Backpackers Guide to the Great Barrier Reef

Katie Tobias on July 4th, 2018

There are many reasons why Australia’s east coast is one of the most popular backpacking destinations in the world and the Great Barrier Reef is one of them! Stretching a whopping 2600 kilometres in length, the Great Barrier Reef is the largest living organism in the world. To put that into perspective, it is larger than the size of the United Kingdom, Holland and Switzerland combined! This remarkable natural wonder is home to 2,900 individual reefs, 900 islands, over 1,500 species of fish and 10% of the world’s entire fish species just waiting to be discovered.

The east coast of Australia is very backpacker friendly and easy to travel. The backpacking trail extends between Melbourne, Sydney or Brisbane and north to Cape Tribulation. Luckily for you the trail lines the mighty Great Barrier Reef and there are a number of ways to explore this World Heritage Listed beauty!

Getting around

There are two very popular modes of travel when making your way along the east coast. The public buses in Australia, Greyhound and Premier, offer affordable hop on / hop off travel passes that allow you to travel flexibly along the east coast with ease, stopping off at your desired destinations along the way. Hiring a campervan or car is also very affordable and a great way to explore the sights located between the major tourist hot spots. Alternatively, there are a number of packaged tours that include transport, food, accommodation and day trips to the reef.

Cairns and surrounds

Cairns is one of the most popular backpacker destinations to explore the Great Barrier Reef. You can usually find affordable flights to this tourist mecca from most Australian cities and it is usually the starting or end point for most backpackers exploring the east coast. You won’t be short on choice when finding a hostel in Cairns and there is an array of reef tours on offer that range from one day trips to 5 day live aboard packages.

From Cairns, there are many day and overnight tours to the reef that cater to your desires. Most tours offer a range of ‘add ons’ such as guided introductory scuba dives for beginners, certified diving packages, glass bottom boat tours or simply snorkeling. If you are a certified diver or eager to attain a PADI license, we highly recommend an overnight live-aboard experience that will have you sleeping directly upon the Great Barrier Reef. These overnight tours will have you venturing to the outer reef and if you are up for it, scuba diving at night with reef sharks!

Island hopping

If combining an island visit with the reef is on your holiday to do list, venture to Green Island or Fitzroy Island. Day trips to Green Island allow you to explore the reef via Glass Bottom Boat or snorkel hire, before lazing the day away on the island’s white sandy beach. Fitzroy Island is just a short ferry ride away and offers snorkel hire, paddleboards, kayaks, walking trails and an on island bar with the reef at your doorstep. Don’t like the water? There are Helicopter tours that provide a scenic and startling tour of the Great Barrier Reef from above!

North of Cairns

If you are visiting Cairns then a visit to the northern townships of Port Douglas and Cape Tribulation are a must! When arriving in Port Douglas you find a number of backpacker hostels and a range of boat tours to the reef. Avid reef trippers claim that the visibility and untouched coral cays reachable from Port Douglas are much more rewarding than the rest of the east coast. Venturing north of Port Douglas, you will find yourself immersed in the world’s oldest rainforest that sits upon the shores of the Great Barrier Reef. Cape Tribulation is around 2 hours north of Cairns and is reachable by car, campervan or a packaged tour. There are a number of kayaking and speed rafting tours on offer that allow you to snorkel and discover the northern parts of the outer Great Barrier Reef.

South of Cairns

Travelling south of Cairns, don’t forget to make a stopover at Magnetic Island. The island sits within the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park and is reachable by ferry from Townsville. There are a small number of hostels on the island, all of which offer beach front accommodation with the reef at your doorstep. The island is one of the cheapest places in Australia to attain your PADI Open Water certificate and most of the hostels offer snorkel hire along with their accommodation. Don’t forget to plan your visit around the monthly Magnetic Island Full Moon Party!

SS Yongala shipwreck

If you are an experienced and certified diver then you may have heard of the SS Yongala. This shipwreck boasts some of the most pristine and one of a kind reef experiences in Australia! Day tours depart from the town of Ayr, just south of Townsville, and will have you spotting for Sea Turtles and Mantarays as you explore the historical shipwreck.

Airlie Beach

Further south you will soon find yourself in the bustling coastal town of Airlie Beach. Airlie Beach is the gateway to the Whitsunday Islands and offers plentiful backpacker hostels and reef experiences. The 74 stunning islands of the Whitsundays are nestled upon the Great Barrier Reef and all tours offer snorkeling of the reef as a part of their package. Some of the overnight sailing tours offer both introductory and certified scuba dives and there is also a pontoon that sits upon the reef in which day tours are available. Alternatively, venture to the stunning Hamilton Island for an overnight island stay and enjoy the resort’s free snorkel hire. If taking in the reef from above is on your bucket list, there are also scenic plane, helicopter and skydive tours on offer that will blow your mind… don’t forget to look out for the infamous Heart Reef! Oh and we can’t forget the stunning Whitsunday Great Walk. The walk to the summit will reward you with that perfect holiday snap of the surrounding reef and islands!

1770 and Agnes Water

South of Airlie Beach you will find yourself in the popular ‘stop over’ destination of Seventeen Seventy and Agnes Waters. It is here that the surf coast meets the Great Barrier Reef and the historical site in which Captain James Cooke first laid foot on mainland Australia. From here you can organise a day tour to Lady Musgrave Island or Middle Island, both of which offer stunning reef sites and beach front coral cays. The perfect destination to relax and unwind before venturing to the awe inspiring and bucket list worthy Fraser Island!

If you need more insider information on how to plan your backpaking adventure along the Great Barrier Reef, give us a call 1300 231 118.

Katie Tobias

Katie Tobias

Katie Tobias is an accomplished freelance travel blogger and copywriter. A social media guru, with over 10 years of experience in the Tourism and Hospitality industries. Katie's lust for travel, love for researching and knack for all things digital make for an informative and entertaining read!

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