Fortunately, the “Are we there yet?” choir has now abandoned our backseat for their own lives, leaving us to savour “the journey”. Our first trip into Australia took us on a fascinating loop of over 11,000 km. Not a “kid-friendly” kind of trip, but for passionate road-trippers like us, it was heaven.
Our first stop in Sydney was the Australian National Roads and Motorists Association (NRMA) office for a camp guide listing the thousands of both public and private “caravan parks” as they call them. The guide included information about facilities and conveniences (from barbecues to internet kiosks), onsite cabins, costs and a rating.
Organized by state and then town, basic information about each town and some “not to be missed” tips about local attractions made this guide the most-read publication in our booklist. The guide cost A$5 at the time and was well worth the price. Travellers choosing to stay in cabins or small hotels would find this guide just as valuable as campers.
Leaving Sydney, our route took us west through the Blue Mountains to Port Augusta and the Stuart Highway. The “Stuart” is the only road in this vast continent that cuts north-south directly through the centre of Australia. Into the outback we pushed, our little Toyota Hilux campervan gamely gobbling up kilometres, never mind petrol. There are not too many diversions in the outback so it’s pretty much a case of pushing on, normally about 600 km a day.
People often think that places like “the outback” are all about sameness ...but it’s not so. In fact, I became so taken with how quickly the terrain around us was changing that I got in the habit of stopping every hour and doing a 360 degree pan of the landscape with the video camera.
One moment we would be moving through a flat, tan-coloured, sand-based terrain with scraggly trees, the ostriches skimming past us like ballet dancers on their tip-toes, the next we’d be dipping in and out of rolling hills with lush foliage bordering picturesque estuaries. It was never boring.
Every few hours there would be a small town or a road house. We’d stop for fuel, for ice cream, for anything that looked even remotely interesting. Many of the road houses have small “zoos”, the result of rescuing injured and orphaned kangaroos, emus, camels, lizards and such off the highway. The kangaroos, particularly, quickly become habituated to humans, endearingly offering their throats for a good scratch.
These road houses look like they are in the middle of nowhere, but that is an illusion. Outback inhabitants think nothing of driving hundreds of kilometers for a good time so come the weekend, truckloads of them arrive from the surrounding cattle stations to party. As the proprietor of one road house told me, “This is where people come to meet, marry, fight, and carry on.” The road houses always have a variety of accommodations, from motel-style suites, to bunkhouses, to powered sites for caravans, to tent sites. There are clean shower blocks, laundry facilities, basic groceries ...and always, a bar and dance floor.
There is a busy schedule of social events as well, with different road houses taking their turn at hosting country/western musicians and events like “beastie races” for which I never got a good explanation except that it involves chasing big animals around some kind of obstacle course ...and everyone has a very good time. Sounds like a rodeo to me. She also told me that if I were a singer looking to book a road house weekend I’d have to get in line because the calendar is booked up months in advance.
Just so you know ...it’s not as quiet out there as it looks.
Steve and I had designed our route to takes us directly into the outback in late spring, then back out again before it got vicious, but alas, the plans of mice and men. Australia was experiencing its highest temperatures since 1953, with outback thermometers soaring into the high 40s and beyond. Although they conceded it was hot, the locals were not particularly concerned with determining exactly how hot it was. We must have rummaged through a dozen hardware stores before we found a thermometer. For me, this became a personal quest because if I was going to endure record-breaking temperatures I wanted proof so that I could spend the rest of my life crowing about it.
I got it. On our hottest day, we stopped for lunch in a small town at the northern end of Australia. Driving, with the wind blowing through the cab, the heat had been bearable, but stationery, it was not. We ate quickly, keeping our bunwich in constant motion so the flies couldn’t settle. If there is one certainty about the outback, it is that the hotter it gets, the more prolific and excited the flies become.
As we left, I checked the gauge. It was 54.5 degrees. Now I’ll grant you the gauge was in the sun on this reading, so it was the extreme end of this day, but I had been walking out there in the sun. So yes, I am the woman who has survived 54.5 degrees and lived to whinge about it.
There was an air conditioner in the van but we didn’t use it all the time because …well, basically because we are cheap. I don’t know whether it is true or not, but my husband firmly believes that when I put on the a/c it uses 50% more fuel. And that was certainly a factor on this trip. Fuel prices ranged from A$0.79 on the coast to A$1.22 per litre in the outback. On one memorable 800+ km day we filled up 3 times for a total of A$135.00. Convinced that fuel costs were going to melt the VISA, we limited the use of a/c to times when I couldn’t take it any more. That was anywhere over 40 degrees.
But it wasn’t just the cost. I like travelling with the windows down, absorbing the sights and sounds and smells of the world.
Thousands of kangaroos are killed on the Stuart Highway (and everywhere else for that matter). Big trucks and local vehicles sport “roo bars” to shield them in collisions with the big roos, who come out at dusk to feed along the shoulders of roads. Mesmerized by the lights, they will jump, abruptly and without warning, directly into the path of vehicles.
We’d been warned that we should humanely put down any roos we hit. I was more than apprehensive about this prospect, wondering exactly what the procedure would be. However, since Steve is the only of us who carries a weapon, albeit a 4-inch pocket knife, I figured this would be his responsibility. Fortunately, he was never required to use it.
Carcasses are quickly demolished by eagles, hawks, crows and dingoes. It is actually the huge eagles that pose the greatest threat to approaching vehicles. They gorge on the road kill then delay lifting off until the very last moment. If they’ve eaten a lot, they are hugely heavy. With their now unwieldy bodies confusing them, they make poor choices about which direction to lift off into and too frequently plough through windshields and into driver’s laps.
The scariest road hazard though, has to be the road trains. These powerful rigs pull 3-to-4 loaded trailers behind them. Camped at Glendambo one evening, one of these fellows stopped in for the night so Steve went out and measured him – 210 feet. He was fully loaded, three trailers each with two stories of wall-to-wall bawling cattle. These bloody beasts bawled all night, convinced, as I was that they were being carted off to their deaths. But not so. The drought in central Australia had so decimated their pasturage that these fellows were actually being shipped northwest to fatten up on the greener grass. Then, they’d be slaughtered.
On the Stuart Hwy, which is two lanes, albeit very narrow lanes, these road trains are intimidating enough, but once we headed north from Tennant Creek to Karumba, along a “developmental highway” the experience became downright traumatic. Looking at this road, which in most places was one lane of bitumen crumbling at the edges where the shoulders fell off steeply, I had smiled to myself, “Well, at least there will be no road trains on this goat trail.”
Not so. A cloud of red dust barrelling down on us at 120 kph told me my worst fears would be realized momentarily. Terrified that our top-heavy campervan would roll off the steep shoulder, I edged down off the road and into the red bowl dust that stretched in every direction. I fully expected the bowl dust to be like soft sand and feared that the van would settle up to the chassis forever.
But it was harder than it looked and after another thousand kilometres of this I developed a comfort level with these road trains. This enabled me to loosen my grip long enough to move one finger off the wheel and exchange the Ozzie friendly-finger-salute with oncoming drivers.
From Karumba, which is on the Gulf of Capentaria on the north coast, we followed another developmental road over to Port Douglas on the east coast. Thus began an entirely other experience for us. The east coast is where the Australian population concentrates itself, for good reason. The coast line is unabashedly gorgeous. Miles and miles of white sand beaches, with virtually no one on them. Campgrounds, which are called caravan parks, are usually situated directly on the beach so one luxuriates in the pleasure of drifting off to the song of the surf, awakening to coffee on the beach. Amazing.
Travelling down the coast we found it useful to purchase local maps to locate the smaller coastal roads. Sometimes these led to spectacular diversions, other times were a pure waste of time. It was always disappointing to have a promising road disintegrate into gravel because rental vehicles are prohibited from travelling off sealed roads .
It would be nice, indeed, to have access to a 4WD, because so much of Australia is off road but 4WD rentals have three drawbacks – they are even smaller and more cramped than a campervan, are much more expensive to rent (about double) and use considerably more fuel.
Driving in Australia is a challenge for North Americans. Not only are you on the wrong side of the road, but you have to adapt to this challenge wherever you pick up your camper, which is usually in a busy metropolis like Sydney.
The gear shift is on the left too. This turned out to be a major frustration for Steve who is right-handed. Being left-handed, I seemed to get the hang of it easier. Our van was a real “grinder”. We blamed ourselves for this, but later discovered it wasn’t us. I suspect that the sloppy gear grind was the result of a long line of previous renters, many of whom had not recently, or perhaps ever before driven a stick shift.
Thank goodness the brake and clutch were still on the left where they belonged or I don’t think we would have lived to laugh about it. The turn signals and wiper controls, however, were reversed, resulting in the “wiper salute” every time we wanted to signal a turn. We finally got this straight after 6 weeks, only to return home and find ourselves discombobulated once again and giving the wiper salute in Canada.
A big challenge for us, as life-long drivers of vehicles with good-sized front ends, was the lack of a front end on this van. The passenger was constantly screaming at the driver “Pull over, you’re going to clip that parked car …lamppost …person!!!” Steve was so certain I was going to kill someone that he tied some yellow wool onto the front, after measuring where the vehicle should line up with the middle line. For the record, we never hit anything and only had two embarrassing episodes of being forced to back up out of the wrong lane in the midst of honking traffic. Both incidents, I want it known, happened when HE was at the wheel.
We became very fond of our little van and somewhat enamoured of the idea that life could be this simple …a bed, a stove, a fridge …2 mugs, 2 plates, a pot. Every night I’d step out of the shower and into my clean shorts and t-shirt. Over to the basin to wash the sweaty shorts and shirt. Hang them up to dry and start again the next night. Life on the road was refreshingly simple.
While outback days were hot and sweaty, by five o-clock the sun was setting and the night was cool and cosy in our snug little van. The coast was another story altogether. In Karumba we’d met a British couple going in the opposite direction - from the coast to the centre. They advised us to buy a fan, “The humidity is going to kill you!” As proof, they hauled a huge, four-foot-square fan out of their camper to show us what we should be looking for.
Steve took one look at it and declared, “I’m not buying any more crap to haul around Australia. We’ll be fine.”
By 1 a.m. on the first night at the coast, he was singing a different tune alright. We went shopping for a fan the next day, albeit a little 8” oscillating model that sat on the fridge.
Life on the road quickly acquired a rhythm that was comfortably attuned to the natural world around us. By 5:30 pm the sun would be setting. We’d make dinner and read for an hour or two, then eyes heavy, snug into bed for the night. By 4:30 am the parrots, lead screachers in the “breakfast chorus” would be waking up, hundreds of them berating each other at full pitch in the trees above us. Locals might find this annoying, we found it absolutely charming. Wakened by parrots ...what could be cooler?
With the sun quickly heating up “the coffin” as Steve was wont to call it, one might as well put on the coffee. We’d be on the road by 6 am, a magical time to watch the world waking up.
We’ve always been crazy about road trips and this trip was certainly an ultimate kind of experience in that regard. Over 11,000 km we absorbed the vastness of an outback landscape that was ever changing: sunbaked saltpans; undulating hills and valleys; blue-hazed eucalypts and ghostly drought-racked gums; flat and featureless scrublands; mushy tropical wetlands; and rainforest jungles. Over it all, this endless dome of blue, the bluest blue I’ve ever known. “Unbelievable” was the word that repeatedly crept to my lips.
Down the coast, it was another world: endless sugar sand beaches; secluded solitary bays; crashing surf and colourful critters; diving on THE reef; lazy laid-back sailing days; a gruelling grind through the sandy tracks of Fraser Island; the tacky tourist lure of Surfer’s Paradise set in the undeniably breathtaking beauty of the Gold Coast; kangaroos and cockatiels; furry little fruit bats and dangerously malevolent dingoes; screaming cicadas and saltwater crocodiles;. It was all “extraordinary”.
We’ll be back. This trip only covered the east half of Australia. We’ve been told that west is by far the best.
We searched the internet and came up with a campervan rental for A$69 per day (over 40 days). This included everything needed: dishes, linens, quilt, chairs, table. When Steve expressed concern that the van had over 160,000 km on it already, the agency told us this was “just a baby in Australia”. Sure enough, talking to other renters, who were paying A$125 per day from a major rental company for exactly the same van (and they had to pay extra for chairs and table) their van had over 300,000 km on it.
We used: www.getaboutoz.com
campervan: $ 2590