Everything you need to know about driving in Australia

Everything you need to know about driving in Australia

By Andy Turner
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With its stunning Outback scenery, arrow-straight roads and stupendous scale, driving in Australia is the ultimate way to see it the country up close and personally. Whether you’re driving a souped-up Land Cruiser capable of crossing a croc-infested creek or a humble hatchback more at home in a Melbourne suburb, you’ll find a route to suit. Use this guide to driving in Australia to plan your trip.

What to drive

Choosing what to drive usually boils down to time, budget and where you’re planning to go. A standard hire car will get you surprisingly far in Australia, as you’ll find sealed roads and roadhouses (a garage with attached pub/pie-shop and accommodation) along all but the most remote sections of coast, even deep into the Outback.

For the romantics among you, though, hiring a campervan allows you greater freedom, and a true sense of adventure. Bear in mind, though, that the lack of space and the joys of a chemical toilet mean you’ll often be craving the facilities of a campsite (aka campground) kitted out with power points, bbqs and hot showers. If you do go for a campervan, invest in air-con and preferably a fridge. Cracking open an ice-cold VB under a star-strewn sky doesn’t get much more Australian.

For anything truly gnarly a four-wheel drive (4WD) is your best bet – in Australia this is generally the “bulletproof” Toyota Land Cruiser. For the basics on 4WD driving print out the safety card produced by the National 4WD Association and follow our Outback driving tips.

To buy or not to buy

Many travellers on a longer trip decide to buy a car or campervan, knowing that they can probably offload it at a reasonable price down the track. Apart from the usual suspects such as Gumtree and eBay, Sydney’s backpacker car market in Kings Cross has a huge range of road-worthy (and importantly) state-registered cars for sale. If you don’t fancy the hassle, Travellers Autobarn offer a guaranteed buyback on cars and campervans.

Emu Crossing in Front of Car in Australia's Outback

Rules of the road

Despite its epic and often empty roads, there’s a maximum speed limit of 110kph or 68mph across Australia (and some memorable ad campaigns to remind you). Police do not need a reason to pull you over for a breath test and you’ll often find roadblocks testing every driver on the approach to big cities, especially if there’s a big rugby, AFL or cricket match on. Parking fines can also be a headache for those with a campervan who expect to be able to park anywhere (and don’t expect to escape a fine once you’ve left the country – the authorities are great at tracking people down). Petrol and diesel, though a major expense on any road trip, is cheaper in Australia than the UK or Europe.

Route idea #1: The Red Desert One

While most visitors now fly direct to Uluru (Ayers Rock), approaching this monumental Aussie icon is even more exciting by road. The route from Alice Springs via the Stuart Highway and Ernest Giles Road (4WD only) takes you past otherworldly meteor craters, across the dry Finke River bed and offers a tempting detour to the unmissable Kings Canyon. Along the way you might spot thorny dragon lizards skittering across the road, emus and beefy red kangaroos (it’s best to avoid driving at night when they can be spooked by headlights).

Distance 1080km: standard car/4WD for Ernest Giles leg; when to do it: April–October

Route idea #2: The Great Ocean One

An all-time classic for jaw-dropping coastal scenery, The Great Ocean Road west of Melbourne, combines gorgeous vistas of crashing surf and rocky pinnacles (notably the Twelve Apostles) with wildlife-watching opportunities, including whales and fur seals. Try and time your visit around Easter so you can drop in at the Rip Curl Pro surfing competition at the legendary Bells Beach.

Distance 346km; standard car/camper; when to do it: November–April

Australia, Victoria, Great Ocean Road, Port Campbell Coastal Park, Twelve Apostles

Route idea #3: The one to the tropical tip

There are some wonderful drives in Australia’s tropical “Top End”, especially Northern Territory‘s stunning national parks. The ultimate option, though, is the near 1000km 4WD ride from  Cairns to Cape York, the very northern tip of Australia. Passing through remote Aboriginial settlements, virgin rainforest and roaring waterfalls, you’ll likely to see saltwater crocs and bizarre looking cassowary birds along the way. If you’re pushed for time, the route from Cairns via Mission Beach to the Daintree National Park provides similarly epic tropical scenery in a more modest 390km.

Distance 1000km or 390km (Daintree only); 4WD only; when to do it: May–October

Route idea #4: The city to city one

Melbourne to Sydney can be done in a but-aching nine hours if you stick to the M31 Hume Highway. Instead, take your time and explore the wonders of Wilson’s Promontory National Park, before heading north through the rolling and occasionally snowy Snowy Mountains via Mount Kosciuszko, the country’s highest peak at 2228m. Between Kosi and Sydney, Canberra makes a perfect pitstop and an opportunity to check out one of the world’s quirkiest capitals.

Distance 878km; standard car/camper; when to do it: year-round though July/August may bring snow on Kosciuszko

Route idea #5: The cross-country beast

If you’re dead set on crossing the whole continent, the 3500km Savannah Way links Broome in Western Australia to Cairns in northern Queensland, and provides every type of Outback driving from parched desert to humid tropics. While you could feasibly drive this within a week or less, it’s best to allow two to three, and stopping off along the way (there are an amazing four UNESCO World Heritage sites to drop in at). While much of the Savannah Way is on sealed roads there are also a few sections requiring four-wheel drive.

Distance 3700km; standard car/4WD; when to do it: May–October

Explore more of Australia with the Rough Guide to AustraliaCompare flights, find toursbook hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.

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