Pack your stuff, throw it in a camper van along with a surfboard and don’t look back… This might be an old cliché but it’s one for good reason: Australia really is one of the best places on Earth for a road trip.
Whether you’re living the dream in your camper van, or making do with a less romantic form of transport, Australia’s well-kept, open roads beckon and will lead you through astonishing landscapes. There are many great road trips in Australia, but here are our favourites.
1. Coastal views on the Great Ocean Road
Staggering ocean views and easy access from Melbourne make this one of Australia’s best-loved road trips. Pack an overnight bag and follow the dramatic coastline, stopping to view a series of coastal rock formations, holding their ground in the surf.
The magnificent Twelve Apostles – eight giant sea stacks – appear otherworldly at sunset, guarding the limestone cliffs. Among the other rocky highlights include London Bridge arch, the Bay of Islands and Loch Ard Gorge.
At Bells Beach, grab a wetsuit and do your best Keanu Reeves’ impression. This was the famous surf setting for his film Point Break, but it was actually filmed in California.
If you’re not a surfer you can hike in Great Otway National Park, say hello to the koalas at Kennett River or kayak out into Apollo Bay to observe a seal colony. Otherwise, take it easy at a beach restaurant in the seaside town of Lorne.
Best for: Weekenders seeking surf and sea stacks.
How long: 2 days.
Need to know: Starts at Torquay, a 1.5-hour drive from Melbourne, and ends at Warrnambool.
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2. Adventure along the way from Perth to Exmouth
Driving north from Perth, you may expect nothing of the Outback landscape but scorched earth and straight roads all the way up the west coast. While these certainly exist, a road trip here is also punctuated with remarkable geological features, some of the world’s best (yet empty) beaches and kangaroos hopping alongside your camper van.
First, a bit of fun at Lancelin where you can go sand boarding in the dunes or off-roading in a truck-sized 4×4. Then on to the Pinnacles Desert where bizarre pillars protrude from the desert like ancient monoliths.
In Kalbarri National Park, see Nature’s Window and the Z-Bend Lookout, abseil Murchison Gorge and ride on horseback around the scenic estuary at Big River Ranch.
A five-hour drive north brings you to Shark Bay, home of weird stromatolites – the oldest fossils on Earth – and the brilliant-white Shell Beach. Stop at Monkey Mia to meet the dolphins before heading on to Coral Bay, where another pristine white beach greets you. From here you can wade out 50m to the Ningaloo Reef – the second-largest reef in Australia – to snorkel with dazzling fish, turtles, reef sharks and whale sharks.
Best for: Desert adventurers.
How long: 5 days.
Need to know: To extend the trip, keep going all the way to Broome, via Karijini National Park.
3. The home strait on the Nullarbor Plain
The Nullabor is not for the faint-hearted. The mesmerising Eyre Highway runs through a vast, treeless plain, from Port Augusta in South Australia to Norseman in Western Australia.
With an almost 150km stretch that’s the world’s longest straight road, it’s no surprise that it’s known as “Nullaboring”. But many travellers love it for the beauty of the desert and the on-the-road camaraderie. There’s a strong sense of community at the roadhouses, which appear roughly every 200km – with nothing in between.
Venture away from the main road to see some of South Australia’s geological highlights, including Pildappa Rock – a 100m-long wave of red sandstone – or the peculiar rocks at Ucontitchie Hill and Murphy’s Hay Stacks.
From Denial Bay, the Eyre Highway clings to the coast all the way to Western Australia. At the Head of Bight, you’ve a good chance of spotting Southern Right Whales between June and October. Then there are the empty beaches, towering cliffs, the magnificent blow-holes – and the oddities… Eucla features the ghostly remains of a telegraph station protruding from the encroaching dunes, while Balladonia (population: 9) commemorates the spot where the Skylab space station fell to Earth in 1979.
Best for: Adventurers up for trying anything, loners and Nullarbor addicts.
How long: 7–10 days.
Need to know: Be prepared with a serviced car, and enough food and water to last between roadhouses. Daytime temperatures can reach 50°C and nights can be freezing. Be careful of wildlife and passing road-trains.
4. The blissful beaches of Fraser Island
If there’s one side trip on the east coast you mustn’t miss, it’s Fraser Island, a 123-km World-Heritage-listed sand island. Here, off-roaders may roam but the dingo is king.
The beach that runs the full length of the island functions as the main highway and an airstrip for small planes, so keep an eye on the air too while you bomb along the strand. Halfway down the beach, you can’t fail to notice the eerie remains of the shipwrecked SS Maheno appearing silhouetted against the raging surf.
Take a side road into the interior and suddenly you’re in another world – specifically, you’re in a subtropical rainforest growing on 200m-high sand dunes. Stop for a swim in the sparklingly clear Lake McKenzie, one of forty freshwater lakes perched high on the dunes. It’s like nowhere else on Earth.
You can pitch your tent at any of the 35 designated grounds – just you, the campfire, the rumble of surf and the sense of beady canine eyes watching from the darkness.
Best for: Beach bums who tidy up after themselves.
How long: 2 days.
Need to know: Arrange your trip at Hervey Bay, where you can hire 4X4 and buy vehicle access permits.
Pixabay / CC0
5. Wineries along Tasmania’s Great Eastern Drive
Drive northeast from the capital Hobart to start the Great Eastern Drive at Orford. You can catch a ferry from Triabunna to Maria Island National Park and spend the day hiking, wildlife watching and visiting the World-Heritage-listed Darlington Probation Station, a kind of reform school for convicts in the nineteenth century.
Back on the coast road, the views over Great Oyster Bay are overwhelming. Recover in Swansea with a plate of seafood washed down with a glass of wine from the East Coast Wine Trail.
Don’t drink it all at once; you’ll be passing the vineyards on the next leg to the Freycinet Peninsula. This is one of Australia’s top beauty spots, not least Wineglass Bay, a perfect curve of sand around an azure bay, best seen from a lookout after a steep hike.
They say the devil is in the detail, but here it’s actually in Bicheno. If Tasmanian devils are on your must-see list, then plan a visit to the Natureworld Wildlife Sanctuary.
From Bicheno, the Surf Coast leads you to Scamander, beyond which lie Binalong Bay and the heavenly Bay of Fires. Despite the rusty orange glow from the lichen-coated boulders, there’s not a devil in sight on these pristine beaches.
Best for: Hikers who enjoy devilishly good scenery.
How long: 3 days.
Need to know: You can drive the whole route in a day, but you’ll want to take a few days. The Great Eastern Drive can easily be incorporated into a loop around the whole island state.
6. Exploring Victoria along the Great Alpine Road
This mountain road crosses one of Australia’s main ski regions and some of the highest altitudes in the country, which just scrape above 2000m – so don’t expect anything too extreme.
Nonetheless, it’s a beautiful drive through a gentle region, a world away from Victoria’s lawless past. From Wangarratta, the road passes vineyards and farmland as far as the pretty town of Bright.
But take a short detour and you’ll reach Beechworth and Glenrowan, land of the nineteenth-century outlaw Ned Kelly, where you can learn about the life of this national folk hero.
Back on the Great Alpine Road, continue to Mount Buffalo National Park and climb its granite tors or explore on horseback, like Ned himself would have done. As you cross the Ovens River Valley, snowy peaks come into view.
Beyond Harrietville, the road gets tougher, as it winds steeply up through snow gum forests to Mount Hotham, Victoria’s highest alpine resort. This is a starker landscape with deep valleys and panoramas across the Australian Alps. It’s well worth hiking the Razorback Trail to the summit of Mount Feathertop, Victoria’s second-highest mountain.
After this, the road descends to Dinner Plain and on to historic Omeo, a former gold-mining town. Then down through forests at Tambo to Metung, the Gippsland lakes and the ocean beyond.
Best for: Mountain-lovers, who don’t mind that Australia’s alps are somewhat vertically-challenged.
How long: 1 day.
Need to know: If you drive from Melbourne, take the M31 to Wangaratta, and on the coastal journey back, stop at Wilson’s Promontory and Phillip Island.