Hitting the road
Unlike most countries in the world, Aussies drive on the left. Unlike the UK, which is full of tricky round abouts, most large intersections in Australia operate using a traffic light system, which can make it a little less confusing.
When driving in Australia, you do need to ensure that you are correctly licensed and that you are aware of the road rules. Some basic rules are you need to stay under 0.05 blood alcohol, 0.00 if you are a new driver and on P plates (the first 3 years of driving) and to be aware of the speed limit. There are a lot of police and road traffic cameras on Australian roads, so don’t be alarmed if you are pulled over for a random breath test. Speeding fines are issued for any speed over 3kmh (1.9mph) over the marked speed limit, so it is essential that you don’t speed, or it can add up very quickly!
Australia has great roads and freeways that connect its cities and there are many interesting places to stop on the way. On popular routes (don’t expect it in the outback!) you’ll regularly find rest stops with petrol and take away stops to refuel your car and yourself. There are also many interesting towns to visit along the way, giving you an ‘authentic’ Australian experience.
The east coast - Melbourne, Canberra, Sydney, Brisbane
The east coast of Australia is well connected by the A39. It takes around 6 hours to drive from Melbourne to Canberra, 11 hours from Melbourne to Sydney and 2 days from Melbourne to Brisbane. Of course these times are based on driving point to point, which really misses the point of an Aussie road trip!
If you take the inland route, you are spoiled for choice when it comes to small towns to visit. in New South Wales, The Blue Mountains are an excellent choice to stop for a day or two, as are the Jenolan Caves. If you’re a fan of country music, then you’ll want to stop in Tamworth, Australia’s country capital and as you reach the New South Wales / Queensland Border you are spoiled with picturesque seaside towns such as the iconic Byron Bay.
If time is not on your side, then flights are cheap and plentiful down Australia’s east coast. If you keep your eyes out for specials, you can fly between Melbourne and Brisbane for as little as AUD $70 (USD $45) on a reputable airline, with a flight time just over 2 hours. This is a great option if you wish to skip places you’ve previously visited, or if you are looking for a variety of experiences within a shorter holiday. Whilst you will miss out on local and country experiences along the way, it is very easy to access a car once in Brisbane and enjoy road trips from the capital.
Both driving and flying are excellent options in this part of Australia. The roads are easy to drive and well kept and flights are both inexpensive and plentiful.
Far North Queensland
Cairns is known for its beautiful tropical weather and being the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef. It is a popular destination with a large variety of tourists and is a great opportunity for some warmth when the southern states are feeling a wintery chill.
Australia’s size often catches people by surprise. Many don’t realise that Melbourne to Cairns is a 3.5 hour direct flight or a 32 hour drive (no naps included)! Often it makes sense to combine driving and flying, and unless time is on your side, we suggest that you fly into Cairns.
Once in Cairns, you will find that most roads are paved and that you can easily drive further north to Palm Cove and Port Douglas where the majority of resorts are. If you are wishing to go as far as Cape Tribulation, you may need to find a local or specialist car hire company (unless you have a car of your own) as chances are you won’t be covered to drive on unsealed roads. Don’t fear, there are many roads into the Daintree Rainforest that are further south of Cape Tribulation, so you can experience the beaches, resorts and rainforest without issue.
When it comes to Far North Queensland, unless time is on your side, you are best to fly and then drive. If you do have the time to drive, there are plenty of beautiful beach side towns to visit. You’ll need to allow 5 days if you’re driving 5 hours/day or a little more if you wish to spend extra time at any of the towns along the way.
South Australia - Adelaide and beyond
Adelaide is most easily reached by Melbourne, and an easy 8 hour drive. If you do choose to drive, we suggest you make a diversion south to visit Mount Gambier which is famous for its water filled caves and sinkholes. Robe and Victor Harbour are also two stunning seaside villages worth a visit in the summer months, not to mention the world famous Great Ocean Road that lies on the ocean route between Melbourne and Adelaide. With so many iconic places to stop and see on the route between Melbourne and Adelaide, we highlight recommend making this a road trip.
The route between Sydney and Adelaide features many country towns, but certainly isn’t as picturesque as the Melbourne – Adelaide route. If keeping your car for mobility and cost reasons, it may make sense to drive to Adelaide from Sydney, but if not you make be best to utilise this opportunity to save some time and fly between the two cities. The same goes for the other eastern states.
If you’re making your way to Adelaide from Perth and considering a road trip, then our top tip is to be prepared. You will be crossing the Nullarbor Plain, which is a large desolate stretch of desert. Rest stops will be few and far between, and you will need to ensure that you carry survival gear, fuel and supplies incase of an emergency. It is a 2,700km (1670mile) journey between the two capitals and there isn’t a lot to see on the way. Unless you’re on a 4 wheel driving tour of Aus, we suggest you give it a miss and spend just over two hours on a plane to easily travel between these two cities
Western Australia and the Northern Territory
Western Australia is Australia’s most isolated state and is best accessed by air. It is a 4 hour flight from Melbourne, 5 hour flight from Sydney and 5.5 hour flight from Brisbane. Flights to Perth can be quite pricey and are often overnight from the eastern states, so plan your trip in advance.
Once you’re in Perth, there are many places you can visit such as the Margaret River (a premiere wine region) or beautiful seaside towns such as Geraldton to the north. Western Australia is a massive 2.646 million square km (over 1000 square miles) in size, so if you are wanting to head to more northern towns such as Broome, a regional flight is your best option, unless you are prepared for remote driving conditions and to spend a sizeable amount of time behind the wheel.
The Northern Territory is home to world famous sites such as Uluru and Kings Canyon, which we’ll cover next in our section on The Outback. The capital city of the Northern Territory is Darwin and it is located far north on the coast. It is a great starting point for iconic national parks such as Litchfield and Kakadu. During the dry season, these parks are easily accessed by 2WD, however with flooding in the wet season, a 4WD will offer you better access. Like mentioned earlier, you will need to double check where you can drive with your rental company.
Mobile phone access is patchy in this part of the world, so you will need to rely on maps and park signs. Driving is rewarding in this part of the world, but can become stressful if you’re not prepared. As Darwin is a remote city, it is best to fly and then explore by road, or join a group.
Like its name suggests, much of Central Australia is sparsely inhabited desert. Now this doesn’t mean that there isn’t anything to see. From Lake Eyre, Australia’s biggest inland salt lake (a salt flat more often than not), historic outposts, cattle stations and world famous rock formations.
Whilst it can seem a little overwhelming to think of visiting iconic locations such as Kings Canyon, Uluru and Kata Tjuta, they are worth the additional planning. Many roads in The Outback are paved, so you can easily traverse them without a 4WD. Even the dirt roads are well maintained, albeit slightly bumpy in places! Whilst most roads are accessible to 2WD cars, you will need to check with your hire company as to where you are allowed to drive, and purchase additional cover if required.
Safety precautions when driving in The Outback include letting friends / family know your route and checking in with them on a daily basis. Ensuring you have mobile phone coverage that extends to remote areas, or access to a satellite phone should you get in trouble. In addition to this, you will need to make sure you have access to supplies such as fuel and water as if you do get stuck and can’t call for help it may be quite a while between cars, particularly if you have chosen a track that isn’t the main route.
If you’d like to experiment with driving in The Outback, but don’t want to spend days and days in the desert, then places like Coober Pedy in northern South Australia or towns like Broken Hill on the New South Wales / South Australian border are a good opportunity for desert driving, without the remoteness of the Red Centre.
Regular flights to Ayres Rock and Alice Springs operate from most Australian capital cities, with a choice of flights times each day. These provide you with a great opportunity to see The Outback, without the days and days of desert driving. Many companies offer tours that visit the main attractions, which are an attractive option if you are confident driving.
The round up
Road tripping in Australia is a rewarding experience. The roads are good, the routes clearly marked and there are a variety of interesting and beautiful places to visit along the way. You get to see the ‘real’ Australia, outside of the tourist traps, and get an insight into Australia’s love of ‘Big’ things (the Big Banana in Coffs Harbour on the New South Wales coast being just one of them!)
There are many accommodation options on your way, as well as rest stops on the more populated routes. Driving in the outback or more remote areas give you a unique insight into the remoteness and sheer size of the Australian continent, however they do required planning and preparation before setting out.
The joy of travel in Australia is that you can road trip the whole journey, or pair it up with airline travel to save time, or cater to your confidence / ability in the Australian conditions. Whilst it would be wonderful if we could explore countries for weeks or perhaps even months on end, it is a reality that our holidays often end too soon and the sheer size of Australia means that going by road may severely limit your experiences.
Whilst this may suit you, most people want to enjoy the diversity of experiences and climates that Australia has to offer and want to know which bits they can skip over with a flight in order to pack the greatest punch into their Aussie break.
Which routes do you think you’d take? Are you game to try driving in The Outback?