This trio of trekkers took on 125km of NSW coastline as they hiked from Coffs Harbour to Yamba, with a few surprises along the way.
Solitary Islands and Yuraygir Coastal Walks Combined
I was looking for a multi-day hike. But an easy one. One with sunshine and beaches and maybe some cafes along the way. And not too much planning or complicated logistics.
The hike from Sawtell to Yamba on the NSW North Coast seemed like it’d do nicely. The hike combines the 60km Solitary Islands coastal walk (Sawtell to Red Rock) and the 65km Yuraygir coastal walk (Red Rock to Yamba).
The track follows the coast, with the majority of walking being on the beach, a bit of easy rock scrambling, and a few sections of bush track. Beach walking means attention needs to be paid to the tides, as low tide means you have hard sand to walk on.
I set off with my partner Peter, a quantum physicist, and his friend and former PhD student Keith.
We walked from south to north, but most people tend to hike in the opposite direction. Heading north to south gives you a little less sun in your eyes in the mornings. There are also larger towns and more shops towards the south end of the hike, which comes in handy if you run short of food (like we did).
There are plenty of campsites and opportunities for wild camping along the way, though you should check which areas allow this. Many of the official campsites have water, but in some cases it’s untreated rainwater. So either be prepared to sterilise it, or take your chances (like we did).
Day 1: Coffs Harbour to Moonee Beach Nature Reserve
Peter and I met Keith in Coffs Harbour, a few km north of Sawtell, and decided to start from there. This stretch was through quite populated areas, so there was a little bit of road walking, with stretches of beach and views out to South Solitary Island.
Early-afternoon we came to a crossing where Moonee Creek met the ocean. At low tide it would barely have covered our ankles, but it was high tide, so we stripped down to our underwear, held our packs over our heads, and waded through waist-deep water.
With the tide high, walking along the soft sand got slower and slower, so we found a campsite in the dunes and set up for the night. From our campsite we saw the splashes of whales breaching far out to sea, and watched a pod of dolphins playing in the waves.
Day 2: Moonee Beach Nature Reserve to Red Rock Beach
We made breakfast and coffee as the sun rose over the ocean. Then with the campsite packed, we got an early start to make the most of the cool morning temperatures and low tide. Even in late June, daytime temperatures reached low or mid-20s.
As South Solitary Island faded into the distance behind us, North Solitary Island emerged into view.
We passed Woolgoolga, and as we came closer to Corindi (a short detour inland) I realised this might be our last opportunity for a pub meal on the hike. Even though it was only day two we decided we’d earned a treat.
Chatting to a local at the pub about our trip, he asked, ‘Have you arranged your river crossings?’
‘Our what?’ I asked.
Apparently we had at least three crossings coming up in the next few days. All a lot more significant than yesterday’s wade. We decided we’d cross that (complete lack of) bridge when we came to it.
After large steaks, cleansing ales and unnecessary desserts, we staggered out into the dark to find our next campsite.
Day 3: Red Rock to Wooli
This was one of the most spectacular sections of the hike. The day began with a cool morning walking on the beach at low tide as the sun rose. We took off our shoes and walked barefoot on these long stretches.
We arrived at the tiny township of Red Rock around 9am. This was officially the end of the Solitary Islands coastal walk, and the beginning of the Yuraygir coastal walk, which passes through the Gumbaynggirr and Yaegl Nations, and follows the ancient wandering trails of Australia’s coastal emus.
Red Rock was also our first real river crossing. We met some other hikers who intended to wade across at the boat ramp. We waited to see how they fared before deciding whether to follow them, or pay some kids with a small boat to ferry us across.
As we waited a local fisherman offered to row us across. We gratefully accepted and he took us to the wide sand flats on the other side – we didn’t even get our feet wet!
Our braver friends made it across successfully, with the deepest sections about chest high. They gave us the number for a water taxi for the Wooli crossing, which we’d reach that afternoon.
The beaches became rockier, and as the tide came in we scrambled higher onto the rocks where there were faint tracks that lead the way.
The vegetation became increasingly tropical and we watched birds fly over the ocean and suddenly turn 90° and plummet straight down as they dove for fish.
For a few kilometres before it meets the ocean, the Wooli Wooli River runs parallel to the ocean separated only by a thin strip of land. To cross, the ferry driver took us up the river, with high rock banks on the far side, to the campground just south of the main town.
Day 4: Wooli to Sandon
The day’s hike took us first to Minnie Waters, a gorgeous small beach town. We stopped at the local fish and chip shop for an early lunch. We found a leaflet containing the number for the water taxi for our final crossing, which we hoped to reach that afternoon.
We took the Sandon Back Trail through the forest after Minnie Waters for a change from the beach walking. The trail was still remarkably sandy though, and while we enjoyed the different scenery it was just as hard going as walking on the beach at high tide.
As we approached the Sandon Crossing, we called the water taxi only to find the number was disconnected. I suggested that if we really got stuck, we could inflate our sleeping mats, pile them together as a raft for the packs, and swim across taking one pack at a time.
Peter was dubious about swimming across the mouth of the river, especially near dusk, but to everyone’s relief it turned out not to be necessary.
I approached a group of people fishing and drinking beer on the southern shore to ask if they knew anything about water taxis.
‘That’d be Joe’, laughed one of the men, and volunteered his friend to shuttle us across, one by one, in the tiniest tinny I’d ever seen.
Joe refused any payment and wished us well. We later discovered that a more official taxi service is run from the campground on the other side.
Apparently it’s best to book ahead for campsites, but the owner kindly squeezed us in. As we cooked dinner by the water, a group of young kids came down for the nightly shark spotting session.
A 13-year-old with a tuna head on a rope insisted he was going to catch a bull shark, and waded out to cast his bait into the channel. Other kids crowded around him with torches, talking about the bull, nurse and tiger sharks they’d seen on previous nights. Some of them threw fish heads and other off-cuts from the day’s fishing into the water to attract the predators.
‘See’, Peter said. ‘I told you we shouldn’t swim across.’
Day 5: Sandon to Shelly Beach Headland
At sunrise Peter and I watched a flock of pelicans on a sandbar as we prepared to begin walking.
At this point, my blisters were really starting to hurt. I’ve never been affected by blisters hiking before, and as a result have become incredibly blasé – I’ll set off on multi-day hikes with brand new, untested shoes, or in ancient sneakers. I’ll even wear cotton socks. Whatever! My feet have superpowers.
Turns out the combo of walking barefoot on wet sand and putting on shoes and socks for another section means that no matter how carefully you dry your feet, the skin will still be soft from the water and thus (far) more prone to (far nastier) blisters.
The town of Brooms Head was coming up in a few kilometres and we needed to stop there to buy more food, so I was looking forward to buying a packet of their finest bandaids.
Unfortunately the local shop was closed due to COVID. We asked a couple of women on the beach if they knew of any other shops. They said no, but offered us some bananas. When we eagerly accepted, they insisted we also take a packet of biscuits, nuts and – to my relief – bandaids!
We walked on to Shelly Beach and at the end of the long beach, rocky cliffs enclosed the sand. Apparently at low tide there are sea caves to explore, but the tide was coming in by the time we arrived, so we scrambled up the cliffs to the headland where there’s a picturesque campsite on the other side.
Before you reach the campground there’s a helipad which, at first glance, looks like an inviting patch of flat ground for pitching a tent. Be sure to read any signs before you set up anywhere that’s not an official campsite.
We cobbled together a dinner consisting of a single bowl of soupy rehydrated peas and mushrooms with some leftover noodles to share between us. We ate while watching dolphins playing in the surf, then Keith led us in a shaking meditation at sunset on a clearing overlooking the waves.
Day 6: Shelley Beach Headland to Yamba
The day began with a 7km stretch through the national park to Angourie where we found a cafe and devoured the World’s Most Glorious Breakfast.
From there it was an easy walk along the beach, stopping only for a final dip in the ocean to ‘freshen up’ for our arrival in Yamba. We declared the hike complete with a group selfie on the headland.
- Camping gear (mat, sleeping bag, tent, etc.)
- Cooking gear, food
- Hiking pack
- Hiking shoes
- Sunscreen, sunglasses, hat (even in winter)
- Warm clothes – I needed my down jacket most evenings
- Water bladder or bottles to carry a day’s worth of water
How To Get There
Trains and buses run to the start and end points from Sydney, so you can avoid a car shuffle.
The walking isn’t too hard, except for a little rock scrambling, and the tracks are well signposted.
Distance Covered / Time Taken
125km / 6 days