1. Plan a rough itinerary
Spontaneity is one of the best things about backpacking, but in Australia it pays to have at least a rough itinerary, as it’s easy to underestimate how long it takes to get around this vast country. Spending longer than planned pottering around South Australia’s wine country – fun though it is – might mean you have to sacrifice that eagerly awaited trip to extraordinary Uluru or exploring the billabongs of Kakudu.
Three weeks is the absolute minimum to “do” the East Coast by land: Sydney to Cairns via the broad beaches of Byron Bay and the Gold Coast, self-driving the length of Fraser Island (the largest sand island in the world), sailing the gorgeous Whitsundays, diving at the Great Barrier Reef and trekking in Daintree, the oldest tropical rainforest on earth. So to see the rest of Australia, you’ll need to fly or have much more time.
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2. Plan where to go when
At any time of year, Australia is a great place to visit but it can get unbelievably hot, as well as surprisingly chilly and rainy, depending on where you go. Avoid travelling north during the “build-up” – the unbearably sticky weeks before the wet season rains bring cooler temperatures (November–March).
It’s far better to spend time in the more temperate south during these months, for example driving the Great Ocean Road or on a hiking trip in the Blue Mountains. The winter is generally a lot quieter so it’s a lovely time to see the country.
3. Pick accommodation to suit your needs
For solo travellers, Australia is a breeze. Staying in hostels is the best way to meet people, and staff can help you orientate yourself and make travel arrangements, while other backpackers are an invaluable source of information.
Whilst not to everyone’s taste, “party hostels” provide social events to break the ice, but you can also find rural retreats, city hipster hangouts, and most have private rooms if you’re a couple or dorms don’t suit.
Airbnb is a popular alternative while campsites are usually well-equipped with kitchens, toilets and the ubiquitous barbecue.
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4. Choose transport to suit your needs
Without doubt the easiest way to cover the great distances around Oz is to fly, but travelling by bus allows you to see more and is cheaper. Gaze out of the window on a long journey and be mesmerised by the changing landscape: the rust-coloured bush where kangaroos bound alongside, swaying grasslands, blue-tinged mountains, and occasional tiny settlements flashing past.
Greyhound buses offer hop-on hop-off travel passes, and the Oz Experience – the party backpacker equivalent – provides excursions along the way. If you want more freedom, hire a car or camper van, pack a tent or bivvy bag and camp out under the stars.
5. Be savvy about safety
Throughout Australia, be prepared for summer heat waves when forest fires are a frequent danger. The arid interior is a hostile environment so take the necessary precautions if you plan to drive – breaking down here is no joke. Like in big cities anywhere in the world, be streetwise – watch your valuables and let family and friends know where you are going.
6. Don’t be spooked by dangerous animals
Australia has more than its fair share of scary critters but don’t get paranoid – the risks are actually very low: more people die each year from bee stings than from encounters with snakes, sharks, dingoes, saltwater crocodiles or jellyfish.
Spider bites are rarely fatal thanks to the availability of anti-venom. That said, do take simple precautions: redback spiders hide in sheltered places so always check under toilet seats, especially in outside lavatories.
Reduce the risk of encountering a shark by swimming between the flags on patrolled beaches, and don’t swim in estuaries, rivers or mangroves where saltwater crocodiles like to hang out. When hiking in the bush, wear protective footwear to avoid snake bites.
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7. Go west
Most visitors to Australia follow the well-trodden path up the East Coast. While it’s undoubtedly a highlight, the Ningaloo Reef on the remote West Coast is an equally spectacular and, unlike at the Great Barrier Reef, it comes right into the shore.
At Coral Bay, you can wade out through turquoise water to the reef or take a glass-bottomed boat and watch an exhilarating frenzy of fish at feeding time. When you’re done snorkelling or diving, see the reef from a biplane or speed on quad bikes along a glimmering white beach.
Head inland to spend the night at an isolated sheep station, cooking over a campfire as the sun sets over the never-ending ochre landscape.
8. Don’t dismiss anywhere
You can have a good time in the most unlikely places: for example, a stopover at a one-horse town with nothing but a pub and a few bungalows may turn out to be the venue for one of the most surprisingly good nights of your trip. The town probably won’t make it into the guidebooks but finding adventure where you least expect it is one of the best things about backpacking in Australia.
9. Learn the lingo
Contrary to expectation, it’s unlikely you’ll hear anyone utter the words “fair dinkum” or “g’day Sheila”. However, there are lots of slang words that will flummox first-time visitors initially. You’ll wear your sunnies (sunglasses), boardies (board shorts) and thongs (flip flops) to the beach and bring an esky (ice cooler) for your barbie (barbecue).
Ordering a beer is one of the hardest linguistic challenges: in most states, a schooner is a large 450ml glass, except in Victoria and Queensland where it’s a pint. The smaller beer glass is called a pot in Victoria and Queensland; a middy in New South Wales and Western Australia; or a handle in the Northern Territory. Confused? Just ask for a stubby (375ml bottled beer), which is the same word everywhere.
10. Look for freebies
Fortunately, you don’t always have to pay to go swimming, surfing, snorkelling or walking. In all the major cities, you can visit the botanic gardens and many museums and galleries for free. There’s no fee to take a tour of Parliament in Canberra or ride Melbourne’s historic City Circle Tram. Festivals around the country offer some free events; one of the most memorable is the Sydney Mardi Gras.
11. Work to pay your way
If staying for a while, find out if you are eligible for a working holiday visa at Australia.gov.au. Depending on the type of visa, you could do your usual type of work or see it as a chance to try out something completely different. If you normally work in an office job, why not try out working on a farm or fruit picking?
If you want to do bar or barista work, in most states you’ll need to obtain an RSA certificate, regardless of whether you have experience. If you’re planning to work in a city, bear the seasons in mind. For example, in Sydney, the peak tourist season is December to February so this can be the hardest time to find work, as businesses are quiet during the summer holidays.
There’s information about working in Australia on the Travellers’ Contact Point website (including tips on finding work, tax and opening a bank account).
12. Don’t hold back
Something happens to people when they travel around Australia. Normally adrenaline-shy folk find themselves bungee-jumping or throwing themselves out of planes as if it’s completely normal. The active, outdoors approach to life is infectious and you’ll probably want to make the most of each day.
So don’t stop yourself: do all the things that excite you – whether abseiling at Tasmania’s Gordon Dam or dancing all afternoon at a boat party in Sydney Harbour – and see as much of this amazing country as you possibly can.
Explore more of Australia with The Rough Guide to Australia. Compare flights, find tours, book hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.