is a once-in-a-lifetime thrill, and worth the AUD$248 splurge. If BridgeClimb is fully booked, however (it's a highly sought after experience; book ahead) you can also climb to the top of one of the bridge's sandstone pillars, the Pylon Lookout for AUD$13, catch the F3 ferry which passes under the bridge from Circular Quay to Cockatoo Island (AUD$12 return), or do what many Sydneysiders do each day, and simply walk across the bridge for free.

Stroll the Bondi clifftops

Bronte coastal walk, Sydney, New South Wales

Soak up the views on Sydney's celebrated clifftop walk between Bronte and Bondi then cool off with a swim in Bondi's most famous pool, Icebergs. It's easily one of Sydney's most Instagrammed sights, and a bargain at just AUD$6.50 for all day entry. 

Hike the wilderness

Blue Mountains Lookout, Blue Mountains, New South Wales

Lace up your walking shoes and catch the train from Sydney's Central Station to the pretty town of Katoomba (AUD$12 return) in the Blue Mountains, approximately three hours away. Spend the day walking one of the many wilderness trails in the World Heritage Blue Mountains National Park. 

Kayak with dolphins in Byron Bay

Byron Bay, New South Wales

Making eye contact with a wild dolphin at sea level is a wildlife encounter you'll never forget. It's even better when it's in the beautiful waters of Byron Bay on the New South Wales North Coast. Kayaking with dolphin tours start at about AUD$69.  

Party on the Gold Coast

Surfers Paradise, Gold Coast, Queensland

Nowhere knows how to party like Queensland's glittering Gold Coast. Glam up and join the Gold Coast Backpackers Big Night Out. It's on every Wednesday and Saturday night, and costs AUD$30 including party bus, free drinks and VIP entry into four clubs. 

Explore Fraser Island

Lake Mackenzie, Fraser Island, Fraser Coast, Queensland

Swim in clear lakes and float down a rainforest stream. Climb sand dunes, see a rusting shipwreck and drive the beach highway. All on the world's largest sand island. Cool Dingo Tours include everything (transport, food, accommodation and activities) and start at AUD$360 for a two day trip. 

Learn to surf in 1770

1770, Gladstone region, Queensland

The AUD$17 learn to surf lessons at the beach town of 1770 are the cheapest in Australia. This chilled out coastal village is the furthest north you can surf before the Great Barrier Reef blocks waves from reaching the coastline. 

Sail the Whitsundays

Whitsunday Islands, Great Barrier Reef, Queensland

Sail into the sunset in the beautiful Whitsunday Islands, off the Queensland coast near Airlie Beach. On Whitsunday Island, you'll walk on some of the world's whitest sand on the dazzling Whitehaven Beach. Sailing trips start at about AUD$100. 

Full moon party on Magnetic Island

Magnetic Island, Great Barrier Reef, Queensland

Dance the night away at the ultimate beach party on Magnetic Island, a quick ferry ride from Townsville. Full Moon Party and two night accommodation packages start at AUD$149. 

Find Nemo on the Great Barrier Reef

Great Barrier Reef, Cairns, Queensland

Cairns is the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef. There are loads of dive and snorkelling trips out to the reef, even for first-time divers. Shop around and you can pick up a tour for less than AUD$100. Or join an overnight trip and sleep out on the reef.

Spend a night in the rainforest

Mossman, Daintree Rainforest, Cairns region, Great Barrier Reef, Queensland

North of Cairns, the World Heritage Daintree is the oldest living rainforest in the world, and the closest thing you'll ever see to a real life Jurassic Park. Spend a couple of nights in one of the friendly hostels at Cape Tribulation, where the rainforest meets the beach, and you'll hear the sounds of the rainforest even as you drift off to sleep. Most hostels also offer forest tours after dark, from AUD$35.  

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