There’s a hell of a lot of water around Australia but unless you’re fortunate enough to hook up with a yacht, it’s not a feasible way of getting around.The only regular passenger services of note are run by TT-Line (1800 634 906; www.spiritoftasmania.com.au), which dispatches two high-speed, vehicle-carrying ferries – Spirit of Tasmania I & II – between Devonport and Melbourne.
Hitching is never entirely safe in any country in the world, and we don’t recommend it. Travellers who decide to hitch should understand that they are taking a small but potentially serious risk. People who do choose to hitch will be safer if they travel in pairs and let someone know where they are planning to go.
In Australia, the hitching signal can be a thumbs up or a downward-pointed finger.
Australia’s extensive bus network is a relatively cheap and reliable way to get around, though it can be a tedious means of travel and requires planning if you intend to do more than straightforward city-to-city trips. Most buses are equipped with air-con, toilets and videos, and all are smoke-free zones. The smallest towns eschew formal bus terminals for a single drop-off/pick-up point, usually outside a post office, newsagent or shop.
A national bus network is provided by Greyhound Australia (13 14 99; www.greyhound.com.au). Fares purchased online are roughly 5% cheaper than over-the-counter tickets; fares purchased by phone incur a $4 booking fee.
Due to convoluted licensing arrangements involving some regional bus operators, there are some states and smaller areas in Australia – namely SA, Victoria and parts of NSW and northern Queensland – where you cannot buy a Greyhound ticket to travel between two destinations within that state/area. Rather, your ticket needs to take you out of the region or across a state/territory border. For example, you cannot get on a Greyhound bus in Melbourne (Victoria) and get off in Ballarat (Victoria), but you can travel from Melbourne to Bordertown (SA). This situation does not apply to bus passes, which can be used freely.
Small regional operators running key routes or covering a lot of ground include the following:
Kirklands (1300 367 077; www.kirklands.com.au)
Transnorth (07-4036 9250, www.transnorthbus.com)
While the companies offering transport options for budget travellers in various parts of Australia are pretty much organised-tour operators, they do also get you from A to B (sometimes with hop-on, hop-off services) and so can be a cost-effective alternative to the big bus companies. The buses are usually smaller, you’ll meet lots of other travellers, and the drivers sometimes double as tour guides; conversely, some travellers find the tour-group mentality and inherent limitations don’t suit them. Discounts for card-carrying students and members of hostel organisations are usually available.
Adventure Tours Australia (1300 654 604; www.adventuretours.com.au) This company does budget tours in all states except NSW. A two-day Red Centre tour starting/finishing in Alice Springs and taking in Uluru, Kata Tjuta and Kings Canyon costs $350 (plus national park entry fees), while a 10-day trip from Perth to Broome costs $1250.
Autopia Tours (1800 000 507; www.autopiatours.com.au) Autopia runs three-day trips along the Great Ocean Rd from Melbourne to Adelaide via the Grampians for $345. The four-day Melbourne–Sydney tour goes via Wilsons Prom, the Snowy Mountains and Canberra ($400).
Easyrider Backpacker Tours (1300 308 477; www.easyridertours.com.au) A true hop-on, hop-off bus, but you can also do trips as tours. It covers the west coast from Esperance to Broome, with trips out of Perth. The Southern Curl goes Perth–Margaret River–Albany–Perth ($250) in three days. A trip from Perth to Exmouth costs $360 and Exmouth to Broome costs $350.
Groovy Grape Getaways Australia (1800 661 177, 08-8371 4000; www.groovygrape.com.au) This SA-based operator offers three-day Melbourne–Adelaide tours ($325) along the Great Ocean Rd and seven-day Adelaide–Alice Springs tours ($825), stopping in the Flinders Ranges, Coober Pedy and Uluru. Small groups.
Nullarbor Traveller (08-8390 3297; www.the-traveller.com.au) This small company runs relaxed minibus trips across the Nullarbor. Laid-back camping and hostelling trips between Adelaide and Perth (seven/nine days $770/990) include bushwalking, surfing, whale watching, accommodation, national park entry fees and almost all meals. Swimming with sea lions and dolphins is also possible.
Oz Experience (1300 300 028; www.ozexperience.com) This is one of those hop-on, hop-off services you will either love or hate. In the past many travellers have complained about seat availability and a boozy culture, while others rave about it as a highly social experience. The Oz Experience network covers central, northern and eastern Australia. Travel is one-directional and passes are valid for up to six months with unlimited stops. A Sydney–Cairns pass is $500, and from Cairns right around the east coast and up the Centre to Darwin is $1980 (includes a two-day Kakadu safari).
Wayward Bus Touring Company (1800 882 823; www.waywardbus.com.au) Most trips with this reputable company allow you to get on or off where you like. The Classic Coast runs between Melbourne and Adelaide via the Coorong and Great Ocean Rd ($365, 3½ days). The flagtrip Face the Outback runs between Adelaide and Alice Springs ($945, eight days) via the Clare Valley, Flinders Ranges, Oodnadatta Track, Coober Pedy and Uluru.
Wild-Life Tours (1300 661 730; www.wildlifetours.com.au) This company offers various trips ex-Melbourne, including Adelaide and Sydney runs, and you can hop on/hop off along the way. Melbourne to Adelaide in two days is $190.
There are no separate classes on buses, and the vehicles of the different companies all look pretty similar and are equipped with air-con, toilets and videos. Smoking isn’t permitted on Australian buses.
Australia is a vast, mostly sparsely populated country where public transport is often neither comprehensive nor convenient, and can sometimes be nonexistent. Anyone whose experience of Australia is limited to travelling the east coast might hotly dispute this, but on the whole it’s true. Many travellers find that the best way to see the place is to purchase a car, and it’s certainly the only way to get to those interesting out-of-the-way places without taking a tour.
Motorcycles are another popular way of getting around. The climate is good for bikes for much of the year, and the many small trails from the road into the bush lead to perfect spots to spend the night. Bringing your own motorcycle into Australia will entail an expensive shipping exercise, valid registration in the country of origin and a Carnet de passages en douanes – this is an internationally recognised customs document that allows the holder to import their vehicle without paying customs duty or taxes. To get one, apply to a motoring organisation/association in your home country. You’ll also need a rider’s licence and a helmet. A fuel range of 350km will cover fuel stops up the Centre and on Hwy 1 around the continent. The long, open roads are tailor-made for large-capacity machines above 750cc.
For cheaper alternatives to the car-hire prices charged by big-name international firms, try one of the many local outfits. Remember, though, that if you want to travel a significant distance you will want unlimited kilometres, and that cheap car hire often comes with serious restrictions.
A small 4WD like a Suzuki Vitara or Toyota Rav4 is $85 to $100 a day. A Toyota Landcruiser is at least $150, which should include insurance and some free kilometres (100km to 200km a day, or sometimes unlimited).
Check the insurance conditions carefully, especially the excess, as it can be onerous – in the NT $5000 is typical, but this can often be reduced to around $1000 (or even to nil) by paying an extra daily charge (around $50). Even for a 4WD, insurance offered by most companies may not cover damage caused travelling ‘off-road’, meaning anywhere that isn’t a maintained bitumen or dirt road.
Hertz, Budget and Avis have 4WD rentals, with one-way rentals possible between the eastern states and the NT. Britz Rentals (1800 331 454; www.britz.com.au) hires out fully equipped 2WD and 4WD campervans. Rates start from around $50 (two-berth) or $65 (four-berth) per day for a minimum hire of five days (with unlimited kilometres), but the price escalates dramatically in peak season. It costs an extra $53 per day to reduce the insurance excess from $5000 to a few hundred dollars. One-way rentals are also possible.
In Australia, third-party personal injury insurance is included in the vehicle registration cost, ensuring that every registered vehicle carries at least minimum insurance. We recommend extending that minimum to at least third-party property insurance – minor collisions can be amazingly expensive.
When it comes to hire cars, understand your liability in the event of an accident. Rather than risk paying out thousands of dollars, you can take out your own comprehensive car insurance or (the usual option) pay an additional daily amount to the rental company for an ‘insurance excess reduction’ policy. This reduces the excess you must pay in the event of an accident from between $2000 and $5000 to a few hundred dollars.
Be aware that if travelling on dirt roads you will not be covered by insurance unless you have a 4WD. Also, most companies’ insurance won’t cover the cost of damage to glass (including the windscreen) or tyres.
You can drive all the way around Australia on Hwy 1 and through the Centre from Adelaide to Darwin without leaving sealed roads. However, if you really want to see outback Australia, there are plenty of routes that breathe new life into the phrase ‘off the beaten track’.
While you may not need 4WD or fancy equipment to tackle most of these roads, you do need to be carefully prepared for the isolation and lack of facilities. Vehicles should be in good condition and have reasonable ground clearance. Always carry a tow rope so that some passing good Samaritan can pull your broken-down car to the next garage.
When travelling to very remote areas, such as the central deserts, it’s advisable to carry a high-frequency (HF) radio transceiver equipped to pick up the Royal Flying Doctor Service bases. A satellite phone and Global Positioning System (GPS) finder can also be handy. Of course, all this equipment comes at a cost, but travellers have perished in the Australian desert after breaking down.
Always carry plenty of water. In warm weather allow 5L per person per day and an extra amount for the radiator, carried in several containers.
Do not attempt the tougher routes during the hottest part of the year (October to April inclusive) – apart from the risk of heat exhaustion, simple mishaps can lead to tragedy at this time. Conversely, there’s no point going anywhere on outback dirt roads if there has been recent flooding. Get local advice before heading off into the middle of nowhere.
If you do run into trouble in the back of beyond, don’t wander off – stay with your car. It’s easier to spot a car than a human from the air, and you wouldn’t be able to carry a heavy load of water very far anyway. SA police suggest you carry two spare tyres (for added safety) and, if stranded, try to set fire to one of them (let the air out first) – the pall of smoke will be seen for miles.
Running 520km from Marree in SA to Birdsville just across the border of Queensland, this old droving trail is one of Australia’s best-known outback routes. It’s generally feasible to travel it in any well-prepared, conventional vehicle.
This old 1700km-long cattle-droving trail runs southwest from Halls Creek to Wiluna in WA. The route crosses the Great Sandy Desert and Gibson Desert and, since the track is entirely unmaintained, it’s a route to be taken very seriously. Like the Simpson Desert crossing, you should travel only in a well-equipped 4WD party. Nobody does this trip in summer.
This ‘short cut’ between Derby and Kununurra runs through the heart of the spectacular Kimberley in northern WA – it’s approximately 660km, compared with about 920km via Hwy 1. The going is much slower but the surroundings are so beautiful you’ll probably find yourself lingering anyway. Although badly corrugated in places, it can usually be negotiated without too much difficulty by conventional vehicles in the dry season (May to November); it’s impassable in the Wet.
This route runs west from Uluru to Laverton in WA, from where you can drive down to Kalgoorlie and on to Perth. The road is well maintained and is normally OK for conventional vehicles, but it’s pretty remote. It passes through Aboriginal land for which travel permits must be obtained in advance. It’s almost 1500km from Yulara (the town nearest Uluru) to Kalgoorlie. For 300km, from near the Giles Meteorological Station, this road and the Gunbarrel Hwy run on the same route. Taking the old Gunbarrel (to the north of Warburton) to Wiluna in WA is a much rougher trip requiring a 4WD.
This road, that goes all the way up to the tip of Cape York, has a number of river crossings, such as the Jardine, that can only be made in the dry season. Only those in 4WD vehicles should consider the journey to Cape York, via any route. The shortest route from Cairns is 1000km, but a worthwhile alternative is Cooktown to Musgrave via Lakefield National Park, which then meets up with the main route.
Running mainly parallel to the old Ghan railway line through Alice Springs, this track is comprehensively bypassed by the sealed Stuart Hwy to the west. It’s 429km from Marree to Oodnadatta, then another 216km to the Stuart Hwy at Marla. So long as there is no rain, any well-prepared conventional vehicle should be able to manage this fascinating route.
The route crossing the Simpson Desert from the Stuart Hwy to Birdsville is a real test of both driver and vehicle. A 4WD is definitely required and you should be in a party of at least three vehicles equipped with HF radios.
This track covers much the same territory as the Birdsville Track, starting south of Marree at Lyndhurst and going to Innamincka, 460km northeast and close to the Queensland border. It was at Innamincka that the hapless explorers Burke and Wills died. This route has been much improved due to work on the Moomba gas fields.
Turning off the Stuart Hwy just north of Alice Springs, this route goes northwest across the Tanami Desert to Halls Creek in WA. The road has been extensively improved in recent years and conventional vehicles are normally OK, although there are sandy stretches on the WA side and it’s very corrugated if it hasn’t been graded for a while. Be warned that the Rabbit Flat roadhouse in the middle of the desert is open only from Friday to Monday, so if you don’t have long-range fuel tanks, plan your trip accordingly. Get advice on road conditions in Alice Springs.
Long-distance rail travel in Australia is something you do because you really want to – not because it’s cheaper or more convenient, and certainly not because it’s fast. That said, trains are more comfortable than buses, and on some of Australia’s long-distance train journeys the romance of the rails is alive and kicking. The Indian Pacific across the Nullarbor Plain and the Ghan from Adelaide to Darwin are two of Australia’s great rail journeys.
Rail services within each state are run by that state’s rail body, either government or private.
The three major interstate services in Australia are operated by Great Southern Railways (13 21 47; www.gsr.com.au), namely the Indian Pacific between Sydney and Perth, the Overland between Melbourne and Adelaide, and the Ghan between Adelaide and Darwin via Alice Springs.
Following are some standard one-way train fares. Note that ‘rail saver’ tickets are non-refundable, no changes are permitted, they are only available on travel seats and payment has to be made at the time of the booking.
Adelaide–Darwin Adult/child/rail saver in a travel seat $700/460/430, from $1390/1025 in a cabin.
Adelaide–Melbourne Adult/child/rail saver in a travel seat $90/55/60, from $140/100 in a cabin.
Adelaide–Perth Adult/child/rail saver in a travel seat $395/190/245, from $1005/610 in a cabin.
Brisbane–Cairns $205 per adult (economy seat).
Canberra–Sydney $35 per adult (economy seat).
Sydney–Brisbane $125 (economy seat).
Sydney–Melbourne $75 per adult (economy seat).
Sydney–Perth Adult/child/rail saver in a travel seat $600/325/260, from $1320/860 in a cabin.
Over summer, school holidays and public holidays, book well ahead on the more popular routes, including intercity and east-coast services. Make a reservation at least a day in advance if you’re using a Greyhound pass.
As the railway-booking system is computerised, any station (other than those on metropolitan lines) can make a booking for any journey throughout the country. For reservations call 13 22 32; this will connect you to the nearest main-line station.
Discounted tickets work on a first-come, first-served quota basis, so it helps to book in advance.
Time pressures combined with the vastness of the Australian continent may lead you to consider taking to the skies at some point in your trip. Nicotine fiends should note that all domestic flights are nonsmoking.
Qantas is the country’s chief domestic airline, represented at the so-called ‘budget’ end of the national air-travel market by its subsidiary Jetstar. Another highly competitive carrier that flies all over Australia is Virgin Blue. Keep in mind if flying with Jetstar or Virgin Blue that these no-frills airlines close check-in 30 minutes prior to a flight.
Australia also has many smaller operators flying regional routes. In many places, such as remote outback destinations or islands, these are the only viable transport option. Many of these airlines operate as subsidiaries or commercial partners of Qantas.
Some regional airlines:
Aero Tropics (1300 656 110, 07-4040 1222; www.aero-tropics.com.au) Flies to Cape York and Torres Strait.
Airnorth (1800 627 464; www.airnorth.com.au) Flies across northern Australia between Darwin, Kununurra, Broome and Gove; also flies across the Timor Sea to Dili (East Timor) and to Kupang (Indonesia). A member of the RegionalLink consortium.
Qantas (13 13 13; www.qantas.com.au) Australia’s chief domestic airline.
QantasLink (13 13 13; www.qantas.com.au) Flying across Australia under this Qantas subsidiary brand is a collective of regional airlines that includes Eastern Australia Airlines, Airlink and Sunstate Airlines.
Regional Express (Rex; 13 17 13; www.regionalexpress.com.au) Flies to Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, Burnie and around 25 other destinations in New South Wales (NSW), Victoria, South Australia (SA) and Tasmania.
Tiger Airways (www.tigerairways.com) A subsidiary of Singapore Airlines, this budget carrier has recently begun domestic air services within Australia. It has a reputation for genuinely cheap fares (similar to the European budget carriers).
Virgin Blue (13 67 89; www.virginblue.com.au) Highly competitive, Virgin Blue flies all over Australia – Virgin fares are cheaper if booked online (discount per ticket $10).
Australia has much to offer cyclists, from leisurely bike paths winding through most major cities to thousands of kilometres of good country roads where you can wear out your chain wheels. ‘Mountainous’ is not an adjective that applies to this country. Instead, there’s lots of flat countryside and gently rolling hills – that said, mountain bikers can find plenty of forestry trails and high country.
Bike helmets are compulsory in all states and territories, as are white front lights and red rear lights for riding at night.
If you are bringing in your own bike, check with your airline for costs and the degree of dismantling and packing required. Within Australia, bus companies require you to dismantle your bike and some don’t guarantee that it will travel on the same bus as you. On trains supervise the loading (if possible tie your bike upright) and check for possible restrictions: most intercity trains carry only two to three boxed bikes per service.
Eastern Australia was settled on the principle of not having more than a day’s horse ride between pubs, so it’s possible to plan even ultralong routes and still get a shower at the end of each day. Most riders carry camping equipment but, on the east coast at least, it’s feasible to travel from town to town staying in hostels, hotels or caravan parks.
You can get by with standard road maps but, as you’ll probably want to avoid both highways and low-grade unsealed roads, the government series is best. The 1:250, 000 scale is the most suitable, though you’ll need a lot of maps if you’re going far. The next scale up, 1:1, 000, 000, is adequate and is widely available in speciality map shops.
Carry plenty of water to avoid dehydration. Cycling in the summer heat can be made more endurable by wearing a helmet with a peak (or a cap under your helmet), using plenty of sunscreen, not cycling in the middle of the day, and drinking lots of water (not soft drinks). It can get very cold in the mountains, so pack appropriate clothing. In the south, beware the blistering hot northerlies that can make a north-bound cyclist’s life hell in summer. The southeast trade winds begin to blow in April, when you can have (theoretically at least) tailwinds all the way to Darwin.
Outback travel needs to be properly planned, with the availability of drinking water the main concern (remember that most of the country is in a drought) – those isolated water sources (bores, tanks, creeks and the like) shown on your map may be dry or undrinkable, so you can’t depend entirely on them. Also make sure you’ve got the necessary spare parts and bike-repair knowledge. Check with locals if you’re heading into remote areas, and let someone know where you’re headed before setting off.
The national cycling body is the Bicycle Federation of Australia (02-6249 6761; www.bfa.asn.au). Each state and territory has a touring organisation that can also help with cycling information and put you in touch with touring clubs.
Bicycle New South Wales (02-9218 5400; www.bicyclensw.org.au)
Bicycle Queensland (07-3844 1144; www.bq.org.au)
Bicycle SA (08-8232 2644; www.bikesa.asn.au)
Bicycle Tasmania (www.biketas.org.au)
Bicycle Victoria (03-8636 8888; www.bv.com.au)
Northern Territory Cycling Association (08-8945 6012; www.nt.cycling.org.au)
Pedal Power ACT (02-6248 7995; www.pedalpower.org.au)
For more information, see Lonely Planet’s Cycling Australia.
If you arrive in the country without a set of wheels and want to buy a reliable new road cycle or mountain bike, your absolute bottom-level starting point is $400 to $550. To set yourself up with a new bike, plus all the requisite on-the-road equipment such as panniers, helmet etc, your starting point becomes $1500 to $2000. Secondhand bikes are worth checking out in the cities, as are the post-Christmas sales and midyear stocktakes, when newish cycles can be heavily discounted.
Your best bet for reselling your bike is via the Trading Post (www.tradingpost.com.au), which is distributed in newspaper form in many urban centres and also has a busy online trading site.