Most visitors who travel to Australia tend to only see the eastern cities without ever setting foot into the country’s incredible vast interior. Granted there are plenty of cool things to see and do on the east coast. The sugar-white sand beaches of the Whitsundays are spectacular. Sydney is a beautiful city with a stunning skyline and harbour. The Great Barrier Reef is not to be missed. But to contrast the busy and oftentimes very touristy east coast, there is just something magical about the vast emptiness of the Australian Outback, which covers most of the country’s land mass. It’s so big that all of Europe can comfortably sit inside it. It’s a pretty big place!
Nowadays, getting around through the vast desert is actually a lot easier, with a fairly good network of paved highways connecting both populated and remote corners of the continent. There are also plenty of rugged long-distance 4WD tracks crisscrossing through it for the adventurous type. With all that empty space, big skies, open roads, and natural scenery, Australia is the quintessential place to road trip.
So last October after completing a trip up the east coast, I found myself embarking on another long-haul journey—this time across the entire continent from Cairns to Perth, a journey of about 4400 miles (7100 km). Since we really wanted to see Uluru and the other national parks in the country’s famous red center, we opted going by way of Alice Springs and then down south and over the Nullarbor plains into Western Australia. It took roughly 3 weeks to complete and was one of the most incredible experiences of my travels thus far!
So how does one exactly do a road trip like this across some of the loneliest and most formidable environments in the world? Here’s a little guide I’ve written up for any future Aussie road trippers:
For starters, you’ll need your ride. If you plan to see Australia over a period of a couple months or longer, you can always buy your own ride and then just resell it before you leave. There are plenty of used campervans, 4WDs, and cars circulating around the country. It’s easy finding vehicles for sale in most populated places throughout the country, a quick check on Gumtree (Australia’s version of Craigslist) or community boards in hostels can confirm that.
Another cheaper alternative is to simply ride share. This is what I did and there are tons of resources out there that can help you find a ride from someone or help you find passengers to join you on your own trip if you already have your own vehicle. Take a look around on Gumtree, Coseats.au, or even the city community pages on Couchsurfing.com and you’ll find lots of lift offers or people looking for rides. There are even Facebook pages dedicated to ride sharing across Australia. You can also always ask around people in your hostel and check the community boards for offers. You just might get lucky and find someone (or a group of people) who are headed the same way you are! And the best part is if you go with more people you’ll (A) save money by splitting the cost of fuel and (B) will probably have a better time being with fellow travelers and not being alone.
Another popular way to road trip across Australia (as well as in New Zealand, USA, and several other countries) is by doing a rental car relocation. Oftentimes rental companies need volunteers to relocate cars or campervans to other branches. The pros of doing this is you get to drive a rental car for an insanely cheap price–usually a few dollars a day. However, it’s oftentimes free! Sometimes they even include things like car insurance and free gas vouchers, though this isn’t necessarily always the case. The con is that there is a time frame in which you have to arrive at your destination, so your trip is only limited to however many days they assign to you. There is an exception sometimes, however, where they allow you to keep the vehicle longer but then you pay the regular rental price after that. So if you’re short on time and are looking for a cheap way to get around independently, this may be a good option as well.
Once you have your ride, the next thing you need to do is to be prepared. If you’re driving through the Outback, be aware you’ll be in some of the most isolated and extreme environments on the planet, and getting stuck out there would not be fun. Summertime temps in Alice Springs easily get up to 38 C (about 100 F) and in other places it can get even hotter! In wintertime it’s the opposite, getting surprisingly cold at night (well, cold for Australian standards).
Remember to stock up. It’s essential to bring extra water and extra petrol with you as distances between stations are usually hundreds of kilometers apart. But don’t keep your gas container in your vehicle unless you want your car smelling like fuel and having all the fumes soak into your food (we learned that the hard way)! It’s also a good idea to routinely check your oil and fluid levels as well as the tire pressure to make sure everything is square and running smoothly. And don’t forget—everything costs a lot more in the Outback! Save money by stocking up as much as you can on food and drinks as it can get very expensive to buy goods in little remote stores. Something as simple as a plain loaf of bread can cost $5 to give you an idea. As for fuel, the highest gas prices I saw were around the $2.10 mark–much higher than on the coast.
Also, unless you happen to be driving a road train (Aussie lingo for a huge semi-truck) or your vehicle is equipped with a “roo bar”, expect to do your driving only during daylight hours. Driving at night can be fairly risky as that’s when kangaroos are most active and in many remote areas in Australia they are very common. And unfortunately they sometimes like to unexpectedly jump in front of your vehicle! Seeing kangaroos and even free-grazing cows hanging out in the middle of the road at night is not an unusual sight. You’d be surprised at the amount of roadkill that litters the side of the highways here. And the flies! After New Zealand I never thought I’d come across a pest worse than NZ sand flies, but the Australian bush fly is might as well come straight from hell. They don’t bite fortunately and looks similar to a common housefly, but they are oh so very persistent. As soon as the sun comes up, your face, arms, and back are usually covered in them; crawling up your nose, into your ears, into your eyes. No matter how much you swat them away they always come back. So bringing a fly net might be a good idea.
As you travel through the Outback you’ll come across tiny little stations called roadhouses every few hundred kilometers or so. Not only do they provide a place to refuel your car, but there’s also usually a restaurant and store that sells a limited stock of groceries you can buy. Some even provide different types of accommodation, anywhere from rooms to both powered and unpowered campsites, usually with basic facilities. The national parks do also tend to have camping grounds and accommodation available.
If you are looking for the cheapest accommodation and don’t mind roughing it your way across Australia, just do freedom camping. The Outback is a big land of nothingness, there are plenty of places to pull over and camp overnight rather peacefully. I would recommend using an app called WikiCamps Australia—it’s an excellent tool for finding free places to camp as well as official pay-for campsites and things like hostels and hotels in case there aren’t any free spots nearby (usually in and around cities freedom camping is forbidden…you normally have to be out in the remote areas to do it). It’s largely based on advice and reviews given by other travelers. Using this app saved us hundreds of dollars in accommodation, I wouldn’t go without it! And Australia is probably one of the best countries I’ve ever been for camping. Camping gear is actually fairly cheap here and can easily be bought from K-Mart or Target. And if you’re in the Outback, you’ll likely find lots of clear skies and dry weather making it perfect for stargazing at night!