How to Caravan Around Australia
What does it cost, what is the weather like and which way to go.
There are many ways to explore Australia in a caravan. You can go around the outside, base yourself in one place and take short trips in different directions, or criss-cross through the centre. There are many ways – including ‘figures of eight’, zigzags and routes based on watching or taking part in events around Australia. Here’s how to caravan around Australia. (Adapted from an original article by Collyn Rivers who has crossed Australia over twelve times).
Tip 1 – Follow the Wind
The most popular method is the ‘bicycle rim’ approach. The shortest route around the edge of Australia is 13,800 or so kilometres (8,625 miles). Allowing for diversions (such as Tasmania), this distance can easily double.
The ‘rim’ route is best done anti-clockwise starting down south in spring or summer (from Melbourne or Sydney) and heading north following the sun northwards before winter sets in.
When you head west from Cairns or thereabouts, you will have behind you the often strong and constant east to west trade winds across the top of the country. You’ll also benefit at the bottom end from west to east winds across the 1400 kilometre (875 mile) or so Nullarbor Plain on the way back.
With wind speeds as high as 60 km/h and a usually heavy and less than aerodynamically ideal van in tow , fuel consumption can be up to 50% higher if driving at speed into a strong wind.
Tip 2 – Use Highway One
If you’re going around the outside of the continent, the best way by far is to use Highway One. It ranges from six lane highways to single lane roads, but is made up the whole way round. It’s also the only made up road around the top and North West of Australia. For breaks and overnight stops, Highway One has rest areas, with toilet facilities, every 100 kilometres or so (62.5 miles) in the more remote areas. Most travellers consider it safe to stay overnight in these rest areas, and many do. You are unlikely to be alone – there are typically three to ten RVs there most nights (as some 100,000 people a year do this trip). Excellent and constantly updated guides are available on places to stay along the highway. Most towns along the way have a caravan park if you need greater comfort and more facilities.
Tip 3 – Go North-South or East-West
There is an excellent road from south to north across the centre of Australia from Adelaide to Darwin via Alice Springs. Keep in mind that Uluru (Ayers Rock) is a 550 kilometre side trip each way from Alice Springs (along a dirt track if you use the Merinee Loop road). Watch out for other vehicles exploring the new unlimited speed limit trials on some sections of the highway between Alice Springs and Darwin.
Going from east to west is approximately 6,500 kilometres each way and is feasible with a caravan if you have the right experience and the right towing combination. There are a number of possible start and finish points on each coast. One major route – from far north Queensland, via Alice Springs, to Halls Creek in Western Australia – is scenic around Alice Springs but otherwise flat and uninteresting. It is dirt and often heavily corrugated dirt for much of the way but is progressively being bitumenised. This route should only be attempted with a caravan built for this purpose and a four wheel drive tow vehicle. This route should also not be attempted at any time except winter – as inland temperatures can approach 50 degrees C.
There is one alternative road in the Kimberley (the Gibb River Road), but a four wheel drive tow vehicle is necessary to access the few camping sites along it.
Tip 4 – Beware of Distance
Those who have not visited Australia before need to be aware that long distances separate towns in some parts of Australia. Up north, along most of Western Australia’s coastline, and along the 1400 kilometre (875 mile) Nullarbor Plain that connects East to West, towns are a long way apart. When you do reach a remote town, it might have only a single and often basic motel. In some places, the only habitation is a road house, which is a fuel stop with truly basic accommodation.
Try not to cover more than 200 kilometres a day. Driving with a van in tow is more tiring than driving a vehicle alone. Most Australian caravan owners start their journeys early in the morning and try to reach their destination by early afternoon, including time for rest stops. Towing a caravan in the dark along an unknown road when you’re tired is not a good combination.
Tip 5 – Go When It’s Quiet
Australia’s East Coast is crowded during Christmas (summer) and Easter. Any areas mentioned in the Lonely Planet Guide in the past ten years are likely to be busy. On the East Coast however, there are many little used inland roads that run more or less parallel to the coast. These can be worth exploring.
Find out the school term dates of the state in which you will be travelling (school term dates vary by state) and book caravan park accommodation in advance during school holidays if you can. Check out the dates of major events in each state or town (such as agricultural shows, car or horse race meetings and music festivals) and, depending on your preference, work your travel schedule into or around these events.
Tip 6 – Plan For All Seasons
The Australian climate varies hugely from north to south and from summer to winter. The southerly areas are mostly comfortable in summer, but cold (0-15 degrees C) down south in winter. There is also a wet season up north, typically from November to March, with some risk of cyclones and impassable roads due to creek or river flooding. Unless you are accustomed to heat and high humidity it’s best to plan the trip so as to avoid the top end in the wet season. DO NOT try to cross water courses unless you know they are safe. Consider water depth and speed carefully and learn how to drive across a creek.
Be flexible with your travel plans if bad weather intervenes – some of the more enjoyable travel experiences can be the unplanned ones. You have your accommodation with you, so why not use it?
Keep in mind that the outback can reach temperatures below freezing at night in winter. Plan your heating and clothing accordingly.
Bush fires are an increasing threat during Australian summers. Read, watch or listen to local news reports when bush fires threaten and follow total fire bans.
Tip 7 – Always Have Water (and Food)
Australia has a desert climate and can be very hot and dry. It is essential to carry a least two/three litres a day per person of drinking water on your travels. Four to five litres per person per day is ideal.
The quality of water supplies varies across Australia, especially in the outback. The best type of water to carry is water purchased in 12-15 litre plastic containers. Basic food and drink supplies are available at all road houses, and even the smallest town will have a food store. Do not tow a caravan with full water tanks – they increase van weight and can affect van stability.
Tip 8 – Leave The Caravan Behind When it Gets Bumpy
Just because you have a caravan in tow does not mean you have to take it everywhere you go. Think about taking a tent in the back of the tow vehicle, and when the going gets tough, leave the van behind in a caravan park (usually at a nominal charge) and go camping. Alternatively just have day trips.
Another alternative is to rent a 4WD camper for remote areas or join a guided group tour. Group tours are recommended for those wishing to visit Kakadu and Lichfield Parks (near Darwin), Cape Leveque north of Broome, the vast Kimberley in general and the Cape York Peninsula. Cape York is a 2,500 kilometre plus round trip along a seriously corrugated road (about two and half million corrugations).
Tip 9 – Think Fuel
Fuel stops on made up roads in the more remote parts of Australia can be up to 375 kilometres (235 miles) apart. Unmade roads may not have fuel stops for 700-800 kilometres.
The cost of fuel in Australia, at typically $1.60 a litre ($5 a US gallon) is higher than in the USA but much less than in Europe. The cost up north is usually a third or so higher in the few major towns, but can be close to double in outback areas.
Fuel is therefore a major expense, but it can be reduced by not driving fast, by reducing weight, by not using cruise control in hilly areas and by having prevailing winds behind you (see Tip 1).
Tip 10 – Wolf Creek It Isn’t (but safety is still important)
Here are the most important safety rules for travelling in outback areas:
- In the event of problems, never leave your vehicle. You are more likely to die by going to look for help than by staying put. Use the shade under your vehicle(s) if you need to and wait for help
- If you get bogged in sand, clear all sand from under and in front of the vehicle and reduce tyre pressures by half (to about 110 kPa – 16 psi). Do not drive at more than 30 km/h (18 mph) until tyre pressure is restored
- Be prepared for side winds caused by oncoming large trucks and road trains
- Do not swerve for wildlife – with a van in tow, your life may become threatened instead of theirs
- It is advisable not to free camp within about 50 kilometres of any town, (particularly on a Friday or Saturday night) as kids tend to drive out of town to party. They are usually quite harmless, but can be worrying if you are camping alone
- Do not go bush walking alone, be alert for dangerous wildlife, carry a first aid kit at all times and know how to get help in an emergency
- Talk to the locals about road conditions up ahead
- Drive to the conditions.