The top five greatest Aussie roadtrips

By Kerry Lorrimer and Michael Gebicki 4 March 2010
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Time to go walkabout? Hit the road armed with a list of five quintessential trips.

THE TRADITION OF going walkabout has been around since the first Australians arrived on the continent some 50,000 years ago. But from citygoers looking to experience some of Australia’s endless natural splendours to backpackers renting a Kombi van and loading up a few mates, everyone quickly comes to the same realisation: Australia is a truly vast place – with more adventure than you can poke a stick at.

Whichever way you skin it, distance has to be your first consideration when you’re mapping out your great Aussie road trip. If you’ve only got a few days or weeks, it’s best to choose a select area or two to explore. If you’ve got six months to a year, you can cover some serious ground. The second consideration is your choice of chariot, which will depend on how long you’re travelling and where you’re going. The outback has an extensive network of roads, but once you get into remote areas, they often dwindle to dirt tracks – so while the Kombi may look cool in Coolangatta, it’s not going to make it up WA’s Canning Stock Route.

Over a few weeks, you could cruise the east coast north from Sydney to Cairns. Stop off in Yamba or Byron Bay and explore the hinterland around Mullumbimby and Nimbin before hitting the bright lights of Surfers Paradise.

If you’re travelling between July and November, you can see humpback whales breaching off Hervey Bay and if you want a break from the driving, detour to the islands of the Great Barrier Reef to dive or snorkel among tropical fish and corals.

  • GALLERY: the Top 5 Aussie road trips

The great Aussie road trip

The coastal explorer’s way wends its way along the Great Ocean Road between Melbourne and Adelaide, along one of the most spectacular sections of the Australian coast. Watch surfers at Bells Beach ride the famous Southern Ocean swells. Stop to count the remaining Twelve Apostles – giant rock stacks carved from the coast over millions of years.

The most compact state to drive around is Tasmania. In a couple of weeks you can head north from Hobart to Freycinet National Park and take the walk to Wineglass Bay – regularly voted as one of the most beautiful beaches in the world. Get an adrenaline rush careering down 1050 vertical metres on a mountain bike, on the Ben Lomond descent. And Cradle Mountain-Lake St Clair National Park has some of the best hiking in Australia.

A roadtrip to the Red Centre is hard to pass up. Watch the sunrise as you lope through the desert on a camel and get an insight into the spiritual significance of ‘The Rock’, on a base walk with an Aboriginal guide.

If you’ve got time, attempt to conquer Highway 1 – it’s the longest highway in the world, over 25,000 km. Stick to it and it will take you right around the rim of Australia – but don’t take it lightly: you’ll need nine months or more to make it all the way around.

Brilliant coast snakes south from Sydney to Melbourne and the Great Southern Way to Adelaide. From here you can cross the immense flatness of the Nullarbor Plain, where the stormy Southern Ocean lashes the cliffs of the Great Australian Bight on one side of the road, and the desert stretches to infinity on the other.

Road trips formed from old stock routes

A network of stock routes was developed over the last 150 years to enable graziers to move their cattle to water and to market. Names such as the Strzelecki, Tanami and Birdsville Tracks and the Gibb River Road are woven into Aussie folklore. The Canning Stock Route, at 2000km, is the longest stock route in the world. Its single set of wheel tracks leads through some of the harshest and most remote terrain on earth, traversing the Gibson and Great Sandy Deserts.

Whenever you head off the beaten track in Australia, you need to be properly prepared. Check out our bush survival skills before setting off.

However you slice and dice the great Aussie road trip, taking a few weeks to explore one stretch of coast, or embarking on the epic round-Australia odyssey, you’ll find adventure around every corner. It’s just a matter of time.

  • GALLERY: the Top 5 Aussie road trips

Gibb River Road, Kimberley, WA

The Kimberley is one of Australia’s most sensational landscapes. A wild, arid plateau at the top end of Western Australia, the Kimberley covers an area larger than Germany yet barely 30,000 people call it home, a place where cattle stations are measured by the million acres, where the trees come from Africa and the climate comes from the furnace, a place that seems to take its structure from science fiction.

The only road across the Kimberley is the Gibb River Road, the 660 km cattle track that cuts a diagonal slash across the region from Kununurra to Derby. There are plenty of tour operators in Kununurra and Broome who offer camping safaris along the Gibb River Road, but for anyone with adventurous inclinations, several car hire chains have offices in Kununurra with one-way rentals of their four-wheel drive vehicles.

The Kimberley is at its loveliest in its river gorges. Typical is Manning Creek, on Mount Barnett Station. Barely a two-minute walk from the campsite, the trail ends at a large rock pool where pandanus palms and paperbarks stroke the water lilies. Water brings life to this parched landscape, and there is no better place to camp for a couple of nights, dividing your time between the cool water and the warm rocks. The Gibb River Road passes a number of similar gorges – Bell’s, Adcock, Lennard River – each a reworking of the same elements of sand, rocks, shade and cool water.

Rainforest Way, New South Wales and Queensland

About 23 million years ago, the volcanoes that lie along what is now the border between Queensland and New South Wales began bubbling lava. When they had finished three million years later, layers of lava and ash had spewed over a huge area. What remains today is a rippling landscape of high peaks and green valleys, and a biological wonderland.

Over the eons, the lava laid down by the volcano has broken down to a lush, red soil colonised by subtropical rainforests so rich with life that the region is home to 14 national parks with World Heritage listing. The Rainforest Way is a 650 km circuit drive that showcases the best of the region. The drive is broken down into a series of seven touring routes that fit neatly into a one-day format. Centrepiece of the Rainforest Way is the rhino-horn spike of Mt Warning, a plug of solidified lava that towers above a landscape of surreal beauty. Pillars of bare rock rise from subtropical forests, and in the mornings, the peaks float on cloud pillows.

Where the forest has been cleared there are dairy farms, banana and macadamia plantations and sugar cane farms, and sleepy country towns under siege from the surrounding vegetation. Larger towns along the route such as Murwillumbah, Kyogle, Lismore and Beaudesert offer accommodation, but there are also many rainforest lodges where guests wake to the sound of birds and the smells of the forest.

Sunshine Coast Hinterland Drive, Queensland

Queensland’s Sunshine Coast is rightly famous for its beaches and the resort lifestyle that flourishes in coastal towns such as Noosa. Yet just a few kilometres inland is another world, the cool, moist heights of the Blackall Range, where waterfalls tumble from the lip of the escarpment in a glistening arc and disappear into subtropical rainforests.

The most distinctive features of this landscape are the Glass House Mountains, a series of sharp-sided volcanic peaks that rise suddenly from the coastal plain. The main visitor activity within Glass House Mountains National Park is bushwalking, and although the trails are short, most have fangs.

Perched in the heights of the Blackall Range, the village of Montville subtitles itself ‘The Creative Heart of the Sunshine Coast’. A truly eclectic blend of architectural styles have taken root here – Tudor houses, stone cottages, Bavarian chalets, an old water mill and traditional Queenslanders – set against a backdrop of panoramic views over the coastal plain. Just to the south is the Mary Cairncross Reserve, a 52-hectare remnant of the magnificent rainforest that once covered the Blackall Range. Within the reserve a walking trail winds among the giant strangler figs, with frequent sightings of wallabies, bandicoots, echidnas, goannas, whipbirds, bowerbirds and kookaburras along the way.

The Great Ocean Road, Victoria

The Great Ocean Road is one of Australia’s definitive wonders, a dazzling, heart-stopping, 250 km drive along the southern coastline of the continent. In the east, the Great Ocean Road begins at Torquay. This is Australia’s surf city, home to the world’s largest surf museum, several enormous surf gear shops and Bells Beach, scene of the Rip Curl Pro Surf Classic, the headline event of Australia’s surfing calendar.

The next town, Lorne, is the beach belle of Victoria’s coast, with a lively café culture to go with the stirring views across the broad, sandy crescent at its feet. Between Lorne and Apollo Bay the Great Ocean Road sprints along the base of the cliffs with the foam off the waves almost licking the wheels of the cars before it ducks inland to skirt Great Otway National Park, where soaring forests of manna gums and mountain ash erupt from an understorey of tree ferns that surround them like lacy green petticoats.

The Great Ocean Road returns to the coast at Princetown, and for the next 35 kilometres, the scenery meter runs off the dial. Here the limestone cliffs along the southern fringe of the continent are besieged by a raging Southern Ocean that has left tall pillars of more resilient rock stranded 50 metres out to sea.

The scenery reaches its climax at the Twelve Apostles, where the rock stacks are huddled photogenically close together. This is easily the most famous stretch of coast in Australia. Each corner delivers another even more spectacular combination of cliffs, islands and battering sea, each scene demanding a stop.

Cape to Cape, Western Australia

In its forests, vineyards and extravagant coastline, Western Australia’s south-west region is a showcase of Australia’s extraordinary diversity. The Cape to Cape trip is a 200km route between Cape Naturaliste and Cape Leeuwin knits this wonderland together, and although the distance is short, this is a journey to savour. South from Cape Naturaliste, Caves Road parallels the coast, swooping through luscious, rolling farmlands and canyons of karri trees that lock arms overhead to form green tunnels above the road. The wildflowers in this region have evolved colours and forms that are found nowhere else. Come spring and the landscape erupts in an exotic show of orange banksias, vivid yellow wattle and kangaroo paws.

About midway along this coast, a detour inland leads to the Margaret River wineries. This is one of Australia’s premier winegrowing regions, acclaimed for its ability to produce wines of astonishing finesse and longevity. There are around 130 wineries here, and a tasting tour is essential to the full experience of the region.

South of Margaret River, the Leeuwin-Naturaliste National Park is a favourite with fishermen, walkers and surfers, who come here to experience sublime scenery as well as a legendary surf break. The road ends at Cape Leeuwin, where the Pacific and Indian oceans meet, and a favourite spot to watch for cruising whales.