If there was ever a country made to drive, it’s Australia
. We’ve spent the better part of four months pottering the back roads and cruising the coasts. The take home message is that we need to go back, arrange for a longer visa, and spend at least a year road tripping our way across the states.
The diversity of Australia is mind blowing – from penguin colonies in the southeast, to rainforests and tropical reefs; from world-class culture in the big cities to some of the world’s most isolated outposts; don’t forget the enigmatic Outback. I’m not sure a person can say they’ve “seen” Australia without at least sampling the contrasts of more than one region.
“The take-home message is that we need to go back, arrange for a longer visa, and spend at least a year road tripping our way across the states.”
First, three tips:
- Carry plenty of water: There are some very dry sections of Australia; don’t commit the classic tourist blunder of getting stuck without water. Buy a 10L (or two) at any grocery store and keep them full.
- Carry some extra food: This is especially important as you head up through the Red Center as there are some very long, very desolate sections of road, and if you break down, you might be there a while.
- Stay off the roads after kangaroo-thirty: Somewhere around late afternoon as the sun starts to dip the kangaroos and wallabies will come out of the woodwork. Get off the road. Plan to end your drives by kangaroo-thirty and you’ll significantly minimize the danger of hitting one. They are unforgiving to a vehicle.
Adding Australia to a multi-stop trip
If you’re planning a big, multi-stop trip, Australia is the perfect country to add to the itinerary. Below are 3 longer routes that use the 3 suggested Australian road trips in this article as centerpieces.
- Western Australia Road Trip: Spend a month in western Australia before moving on to SE Asia and Japan.
- Great Ocean Road: Spend a few weeks road tripping the Great Ocean Road before continuing around the world to South Africa, Brazil, and Miami.
- Epic Outback: Visit India and Thailand before heading to Melbourne to spend 3 months touring the Outback. Fly out of Cairns to South Korea to round out this amazing 4-month adventure.
Looking for some inspiration? Here are three Australian road trips that will hit the highlights!
Western Australia: Perth to Albany
Yellow sandy soil dotted with bleached barked scrub and foliage in every shade of dusty green line the highway. The number one headed south from Perth, winds inland from the coast and down toward Margaret River. If you have a month, you could easily spend it on this corner of Western Australia. If you only have a week or two, then I recommend making the most of the coast as far south as Albany and working your way through more than a few wineries as you go.
A few treasures not to be missed:
A place to camp:
At least once in your life, you must awaken in a eucalypt forest.
The scent of the morning breeze, as the sun yawns into her golden arc and warms the gray-green leaves, is intoxicating. Karri trees, which retain their aboriginal name, are unexpectedly beautiful. Imagine the biggest oak for basic shape, but with clusters of leaves only at the ends of the branches. They look as if they’ve been badly sunburned. Their bark bubbles and peels off in long stretches like shoulder skin on a summer’s afternoon. Take your peeling tree, the color of a silvery gray beech, and imagine how it would look dipped in honey and then set to drip dry on a hillside with a thousand just like it. Now insert the subtle, sweet, eucalyptus scent on the morning breeze. Treat yourself to morning in Leeuwin Naturaliste National Forest, Boranup Campsite, on the south coast of Western Australia.
A winery to visit:
So, two Belgians, a Hobbit & Gandhi walked into a bar…
Sounds like the opener to a joke; instead, it was an afternoon at West Cape Howe Winery in the wilds behind the town of Denmark, on the coast of Western Australia.
“You won’t have any trouble finding wineries to tour – take my advice and get off of the packaged winery tour trail. There are loads of tiny ones tucked into the hillsides.”
Finding ourselves at the musical afternoon hosted by the vineyard was a bit like being dropped into a local production of an obscure play without any context for the plot, or the characters.
You won’t have any trouble finding wineries to tour – take my advice and get off of the packaged winery tour trail. There are loads of tiny ones tucked into the hillsides, like West Cape Howe, that have gallons more charm than the big ones that are well advertised from the main roads. Stop into the i-site in any little town and ask for recommendations. It’s the best way to truly go local.
A place to stop and swim:
The big boulder rocks roll right into the sea at Green’s Pool
. It’s a place to breathe in the sea air and marvel at the huge tubes of surf rolling endlessly against the rocky shore. If it’s warm enough (or you’re brave enough) you can snorkel in the protected pools, or play in the crashing surf as it breaks over the outer wall of rock. It’s a fantastic place to slide, like a seal, through the narrow places in the rock, protected from the crash of the big surf on the other side. The rocks are perfect for sunbathing and whiling away a long afternoon. Hike around the point and into the next bay for stunning views. Watch where you step; there are snakes about on warm days!
A place to risk your life:
The view from the top is spectacular, but it’s one heck of a climb.
75 meters straight up, in a spiral, around, and around a giant Karri tree. This particular tree, the Bicentennial Tree, was pegged in 1988 as part of the bicentennial celebration, as its name suggests. It’s located in the Warren National Forest, in Western Australia and is one of three remaining fire tower trees used as lookouts to monitor the forests as far as the eye can see in every direction; which in the case of this tree is about 25 miles (40 km).
The climb is not for the faint of heart as you’ll head up the tree, hand over hand, on pieces of rebar, jammed into the side of the tree. There is no safety net below you, no safety gear provide and it’s entirely “at your own risk.” Heed the signs at the base of the tree about footwear and health conditions as it’s a breath-taking climb.
A place to walk:
is one of the perfect places in the world. White sand beaches stretch as far as the eye can see in either direction. It is a place to step onto the white sand and into the azure sea and sky of every postcard you’ve ever seen of the Australian coast. When people say that Australia has the best beaches in the world, this is what they mean. If beaches are your idea of perfection, then Hamlin Bay is going to be your definition of heaven.
Hamelin Bay is also a sting ray sanctuary.
“When people say that Australia has the best beaches in the world, this is what they mean.”
On any given day there can be ten or so rays were cruising the shallow waters along the shore, whisking in and around our feet and sticking their wings out of the water. The biggest we saw was about four feet across; that’s larger than it sounds when you’re eyeball to eyeball through a snorkeling mask and impressive inches from your ankles.
We made the Western Australia road trip in about two weeks. If we’d had four, we’d have seen our way clear down to Margaret River!
Great Ocean Road: Bellarine Peninsula to Warnambool
Okay, so neither the Bellarine Peninsula nor Warrnambool are actually on the Great Ocean Road (between Torquay and Allensford on the coast south of Melbourne, in Victoria) but they do sandwich it and they make a great place to start and finish to broaden your experience. Walk the cliffs and dunes in Ocean Grove and tour the lighthouses in Port Lonsdale before you take off driving the coast.
Where to stop:
This tiny town of 1300 people is home to the Split Point lighthouse. This is a great first stop to make – climb up to the top of the lighthouse for spectacular views of the coast. Walk the beach down below for imposing views of the cliffs and the lighthouse. The architecture of the homes along the cliff next to the lighthouse is well worth a look. If you’re ready for a cup of tea, there’s a perfect little cafe with blue checkered table cloths and flower-filled window boxes in the shadow of the light; you can’t miss it.
The town has conveniently filled the park on the waterfront with picnic tables and beautiful carved wooden sculptures, which make for a picturesque lunch spot if you’ve packed your own. If not, there are a myriad of ocean front dining options tucked in between quaint shops and galleries along the winding coastal road. I particularly love the carved wooden pillars that line the waterfront park.
Great Otway National Park
The Great Ocean Road winds through Great Otway National Park. There are wonderful walks and hikes to be had in the park, as well as places to camp overnight. There are opportunities to see wildlife (we saw wild koalas!) and enjoy the best of what Victoria has to offer in terms of outdoor adventure! Don’t miss Blanket Bay. If you’re looking for an adrenaline-inducing adventure, check out Otway Fly
and zipline through one of the oldest rainforests in Australia.
Of course there aren’t 12, and they’re rock formations, not apostles, but they’re one of the major stops on the Great Ocean Road. The view from the top of the cliff is spectacular, but if that’s not enough, you can hire a ride in a helicopter and get an airborne ocean view of the cliffs, the 12 Apostles, and the coastal road. There’s a helipad right at the car park for the 12 Apostles, but there are other companies further down the road that might give you a better deal than the one poised to trap the most tourists. It pays to ask around.
Watch the surfers & walk a beach
The Great Ocean Road is one of the world’s great drives, it’s true, but it would be a shame to make the drive without stopping long enough to take a walk. For the hardcore walker, the Great Ocean Walk spans 100 km over a recommended four days of hiking. For the recreational walker, there are numerous spots to pull off and hike the long stretches of beautiful beach.
“The Great Ocean Road is one of the world’s great drives, it’s true, but it would be a shame to make the drive without stopping long enough to take a walk.”
Some of Australia’s best surf beaches are along this stretch of coast, and even in winter there will be hardy souls in thick wetsuits riding the big curls these beaches are internationally known for.
While not strictly on the Great Ocean Road, it is worth continuing on down the coast towards Adelaide to visit Warrnambool. Like so many coastal towns, Warrnambool’s center is a patchwork of shops filled with local curiosities and art. The long narrow park that runs along the water is the perfect place for families to relax and let the kids play for a while.
“If you visit between July and September, do not miss this opportunity to see numerous whales in close proximity.”
The big draw to Warrnambool in winter is the presence of Southern Right Whales. Well marked on the map, the “Whale Nursery” bay is the perfect place to spend a few hours watching mother and calf pairs lounging in the blue water shockingly close to shore. They come here to raise their calves in the safety of the bay, free from concern of shark or orca attacks on their young. If you visit between July and September, do not miss this opportunity to see numerous whales in close proximity. It’s not unusual to see six, or eight, or even ten whales at one time in the bay, right from shore. There aren’t too many places in the world that can say that!
The Great Ocean Road trip can be made over a long weekend, but a full week would be better!
Epic Outback: Melbourne to Cairns, through the Red Center
Don’t believe the crazy people who tell you “not to bother” with the Outback because there’s “nothing out there.” Nothing could be further from the truth. For us, a month’s road trip through the Outback rounded out our concept of Australia in a way that nothing else could have and left us wishing we had another six months to take on the “off the beaten track” stuff.
“For us, a month’s road trip through the Outback rounded out our concept of Australia in a way that nothing else could have.”
If you are renting a car for the trip make sure that you can take the car to all of the states (not possible with every agency), and make sure you read the fine print on where you can drive it. It is likely that you’ll be confined to the sealed roads, which cuts out a lot of the more “adventurous” travel. Do your homework and gear up appropriately. Fill up your gas tank at every opportunity. Carry plenty of extra water and sunscreen. Buy fly nets. That’s my advice!
Places to see in the Outback:
The little town of Tanunda is a fantastic place to base yourself for a winery tour. The big winery that everyone’s heard of in this area is Jacob’s Creek, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. As ever, we eschew the “big guys” and look for the little local spots. Our favorite was Seppeltfield Winery
, where they specialize in a range of blended wines and ports. Looking for a place to stay? We loved Tanunda Caravan and Tourist Park
, they’re walking distance to downtown and have everything from tent camping to three bedroom houses for rent!
We laughed as we were reading our road atlas on the way into town and discovered that the name of the town means, “White fella’s hole in the ground,” in an Aboriginal dialect! Coober Pedy is the only place in the world with an underground campground, which is kind of fun, but more importantly, there are no flies below the surface! After a few days in the Outback, this becomes an important point. Coober Pedy is the opal mining capital of the world, with 80% of the worlds opals coming from the ground around this town. You won’t want to miss a mine tour. There are loads of places to get underground, from shops to hotels to churches. It’s a quirky place. Buy some opals and be sure you take a picture of the big space ships crashed downtown. Yep, really.
Ayers Rock might seem overrated, but it’s not. I know, I know, a rock, in the center of the desert. You might be saying, “Whatever,” right? No. You must go. The historical, cultural and geographical significance of this rock make it something not to be missed. The hike around the base is spectacular. Sunrise and sunset are breathtaking. Do yourself a favor and stay at the Ayers Rock Resort
. There aren’t any other options, and the next closest place to stay is an hour away, which will make sunrise hard to manage. I did my best to capture the essence of the experience in words – perhaps this will convince you
You could spend weeks here. It’s a large town with a small town feel and is the cultural and economic center of the Outback. Visit the old telegraph center on the hill that was the first European settlement in the area. Check out the School of the Air
, which continues to provide education for isolated station kids in the center of the country. Wander the Todd Mall, a closed off walking and shopping street. It’s a great place to buy Aboriginal art and learn more about the cultures that have existed here for about 30,000 years. Watch a sunset on the MacDonnell Range for me.
Tropic of Capricorn
Crossing the Tropic of Capricorn, just outside of Alice Springs, is a big deal. Be sure to stop and take the cheesy photo for posterity!
These are worth the stop. Pay attention on the road north of Alice Springs for a couple of hours. The sign will point you to the right, and you’ll get off the main road and find… enormous sandstone marbles! They’re fantastic to climb on! There’s a picnic spot and toilet (noteworthy in this part of the world!), and if you’re lucky there won’t be any snakes out sunbathing.
Read Five Local Secrets for the Best Experiences in Australia’s Red Center
Getting to Cairns
You’re going to need to make a big right turn somewhere, we made ours at Three Ways. It’s still a good three days of hard driving to the coast and a day north to Cairns.
Have I mentioned that the spaces in Australia are wide and long? Take your time, if you can, and free camp under a giant Outback sky away from every electric light for a hundred kilometers. It’s an experience you’ll never forget!
We made the Outback trip in about a month, and we could have done with two or three. There are no shortage of places to stop and savor, learn, and explore.
Of course, there are other trips to be made, up the green coast from Melbourne towards Sydney is a kaleidoscope of green hills, blue ocean, and a ninety-mile beach to walk. If all you can manage is a series of day trips, every Australian city provides a hundred opportunities in every direction. Don’t come to Australia, even if it’s just for a week, without renting a car and getting out into the countryside. It’s the land of the epic road trip!
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Photo credits: Petr Kratochvila, Taras Vyshnya, aslysun, nicolemoraira, Stuart Elflett, pisaphotography, Troy Wegman, FiledIMAGE.