Driving around Australia. Even the thought of undertaking 'The Big Lap' is enough to get the adventure juices flowing in even the most seasoned of travellers. But just how easy is it to actually pull off?
Australia is, by all accounts, a bloody massive chunk of land. And while there’s debate about whether the sunburnt country qualifies as the biggest island in the world (some say its status as a continent means it’s not an island), everyone can agree that there’s plenty to explore.
Without a doubt, the best way to see the country in all its glory is to jump in a car, van or camper and hit the road. From concrete highways to bumpy fire trails, from cul de sacs to campsites, the Sydney Harbour Bridge to Willie Creek Pearl Farm, there’s a load of trails to cross and sights to see. All roads lead to cool things.
The best bet? Get yourself a trusty vehicle and circumnavigate the whole thing. So here’s a comprehensive guide to getting started on an adventure around the entire Australian coastline.
A beginner’s guide to driving around Australia
Highway 1 skirts the entirety of Australia and connects every mainland state capital is a whopping 14,935 kilometres long. It’s one of the longest roads in the world and more than a million people travel on it each day.
For perspective, the record speed for a lap around Highway 1 was recently set by four guys who spent just over five solid days and nights driving — “stopping only for fuel, food and urgent toilet breaks”.
However, travel forums suggest that realistically, it would take about a month if you were abiding speed limits and stopping only to sleep and eat (which doesn’t sound like much fun). Three months would be a reasonable amount of time to spend but there are plenty of folks who allow a whole year. Then there are the Grey Nomads — retirees who spend their twilight years on the road–who travel this route perpetually.
Where should I stop?
While Highway 1 does a good job of linking the entire mainland of Australia, it’s really just a big ring road that connects major cities. The unmissable parts of Australia require significant detours from the big lap.
If you’re going past, the cities of Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane, Cairns, Darwin, Port Hedland, Perth, Esperance and Adelaide are, of course ,worth a look in.
The Great Ocean Road in Victoria, for example, is littered with beautiful beaches and accessible wildlife. South Australia is home to Kangaroo Island, a third of which is a pristine nature reserve. The Gibb River Road in WA is a stretch of quintessential outback, not to be missed. Kakadu National Park in the Northern Territory is a chunk of the wildest land in the world. Port Douglas in Queensland provides a jumping off point for the Great Barrier Reef and NSW’s Mount Kosciusko is the nation’s highest peak. All these destinations require divergence from Highway 1.
The best way to make a plan is to jump on Google Maps, check driving distances between destinations and work out how long it’ll take you to get from A to B, factoring in stopping to sleep and rest, of course. Then, if you have a list of places off Highway 1 you want to visit along the way (such as the above), factor those in and work out how long you might need for each. Of course, this will change as you drive around, but it’s good to start with a rough idea. It’s also worth keeping a few days free from those serendipitous discoveries — Australia will throw them up in spades.
When you consider the massive array of scenic detours, it starts to make sense that people would spend a whole year travelling around Australia.
Finding the right wheels
The first thing you’ll need is a trusty set of wheels. Renting a campervan is a tempting option — it will have beds, a fridge and maybe even a shower, if you’re lucky. Britz, Maui and Apollo all supply a range of high-end road homes for rent and for those with less cash to splash, Wicked, Hippie Campers and Jucy have deals on vans.
For ultimate thrift, you could even try using a one-way relocation service, which means you can get a set of wheels for as low as $1 a day, provided you get it to where it needs to be by the allotted date and can make your own way onward from there. But these options are all geared towards temporary trips. They’ll only take you part of the way and you’ll be under time constraints.
There’s also wisdom in the idea that the best adventure machine is the one you have. So long as it’s proven to be relatively reliable and you have roadside assistance, you could do far worse than leaving town in your humble runaround. We’d also recommend getting it serviced before you get out of dodge, just to be sure.
Taking the right tools and supplies
Those seeking a proper road trip around Australia — a fully-fledged circumnavigation of epic proportions — are going to want to buy a vehicle to call their own. Whether your budget permits a plush motorhome, a stylish old Kombi or a rusty station wagon, there are a few essentials you’ll definitely want to acquire and install.
- Water supply. This might be an internal plumbing setup with taps, a shower and a flushing toilet; it could be a conduit carrier mounted to the roof of your van; or it could simply be a plastic jerry can labeled H2O. Whatever the case, you should have at least 20 litres of water on hand at all times.
- Cooking gear. You’re neither going to eat out for every single meal nor cook over an open fire every night. A kitchen and a portable BBQ would be ideal but a little butane burner will do fine.
- Alternator. This is essentially a power converter which will allow you to charge your phone, laptop, camera or whatever else, through your car’s cigarette lighter – it’s an essential item.
- Basic tools. Be sure to pack the essential stuff: a spare tyre; car-jack; some wrenches, screwdrivers and a hammer. And don’t forget to stock up on oil, coolant and power steering fluid.
Where to sleep
Having the option of sleeping in your vehicle is a massive blessing in Australia, even just as a backup plan. Rain, wind, sun, mosquitos, deadly snakes, spiders and the fabled drop bears are all factors worth considering. Whether that equates to a plush caravan with freshly laundered sheets or simply a mattress and a sleeping bag in the back of your van, it’s nice to be able to shut your door and close your curtains. Then again, a tent and camping mat, or better yet, a swag, can be just as good in the right weather.
Free campsites are easily found online at Free Camping Australia or with the WikiCamps app. Usually (but not always) campsites in more remote locations are more likely to be free or cheap. Be prepared to bring your own water, source your own firewood and take your rubbish with you when you leave. National parks are another option and, on average, they cost around $12 per night.
When you desperately want a shower and access to a laundry, paying to stay in a caravan park is a good option. Caravan parks are serious business in Australia and they’re invariably set up with a "camp kitchen" equipped with a whole range of stoves, hot plates, fridges, kettles, toasters, sinks, coin-laundry facilities and an undercover dining area. There’s usually a TV and Wi-Fi too.
The prices can vary massively, from as low as $15 and up to $130 in peak season. Generally though, you can expect to pay between $25 and $35 for a powered/unpowered site respectively. The cheapest hotels start at around $90 per night and can be a nice treat when you’ve been on the road for months.
Eating and drinking
Australia’s colonial history as a distant cultural outcrop has meant that it’s never been renowned for great food. Slowly but surely though, that reputation is changing. While the capital cities are regarded for exotic international fare, rural areas still yield some of the highest-quality produce in the world. Places like Margaret River and the Barossa Valley have become staples for wine, North Queensland has beautiful tropical fruit and pretty much the whole Australian coast has beautiful fresh seafood. As rugged and rural as much of it is, ‘Straya actually has plenty of good grub to chow down on.
The most obvious tactic for a thrifty traveller is to stock up at big supermarkets in urban centres, then go out bush and enjoy the spoils. This is a decent option, but there are other, more direct ways to source Australia’s local delicacies. Roadside fruit and vegetable stalls are still fairly common in rural Australia and they’re often left unmanned with an honesty box for payment. Keep your eyes peeled while driving through orchard regions.
Public barbecues have become a staple of modern Australian culture and they can be found in beach towns and public rest areas all over the country. When you’re on the road, these are your best friends. There’s nothing quite like frying up a meal in the great outdoors.
How much will it all cost?
There are a lot of ifs and buts when it comes to budgeting, so these figures will be a rough guide at best. If you want to get down to specifics, here’s a free budgeting template for your big lap. Otherwise, this is a rough calculation for a three-month trip.
Car: Anywhere from $4000
Supplies: such as cooking, gear, bedding, alternator, tools, oil, coolant, power steering fluid, camping gear etc. Anywhere from $500
Fuel: Driving 20,000 kilometres in a van will cost about $3,055 (calculated at $1.37 per litre with this fuel calculator).
Camping fees: Spending 60 nights in national parks and the remaining 30 in caravan parks would cost you about $1620 (60 x $12 + 30 x $30).
Food: If you’re a thrifty shopper with a tight budget, you could easily eat for $25/day, which equates to $2250 for 90 days on the road. Throw in a few takeaway coffees, the odd trip to a restaurant and a few cheeky bottles of wine and it looks more like $3250.
To be fair though, you could do this slightly cheaper or with a lot more money. It just depends how rough and rugged you want to get.
And that's it. All that remains is for you to make a plan, book the time off work, find some wheels and get to it.