non-sightseeing solo drive from Adelaide to Cairns (return)
September 5, 2018 7:26 PM   Subscribe

I'm thinking of driving solo from Adelaide to Cairns to visit a friend, then driving back. I've flown before; my reason for driving is to see a part of the country I haven't seen before. But my main aim is to get to my destination, not to stop and sightsee. Can you give me advice about how to manage the journey sensibly? How many days to allow? Best places to stay overnight? General tips for travelling through rural Australia?
posted by paleyellowwithorange to Travel & Transportation (21 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
my reason for driving is to see a part of the country I haven't seen before. But my main aim is to get to my destination, not to stop and sightsee

To me, these goals seem to directly contradict each other, I think it's an uneasy compromise, and tbh that amount of driving is my idea of hell. Have you done a lot of outback driving before? I ask, cause I've done a large part of your QLD route and I can tell you, it's mostly as boring as hell, and you're gonna be driving for hundreds of kilometres where the landscape doesn't change one little bit - like, you could be blindfolded and driven all day from one place to the next, and when you get out you won't even notice the difference. Also, personally, I'd be worried about doing this by myself because of fatigue related safety issues. When the driving is so monotonous and steady it's waaaaaay easier to drift off than it is normally.

That all said, what do you want to do for accommodation? There's lots of "free-camping" or very cheap subsidised camping along this route, often sponsored by local councils. Almost all of them have toilets, many of them have showers, and they're safe (filled wth grey nomads) and relatively frequent. I'd consider looking that up.
posted by smoke at 8:23 PM on September 5, 2018 [2 favorites]

I've driven Brisbane to Cairns along the coast, so mostly not along the route that you're taking. I drove with someone, and we shared the driving. It's 1681km, and we drove it over two days, stopping roughly halfway in Mackay/Rockhampton, depending on the direction. It was approx. 9 hours a day, which is a looooong day of driving. There are also a lot of long stretches of highway with absolutely nothing around, which makes it difficult to stay focused. I hated doing it, being trapped in the car for so long each day (plus we were in a car without air conditioning, which sucked), and I am determined never to do that drive again.

As the Adelaide to Cairns trip is roughly twice that distance, I would think it'd take about four days of driving. That's around 8.5 hours of driving a day, and I honestly don't think you could safely do more than that when driving on your own. I wonder how you'd be going on day 4 of such a long drive as well, in terms of your alertness and focus.

I would plot out where 8.5 hours of driving is going to get you each day, and then use that to plan a lunch stop and a night stop based on places you're interested in (and accommodation options, as smoke says). I haven't driven through that part of Queensland, so I'm afraid I don't have any specific recommendations for stops.
posted by fever-trees at 8:45 PM on September 5, 2018 [2 favorites]

Get the expensive roadside assistance. My sister and brother in law had a breakdown (coolant everywhere, something something) outside of Wagga, got a tow, a motel room and the car fixed that afternoon. They were a day late getting to Perth, but otherwise, no problem.

100km/day is the absolute max I'd be comfortable recommending, so four days, minimum, and you won't be seeing much other than road and petrol stations. Try to get where you're going before dusk, as that's when fatigue and kangaroos are at their peak. Don't have any plans you can't cancel if you have car or issues. Any chance you can find someone to share the driving with?

I'd pack a tent and sleeping bag or swag just in case you get stuck without a place to sleep. Also, pack good snacks. And audiobooks. (Downunder by Bill Bryson is good for long Australian travel).

Personally I'd prefer to poke myself in the eye than do that trip (twice!), but I hate driving long distances.
posted by kjs4 at 9:03 PM on September 5, 2018 [1 favorite]

Oh, and get your car checked out before you go, and double check that the route you want to drive is suitable. Google is pretty good now, but I'd want to be checking with an actual person or book that the roads are sealed and open to cars. Also, I'd want a hard copy of the route, just in case you have a technology fail. I believe Telstra has the best phone coverage out back of beyond, so it's worth looking into changing your phone to them.
posted by kjs4 at 9:09 PM on September 5, 2018 [1 favorite]

I wouldn't plan on less than a week for either of those routes.

I'd take plenty of water in the car, at least a ten litre jerry can and a dozen 1.25 litre soft drink bottles full. I'd also take a small alcohol stove, a two kilo bag of rice, a two kilo bag of green lentils, a box of assorted fresh veggies, a jar of Patak's curry paste, a bag of full cream powdered milk, a tin of loose leaf Earl Grey tea and a nice tea strainer, a sleeping bag and a tent. I'd try to camp at waterholes or waterfalls I could jump into first thing, as soon as the morning sun cooked me out of my tent; failing that, roadside stops at least 50km from the nearest town so as not to be pestered by officious officials.

And I'd spend hours not driving, just to enjoy the silence.
posted by flabdablet at 2:05 AM on September 6, 2018 [5 favorites]

100km/day is the absolute max I'd be comfortable recommending

Wait, what? That's roughly 60 miles, which here in the US is 1 hour of driving.

Did you leave out a zero?
posted by hippybear at 2:50 AM on September 6, 2018

Response by poster: Did you leave out a zero?

Yeah, I assumed they meant 1000km/day. Or maybe a multiple of 100 and they typoed the initial numeral?

Also, I'm fine for people to say, "Bad idea" to my premise - but preferably with a rationale.
posted by paleyellowwithorange at 2:57 AM on September 6, 2018

I regularly drive 400 miles for work in a night, and that's roughly 650 km, and that's 7 hours of driving on well developed interstate highway. I'd put that as an outside limit for driving, as that is pretty exhausting even when the road isn't boring but you've driven it so many times you have it memorized and it's not even really driving it's being a robot.

So, adjust according to driving conditions and personal experience and such.

Also, download a bunch of podcasts. They will save you on any drive.
posted by hippybear at 3:06 AM on September 6, 2018 [1 favorite]

My perspective on driving for hours on end is a bit skewed by having spent a few years doing 12 hour shifts in taxis; I once drove home from Tenterfield to Melbourne in a day, stopping only to whiz and eat. But when you're not acclimated to sitting behind the wheel for stupid amounts of hours it can really take it out of you, and trying to do 3000+km without at least one full rest day would be pretty suicidal.

Even doing it in a week, with three days on and one day off in the middle, that's still 500km of driving per day; at least six hours per day behind the wheel, allowing for bad roads and navigation errors. That's a lot. So do stop every two hours and take a half hour break, even if you don't think you need one.

I've done a large part of your QLD route and I can tell you, it's mostly as boring as hell, and you're gonna be driving for hundreds of kilometres where the landscape doesn't change one little bit - like, you could be blindfolded and driven all day from one place to the next, and when you get out you won't even notice the difference.

I've done large parts of it as well, and getting bored is something that only happens to people who expect to be bored and allow themselves to become so. If you just flat refuse to be bored, and deliberately search for something interesting to look at every time you feel boredom coming on - even if you have to pull over and look closely at ants or birds or flowers or leaves or the way the spinifex grows round these parts or how the hell are those spiders making a living out here - you will find that outback Australia offers limitless beauty to those prepared to pay the required degree of attention.
posted by flabdablet at 3:41 AM on September 6, 2018 [1 favorite]

How used to driving are you? That's the real question here.

Unlike most above I would do your Adelaide to Cairns route in three days if I had a damn good reason to. I wouldn't expect to enjoy it or feel great at the end of it but I've done a lot of long distance driving and have done similar distances in similar time frames and know I can do that safely and alertly. But where I'm coming from is that, as an example, last week I drove 450km in a large truck, partly in heavy Melbourne traffic, and that was nowhere near a full day's driving. If that's not your experience level you have to pull back from there accordingly.

More specifically, I've driven large parts of both those routes, and I reckon to actually enjoy it you are looking at a week or more in each direction as a minimum and get off the main roads a bit, preferably a lot. You'll be passing by some extraordinary places, you may as well see them. A surprising amount is good to do in a standard 2WD car if you know how to handle one well.

Some of it is reasonably remote but if you are on the main roads in Australia these days you aren't actually that removed from people and help and you don't need huge supplies in case of a break down. Rethink that if you are going more than walking distance from the main roads. It gets properly remote quickly.

If you are camping, and I'd recommend it, the outback is cold at night. On one uncomfortable morning I started my car, popped the bonnet and held onto the radiator hose in an attempt to warm my hands. Dress appropriately. Prepare to meet a lot of well-off grey nomads, some of whom have interesting and forthright political views.

There's a certain meditativeness in driving those long days but I don't think I'd do it just for the hell of it if I couldn't slow right down, to be honest.
posted by deadwax at 4:24 AM on September 6, 2018 [3 favorites]

How long are you going to be staying with your friend?

Because if it's not at least a month, then it seems just goofy to spend what should, for safety, be nearly a week in a car getting there, and then another week in a car getting back.

I mean it seems like you more want to be able to say "i've done this" than to actually do it to appreciate doing it. If you want a week of mindless activity where there's not a chance of killing yourself can I recommend knitting or cross-stitch?

When I've done car trips like this -- long distances without stopping along the way to enjoy the scenery -- it was for very good reasons, like I had a car and a bunch of stuff, and it was a one-way trip, and it was basically me trading my time and boredom for the money it would cost to ship my things instead.

So if you want some rationale behind "don't do this" might I suggest that it's a waste of your time and risks your life and property with no obvious reward other than a story to tell that will be listened to with eyebrows askew and a head-shake at the end.

Good luck if you try it, please get the good roadside assistance and load up on podcasts so you don't fall asleep.
posted by seanmpuckett at 8:21 AM on September 6, 2018

NB spending a week alone in the desert in a semi-meditative state can be a great thing but I would recommend doing it in a tent or cabin, not driving a car. Just wanted to add. Ok.
posted by seanmpuckett at 8:23 AM on September 6, 2018 [1 favorite]

Hmm... I have done this drive (well, close: Townsville to Adelaide). We were moving interstate so had a car full of possessions and were not doing it for the sightseeing, but I liked the drive a lot. I think this isn't nearly as bad of an idea as some people here do.

Things that made it fun:

1. I love road trips, and had done long road trips multiple times before (e.g., across the entire east-west length of the US a couple of times, and the north-south length once). I had experience with this sort of driving and knew what I was getting into. As several people have mentioned, this really makes a difference.

2. I find dry, sere, lonely deserts to be among the most breathtakingly beautiful landscapes there are. I found most of the drive to be lovely, not boring. YMMV obviously on this.

3. I think we did it in five days, maybe six? It was at least six to seven hours of travelling a day but we treated it as a marathon, not a sprint. You have to pay attention to what your body needs and be willing to add in some extra time off from driving if you're at your limit.

4. When you're not driving, don't just hole up in your hotel the whole time. These random little dusty towns are pretty neat, culturally and geographically. Treat it as a bit of an adventure.

If you can't get into the mindspace where these things sound cool rather than like a huge burden, I'm not sure driving is for you. But if they excite you, I say go for it.
posted by forza at 3:35 PM on September 6, 2018 [1 favorite]

I recently went on a trip to a relatively remote part of WA. Every hour spent driving felt like two or three hours. It was so draining. When I wasn't driving, I was struggling to stay awake* and when I was driving it was a struggle to stay focused. The longest stretch of driving was probably 6 hours of actual driving done over about 7 or 8 hours. Broke it up with two or three short stops.

You need to be really realistic about how much driving you are going to be doing and the amount of time you will need. What will you do if you get to Cairns and can't bear the thought of driving back?

I vote fly to and from Cairns and save the outback driving for another trip. Have you ever been to Alice Springs or Darwin? You could drive north from Adelaide and then fly back if you don't want to drive the round trip. You could even do it in a bus so that you don't have to be the one driving it.

*I did fall asleep a couple of times and woke up with a sore neck each time, so vowed not to sleep in the car anymore.
posted by kinddieserzeit at 6:14 PM on September 6, 2018

Also, I would say that if you can set aside 1-2 weeks for driving, that means you could set aside 1-2 weeks extra time in Cairns if you just flew there. Cairns is so lovely, I would spend all the time in Cairns.
posted by kinddieserzeit at 6:18 PM on September 6, 2018

[Maybe a bit late to be adding my ยข2..]
flabdablet touches on an important point: when you're not acclimated to sitting behind the wheel for stupid amounts of hours it can really take it out of you

The actual physical act of sitting in one fairly fixed position for many hours can be very tough. If your body isn't not used to driving several hours a day then you're going to be in quite a lot of pain by your second day.
posted by anadem at 8:40 PM on September 6, 2018

Getting out for a bend and stretch and moving about for at least twenty minutes every two hours of driving is one of those things that most people will just write off as "yeah, yeah, that's probably the right thing but you know and I know that it's not gonna happen", but it really is the right thing and it really does prevent most of the pain and fatigue involved in a multi-day long-distance drive.

Plus, it's a really good opportunity to get a bit quiet and sample the feeling of unbounded space that's pretty much unique to the Australian outback in 2018.

And I agree with forza. Come at this thing properly and you'll be glad you did it.
posted by flabdablet at 9:49 PM on September 6, 2018

Oh, also: take a twenty litre steel jerry can full of spare fuel. You probably won't need it, but if you do need it you'll really need it.
posted by flabdablet at 9:54 PM on September 6, 2018 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks everyone for the detailed and thoughtful responses.
posted by paleyellowwithorange at 3:46 AM on September 10, 2018 [1 favorite]

If you end up doing this, and can be bothered sketching an account of the highlights, I'd love to learn how it went for you. AskMe threads stay open for a year.
posted by flabdablet at 3:57 AM on September 10, 2018 [2 favorites]

Did you leave out a zero?

Yes, yes I did.

We did Perth-Adelaide return a few times when I was a kid, and I was the map nerd in the back seat. The "fast" version of that trip (2700km) was three days (four days on the way back generally), and I'm fairly certain the longest day was the first to Balladonia and was about 1000km. My dad was good at driving long distances though. Takes me about 3 days to drive that far, I am not a good driver.....
posted by kjs4 at 1:25 AM on September 12, 2018

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