We’ve spent a lot of time recently on dusty red dirt roads here in Cambodia that have been reminding us of the many road trips in Australia we’ve done over the years researching travel guidebooks – the main difference being that in Australia those stretches of red dirt are back-roads, tracks or off-road trails. In Cambodia they’re national highways, pot-holed and damaged by monsoonal flooding.
A tour operator here in Siem Reap invited us to test out a new self-drive tour by jeep he’s introducing next year. To be honest, despite the fact that we’ve done road trips all over the world, from Europe and the USA to Middle Eastern countries like Lebanon and Syria, and driven all over Thailand, including roadtripping the Isaan region, I’m not sure I’m ready for a Cambodian road trip yet. If you’ve been on the road in Cambodia, by car or bus, you’ll understand why.
But the idea has got me reminiscing about road trips we’ve done Down Under, and how easily they can go awry if you’re not prepared. So here are our tips for road trips in Australia and exploring those outback tracks safely…
A jeep is a good start for a Cambodian road trip. In Australia, a four-wheel drive (4WD) is essential. We’ve often come across backpackers looking under the bonnet of their broken down cars because they’d tried to drive the ‘vintage’ second-hand sedan they’d bought on the streets in Kings Cross around the country or had even attempted to take them off road.
Making a bad decision when you buy or hire a vehicle can mean missing out on stunning scenery or even worse getting stranded. The likelihood of someone not stumbling upon you in Cambodia or other South East Asian countries, which are well populated, are low, whereas they’re higher in Australia, where on some outback roads you can drive most of the day without seeing another soul.
A few years ago, while researching Australia travel guides, we tested out a few different rental vehicles over a few months, doing everything from the long haul across the Nullabor Plains to off-roading in the Northern Territory. Our vehicle of choice was the hardy go-anywhere Toyota Landcruiser, which has a big diesel V8 turbo engine. While Terence has owned a few cars, I’ve never had a vehicle of my own – I don’t even have a license – yet we became very fond of that thing.
For me, the affection was partly rooted in reasons of nostalgia, as I spent five years of my late childhood and early teens travelling around Australia in a caravan with my family. Terence and I have also done a number of outback road trips before and we love the rituals of road trips: from buying music for the journey to the regular stops at scenic spots for sandwiches and hot tea from our thermos, and nothing but the sounds of the bush: birdsong and cicadas mostly.
Our fondness for that vehicle developed for another reason too – because it kept us safe and we felt protected. If we got into trouble, we knew that if we made the right decisions, it would get us out of harm’s way. For instance…
We were on our way from Alice Springs to Kings Canyon one day. The weather had closed in really fast, the sky suddenly turning steely-grey. The dirt track that the tourist office staff in Alice Springs had told us would be drivable in the wet all of a sudden wasn’t, rapidly becoming a mud bath as the rain fell in sheets.
As creek crossings turned into raging rivers, ‘floodways’ lived up to their name, and our dirt track turned into a stream, and, not long after, a lake. We knew that – despite having driven halfway along the 180-km Mereenie Loop that would take us to Kings Canyon– we had to turn around and drive all the way back to Alice Springs, on the flooded road, in the dark, and in the torrential rain. And we did it just in the nick of time as the water quickly rose around us.
Thankfully, our Landcruiser, or ‘Troopie’ (troop carrier), had a snorkel to prevent water being sucked into the engine which can lead to catastrophic engine failure, and low-range four-wheel-drive, essential for driving through dangerous creek crossings. We had the right vehicle to handle the harsh conditions the Australian outback can throw at travellers, so slowly but surely we were able to make it out safely. Others who’d taken the same route and were a short distance ahead of us became trapped and weren’t rescued by helicopter until a few days later.
That particular road trip took us from Darwin via Alice Springs and Uluru (we did make it to ‘the rock’ the next day via the main highway) to Adelaide, then across the Nullarbor Plain to Perth via the southern part of Western Australia, including the lovely Margaret River region – a nice little drive of around 10,000 km, not counting side-trips on outback tracks.
We tried a mix of accommodation, from motels to caravan parks, with the odd pub and self-catering place thrown in, and we ate everything from meat pies from roadhouse fuel stops to pub counter meals and seafood feasts in coastal towns. We did bush walking and bird watching, boat cruises, and snorkelling. It was one of the most memorable experiences of our lives.
An epic journey of that kind, involving months of long days on the road, taking in Australia’s most jaw-dropping scenery, has always been something of a rite of passage for Aussies, and it’s great to see that it’s becoming increasingly popular with foreign travellers too. But in a challenging country like Australia it’s essential for road-trippers to be prepared and take plenty of precautions.
Here are our tips for road trips in Australia:
- Plan ahead and plan well – plan your trip carefully and think long and hard about how you want to travel. Save the spontaneity for when you’re on the road. Due to the distances between places in Australia, every road trip will inevitably be a long road trip. Make sure you have enough funds to do it properly, i.e. safely.
- Hire or buy a 4WD – whether you’re hiring or buying a vehicle for your road trip, don’t just get any old cheap beaten-up thing, and forget about sedans. If you plan on getting off the highways and even going off the main roads (and you should), make it a sturdy 4WD – our preference will always be a heavy-duty Toyota Landcruiser. Do your math: 4WDs are very expensive to hire, so depending on how long you’re travelling for, it might be cheaper to buy a vehicle and sell it at the end of the trip. Many travellers do.
- AWD versus 4WD – an AWD (all-wheel-drive) vehicle is a popular alternative to a 4WD. They are cheaper, and can go just about anywhere a 4WD can. We could have used one for around 90% of that trip we did, but for the other 10% we would have run the risk of getting into strife. If you get bogged in mud, a 4WD with high ground clearance will probably only need low-range engaged to get out of trouble, whereas an AWD will probably need a tow truck. If you’re in a remote area, you’ll have a long wait for help – possibly a day or two.
- Campervan or motorhome – if you want to save money on accommodation, you’ll probably consider a motorhome at some point, but keep in mind they are generally two-wheel-drive, rendering many picturesque tracks you’ll probably want to tackle off limits. You’ll quickly regret any envy you had for a home-on-wheels with bathroom when you see your first ‘high clearance 4WD only’ sign. Many campervans in Australia are 4WD, with popular rental companies like Britz and Maui using our beloved Toyota Landcruiser ‘Troopie’.
- Where to sleep – if you opt to buy or hire a 4WD that hasn’t been converted into a campervan, then you’re going to have to take a tent to pitch at caravan parks and camping areas or check into motels and pubs when you want a break from sleeping on the ground. If you hire a 4WD campervan then you’ll have to decide between different types of sleeping and cooking arrangements. Also consider things like whether there’s enough storage space for your luggage (check if there’s space under the beds), the voltage and number of power outlets, whether you want a kitchen inside or out, how high the roof is if it’s a high-top or pop-up, whether bedding and kitchenware are included, and if there is a spare fuel tank.
- Get 4WD-driving lessons – if you don’t have much 4WD experience, consider getting some lessons before you head off. Many of the 4WD/campervan rental companies offer short driving courses. Trust us: they can save your life.
- Pack tools and emergency gear – make sure you have a basic toolbox, jack, a spare tyre or two, and you know how to change them. Hire a full recovery kit, including a shovel, tow rope, emergency beacon, and if you’re considering remote trips (and you will once you hit the road), a satellite phone. We always bought extra jerry cans and kept them full of fuel, along with oil and coolant. We also made sure we always carried plenty of water, tin food, dry food, snacks, batteries, torches, etc.
- Take good maps, road atlases and guidebooks – you won’t be able to access mobile phone and internet services outside cities, towns and settlements in Australia, so invest in the best and most detailed maps, road atlases and guidebooks for the areas you’re planning to explore.
- Watch the weather – check weather and road conditions daily (things can change rapidly and situations quickly become dangerous), and check in with the local tourist office and/or police station to let them know where you’ll be going before heading off-road.
- Shop, cook and eat local – if you’ve got a campervan with a kitchen or you’re camping and cooking, head to the tourist office as soon as you arrive in a place to find out when and where the local farmers market is held and, if there isn’t one, what produce the area grows and where you can get it. The tourist office will have maps detailing foodie trails and be able to point you to farm stalls, tasting rooms, local seafood shops if you’re on the ocean, as well as provide you with restaurant lists. Tourist office info will always be better than guidebooks and online resources as they’re updated as changes occur. For lunch, you can’t beat pulling up at a scenic spot and tucking into an Aussie meat pie or sausage roll from a local bakery and hot tea from your thermos as you listen to nature’s soundtrack.
- Drink local – drop into local wineries and craft breweries whenever you can and buy some bottles. Farmers markets and farm stalls will sell fresh bottled juices, home brews, and local specialties, such as ginger beer.
- Drive safely – start out at dawn and finish your day’s driving before dusk to reduce the chances of hitting the wildlife that hits the road after dark. If you get tired don’t hesitate to pull up by the side of the road for a nap. Australian roads and highways have dedicated parking bays for that purpose, sometimes with water and toilets so by no means just stop anywhere.
- Listen to local sounds – buy some great Aussie music for the road. If we’re doing a road trip in Western Australia, for instance, we’ll head to a music shop in Perth and ask for recommendations for local bands. Outback service stations often have an interesting selection of country and western or indigenous CDs and the occasional local oddity, like a poetry reciting cowboy for instance. Radio National’s programmes are riveting, especially their radio documentaries, and the ABC regional channels are fantastic for local news as much as music.
Have you done a road trip in Australia before? We’d love to hear about your experiences, especially any advice or tips you have to share.