Dreaming of wide highways and big country scenery? Craig Tansley reveals the 10 best places you can escape to by car in Australia.
Cairns to Cape York, Queensland
One of the world’s most iconic road trips: a 1000-kilometre 4WD journey from Cairns through croc-infested waters to the very tip of Australia. There are different ways to make the drive, but we suggest travelling the scenic coastal route that takes you past Cape Tribulation and through the Daintree Rainforest (where you’ll maximise your chances of seeing the all-elusive, and endangered, cassowary).
You can camp along the way or book a room at strategically set roadhouses (you’ll get all the advice you ever need about how the roads are from other drivers when you’re staying here). You’ll pass by remote Aboriginal communities and ancient rock art dating to 30,000 years ago (at Quinkan Galleries at Laura), and past rainforests and parched red dust plains. Much of the road is paved these days (though you can choose to avoid most of the bitumen if you like), but it remains a rite of passage for every adventurer.
Great Ocean Road, Victoria
No road in the world has hosted as many car commercials… and why not? For this is the world’s most scenic drive: a 243-kilometre twist-and-turn along Victoria’s southern coast – which only leaves the coastline to take motorists through empty, forested hinterland that’s home to towns few people have even heard of.
Starting west of Melbourne in Torquay, the road begins just beside iconic surfing spot Bells Beach (made famous when the dramatic ending of Keanu Reeves’ surfing blockbuster, Point Break, was set here). The road weaves its way around pretty coastal towns Apollo Bay and Lorne, home to beachside restaurants, lodges and cafes. Don’t miss highlights like Cape Otway Lighthouse (where koalas live in trees just above the roadway), the iconic 12 Apostles and Lord Ard Gorge, the site of a 19th-century shipwreck.
Pacific Coast Highway, New South Wales
Often overlooked by travellers as just a roadway to someplace else… this 900-kilometre drive from Sydney to Brisbane takes you along one of the world’s most underrated coastlines. Aside from Byron Bay (and Coffs Harbour) so much of this coastline remains a virtual secret, visited by few.
World Heritage-listed rainforest grows right down to the sand at some of the country’s most secret beach towns, like Wooli, Evans Head and Woolgoolga. Though it’s the empty pockets in between that’ll really impress; here rivers flow out to the sea and there are beaches with no-one on them. Even in the height of school holidays, it’s easy to find your own space along the Pacific Coast Highway, staying in beach or forest cabins, or at empty campsites right beside the sand.
Perth to Ningaloo, Western Australia
Ask most “Big-Lappers” (those who drive right round Australia) and they’ll tell you this 1200-kilometre roadway was their favourite part (though most knew nothing of it before their trip). This is where the Indian Ocean meets the red sands of the outback. The road starts just north of Perth – drive between June and September and it’ll be lit up by blooming wildflowers. The greenery soon turns to desert – watch out for emus – where there are few cars around.
In Carnarvon take time out at One Mile Jetty to watch sharks and turtles in the clear turquoise waters. Further north, you’ll find what most travellers come for: whale sharks you can swim with between April and July at Exmouth and Ningaloo, and humpback whales pass close to shore between July and November (you can swim with them, too). For a more sedate wildlife experience, wild dolphin feeding in Monkey Mia is famous all across the world.
The Great Beach Drive, Queensland
It’s one of the longest beach drives on Earth. But where The Great Beach Drive differs from other iconic ocean drives (like Victoria’s Great Ocean Drive) is that on this one you’ll be travelling almost entirely on the beach – from the north shore of Noosa, right along Fraser Island, and beyond to Hervey Bay. The beach is considered highway, with a speed limit of 80 kilometres per hour.
This is a drive that takes in two UNESCO Biosphere Reserves and the largest sand island in the world, Fraser Island (where there’s 123 kilometres to drive around and some of the country’s best beach fishing). You can drive it yourself – using your own 4WD or hire one – or choose tour options which take in as much of the 325-kilometre trail as you have time to see. And you can do everything from camping under the stars along the way, to staying at luxury eco-resorts.
Great Eastern Drive, Tasmania
Not every road trip has to be a multi-day adventure through the bush. Tasmania’s Great Eastern Drive can be done in a weekend, but shouldn’t be. That would be to miss the whole point of being here; of spending hours fossicking for mussels and oysters on craggy shorelines beside an empty sea, and of spending entire afternoons at tiny cellar doors along the Great Eastern Wine Drive.
The drive spans 220 kilometres between Orford and St Helens (you can choose to start in either Hobart or Launceston). There are many must-sees just off the road too – take the turn to Coles Bay and the Freycinet Peninsula (walk to Wineglass Bay), and drive just north to Bay of Fires. If you have four days or more, then lose yourself in quiet beach towns, such as Bicheno, and in the forests of the hinterland.
The Nullarbor, South Australia/Western Australia
The name itself is as Australian as a Midnight Oil song. The drive sends you through some of the loneliest stretches of outback in Australia, in an area four times the size of Belgium. There’s plenty of interesting characters to share the journey with: meet them at road stops along the way.
The Nullarbor section of the road only stretches 300 kilometres, but the full Nullarbor Track goes for 1660 kilometres of the Eyre Highway from Port Augusta (South Australia) to Norseman (Western Australia). It’ll take four days and you’ll cross three time zones, and drive the straightest road in the world. Stop in towns, including Ceduna with its seafood restaurants on the water, and detour off the highway to stand on remote cliffs along the Great Australian Bight.
The Great Alpine Way, Victoria
It doesn’t take a coastline to make for a spectacular road trip in Australia – not when you can traverse some of the country’s highest terrain, an area steeped in 19th-century gold-mining history. The Great Alpine Way goes for 339 kilometres between Wangaratta and Metung in Victoria’s north-east. This is Australia’s highest year-round accessible sealed road; combine skiing along the way in winter and stay at Hotham and Falls Creek.
The road travels through wine country and Bright, surely the country’s prettiest alpine village. Take a detour to Beechworth, with its granite streetscape built on the profits of the Gold Rush. You’ll drive across mountain ranges and through alpine forests, ending in Metung where the largest expanse of inland waterway in the Southern Hemisphere begins.
The Gibb River Road, Western Australia
Forget about taking your Corolla through these parts; this track’s 4WD only. The Gibb River Road’s known as one of the last serious adventures left in Australia. Built originally for remote cattle stations (many the size of small countries) to transport livestock to sea ports, this track cuts through one of the last great wildernesses left on Earth, the Kimberley (it’s three times the size of England).
The road runs 660 kilometres from Derby on the west coast, to Kununurra, near the north coast. But you’re not travelling through desert, you’ll be passing through ancient sheer-sided mountain ranges with gorges, 80-metre-high waterfalls, lakes, fast-flowing rivers… even beaches. There’s 60,000-year-old history here in rock art sites, while you can stay at iconic camping spots such as Home Valley Station.
The Red Centre Way, Northern Territory
Could there be a more Aussie road trip than a 690-kilometre adventure which cuts through the dead heart of Australia, beginning and ending in Australia’s most famous outback town, Alice Springs? You won’t need a 4WD, unless you’d like to take some of the side trips available to gorges and waterholes only accessible by rough road. Though there’s enough to keep you occupied on the paved road for five days at least.
You’ll cross through countryside which ranges from mountains (yep, there’s mountains here) to gigantic sand dunes and gorges with secret waterholes; dodging dingoes, kangaroos, brumbies and camels along the way. It’s a lonely road – be prepared to see no-one in either direction for 200 kilometres. That is, till you get to iconic Central Australia attractions Uluru, Kings Canyon and Alice Springs.
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