There's nothing quite like the freedom of the open road – but, whether it's a Sunday drive through the timeless back roads of the English countryside or a continent-spanning overland epic, you’ll need to pick the perfect motor to get the most out of the trip.
Jump in the back seat, strap yourself in, and get comfy as we identify the right wheels for the job.
Gibb River Road, The Kimberley, Western Australia
- The right wheels: Toyota Land Cruiser or Nissan Patrol
- How long: One to two weeks
- Highlights: the night sky, gorge swimming
Biting flies, stifling heat, jackhammer corrugations, and hundreds of kilometres of red dust aren’t everyone’s idea of fun, but traversing this notorious route across Australia’s last frontier is an epic adventure. Vast boab-studded savannahs stretch to the horizon while rocky ranges hide fern-lined pools, waterfalls and ancient rock art.
This remote route is littered with wrecks of road trips past, so forget pretend off-roaders – you’ll need a serious 4WD that can cross flooded, croc-filled creeks, climb over rocks and runs on diesel. If it’s a Toyota or Nissan, you'll have a better chance finding parts when (not if) it breaks down. And, considering how much pounding it's going to receive, better that it's not actually yours!
Britz in Broome and Darwin specialise in fully-kitted 4WD campers to tackle the Gibb.
Toronto, Ontario to Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada
- The right wheels: random, but a four-cylinder car is cheaper on fuel
- How long: eight to 10 days
- Highlights: wide horizons, majestic mountains, lakes
The open roads and big skies of Saskatchewan and Manitoba are the perfect antidote to euro-induced claustrophobia. Moving across stark landscapes with nada to see for hundreds of kilometres can be liberating, and a cheap decompression option is the North American drive away – car relocation by any other name.
Toronto is a good place to start. Your contract normally stipulates a deadline and kilometre allowance (with a useful buffer) and some contribution towards fuel costs. With some creativity (putting in a few all-nighters/sleeping in the car), interesting detours are possible, like the Icefields Parkway in the Rockies. Banff, Lake Louise and Jasper are just the tonic before you wind down through Kamloops for some seafood chowder in Vancouver.
Google 'driveaway' or try torontodriveaway.com.
Novosibirsk, Siberia to Kyzyl, Tuva Republic, Russia
- The right wheels: 4WD camper van
- How long: one to two weeks (from Novosibirsk)
- Highlight: the lake at the edge of the world
If the earth were square, then Russia's little-known Tuva Republic, nestled between Siberia and Mongolia, would sit on one edge. And at that edge, there is a lake, the fabled Khindiktig Khol; pristine, surrounded by grasslands, snowy mountains, and kilometres of vehicle-swallowing bog. No one is going to rent you a vehicle for this trip – just to reach the start point of Novosibirsk entails a drive of +10,000 km from Vienna.
Once there, head south to Altai, and just outside Kosh-Agach pick up the 'Tuva Track'. Bring something rugged as you'll mostly be following wheel ruts across the steppe, fording rivers, crossing rocky passes littered with vodka bottles and asking directions at the odd yurt. A vehicle you can sleep in is good; better if there's more than one (for bog rescue). Once you've dug yourself out of the lake, it's easier driving all the way to the vowel-challenged Kyzyl, self-proclaimed 'Centre of Asia'.
For a full route description, made in a VW 4WD van, check out Lonely Planet's Thorntree.
Baja California Sur, Mexico
- The right wheels: VW Beetle (convertible if possible)
- How long: one week to a month
- Highlights: surf, seafood, sun
Newspapers are loaded with horror stories from the northern border region of Mexico, yet the bottom of the Baja Peninsula is regarded as one of the friendliest and safest areas in the whole country. It's also home to legendary surf, and the wild coastline is dotted with small fishing villages.
Deserts, canyons, nature reserves and mountains make up the interior, while Route 1, the Carretera Transpeninsular, provides access. The ubiquitous VW beetle, hecho en Mexico (made in Mexico) long after most other countries moved on, is the perfect low-key transport to help you blend in like a local. Just throw in the board and away you go.
Several VW tour options are available from thetravelingbeetle.com.
Namibia and Botswana
- The right wheels: 4WD Land Rover Defender
- How long: two weeks to two months
- Highlight: migrating wildlife
Whether you're chasing wildlife in Botswana's Okavango Delta and Chobe National Park, or waves and shipwrecks along Namibia's deserted Skeleton Coast, you'll need a 4WD vehicle with plenty of low-range torque.
Home to both the Kalahari and Namib deserts, seeing the sights (incredible landscapes, wildlife and people) in both countries involves traversing many a sandy track, and locals prefer the lighter Defender over other 4WDs. Parts are also easy to come by. Defenders with full camping gear (including a roof tent) and GPS/satellite phone can be hired from several outlets.
Safari Drive offer Defenders fully-decked for getting seriously lost.
Plymouth, England to Banjul, The Gambia
- The right wheels: anything left-hand drive, the older the better
- How long: three weeks
- Highlight: finishing
Dating from 2002, the original and much-imitated Banger Challenge is still a classic driving adventure. The concept is simple: buy a really old car (ie a 'banger') and drive it down through the Western Sahara (Morocco, Mauritania and Senegal) to Banjul in the Gambia.
In the rally's early years, a £100 limit applied to the cost of said vehicle. Now anything goes as long as it's left-hand drive. On arrival in Banjul, the cars are auctioned for local charities. It is not a race. Rules are deliberately loose and there are no backup vehicles. Other than a 'road book' (with directions and phone numbers), you're on your own.
The Amalfi Coast, Campania, Italy
- The right wheels: Fiat 500
- How long: A sunny afternoon
- Highlight: colourful Positano
Thinking Ferrari? Think again. To hire one, you have to be able to own one. At the other end of the scale is the Fiat 500, one of the smallest cars ever made, with a two-cylinder air-cooled engine producing less horsepower than most modern lawnmowers. Still, this Italian classic is the perfect vehicle to putt along the cliff-hugging and incredibly scenic S145 and S163 between Sorrento and Salerno in Southern Italy.
Oozing equal amounts of history, tourists and picture-postcard villages perched above azure seas, the Amalfi Coast shouldn’t be rushed through. And with a Fiat Cinquecento, that’s never going to happen.
Strut your stuff with an Italian classic from spiderlifestyle.com.
C roads, United Kingdom
- The right wheels: Mini Cooper S
- How long: three hours to four weeks
- Highlight: sheer driving pleasure
Be it a Sunday afternoon toddle around the Cotswolds, an expedition looking for yew trees in forgotten Kent churchyards, a white-knuckle ride over The Lake District’s Hard Knot Pass, or a month-long Highlands quest for the perfect single malt, there is one car that stands above the rest. Well, actually below the rest. But what the humble Mini Cooper lacks in stature, it more than makes up for in fun. Here’s a car made for zipping along tight, twisty country lanes, the exhaust echoing in your ears, 50mph feeling like 100mph. Here's a car made for £1.30 a litre.
You can hire a new mini anywhere, but try at least one ride in a classic: greatescapecars.co.uk.
Route 50, USA
- The right wheels: Ford Mustang or Dodge Challenger
- How long: one to three weeks
- Highlight: desert solitude
While ever-increasing numbers of travellers are rediscovering their kicks on Route 66, 'America's loneliest road' – aka Route 50 – is largely unknown outside the States. Linking the Pacific and Atlantic coasts, and around 1000km longer than its more famous sibling, Route 50 crosses barren deserts, isolated mountains and Midwest farmlands on its way from Sacramento, California to Ocean City, Maryland.
The western section through the Nevada and Utah badlands is particularly undeveloped, and was the location for the classic 1971 road movie, 'Vanishing Point'. So sure, you could use any wheels, but for a big dollop of classic Americana road culture, make sure it’s a pony.
Renting a 60s muscle car in the States isn’t cheap (though you might be able to buy one cheaper than at home). Most rental firms can supply a new version, though if you really want that ’65 Mustang, try classicmustangrentals.com.
The Big One - Melbourne, Australia to London, England
- The right wheels: something rugged yet simple
- How long: six to 12 months
- Highlight: China
A steady trickle of diehard road warriors embark on this most committed of trips. Aim for Darwin by either coast or up the Red Centre. Ship your vehicle directly to Singapore or Port Klang in Malaysia, or jump the cargo barge heading to Timor L’Este and car ferry through Indonesia. Southeast Asia is yours as you head towards the Chinese border in Laos.
It’s possible to cross China in your own vehicle if you prebook a guide from an accredited Chinese travel agency. From China, head west through the ‘Stans, or north through Mongolia into Russia, and on to the Trans Sib. Take anything that you think will make it – light, sturdy, simple. You’ll be pushing to complete this trip in six months – but then again, what’s the rush?
First published January 2015.