Getting Ready For Your Big Trip

Story and Photography by Sue Neales

Copyright © On The Road Magazine 2001. Any unauthorised use, copying or mirroring is prohibited.

Make your adventure of a lifetime easy and enjoyable with some forward planning.

The long service leave has been granted, the English relatives are coming to house-sit your suburban castle, the kids are all set to take six months off school and the Australian map on the toilet wall has been poured over.

The open road awaits you...

Now comes the crucial decision about where to go, what to see, when to go where and how to fit it all in on your long-planned around-Australia adventure.

Or even, whether you should go at all, or is it a mad hare-brained, half-baked dream that you never really thought you would fulfil?

My advice would be, don’t let anyone or anything put you off now. While there are still some big decisions to be made – like what sort of vehicle is needed and whether to camp or take a caravan – there is no reason that a family, couple or single person can’t head off for a trip around Australia and easily, simply and relatively cheaply have a wonderful time.

Gone are the days when to tackle an Outback odyssey you had to be able to dismantle a diesel engine, ford raging rivers, endure rutted dirt roads for hours and risk life and limb battling crocodiles, snakes and rampaging emus.

The bitumen now stretches right around Australia, ringing its coast and linking the south to the north in the middle between Port August (SA), Alice Springs and Darwin as well. Most of Australia’s Outback icons – like Uluru, Kakadu, Monkey Mia, Ningaloo Reef and the Stockman’s Hall of Fame – can all be reached by sealed roads and highways. 

It may take some of the dusty road mystique away from the Outback dream, but it also makes travelling a lot easier – for vehicle and passengers alike. It also means that a conventional family car is perfectly able to be taken around Australia, without compromising on all but the most remote tourist attractions, as long as all the travelling and camping gear can be fitted in as well.

Fuel availability is another change from a decade or two ago, when any vehicles attempting the round-Australia journey had to be fitted with long-range fuel tanks and carry jerry cans of fuel. Nowadays, the main sealed Outback highways all have roadhouses dotted at least every 200 or 300 kilometres along them, and all sell diesel, super and unleaded fuel, as well as – in all but the most remote places – LPG too.

Breakdowns and tyre troubles are not as problematic as they used to be. Bush mechanics ready to perform emergency repairs are usually found attached to most roadhouses, flat tyres are easily fixed and even getting spare parts trucked or flown in from the nearest city takes days rather than weeks.

So if the practical considerations that used to cause so many anxieties – and put all but the most hardy families off attempting a round-Australia trip – have now been allayed, the next steps are to work out how long to take, where to go and what to see.

How much time do you need to go around Australia?

This is a question that is a bit like asking how long is a piece of string. It would be easy to spend two or three years on the road travelling around remote Australia marvelling at its wonders – and still not discover all its hidden secrets.

But most families do not have this option. The luckiest have a year to traverse the nation – others just three months. My advice would be not to try and do too much. 

There is no point in ending up driving hundreds of kilometres every day, just in order to say you have circumnavigated the country, if you never have lazy days to just stop and lie on the beach and smell the gum trees, if not the roses.

Lazy days on the beach await (but it's a bit of a walk...)

So if your time is limited to three months, maybe rule out exploring the Nullarbor and West Australia for this trip. That leaves plenty of time for a leisurely explore up the coast from say Sydney or Melbourne, heading north towards the delights of the Great Barrier Reef, Cairns and the Whitsunday coastline, before heading west to Alice Springs, along the Flinders and Barkly Highway through Mt Isa and Tennant Creek, and maybe arching back south via Kings Canyon, Uluru, Port Augusta and Broken Hill.

Alternatively weeks can be spent wandering around Outback Queensland and the Channel Country between Birdsville, Longreach and Cloncurry, or exploring the wild rivers and beaches of the remote Gulf Country, including the barramundi fishing at Burketown, the World Heritage 20 million-year-old fossils at Riversleigh and the wonders of Lawn Hill National Park north of Mt Isa.

Or if the holiday is only a month long, try and confine the bulk of the trip to one state. For example, a wonderful month can be spent in South Australia, exploring first the gorges, wildflowers and wildlife of the Flinders Ranges, followed perhaps by a wild trip north via Lake Eyre and the Oodnadatta track leading to the oasis of Dalhousie Springs on the edge of the Simpson Desert, and a tour back to civilisation via the wineries of the Clare Valley, the sandhills and lakes of the Coorong, the sea lions and seals of Kangaroo Island and the surf beaches around Robe and Beachport.

The Northern Territory is another excellent one-stop destination for just a month or two. With Darwin as a very pleasant base – especially when the outdoor Mindil beach markets with their exotic Asian food stalls are in full swing every Thursday and Sunday night – there are great day trips to enjoy to Howard Springs and Berry Springs.

A week can easily be whiled away exploring the Mary River region and Kakadu National Park. Next it is on to Edith Falls, Katherine and Nitmiluk National Park, where a canoe-camping trip up the gorge should not be missed.

Some forward planning, to allow time to apply for Aboriginal permits, is well worthwhile to gain access to the beauties of the Coburg Peninsula and Gurig National Park through ancient Aboriginal-owned Arnhem Land. Or further to the west of Katherine is Victoria River country, the wilderness of Gregory National Park and the spectacular rock art of Keep River National Park on the border with WA and the Kimberley.

Alternatively. south of Katherine are the hot spring pools of Mataranka, the excellent Aboriginal outstation of Manyallauk where local Jaowyn people lead bush tucker walks and teach traditional bush crafts, Elsey Station of We of the Never Never fame and the lovely Roper River and the rough bush road leading to the outback town of Borroloola.

But a full year off, or even six months, makes a meander around most of Australia an exciting and leisurely prospect. With this time frame, it is feasible to include the lovely corner of south-west WA with its magnificent beaches around Esperance and Cape Le Grande National Park, the coastal parklands filled with kangaroo paws like McKenzie River National Park, and the wildflowers and mountain walks of the Stirling Ranges. Don’t miss the surf beaches between Denmark and Margaret River, the wineries, the tall tree forests, or the Augusta limestone caves.

North of Perth is perhaps part of Australia’s least hectic yet most beautiful and accessible coastlines, with highlights including the beaches and gorge walks of Kalbarri, the Pinnacles inland, the mango trees of Carnarvon, the dolphins of Monkey Mia and the superb snorkelling, diving, coral reefs and extraordinary manta rays and whale sharks around Ningaloo Reef, Exmouth and Shark Bay. 

With a full year to travel, don’t neglect or forget that little island to the south of Victoria. Too many mainland Australians haven’t been to Tasmania and often show no yen to visit, yet it’s a marvellous place to spend at least three or four weeks. Distances are small, the scenery diverse and different from Outback and dryland Australia, while the mixture of scenic beauty, history, culture and outdoor pursuits makes it a delightful place to visit for travellers of all ages.

Which direction to travel and when

I am often asked to recommend which way around-Australia adventurers should travel in their circumnavigation of Australia. It’s a hard one to pick, since there are definitely preferable seasons to be in different regions, but the pieces of the seasonal jigsaw don’t always fit neatly together.

However, it is safe to say that the best plan is to spend May to September in the tropical northern Australian regions such as the Red Centre, the Kimberley, the Top End, Cape York, Far North Queensland and the Gulf Country.

For swimming possibilities and enjoying the delights of Victoria, Tasmania and coastal SA without being too cold and miserable, I would recommend the warmer and dry summer months of December to March. 

Swim anyone?

NSW, southern Queensland and south-west WA are more flexible in terms of sunny, outdoor weather, and are lovely in almost any months but the chillier winter months of June to August.

Obviously, some specialised outdoor pursuits have more specific time frames – if you plan skiing in the Victorian Alps or NSW Snowy Mountains, plan for late July, August and early September for reliable snow, while the trout fishing season in NSW and Victoria usually opens in the first weekend of October.

Similarly, special bush events or seasonal calendars can help set an itinerary. For example, the grape harvest in the Victorian wine regions is usually between February and April, while the Mt Isa rodeo is the first weekend in August and the Tamworth Country Music Festival always held in the last week of January. Attending a local festivity, bush rodeo or country show or picnic races is a great way to meet the locals and really get a feel for a place.

For these reasons, I tend to advise Melburnians or Sydneysiders setting off for the Big Trip in January with 12 months up their sleeve, to spend the first four months gently_pottering through Victoria, NSW, Tasmania and southern South Australia. This is a good time to visit southern Queensland highlights such as Noosa, Fraser Island and the Gold Coast hinterland.

This route gives everyone in the family time to get used to the new style of living and the quiet, slower pace in less foreign surroundings than will be encountered in the “real” Outback and tropics further north, as well as allowing time for the vehicle, ubiquitous gadgets and new camping gear to be broken-in, in regions where help, civilisation and replacements are never far away.

In about April, head up the Sturt Highway from Port Augusta and the Flinders Ranges (or via the more adventurous Oodnadatta track) to enjoy Alice Springs, Uluru and the Red Centre, although remembering it can be cold overnight. Darwin and Katherine are glorious in May and early June, with enough of the wet season waters still lingering to cloak the wetlands in green and bring the wildlife out in droves and flocks.

In early June, double back east using the Barkly Highway from Tennant Creek, through Mt Isa to Townsville. This is the best time of the year to enjoy the Great Barrier Reef and far-north Queensland, and to head up to the tip of Cape York at Bamaga. Don’t miss a ferry ride to Thursday Island in Torres Strait.

In July, head west from Cairns on the Savannah way, exploring the Gulf Country and the wild reaches of Karumba, Normanton, Burketown and Lawn Hill National Park, before tackling the good gravel road linking Burketown to Borroloola, the amazing Lost City Rock formations and the Roper River, then linking up to Mataranka and Katherine.

It is now time in August to tackle the magnificent Kimberley district with the highlights being Kununurra, an adventure down the Gibb River Road, Geike Gorge, the bright little pearl and tourist town of Broome and the wonderful Dampier Peninsula and Cape Leveque to its north.

By mid September, the heat is building in the Kimberley before the wet tropical season

approaches, and it is time to slip south along the WA coast, gradually visiting the Pilbara, Exmouth, Carnarvon, Kalbarri, Monkey Mia and the Pinnacles on the way.

October and November is perfect in Perth and the south-west corner, while the Nullarbor Plain crossing in early December awaits all those getting ready to turn back east for their first swim in the pool or warm hot soaking bath for months before celebrating a family Christmas and a perfect end to a perfect year away!

What To See

Personal tastes, time scales and interests vary so much, it is hard to make many blanket recommendations about the best places to go and things to do on any trip around Australia.

Obviously there are a few un-missable places that must be glimpsed and crossed off every Australian traveler list of must-dos. Most are pretty predictable – and I would miss none of them – Uluru, Broome, the Great Barrier Reef, the rainforests of far-north Queensland, Fraser Island, the Flinders Ranges, Kangaroo Island, Kakadu and Purnululu (the Bungle Bungles).

But, after those obvious ones, the range of places to go is as broad as the country is vast.

My guiding golden rules – only learned the hard way after years of ignoring them in my youth – for getting the best out of any trip and discovering places I might not even have heard of before I left are always to:

·     Find out what national park are in any region before visiting as usually a national park has been declared to protect a special place, a particularly scenic location or rare bird, plant and animal species.

·     Read as many tourist brochures, guide and history books as possible in advance as a bit of prior knowledge adds exponentially to the depth and enjoyment of any subsequent experience.

·     Talk to locals and fellow travelers whenever and wherever possible, asking their advice about camping spots, fishing tips, favorite places and so on.

Remember that holidays really stand out from each other not so much for places visited, but for people met and local experiences and events enjoyed. So take the time to stop and have a yarn, and even to back-track and return to a town already visited if it means being able to attend some bizarre local ritual such as the Kajabbi yabby races or the Brunette Downs Outback picnic races or the local B&S ball held in a remote woolshed.

Cultural experiences are often much more memorable than glimpsing yet another tumbling waterfall, pristine beach or gorgeous gorge. Don’t neglect adding a touch of history, arts, Aboriginal culture and even industry to your trip as it once again adds another dimension – whether it is attending the extraordinary Laura Aboriginal dance festival on Cape York, descending down an underground silver mine in Mt Isa garbed in full miner’s rig, popping in to the wonderful, and free, NT Art Gallery and Museum in Darwin, or taking a historical walking tour around Fremantle.

Even though costs can seem sometimes to be mounting alarmingly, this might be the only time you are in some of these places and your only chance to really taste all the experiences. So, even if it seems expensive, lash out with a flight over the Bungle Bungles, or a boat trip out to snorkel on the Great Barrier Reef. The chances are that you are living frugally camping and cooking for yourselves – and anyone who is camping out for a year, especially with a family in tow, deserves a treat and a splurge now and then.

Things To Consider Before You Leave

Breakdown protection:

Join or upgrade your membership of your state’s motoring association –the RACV, NRMA, RACQ etc – to the highest level of membership, such as the RACV’s Total Care coverage. For $145 a year, this category ensures that while you travel in remote Australia you will not have to pay any towing costs if your car breaks down, regardless of the distance towed, you will be guaranteed a replacement hire car (a 4WD if that is what you drive) while your own vehicle is being repaired, and the cost of an extra night or two of accommodation if you have to stay longer than intended while repairs are completed. A very worthwhile extra investment.

Itinerary planning:

Don’t plan a trip itinerary day by day, nor arrange precise rendezvous with friends in remote places days in advance. Better to try and work out a rough schedule, planning week by week instead (for example this week in the Pilbara, this two weeks in the Kimberley, this month based around Darwin) leaving plenty of room for unplanned changes, wonderful discoveries and eventful happenings.

Communications:

There is no ideal solution but think before leaving about the best way for your needs and budget to stay in two-way contact with friends and family. Mobile phones are great for populated areas and larger Outback towns, but don’t work anywhere else. However, at least that way friends can leave messages even when you are out of range, and you can pick them up and call back via a public phone, found in even the most remote roadhouses, hamlets and national parks. Having a portable email address (eg Hotmail or Big Pond) is great because you can send and receive messages when in most towns all for the cost of a local call in an Internet cafe. Two-way Royal Flying Doctor Service (RFDS) transmitters and radios for the car can still be hired, but their expense and awkwardness really makes them only suited to a short, two or three week trip in the extreme remote Outback for emergency use. Likewise satellite phones, which give coverage all over Australia are wonderful, but expensive to buy, hire and make calls on.

Books:

A bit of prior reading and extra knowledge, history and information about the places being visited makes an enormous difference on a trip around Australia, not just for learning but also for giving ideas about what to do and where to stay. The Lonely Planet guides are excellent for information about towns and more populated areas and attractions along, for example, the Queensland coast, NSW and Tasmania, but pretty sketchy on details once the bitumen is left. For remote parts of Australia, it is hard to go past the Australian Geographic book series, which includes individual books packed with information, beautiful photographs and some of the best Outback maps of Australia on regions such as Cape York, The Red Centre, the Kimberley, the Nullarbor, Corner Country, the Blue Mountains, the Great Barrier Reef, the Flinders Ranges and the Gulf Country (all retail for $32.95 from Australian Geographic shops.)

Maps:

I’m a great believer that it is hard to have too many maps – I just love good maps – on any journey. Before taking off on any trip around Australia, visit your local Motoring Association, if you are a member, as they dispense many free regional maps. So too do the state tourist association shopfronts in most cities. A road atlas is an excellent idea to give the “big picture” sense of where you are heading, but usually lack enough detail for slow, day-to-day travelling and exploring. But if you have children, it is great to mark off your progress and snail-like route in a road atlas as you go. Despite their expense, I have yet to find a 4WD touring book of Australia that is of any practical use; they tend to be good and incredibly detailed in some spots, appalling bad, sketchy and downright wrong in other regions. For remote exploration of regions such as the Tanami Desert, the Plenty Highway and Outback Queensland, the independent Hema maps are excellent; once again detailed Australian Geographic maps are unbeatable.

Friends:

Before you leave, talk to as many friends or acquaintances as possible who have made the round-Australia trip, or who make regular bush or Outback expeditions as their annual holidays. Gather as many travel tips from them as possible – highlights of their journey, what the kids liked best, the most useful gadget they took with them, unforgettable moments, best camping spots. On the road too, always take the time and make the effort to talk to fellow travellers in camp grounds, caravan parks and roadside stops – often that little gem of passed-on experience or a local tip can turn what would have been a good stay or visit into a truly memorable one.

Pets:  

In one phrase: “Don’t even think about it.!” While I have travelled with a dog when it was absolutely unavoidable (and I was travelling by myself passing through some pretty remote country), pets are really not a good idea. Domestic animals don’t mix with Outback Australia. They will severely restrict your ability to visit and stay in the most magnificent national parks of the Outback since it is almost impossible to find a kennel or cattery in any of the nearest towns, and pets are banned from national parks. More to the point, they can be a danger to children and native animals, are banned from most caravan parks, and often are not allowed on beaches. Together with the long distances travelled and often extremely hot weather, the most pertinent question of all must finally be asked: “Is it fair to the pet?”

Copyright © On The Road Magazine 2001. Any unauthorised use, copying or mirroring is prohibited.