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Great Australian Road Trips

Paul Harding Lonely Planet Author

Memorable road trips are rarely about the destination, and almost never about getting from A to B. It's the journey that counts: the pleasingly unexpected view revealed by a winding road; the endlessness of an outback highway; meeting local characters in small-town stopovers; or just discovering a cracking pub or roadside diner. Wind down the window, crank up the stereo and set the cruise control for these Great Aussie Road Trips.

Great Ocean Road, Victoria (200km/124mi)

Australia's most famous coastal drive is much more than a wiggly road with a few rock stacks at the end. It was largely constructed as a war memorial by returned diggers following WWI, taking more than 3000 men and 13 years to complete. Today the Great Ocean Road is a gloriously scenic tourist drive: at times the road cuts along cliff edges with turnouts where you can pull over and admire views of the crashing southern ocean; next it descends into tall-timbered temperate rainforest, where dozing koalas cling to tree forks; and finally you come to the dramatic, picture-postcard limestone rock stacks known romantically as the Twelve Apostles.

The trip starts gently at Torquay, Victoria's surf capital, before meandering through Anglesea and Lorne, a popular summer holiday town where you can buy fresh seafood at the pier and eat it down by the foreshore. The winding drive from here to Apollo Bay is one of the most scenic stretches as the road dips and turns, clinging dramatically to the coast. As you drive through Otway National Park, detour south to Cape Otway lighthouse - Australia's oldest surviving lighthouse - or north to the Otway Fly, an elevated treetop walk and lookout high above the forest canopy.

Next stop is Port Campbell National Park, home to the slowly-eroding Twelve Apostles and other craggy rock formations along the aptly-named Shipwreck Coast. You can see them from viewing platforms near the visitor centre, fly over them by helicopter or take a boat ride out from Port Campbell. A little further on, tiny Peterborough marks the end of the coast road.

Eyre Highway and the Nullarbor Plain (1670km/1038mi)

Straddling two states and slicing through Australia's most famous desert region (the pancake-flat Nullarbor Plain), the sealed Eyre Highway is one of those drives where sheer nothingness is the main attraction. But throw in flaming outback sunsets, the odd bounding kangaroo, the world's longest golf course and detours to the Great Australian Bight, and you've got a trip to remember.

Travelling from east to west, the highway starts in Port Augusta, South Australia. From here it's a soporific five-hour drive to Ceduna, a raggedy fishing village and the last town of any size before you hit the Nullarbor. It's also the tee-off for Nullarbor Links, a unique desert golf course that spans 1365km (848mi), with each of the 18 holes spaced well apart at towns and roadhouses between Ceduna and Kalgoorlie!

Turn off at Penong for the legendary surf breaks at Cactus Beach and the Head of the Bight viewing platforms where you can watch migrating whales from July to September. After crossing the border into Western Australia, a handful of roadhouses break up the journey to highway's end at Norseman. From there the choice is to head north to the goldmining town of Kalgoorlie, or south to the gorgeous white-sand beaches at Esperance.

Tropical Way - Cairns to Cape Tribulation (140km/87mi)

Hugging the coast between rainforest and the Great Barrier Reef, this is one of the far north's greatest 'short' road trips - distances out here are vast, but this sublime jaunt can be done in just a few hours. Still, we recommend setting aside at least few days and allowing ample time for rainforest walks, swimming, croc-spotting and snorkelling on the reef.

The journey starts in Cairns, a sultry holiday town where a trip to the reef is just about de rigeur. The Captain Cook Hwy heads north from here, skirting the northern beaches. The drive from here to Port Douglas is a visual highlight - a sort of tropical Great Ocean Road, where the winding highway embraces the coast and throws up dazzling views of the Coral Sea. Stop for a quick swim at Mossman Gorge, a tantalising boulder-strewn waterhole enclosed in primeval rainforest.

Further north, the road narrows, passing through cane fields and small beach communities before you arrive at the Daintree River crossing, where the river can only be forded by a lovable cable ferry. There's a feeling of trepidation as you drive your car on for the short crossing - you're about to enter a tropical wilderness where the rainforest really does meet the coast.

Look out for cassowaries as you make the 35km (22mi) coastal drive to Cape Tribulation, a gorgeous hamlet where hammocks, tree houses and long beach walks are the order of the day. The sealed road ends here but with a 4WD and a sense of adventure, you can continue on the dry-weather Bloomfield Track to Cooktown. But that's another story...

Stuart Highway - Adelaide to Darwin (3030km/1883mi)

You don't need a 4WD, a week's supply of water and the bush skills of Bear Grylls to get a taste of an outback road adventure - the sealed Stuart Hwy will get you south to north, coast to coast, right through the mythical Red Centre.

The highway is named for explorer John McDouall Stuart, the first European to traverse Australia from south to north. 'The Track', as it's affectionately known, roughly follows the original Overland Telegraph Line and parallels the present day Ghan railway line. The official start is Port Augusta and there's a whole lot of nothing in the South Australian section, except for the obligatory stop at the opal-mining town of Coober Pedy. Stay in an underground hotel and survey the moonscape that served as the setting for Mad Max.

Across the Northern Territory border you enter Red Centre country, home to a rich source of Aboriginal art and culture and two of central Australia's most wondrous sights: Uluru (Ayres Rock) and Kings Canyon. It's a 250km (155mi) detour west to Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, but one you must make. You've never seen a sunset until you've seen it at the Rock. Take a tour with indigenous Anangu guides or ride out to see it by camel.

Back on the highway, take a well-earned break at Alice Springs, before tracking north for the tropical Top End. Call in for a beer at the famous Daly Waters Pub, soak in hot springs at Mataranka and canoe down Katherine Gorge at Nitmiluk National Park before hitting the final stretch to Darwin, the NT's cosmopolitan capital. Spend an evening at the Mindil Beach Market and relax with a beer at a Mitchell St bar. You've earned it.

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