I’m assuming it’s not every day that you drive up and down the Bruce Highway between Townsville and Brisbane.
I mean, I hadn’t planned on doing the drive myself. However, a couple of things didn’t quite go as planned and instead of flying to and from Townsville, I had to drive.
Fortunately for you, the trip has given me an opportunity to put together another travel tip blog post, so I can give you my unique insight on another one of Australia’s big road trips.
Now, I should probably forewarn you… The 1300km journey along the Bruce Highway between Townsville and Brisbane is going to take you at least two really long days (11 and 13 hours in the car) with an overnight stop on Rockhampton.
Realistically though, if you’re planning on doing this trip, give yourself a bit of extra time to see some if not all of the places I recommend in this post. At the very least, three days will help your sanity and let you enjoy the trip a bit more.
I should also point out that there is an alternative inland route, but it offers much less to see and do. At some stage, I’ll detail my drive from Sydney to Townsville, via the inland route.
Roughly two and half hours drive south of Townsville, along the Bruce Highway, is the town of Bowen and an ideal spot for your first major stop on the trip.
Bowen is known for one of the “Big Things” that are famous around Australia being home to the Big Mango. It’s also the top end of the Whitsundays and halfway between Townsville and Mackay.
Pro tip: There are actually two Big Mangoes in Bowen. The first one, and the one that the town is known for that is located at the visitors center, while there is a slightly smaller one by the waterfront at the foreshore precinct, that was donated to the town by restaurant chain Nando’s after a publicity stunt.
If you are taking a really casual approach to the trip, then stop in at the magnificent beaches in and around Bowen. The stunning Horseshoe Bay being the most iconic beach that Bowen has to offer.
Airlie Beach, Queensland
If you are looking to explore more of the Whitsundays, then the detour off the Bruce Highway to Airlie Beach is definitely going to be worth your while.
Airlie Beach is an extremely popular tourist and backpacker destination, on the mainland but right next to Hamilton Island and the Whitsundays. It’s certainly a destination all on its own and well worth spending more than the hour that I spent exploring the town. The town itself is well set up to cater to tourist and it’s also a good place to base yourself and take in the scenery of this part of the country has to offer.
Honestly, I would suggest making this one at least an overnight stay if not a couple of day stopover. Take the opportunity to take a boat tour out to one of the islands and explore the world-famous Great Barrier Reef and Whitehaven Beach. That’s certianly what I’ll do the next time I find myself in this part of Queensland.
Two hours south of Bowen (a bit longer if you stop in at Airlie Beach) is the next major town, Mackay. Making it an ideal spot to stop.
Right in the center of sugar cane country, in fact, its know as the “sugar capital” of Australia, the historic town of Mackay with its art-deco inspired architecture is a great place to stop.
Mackay is also known for its stunning landscapes. Not only is it another town base yourself if you’d like to explore the Great Barrier Reef. The area around Mackay has its own natural wonders from the beaches of Cape Hillsborough National Park, where you can often spot a kangaroo or wallaby, to the waterfalls of Finch Hatton Gorge.
It’s also worth noting that Mackay the last big town before Rockhampton another 350km’s or so down the Bruce Highway. So it’s a really good place to refuel yourself and your car and get ready for a long stint in the car. There are some big distances between some of the smaller towns on this section of the Bruce Highway, and not all of them have all of the facilities that you might expect.
Rockhampton is where I chose to stop overnight on my trip, mostly because it’s halfway between Townsville and Brisbane.
The city of Rockhampton in Central Queensland is one of the oldest cities in Queensland and in Northern Australia, formed during the gold rush, making it an interesting place to stop on the road trip along the Bruce Highway between Townsville and Brisbane.
The city itself has a number of historic Victorian-style buildings dating back to its colonial past on the banks of the Fitzroy River (the second largest river system in Australia). One of those buildings being the Archer Park Rail Museum which was once Rockhampton’s main train station on the line that linked the major Queensland cities and towns.
If you’re planning on spending a little more time in the area, then I’d also recommend visiting Capricorn Caves for something else unique. Alternatively, if you haven’t already explored the Great Barrier Reef, Rockhampton is another great place to base yourself to explore the Keppel Islands.
Also, should you choose Rockhampton as your overnight stopover on the trip, then I’d recommend a hotel not too close to the Bruce Highway. Truck use the road at all hours, so it can be quite noisy.
My recommendations for places to stay in Rockhampton:
- Travelodge Hotel Rockhampton – Ideal for a nice middle of the range hotel.
- Heritage Hotel Rockhampton – If you would like to embrace the history of Rockhampton
- Fitzroy Motor Inn – For more of a quick overnight stopover if you are planning on getting back on the road as quickly as possible.
About an hour and a half drive south from Rockhampton is Gladstone. This is another one of those towns that you are going to have to make a detour off the Bruce Highway to visit, but well worth it to break up the trip as there very few big towns over the next couple of hours of the drive (Maryborough is the next major stop on the Bruce Highway four and half hours drive from Rockhampton).
Gladstone pretty much marks the southern end of the Great Barrier Reef and is another great place to base yourself if you would like to explore some of the many islands that make the region, particularly Heron Island and Lady Musgrave Island.
As for the city itself, it’s another historic town, this time known for its shipping port (one of the largest and most diverse in Australia) and features some amazing heritage-listed buildings as well as some stunning beaches and amazing lookouts. Making it a good spot to stop refuel yourself and your car and get ready for another couple of hours in the car.
Another one that’s a bit of a detour off the Bruce Highway, but another great place to stop and break up the drive is Bundaberg, about 2 and half hours south of Gladstone.
Probably best known for its Rum distillery, the area also offers plenty of other things to see and do. I’d also recommend Mons Repos Beach if you are planning on stopping in Bundaberg overnight to see the Sea Turtles. From November to January they can be seen laying their eggs, while January to March you can see the hatchlings make their way out to sea for the first time.
Something else unique to Bundaberg is the Mystery Craters, for something a bit different.
Again, this section of the Bruce Highway doesn’t have a lot in the way of major towns so if you are looking to break up the trip, these detours are well worth it. However, if you do happen to be in a hurry you could stay on the highway straight from Rockhampton through to Maryborough and save yourself at least an hour in driving time.
Now if you did stop at Bundaberg, then I would skip Maryborough and drive the two hours and a half straight through to Gympie.
Gympie is a return to civilisation of sorts, as this is where the Bruce Highway switches from just a multilane road to a proper motorway. It’s also the northern end of the popular Sunshine Coast region of Queensland.
Another gold mining heritage town with some more historic and heritage-listed buildings to discover. Gympie is another good spot to stop, take in some history and refresh before really getting into the drive down to Brisbane.
Sunshine Coast, Queensland
The funny thing about the Bruce Highway is it goes from very sparsely populated small regional towns to a whole lot of things to see and do a very short section of the trip.
While you could drive the two hours from Gympie to Brisbane without stopping again. Should you be getting sick of being in the car (and at this point of the long trip no one would blame you either), there are plenty of places to stop and break up this final section of the drive.
If you’d like to tick off another one of the “Big things around Australia”, then the Big Pineapple is a short detour off the highway at Woombye. Much like the Big Banana in Coffs Harbour, this once Pineapple plantation has been redeveloped to be a tourist destination in its own right with train, zoo and a treetop adventure park to really keep you entertained.
If you’d like to stay on the Highway then just down the road (no more than another 10 minutes drive) is the small theme park Aussie World and the former “Ettamogah Pub”, which is still open but its just run under a different name now. Aussie World is probably better for your kids, while the pub is probably better for you. However, my personal recommendation is to drop into Beefy’s Pies (in the same complex) if you are looking for something to eat.
From this point on its a very cruisy drive (a little over an hour) down the motorway to Brisbane.
Planning on continuing your drive down to Sydney? Make sure you check out my blog post about the trip down the Pacific Highway as well.
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