Here's how to survive the great Aussie road trip

Never underestimate the importance of good ventilation.
The open road © James Shackell
By James Shackell

You’ve loaded up the car with Doritos, Starburst lollies and a couple of emergency slabs. The boss has given you 10 days off and you’ve got Google Maps on standby.

You’re ready for that most noble of Aussie traditions: the roadtrip. But one thing that anyone who’s actually done a roadtrip will tell you is that the reality of the roadtrip is usually less fun than the concept of the roadtrip.

Unlike Corona commercials, you probably won’t spend the whole trip laughing and making out with your hot and ethnically diverse friends. There’ll be a lot of driving. A lot of napping. And a few tense discussions about the merits of air travel.

But there are things you can do to help you survive the open highway. Here are some of those things.

1. Don’t plan too much

Spontaneity is the spice of life (‘variety’ is also pretty spicy by all accounts, but for this blog we’ll be focusing on spontaneity). A good roadtrip should have an origin and a destination. The bits in between should be a little more…flexible. Plan a general route, but don’t be afraid to detour. If you see a sign saying ‘Haunted Gold Mine, 5kms’, follow it. There be adventures ahead.

Dust in the wind © James Shackell

You don’t even really need to plan accommodation. Unless you’re roadtripping through the Nullarbor or the Red Centre, you’ll find small towns on a fairly regular basis. These will always have, at the very least, a roadside motel of dubious quality. I once stayed at one that had a note on my bed saying ‘Knife crimes aren’t a joke. Double lock the door’. Random pitstops like this could produce the kind of anecdotes that make the trip really special. You don’t want to miss them because you played it safe and booked everything in advance.

2. Rotate the driving

An obvious one, but it’s all too easy for a roadtrip companion to be stuck as the ‘designated driver’, manfully sucking-up driving duties like Joan of Arc with a license. Try to switch up the driving with each mini-break you make, which should be every few hours or so. It’s a good excuse for everyone to get out and stretch their legs, but it also reduces the risk of driver fatigue. You’ve a lot of kilometres to cover. Don’t be a hero. Make sure all your potential drivers have the same kind of license too. Nothing worse than getting all the way to Albury Wodonga and finding Kev can’t drive manual and is now the team’s official navigator.

Off road is the only road © James Shackell

3. Share petrol duties

If you’re thinking you’ll save money on a roadtrip, you probably haven’t done one before. With cheap domestic fares from airlines like Tiger, Jetstar and Virgin running all the time, you’d have to be pretty unlucky (or have some sort of solar powered car) to actually drive from Melbourne to Brisbane and turn a profit.

You don’t roadtrip to save cash – you roadtrip for the feeling of the journey. Part of that journey is going to be regular petrol stops. A good way to divvy it up is just to agree to a tank fill amount (call it 60 bucks), and rotate petrol buying duties as you go. No hurt feelings. No need for one of the team to keep track of expenses in a notebook.

4. Ventilation

When you have four or five humans cooped up in a small space for hours at a time, sweating and eating fistfuls of Cheetohs, the car can get a bit…cramped. My mates and I did a regular ‘purge’ (all windows down, 100kph) at semi-regular intervals to keep the car bearable. Cracking a window an inch doesn’t really work at speed – the slight difference in air pressure makes a weird ‘whump whump’ sound that penetrates the eardrum and makes conversation impossible.

Speaking of practical considerations, consider splitting a party of five into two cars. It’ll be more expensive, sure, but if you can spare the cash you’ll have a much more comfortable ride. The idea of ‘all the gang’ sharing one car is fun…for about the first two hours. Then the poor sod in the middle back seat will realise they can’t move or breathe. Trust me, it’s better to spring for a second car and try and find a sixth roadtrip amigo than soldier on with a five-man team.

Snacks: essential © James Shackell

5. Visit any and all roadside attractions

If you’re passing through Coffs Harbour and you’re not stopping at the Big Banana for a novelty photo, why are you driving anywhere? You could be flying in comfort a few thousands feet above your head. If you’re going to do a long drive, stop at anything weird along the way.

Luckily for us, Australia is spoilt for choice when it comes to roadside attractions. There’s the Big Apple (Stanthorpe, QLD), the Big Chook (Moonbi, NSW), the Big DNA (Perth, WA), even the Big Gumboot (Tully, QLD). Make it a personal mission to hit up at least three of these weird things on your roadtrip. You can use website like this one to help you plan a route. No matter if you’re doing Broome to Darwin, Adelaide to Alice or Brisbane to Cairns, I promise you’ll find them on your way.

6. Bring appropriate snacks

Rookie roadtrippers think the roadtrip is all about the junkfood. The serious pros know it’s about culinary balance. There should be a mix of sweet and savoury. Meaty and refreshing. Try to avoid the cheesier snacks (where is that cheesy finger dust going to go? On the seats, that’s where).

And bring fruit. Seriously. After five days of eating nothing but pizzas, BBQ Shapes and All Natural lollies, you’ll be craving something that wasn’t created in a lab. Apples keep okay, as do mandarins. Bananas are a big no-no, they’ll go brown and weird and stink out the car. Stone fruits are too sticky, so steer clear of them.

No matter what you choose, bring a bunch of bags (recyclable if you can get them) for car rubbish. You don’t want the guys just dumping Maccas wrappers and old apple cores in the footwells. Hire car companies don’t like that sort of thing.

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