Help me cross Australia in March
December 3, 2006 9:06 PM   Subscribe

Driving across Australia, totally excellent, or totally awful?

I'm going to Australia in the first week of March for a conference in Perth. I'll likely fly in to Sydney and then go on to Perth. On my way out, I'll be spending some time in Sydney. I have some time and money and a companion at my disposal and was wondering if making the drive one way would be a) fun b) worth the money it would cost to rent a car and pay for gas and c) feasible.

I've driven across the US many times, so it's not the long distance driving I'm really wondering about, it's more the general experience. I've had friends tell me varying things from "oh it's an Australian rite of passage, it'll be fun" to "It's suicide" and I'd like to narrow down the options. So I'm curious if people have done this, if they enjoyed it or whether they had any other advice for a possible cross-Australian trip. Caravan, or sedan and hotel? How easy is it to learn to drive on the other side of the road? Anything great to see along the way?
posted by jessamyn to Travel & Transportation around Australia (38 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I've not done it, but there is a train worth looking at if you want an interesting way to see the distance. If you want to drive, you should plan your route carefully. Road service organisations in Australia like NRMA probably also have some good info.

Head far enough north and it's probably not the best idea, but if you head too far you probably wont find any roads anyway.

Must see is great ocean road, but it's not entirely on the way, its worth any detour.
posted by kaydo at 9:21 PM on December 3, 2006

Driving on the other side of the road should be fairly easy. I used to flip regularly and had few problems after a while. Just remember that you as the drive need to be in the middle of the road. I've actually found switching with bikes to be harder.

I've driven across the US a few times, and driven around Australia a bit. Personally, I'd recommend driving North from Sydney to Brisbane and the Sunshine Coast or South to Melbourne rather than driving across Australia. Even from Canberra to Adelaide, less than 1/3 of what you are proposing, the drive is largely dull and repetitive. But each to each.
posted by sien at 9:22 PM on December 3, 2006

Oh also, depending on where you drive in Australia and the route you choose there could be a mighty long time between civilisation, so food and fuel are probably worth considerations, as is a mobile phone
posted by kaydo at 9:23 PM on December 3, 2006

I would say 'totally awful', but then I find Melbourne to Sydney a chore, and there's not even any big deserts in the way...
posted by pompomtom at 9:29 PM on December 3, 2006

I had a relative who did this and enjoyed it, although I don't know what route he took. Word of warning: he didn't take the rental insurance, and wished he had - apparently hitting kangaroos is not an uncommon event.
posted by spaceman_spiff at 9:37 PM on December 3, 2006

It really is a mid-bogglingly loooong way, through a whole lot of not very much. Personally I would suggest stopping over in Sydney (or Melbourne) and then getting back on the plane and flying to Perth.

The nullarbor (= no trees, geddit?) is flat and hot and dry. Maybe you'd get some zen meditation happening but you wont see much.

Kaydo, a mobile phone wont do you much good, reception will be absolutely zero. Maybe an EPIRB if you wanted to go offroad...
posted by wilful at 9:48 PM on December 3, 2006

I've not done it, but at the speed limit, it should take you a total of 46 hours because it's 3935KM (according to this website). The site shows the towns you'll drive through.
posted by b33j at 10:04 PM on December 3, 2006

This looks relatively useful too.
posted by b33j at 10:05 PM on December 3, 2006

Driving east to west is boring as all hell. The vast bulk of it is desert, and it's full of roos and other wildlife that can knock the stuffing out of your hire car. The wee little settlements all get to be the same after a while, and if you break down or have trouble you're in some serious trouble. There are people in that part of the country who still use CB instead of mobile phones, and even the major highways can leave you stranded massive distances from help. People can still die out there of thirst and whatnot if their car packs it in. Not to mention the Wolf Creek factor...

If you want to road trip, north to south or vice versa (spot the Queenslander, anyone?) is much more fun. Lots of little seaside resorts, tourist traps (Big Banana! Big Pinapple! Big Prawn!), interesting fringe-dweller types between the major settlements and the likelihood of dying of thirst because you hit a roo is very very small indeed. March is still warm enough to camp, if you like that kind of thing, and there's buckets of campsites and caravan parks along the major highways, though you do often need to book ahead.
posted by Jilder at 10:10 PM on December 3, 2006

If you're a little nervous about 'the wrong side of the road', forget the caravan or camper. Some Canadian friends of a friend - experienced caravanners from Ottowa - dropped in while they were over here last year. After a weekend of towing a caravan just a few hours up the coast and back they were on their way to ditch it and just take the Camry they'd hired - the experience was just too much all at once.

The trip across the Nullabor is spectacular, but b-o-r-i-n-g - well worth it for some amazing scenery, but it's scenery that just goes on and on and on and on and .... and on. If you do it one way, you won't want to drive back. Places to stop overnight are few and far between, and some may be a little too 'rustic' for your liking.

Personally, I'd suggest taking a few days to potter around the coasts north or south of Sydney along the coast - pretty scenery (I like the lake country myself), and some nice motels & B&Bs to overnight. Then, when you're in Perth, do the same thing - though I love the city itself so much that I haven't spent much time travelling around the countryside there.
posted by Pinback at 10:15 PM on December 3, 2006

I've done a roadtrip from Sydney to Darwin. Its awesome. I can't tell if you want to go from Sydney to Perth or vice versa. It's quite feasible to do, from what I've seen, there are enough places to stay along the way. But I'm a biologist so I always had things to see etc, and so I wasn't bored ever. We went by car, had a tent, so we could camp in the various national parks on the way. I think that using a camper van would be good if you are already familiar with driving one, because of the wind. Its easy to drive on the other side of the road once youre away from the cities and the towns because all you have is one long road and hardly any traffic (ie none). I think you do need to have somebody to go with you cause the desert does make you very sleepy. We drove only during the day to avoid hitting any kangaroos or emus. Mobile phone coverage is spotty, but the best was Telstra. Email me if you want to know anything more specific about my experience.
posted by dhruva at 10:19 PM on December 3, 2006

Wait - Jessamyn's coming to Sydney? We need to organise a meetup!
posted by web-goddess at 10:19 PM on December 3, 2006

I have never driven east to west in Australia, but I have travelled South-North to Queensland. You could fly to Perth for the conference, then fly to Cairns and drive back to Sydney via Brisbane.

Alternatively, I stumbled across someone's travelblog of a family roadtrip from Perth to Broome, which looks to be really gorgeous, but much sparser than NSW/QLD. I have sworn I will take this trip myself one day, maybe you will find some inspiration too!
posted by Joh at 10:22 PM on December 3, 2006

Here's a blog post I wrote about the experience.
posted by dhruva at 10:22 PM on December 3, 2006

To get some kind of sense of the isolation of travelling cross-country away from the coast, read Tracks.

I spent all of 1995 travelling around the coast with my then girlfriend. We left Melbourne, hitchhiking with backpacks, in summer; bought a Kombi in Adelaide once we'd figured out we weren't going to get to the places we wanted to see unless we had our own transport; drove across the Nullarbor, and ambled up the west coast as the winter closed in behind us. Over the top in the dry season, then back down the east coast as the weather warmed up.

If you've only got a couple weeks, don't bother. The main point of doing this kind of trip, it seems to me, is to slow right down and really get a feel for what it means to be at least 500km from help in any direction.

But if you do end up driving across the Nullarbor, don't miss having a swim in the underground rock pool at Cocklebiddy. Ask any local for directions. Turn your torch off once you're in the water.
posted by flabdablet at 10:23 PM on December 3, 2006 [1 favorite]

I was supposed to fly from Melbourne to Alice Springs (only about halfway across the continent) and the airline went bankrupt, so I did it by bus, and it was interesting but I definitely would NOT have wanted to do the same amount of desert road travel all over again. The roads were ok, a good amount of roadkill on the way, but you wouldn't want to break down, knock something loose, or have a kangaroo accident out there with nothing around, especially if I were traveling alone (would you have company?).

I agree with Jilder about driving south to North, I think you should fly from Sydney to Adelaide, drive North from there through Coober Pedy and Alice Springs, and on to Darwin, and then fly from Darwin to Perth.

Coober Pedy is a cool semi-subterranean opal mining town that I loved because I am a geology dork, but my friend who isn't enjoyed it too. While you are in Alice Springs you can see Uluru (Ayers rock) and the Olgas, and then drive up to Litchfield Park near Darwin. It is especially nice, with tours of small waterfalls that you can slide down, though not nearly as massive or wild as Kakadu.

Oh, and you will get used to driving on the other side in a few hours. Or, if you do decide to drive the whole way across, you won't be passing too many other vehicles and you can drive right in the middle. (Not that I did that throughout Tasmania or anything.)
posted by rmless at 10:28 PM on December 3, 2006

Best answer: Sedan and hotel. But that's probably just my loathing of people in caravans coming out.

I've done a range of road trips around Australia (Adelaide to north Queensland. Adelaide to Brisbane via Melbourne, Canberra, Sydney. Adelaide to the Flinders Ranges), and it's worthwhile doing if you don't mind small towns, big distances, big spaces. It depends on your perspective. What some consider "boring", I consider real and relaxing. If you're willing to immerse yourself into it, I think it could be a great thing for an American to do, as a bit of a cultural investivation into rural Australia. Hire a sedan. Or maybe a Wicked Camper if you want a bit of fun. Hit the backroads. Stay in small-town pubs and enjoy a cold beer and cheap meal in the evenings. Check out the big things. Indulge yourself in the kitch, and enjoy the natural beauty.

There's lots to check out in Canberra. You can't beat the Otways and the Great Ocean Road if you're heading between Melbourne and Adelaide. The Nullabor is striking for it's pure...well nothingness, if you're into that. If you head north from Sydney towards Queensland, there's lots to see, in terms of both natural beauty and kitch tourist traps. And you can stop off in Nimbin for some refreshments along the way - the locals will be pleased to help you out.

Ignore the naysayers above. There's no "Wolf Creek" factor. Country towns can be charming if you let them be. And Australia looks a lot better from the ground than from the air.

As others have said, though, you don't have much of a choice in routes, especially east-west. Once you get west of Adelaide, there's one road north, and one road west, and not much opportunity for leaving the beaten track and going exploring, unless you have a four-wheel drive. And tourists (usually English) who think they know how to drive an SUV in the outback tend to be found dead with alarming frequency.
posted by Jimbob at 10:30 PM on December 3, 2006

And if you are in Adelaide in March, the Fringe is on as well.
posted by naturesgreatestmiracle at 10:31 PM on December 3, 2006

(Oh, I second the Adelaide-Darwin suggestion, by the way, although I'm probably biased. That path will take you through some of the most diverse landscape of Australia - from the fields and vineyards of South Australia, through the "red centre", to the tropical north. It's a hell of a long way, though, and be aware of the weather - the "wet season" here in Darwin takes a bit of getting used to.)
posted by Jimbob at 10:34 PM on December 3, 2006

It is not a drive to be taken lightly. It is certainly a lot more sparse than Route 66 across the US - beyond comparison. It is something that not even we Australians would look forward to doing! I have only met one person who has done it.. an English tourist who drove from Perth to Melbourne via Adelaide. In hindsight, she says, she should have just flown. Airfares are dirt cheap in Australia, depending on the time of year.

80% of what you will see is just desert - it would just be like driving across the Sahara. It is so sparse that it is almost dangerous. One can go many hundreds of kilometres without any hint of a town or civilisation. And with no mobile phone coverage you will be on your own if you get in trouble.

That said many people have done it, and enjoyed the experience - just... be careful :)
posted by TheOtherGuy at 10:49 PM on December 3, 2006

In fact.. change 80% to 99.99% Desert!
posted by TheOtherGuy at 10:50 PM on December 3, 2006

I'd suggest diverting funds for an east-west road journey towards at least a couple of hours in a light plane over the remoter bits of the country. A friend of mine spent six months on an outback farm where most long journeys were made by Cessna, and his experience makes me think that 150 knots at 5,000 feet is the best way to take in the landscape.
posted by holgate at 10:57 PM on December 3, 2006

I would not be driving on the wrong side of the road on a long open-road trip with few other cars on the road. We have regular accidents in New Zealand on deserted South Island roads where "on the right" foreigners lose their frame of reference without other traffic to cue them, drift to their "natural" side, and then plough into an unexpected oncoming vehicle. It's pretty easy to zone out when you're surrounded by wall-to-wall fuck-all.

As noted, take water, and ensure you have a full container of petrol in the boot, and a blanket.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 11:03 PM on December 3, 2006 [1 favorite]

Going from coast-to-coast in the US is nothing like doing the same here. There are certain similarities but it's hard to get your head around the sheer amount of NOTHING you'll encounter. Miles upon hundreds of miles of nothing but a long ribbon of a road, some scrub along the side of the road and the hot summer sun beating down on you. You'll get road mirages and can try Roadkill Spotting to liven things up but it will take FOREVER.

Make sure that you take plenty of water, and I don't mean a couple of bottles. I mean a couple of jerrycans or 10-litre containers. It's hot and it's dry. Ditto fuel. Take someone you can talk to and change driving with. Someone who can hold a conversation and who can shut-the-hell up when required.

If locals give you information about the road up ahead, pay attention. And, for gods sake, don't go in some little shit-heap of a car with no air-con. If it doesn't break down or overheat, you will shrivel up and die from the heat. It's been hitting 38C here just inland from Sydney. The Nullabor will be much MUCH worse. Drink plenty of water. Then drink more.

Try to hire a car with a bull-bar (for the roo's) and try not to drive at night (it's cooler, but you've a far greater chance of hitting things like wombats and they are NASTY).

Having said all the above (sorry to waffle on so long) I would say to go for it. If you're easily bored or hate to do without, then fly. Otherwise, you're going to have a great adventure.

I'm with web-goddess on the meetup thingy!
posted by ninazer0 at 11:25 PM on December 3, 2006

A camper van, a little note posted on the rearview"KEEP LEFT MATE"
posted by hortense at 12:15 AM on December 4, 2006

Not to influence you either way, but there is nothing that can prepare you for the scale involved, and for how little there is in central Australia. Kinda imagine the flattest, most arid part of New Mexico or somewhere like that, then make an entire country out of it. That said, if you're keen on doing it, consider coastal routes: they will be more travelled, have better accommodation options, and will give you more diverse scenery.

I would recommend a 4-cylinder station-wagon if you can hire one. Cheap to run, and it will always give you the option of folding the seats flat and dossing in the back if you and up caught out in the middle of nowhere.

Oh, and Jimbob - I'm with you on hating the caravan thing.
posted by tim_in_oz at 12:28 AM on December 4, 2006

Can't say I'd do the drive from Adelaide to Perth. Here are some pictures of that 1200km of nothing to give you an idea. You could see plenty driving from Sydney to Adelaide and then flying though. Either inland to see a bunch of dry scrub or via the coast.

I guess us Australians need to remember that the "outback" is the quintessential Australian tourist experience though. Still, you could see plenty of that by heading inland from Sydney without having to drive all the way to Perth.
posted by markr at 1:03 AM on December 4, 2006

Australia has such a lot of interesting things to see. I would not waste my time driving across the road that skirts the Nullabor. If you want to experience it, take the train which crosses through the real desert and keeps going day and night to save on time.
posted by Idcoytco at 1:49 AM on December 4, 2006

Just a point to add to what has been said above - there's a reason why more than 80% of us Australians live in coastal areas, there's not much in between.
posted by cholly at 3:28 AM on December 4, 2006

The emptiness will boggle your mind. The heat will parch your body. There really is nothing out there for the longest distance. Driving across the U.S., there are towns everywhere, and even the most sparse area of the U.S. is heavily populated in comparison. It's just insane.

As said above, take water, take fuel, take sunscreen if you want to hang your arm out the window, make sure the car is working properly, and if it breaks down - DO NOT WALK TO FIND HELP.

There is certainly stuff to see and do, but be aware of the magnitude of the trip.

Bill Bryson's `A sunburned Country' give some good impressions of it all, and it's generally a very good book. It made me keen as hell to get out and see my own country.
posted by tomble at 4:46 AM on December 4, 2006

Giant spaces between interesting places. If plane hops are out of your reach and you can't put yourself in suspended animation, take the train and a few good books. You don't want to be the autopilot on the Earth-Mars run.
posted by pracowity at 5:38 AM on December 4, 2006

I've travelled between Perth and Melbourne several times by car, bus, and plane. The car trip can be great, but only if you've got company, and are well equipped. As others have said, the scenery - usually a featureless plain with some low lying scrub and a mountain range on the horizon - remains constant for days. Whether that's awesome and contemplative and zen, or the most tedious time of your life, depends on your playlist, companion, and snacks. I recommend some Oz Rock to pass the time: AC/DC, Cold Chisel, The Angels, etc.

To reiterate what a few others have said above, roos abound on the nullabor, so make sure you're driving a car with a roo bar. It's also worth taking your own food along, rather than relying on truckstop cafes: from memory, they serve nothing but deep fried food and, if you're lucky, a soggy tomato sandwich or two. And expensive! Admittedly, it's been a few years since I made the trip, but I doubt much has changed on that front.

Whatever you do, don't go by bus. It's hellish. Seriously.

Myself, I would be inclined to make the trip by plane, and spend the extra time on Cottesloe beach in Perth. Or, if the urge for a roadtrip were pressing, hire a car and drive to Margaret River or along the coast. There's some beautiful country there. Have a great time, Jessamyn!
posted by hot soup girl at 6:29 AM on December 4, 2006

Response by poster: This is great advice everyone. I admit that my experiences driving across the US did sort of affect my ideas of what themiddle of Australia was like, even though friends who live there were like "no, really, there is NOTHING" I hadn't really thought about flying part of one way -- I'd be likely to take a longer time after the conference which would mean getting from Perth to Sydney -- and then taking a shorter but more interesting coastal trip back up or down depending.

I'd be going with my sister and while she's into camping she's not into "oh this is exciting, we might break down hundreds of miles from nothing" sort of drama. I have friends in Adelaide so it might be possible to go from Perth to Adelaide and then drive up to Sydney. I've also got an ipod playlist all full of Cold Chisel, AC/DC, Paul Kelly, Midnight Oil, Something for Kate, the Waifs and some other stuff (I'll post a mix cd question later). I'll also definitely be up for a Sydney Meetup, sometime in the second week of March. Any other advice, feel free to let me know.
posted by jessamyn at 7:50 AM on December 4, 2006

I think flying to Adelaide and driving to Sydney from there is a good idea, jessamyn. I did that trip in 2000 using oz experience. I know you want to drive, but you may want to check out their route -- I enjoyed it quite a bit:, although at first glance it looks like it's changed in the last six years.
posted by jules1651 at 8:11 AM on December 4, 2006

I second the recommendation for Bill Bryson's In a Sunburned Country -- it's a funny travel writer's tour of Australia, including a long road trip though the interior of the continent. I don't know if it's totally accurate, but it's a fun, worthwhile read nonetheless.
posted by liet at 10:36 AM on December 4, 2006

Gotta chime in to say that the center of Australia is astonishing in its emptiness - and gets very repetitive very quickly. I LOVED my visit to Australia three years ago, but even with three weeks there and mini-plane hops from place to place we barely made a dent in it - I recommend that method highly. If you want to drive and want to see Australia (as opposed to a long meditative desert journey) - I'd stick to the coasts.

Let me second Coober Pedy (like the Wild West with fascinating opal mines), and the Adelaide Fringe festival.

A few other of my favorite things:

Cleland Animal Park outside of Adelaide (we spent the whole day communing with kangaroos and wallabies up close and personal (many ate out of my hands - but it wasn't a rush of tame animals like a petting zoo - you had to invest a bunch of tim eto make friends first);

A tour of the Barossa Valley wineries (assuming you like wine - and pay the uptick to go in the limo instead of the bus - it was wonderful !);

"Climb" the Sydney Harbor Bridge (OK it was expensive and we were very sore afterward - but it was an increcible once in a lifetime experience and allowed for a perspective I've never had before or since)

I loved Uluru but wished I'd left enough time to take the perimeter tour instead of stupidly imagining I could climb it (and before I knew how much the Aborigines don't want you to climb it !). We did a rather touristy "Sunset at Uluru" dinner that turned out to be fantastic. It had an astronomer that used a laser-pointer-thingy to show the Southern constellations. Uluru is incredibly far from any major light pollution so you've simply never seen so many stars.

Have a wonderful trip (I'm getting jealous just thinking about it !)
posted by AuntLisa at 10:47 AM on December 4, 2006

OK. If you're doing Adelaide to Sydney in a car, at least take a side trip to the Flinders Ranges, walk up St Mary Peak (start very early in the morning), and cast an eye out over the spine of the ranges winding away to the north, and Lake Torrens (dry salt) to the northwest. It's absolutely awe-inspiring.
posted by flabdablet at 2:36 PM on December 4, 2006

I've been a passenger across the Nullarbor more times than I can count by car, train and bus. It's totally doable. Bloody long way, you're talking five days of hard driving, with almost two days between supermarkets between Ceduna and Norseman, but if you like to drive and you have good company, then go for it.

But here's the thing, whilst it is across some fairly inhospitable country, you'll be driving the major trucking routes (there is only one road west from Adelaide), so there are plenty of other people driving the will not die of dehydration half way to the nearest petrol station. There's a roadhouse every 100-200K or so, with food (of questionable quality), fuel (expensive) and a motel. Oh, and they take any fresh fruit or veg off you at the WA/SA border.....WA, giving truck drivers scurvy since 1937.

I could think of better things to do with a week, but if you like a roadtrip, then Sydney/Perth is one of the classics. This might be useful.
posted by kjs4 at 6:34 PM on December 4, 2006

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