Driving a camper van around Australia is a great way to see more of the country, meet new friends and have a great road trip adventure. Once you choose the right camper van rental company, half the battle is done. Sheri did it before and really loved it. Of course, she wasn’t doing the driving and has a very different perspective. As a driver, I also thought it would be lots of fun, but I wasn’t fully prepared for all the challenges that I faced.
Caravan parks are Australia’s equivalent to U.S. RV parks. Caravanning is extremely popular in Australia, which is where I made my biggest mistake. I didn’t make reservations ahead of time for any of the caravan parks during their peak Christmas/New Years holiday season. In hindsight, I didn’t really know where we were heading and I was busy the last two months before our departure, but it could have been better planned. We were lucky that we were able to find free camp sites in some of the more popular locations, but that usually left us without AC power. For a few days, we actually just left the van and had standard room accommodations. The only concern then was that the little DC powered refrigerator would have enough power. One of the apps that was recommended to us was, Wikicamps Australia, however, a web site called exploreaustralia.net.au was the most helpful for finding both paid and free campsites, caravan parks, and even rest areas throughout Australia.
I thought camping in Australia would be fun. What I didn’t account for was the heat of summer. In the winter time, the weather in Queensland is almost tolerable. During the summer months, most of Australia is hot and Queensland is downright miserable with the high heat and humidity. The difference in daytime to nighttime temperatures was usually just a couple of degrees. Luckily, along the coast, there’s a constant offshore wind. Unfortunately, it often felt more like a moist scirocco and didn’t do much to enhance our sleep.
What I also didn’t take into account was the heat of the camper itself. The camper van’s engine is just below the passenger compartment. When we stopped for the evening, it would continue to heat the entire interior for several hours. I eventually found that I could open the small hood and all the doors to help dissipate the heat quicker. With all the doors open, a nice breeze would blow through. But we couldn’t leave the doors open all night without a screen since we would get eaten alive by the bugs or invaded by animals. We found that correct orientation of the vehicle at night to create a cross-breeze was critical to our comfort. We even bought a small DC powered fan just to keep the air moving on windless nights so we wouldn’t be drenched in sweat by the morning.
Everywhere in Australia are signs along the highway warning drivers about fatigue. Not drunk driving, not so much excessive speed, although speed camera are common, but mostly about driver fatigue. Stop, Revive, Survive seemed to be the mantra for both professional truck driver and the casual vacationer driving along the coast. All the signs along the highway are not surprising when you consider Australia has the 90-Mile Straight, the worlds longest stretch of straight road. Once I experienced some of the long straight stretches of highway, I quickly understood how easy it could be to fall asleep, even during the daytime. One day, when the previous night was sleepless from the heat, I pulled off and took a nap to avoid nodding off a 110 kph. As the signs said, a micro sleep can be fatal.
Our camper van has a high roof. It’s 2.65 meters or 8.7 feet and I had to constantly remind myself (along with Sheri’s help) to check the height. Our vehicle didn’t fit in some car parks. In the north, lots of car parks at shopping centers are shaded using tent-like canopies that wouldn’t accommodate our vehicle. That made it hard to find parking in some situations. I also had to be careful around overhanging trees and not drive too close to the edge of the road when there were trees close to the road.
The extra height also caused other issues, most notably stability. Driving a 2.65 meter high van with 5 meters of length makes it a huge sail. Combined with 20-30 mph winds makes for some dangerous situations. The crosswinds were the worst around noon and required constant steering correction to keep the van on the road and away from oncoming traffic. The wind also affected our gas mileage which brings me to…
Gasoline in Australia is expensive. We paid between AU$0.98 to $1.35 per liter, which with the current exchange rate, works out to about US$2.63 to $5.11 per gallon. Our vehicle would normally go 500 kilometers on a full tank. Much less if the wind was blowing unfavorably. In the Outback, I quickly realized that I should never leave a town with less than 1/2 a tank of gas. I found out that many “towns” on the map aren’t much more than a couple of houses along the roadway and often don’t have a petrol station. Towns with fuel are few and far between, so I learned to fill up every chance I could, and draft off big semi trucks when I was really low on fuel. Of course, it also helps if you go the correct way.
Simply put, Google sucks in Australia. While I’m glad that my phone can provide driving directions throughout most of the country, I don’t always agree with the routes that Google chooses. Too often, it takes me off the more direct route, with fewer turns, onto a residential side street, that is usually slower because of speed limits, extra turns, or even speed bumps.
Quite often, Google would cost me money. If I forgot to select, “Avoid Tolls”, it would take me to the nearest tollway when a better and cheaper alternative existed. Luckily, most states and territories in Australia have a web site to pay the tolls. Generally, you have three days in which to pay for a toll, but paying for one after the fact will add a costly administrative fee. It’s better to register on the web site before you start driving to save on the administrative fee. You can even register for only the time that you’ll have your rental vehicle.
Sometimes, Google took us onto dangerous roadways, such as Route 19 in Queensland, that are suitable only for 4-wheel drive vehicles. That leads us to the next topic.
I can say that after driving on Australian roads, I have a newfound appreciation for U.S. highways. While much of the roads I drove upon through major cities were in good repair, once we left the urban centers, the road conditions quickly deteriorated. About 16,000 kilometers (9,900 miles) of roadway are considered national highways. Similar but opposite to our highway system, national highways, with the A prefix, are numbered from east to west and south to north. The exception being national highway A1, which circumnavigates along the country’s coastline. Highways are also named, such as the Bruce Highway or Princes Highway.
However, highways in Australia aren’t exactly like the U.S. interstate highway system. Most “A” highways in Australia are sealed (paved) two-lane roads. Motorways, with the M prefix, are generally near urban centers and are more like U.S. highways with multiple lanes and somewhat limited access. Roads prefixed with “B” are lesser roads, not always sealed, but sometimes the only road through certain areas. “C” roads often don’t have a prefix on maps or signs and are sometimes only suited for 4-wheel drive vehicles.
As if the road condition wasn’t bad enough, we also had to deal with animals with a death wish, both domestic and wildlife. Entire herds of cattle and mobs of kangaroos became additional dangers along the road.
Outback roads were particularly bad for trying to avoid animals. On most of the gravel surfaces during the daylight hours, huge locust-sized grasshoppers would hit both the front and sides of our camper, sounding like hail falling on our vehicle. Sometimes, they would splat on our windshield, other times they would simply bounce off or lodge into the wiper blades, stunned for a few seconds. After they hitched a ride for a couple of kilometers, they would recover and jump away. Bugs were one thing since they only got dangerous when too many hit in my field of vision, but it was the larger animals I was more concerned about.
As soon as the sun dipped behind the horizon, the animals would come out and feed. And sometimes try to kill themselves. Cattle and sheep are fairly predictable, and we were told to simply turn off our headlights and honk to make them move. The kangaroos, however, were totally erratic, often appearing to try and commit kangaroo suicide. Perhaps it was the drought conditions and lack of food, or maybe it was their mate lying dead on the side of the road that would drive them to such an unfortunate end, but there were dead kangaroos everywhere!
In New South Wales and South Australia, we saw more kangaroo road signs than actual live kangaroos. In Queensland’s Outback, where we saw hundreds of them, we saw almost no warning signs, and without a ‘roo bar on the front of our camper, I felt fairly vulnerable. Our headlights never seemed bright enough, nor shine far enough to spot a potential threat to our camper’s grill. One evening as we were driving on the road, we had a couple of too close encounters with the suicidal animals and came to the conclusion that only truckers and stupid tourists like us drive at night in the Outback. One was more prepared than the other.
On one stretch of road in the morning light, we literally saw a dead kangaroo carcass every 5 to 10 meters for 2 or 3 kilometers. Whatever that highway was named should have been renamed to the Kangaroo Graveyard Highway. One section looked like a war zone, where a mob of ‘roos went up against a semi-truck and lost. And a war is probably a good way to describe how locals feel about the ‘roos. Farmers and ranchers don’t like that they compete for food with their livestock. Truckers won’t stop or swerve for them (or anything else for that matter), and become annoyed when they have to stop and remove their remains from their wheel wells and undercarriage. Other drivers are just annoyed that they have to try and avoid hitting one or the remains of one on the roadway. Kangaroos get no respect.
Be realistic about how far you can go in a day. I thought I’d be able to cover greater distances, but road conditions, high winds, daytime driving and fatigue limited how far we could drive each day. It helps if you have another driver and you can drive in shifts.
If you plan to go into the Outback, see if you can find a company that rents campers with ‘roo bars. This doesn’t mean you should drive at night, but at least it will give you a little peace of mind as dusk approaches.
Caravanning can be more comfortable in the winter. It would also be worth the extra money to get a camper with a separate air conditioning unit that we could use at night, especially if traveling to Queensland or the Northern Territory.