by Collyn Rivers – Updated 2020
Best Way to RV Around Australia
There are many ways to explore Australia in an RV. 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. These include ‘figures of eight’, zigzags and routes based on watching or taking part in events around Australia. The Best Way to Drive an RV Around Australia explains all you need to know. It explains what it costs, what the weather is like, which way to go. And are the locals friendly (they are!).
Best Way to RV Around Australia – follow the wind
Australia is a big country.
The most popular (and shortest) route around its edge is 13,800 or so kilometres (8,625 miles). Allowing for diversions (such as Tasmania or Alice Springs and Uluru), this distance can double.
This ‘rim’ route is best done anti-clockwise. Ideally, start down south in spring or summer (from Melbourne or Sydney). From there, head north following the sun northwards before winter sets in.
When you head west from North Queensland, your RV will be assisted by strong and constant east-to-west trade winds across the entire top of Australia. You will benefit likewise by west-to-east winds across the 1400 kilometre (875 miles) Nullarbor Plain on the way back. These winds are typically 50- 60 km/h. Fuel consumption can be up to 50% higher if driving at speed into this wind – and far less than usual if that wind is behind you.
If you’re intending that quick run around the outside of Australia, Highway One ranges from six-lane highways to single-lane roads. It is sealed most of the way except for about 550 km of the Savannah Way between Normanton and Borroloola (North Queensland).
Fuel is typically available every 350 km or so, including the 700 km between Broome and Port Headland (Western Australia) – where the only fuel station (and basic campsite) is halfway between the two towns. As with many of Australia’s major highways, this route has rest areas with toilet facilities every 100 kilometres or so (62.5 miles) in the more remote areas.
Even on this main route, travellers need to be self-sufficient. There are rest areas but it is not uncommon to be 500-1000 km from the nearest cabins – let alone a motel.
You are unlikely to be alone – there are typically three to ten RVs there most nights (some 100,000 people a year do this trip). Excellent and constantly updated guides are available on places to stay along the highway. There are many towns along the way. Most have (an often costly) travel trailer if you need greater comfort and more facilities.
The best way to drive an RV around Australia is Highway One. A major downside, however, is that it carries a great deal of heavy transport. There are many two to three trailer ‘road trains’ that weigh 50 or more tones – and travel at 100 km/h. Furthermore, Highway One is not scenic for much of the way.
Where feasible (assuming time is not a constraint) check out the following alternatives. Ideally, travel with a 4WD and off-road travel trailer or camper trailer. Seek local advice re road conditions.
Be aware that some roads in the north and north-west may be closed during the wet season (typically November- April).
Going 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 Australia is a big country!
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).
Almost all dirt roads have these corrugations. They will damage passenger cars and standard travel trailers.
Going from east to west is approximately 6,500 kilometres each way and is feasible with a travel trailer if you have the right experience and the right towing combination.
In considering the best way to drive an RV around Australia, there are a number of possible starts 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 travel trailer 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 (dirt) 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.
Beware of the distance
Be aware there are long distances between towns in many parts of Australia.
Up north, along most of Western Australia’s coastline, and along the 1400 kilometre (875 miles) Nullarbor Plain that connects East to West, towns are few, small and a long way apart. When you do reach a remote town, it may have only a single and often basic motel. In some places, the only habitation is a roadhouse. A roadhouse is a fuel stop with often truly basic accommodation.
Try not to cover more than 200 kilometres a day. Driving with a travel trailer in tow is more tiring than driving a vehicle alone. A camper trailer, however, is barely noticeable.
Most Australian travel trailer owners start their journeys early in the morning. They try to reach their destination by 3 pm or so, including time for rest stops. Towing a travel trailer in the dark along an unknown road when you’re tired is not a good combination. It also close to impossible to see a possible free campsite when dark.
Travel 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. Furthermore, 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 (if you need travel trailer accommodation) book well in advance during school holidays. Many are fully booked months in advance. This is particularly true of Broome (Western Australia).
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.
Plan For All Seasons
Australia’s 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 the heat and high humidity it’s best to plan the trip so as to avoid the top end in the wet season. (It stays hot all night too). Never try to cross watercourses unless you know they are safe. Across the entire upper half of Australia, any will (not just may) have one or more crocodiles. Consider water depth and speed carefully and have a local show you how to drive across creeks.
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 and cyclones
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.
Cyclones are mostly from November – April. They mainly affect only the upper third of Australia. It is very hot and humid during this period. The best way by far is not being up North during that time of year.
Food and Water
Away from the coast, much of Australia has a desert climate. It 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 that sold in 12-15 litre plastic containers. These are stocked by virtually all supermarkets and fuel stations Australia-wide, and also stores in Aboriginal communities. Basic food and drink supplies are available at all roadhouses, and even the smallest town will have a food store.
Unless deemed necessary (as on less-trafficked outback roads), do not tow a travel trailer with full water tanks – they increase van weight and can affect van stability.
Leave The Travel Trailer Behind To Explore
If travelling with a travel trailer you do not take it everywhere you go. Consider carrying a tent in the tow vehicle, and when the going gets tough, leave the van behind in a travel trailer (usually at a nominal charge) and go camping. This is particularly or so in and around Alice Springs (Australia’s Centre). Many travel trailer owners park leave their ‘vans in the town’s travel trailers –then tour the area in their 4WD tow vehicles.
Another alternative is to rent a 4WD camper for remote areas or join a guided group tour. There are many group tours 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 2500 kilometre plus round trip along what used to be a seriously corrugated road.
As noted previously, fuel stops on made up roads in the more remote parts of Australia can be up to 375 kilometres (235 miles) apart. Unmade roads, however, may not have fuel stops for 700-800 kilometres.
The cost of fuel in Australia, at (in 2020) typically $1.50 a litre ($5 a US gallon) is higher than in the USA but much less than in Europe. The cost up north and north-west 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 keeping under 80 km/h, by reducing weight. In particular, never use cruise control in hilly areas (it attempts to maintain speed regardless).
Keeping safe 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 your drive wheels even begin to bog in the sand never allow them to spin. 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 the tyre pressure is restored.
Particularly in the upper parts of Australia be prepared for strong side wind gusts caused by oncoming large trucks and road trains. Most travel at up to 100 km/h.
Do not swerve for wildlife if you have 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.
Never go bushwalking alone, and always carry a compass and a detailed map. To all but country dwellers, much of the bush looks the same. It is very easy to get lost, carry a mobile phone as they provide emergency services of your approximate location,
Be alert for dangerous wildlife, carry a first aid kit at all times and know how to get help in an emergency.
Never even think about attempting to kill a snake
Only a very few snakes are aggressive. If confronted by one, initially stay very still and then slowly back away. Outback doctors will confirm that virtually all who get bitten are male and usually drunk – and pointlessly trying to kill it.
• Talk to the locals about road conditions
• Ask local Aboriginals about their (now) 65,000-year-old culture. In Broome, be aware that many (mostly female) Aboriginal people have university degrees.