Australia’s size, thrillingly diverse landscapes and relatively hassle-free driving make it the perfect candidate for an epic road trip, writes David Whitley.
Not that the best routes are all really long: they can also be broken down into bite-sized shorter stretches, while some parts of the country lend themselves to briefer, looping drives.
Whether it’s outback emptiness, coastal splendour, indigenous culture or classic sun and surf activities you’re after, one of these seven memorable road trips should fit the bill nicely.
Nothing gives a better idea of Australia’s epic size and sparse population than driving all the way up the middle of the continent.
The route starts off gently, as you cruise through the wine regions between Adelaide and Port Augusta. (You won’t find a better tipple for hundreds of miles, so you might want to stock up for the trip.) But once on the Stuart Highway, there are two hour drives between isolated roadhouses and nothing but stark outback scenery and salt lakes on the way.
Stop in bizarre opal mining town Coober Pedy – where it’s so hot most people live in underground caves – before detouring to Uluru. The walk around the base of the giant monolith also known as Ayers Rock shows how startlingly different it looks from various angles.
On the way north, find out about outback life at the Flying Doctor Service in Alice Springs and School of the Air in Katherine, before taking a boat trip through the towering rock faces of Katherine Gorge.
Before finally arriving in Darwin, there’s another detour through Kakadu National Park, where you can see ancient Aboriginal rock paintings, spot massive crocodiles on a cruise of Yellow Waters and take indigenous tours that explain the indigenous Dreamtime view of the landscape.
The route west from Melbourne is all about the crashing Southern Ocean, as the road snakes along the clifftops. It’s a great trip for surfers – Bells Beach is regularly named among the best surf spots in the world. But there are also superb waterfall-lined forest walks in the bush behind cute beach towns such as Lorne.
As you get further away from Melbourne, photogenic rock formations take over. The Twelve Apostles dominate many a postcard, but London Bridge is arguably more spectacular.
Before turning back, head to the cliffs at Warrnambool to see southern right whales breaching just off shore and the Tower Hill Reserve to encounter wild emus.
If you’re looking for a shorter journey that packs in plenty of highlights, Port Stephens, the Hunter Valley and the Blue Mountains are all within a three hour drive of Sydney. String them together in a loop, and you’ve got a perfect three-to-four day break from the big city.
Port Stephens is the best place in Australia for dolphin-watching, as hundreds of them take up residence in the sheltered bay.
There’s also the huge sand dune system at Stockton Beach, which looks positively Saharan and is the perfect place to try out sand boarding and quad biking.
The Hunter Valley is all about decadence and sampling wines at the hundreds of cellar doors, while the Blue Mountains is a place of steepling wilderness views and atmospheric villages.
Haunting feeling: Port Arthur convict prison
Tasmania is greener and more mountainous than the Australian mainland.
A loop of the island can combine the glorious upland lakes and epic walking tracks of the interior with beautiful east coast beaches. (Wineglass Bay is the absolute star – and having to hike to it means you’ll have it virtually to yourself.)
There’s also plenty of convict heritage around the capital city, Hobart – the Port Arthur site that was used as a prison for the most determined reoffenders is hauntingly atmospheric and historically fascinating.
Driving up from Sydney to Cairns in far north Queensland has become something of a rite of passage for young travellers.
Key tent pegs line the route north, starting with hippy culture meets surf bum town, Byron Bay. Further up, four wheel driving around and camping out on Fraser Island – the world’s largest sand island – plus sailing trips around the Whitsunday Islands are staples.
But the mistake is usually rushing between the star attractions. Take it slower, and you can build in laidback surf spots such as Crescent Heads and Yamba, plus skydiving and rafting in Mission Beach.
Australia’s west coast is much wilder, and the remoteness is part of its appeal. From Perth, you head north through the moonscape of the Pinnacles desert, before reaching the Ningaloo Reef.
It’s just as spectacular as the Great Barrier Reef on the east coast, but with far fewer visitors. Using the town of Exmouth as a hub, you can also swim with whale sharks – the biggest fish on the planet.
The route then ploughs through remote territory usually seen only by miners before arriving in the tropical beach town Broome.
Taking a camel ride down Cable Beach at sunset is the classic activity here. The most impressive scenery, though, comes in the rugged landscapes of the Kimberley region which, eventually, leads to sweltering Darwin – the capital of the Northern Territory.
For a less hardcore journey through Western Australia, the state’s south-western corner provides an amiable circular route.
On the way down to the historic town of Albany, expect fabulous walking trails and giant granite boulders. Once there, head to the Historic Whaling Station, which tells the story of Australia’s often grizzly and now mercifully extinct whaling industry.
To see the whales alive, head to Augusta, where spotting cruises run at the point where the Indian and Southern Oceans meet. Finish off in Margaret River, home to some of Australia’s finest wineries and restaurants.
Driving in Australia is relatively straightforward for Brits, as driving standards are similar to those at home, Australians drive on the left and the roads are generally good.
But most visitors underestimate the size of Australia – remember that it’s a continent as well as a country and prepare for some long stints behind the wheel.
Much of the continent is remarkably empty, so make sure the car is well-fuelled as there might not be another petrol station for two or three hours.
The summer heat can also be brutal. Don’t fall into the trap of taking too little water: that can be a killer if you get stranded out in the bush. However much water you think you’ll need, you should probably double it.
The other key thing to watch out for is wildlife. Around dawn and dusk, kangaroos become very active and often bound out in front of cars without warning. They’re big and cause serious damage if you hit them. They’re also far less cute when dead on the road in front of you.
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