Ditch the usual highways and byways for untold road trips that promise as much fun getting lost as they do finding your way home
AUSTRALIANS’ LOVE AFFAIR with a windows-down, tunes-up, gravel-crunching road trip is just as well, given the length and breadth of our country. We live in a land full of the “pitiless blue sky” and “thirsty paddocks” immortalised in Dorothea Mackellar’s My Country (even though we only know the words to the second stanza).
For me, hitting the bitumen is the perfect cure for a headache, heartache or simple boredom. I just jump in the car with no destination, no deadline and the Triffids’ Wide Open Road playing so loud the car speakers crackle and buzz.
The best road trips are those that make you feel like you’re the only person in the world, where the sky is all yours. They’re on the back roads and byways where every stop promises discovery. Here are some of Australia’s best offthe-beaten-track places to take a long drive.
The trip: Townsville to Mount Isa
Drive time: 11 hours 40 minutes
Sights: Another epic outback trip, this time from the coast to the mining town of Mount Isa. Be sure to visit Mary Kathleen mine, a ghostly reminder of how quickly mining fortunes can change – the town was moved after it was shut down in 1982.
The big attraction here is the harsh-butbeautiful landscape, such as the Riversleigh fossil site, together with SA’s Naracoorte, classified as a World Heritage site, dating back more than 20 million years.
Get more outback for your buck with a detour via Longreach, home of the Australian Stockman’s Hall of Fame and the birthplace of Qantas. “We’re thrilled to be welcoming back visitors after being closed for three months,” says Nicole Kuttner, communications manager of the Qantas Founders Museum (qfom.com.au). “We want to get back to telling the story of Qantas and its milestones, from being the first airline to have female cabin crew to the first round-the-world flight.”
Buckle up for its Luminescent Longbeach experience, where retired planes play host to huge projections – like Sydney’s Vivid but for aeroplane buffs.
Back in Townsville, hike the goat track up Castle Hill for a view (fit locals run it in 15 minutes), jet-ski over the ocean with the craggy outline of Magnetic Island as the backdrop (townsvillewatersports.com.au) or stay the night at revamped Rambutan hotel with a coastal-chic vibe and rooftop bar (rambutantownsville.com.au).
The trip: Streaky Bay to Port Lincoln
Drive time: 3 hours 30 minutes
Sights: This is wild and windswept coastline along South Australia’s Eyre Peninsula. Head past friendly seals playing in Baird Bay (bairdbay.com) and perhaps end up sharing the chilly Southern Ocean with a bonechilling great white shark, cage-diving with Calypso Star Charters (sharkcagediving.com.au).
On the way to visit this apex-predator, stop by the best table in the world for oyster lovers. Just pull on your fetching waders and walk out to a waist-deep wooden perch where you can pluck shellfish straight from the renowned waters of Coffin Bay (oysterfarmtours.com.au). The one-hour experience sees you shucking, eating and learning about the area’s famous bivalves.
To break up the drive, you can spend a night at Camel Beach House (camelbeachhouse.com.au), a wooden cube inspired by the regional fishermen’s shacks hidden among the scrubby sand dunes of Mount Camel Beach. Inside the steel-clad pod, protected from the buffeting winds, you’ll find an eclectic, book-filled living space with comfy leather couches and a panoramic coastal view.
AUSTRALIAN CAPITAL TERRITORY
The trip: Canberra to Blue Range Hut
Drive time: 40 minutes
Sights: Take a short, family-friendly drive from the nation’s capital out to Blue Range Hut to fire up the gas barbecues for lunch, or even stay the night (bookings essential; visitcanberra.com.au).
The Blue Range area is as historic as it is beautiful and was once the site of an internment camp that held Italians during WWII; the hut was the kitchen and there are other heritage-listed remains to explore.
The nearby Uriarra Loop Walk follows the snaking Murrumbidgee River, weaving through stands of giant river oaks and past cliffs that overhang the water. If you walk to the neighbouring Molonglo River and over a low-slung bridge you can see right across to NSW from Shepherds Lookout.
On the way back to Canberra, stop in at the kitschy National Dinosaur Museum (nationaldinosaurmuseum.com.au). It may not impress kids who have seen Jurassic Park, but it does have one lo-fi jump-scare they won’t see coming.
NEW SOUTH WALES
The trip: Sydney to Silverton
Drive time: 13 hours
Sights: This is an epic red-dirt road trip slicing the state in half and swapping the
bright lights of the Emerald City for Mad Max country. You can head to this outback outpost from Adelaide or Mildura, too, for shorter drive times, but this is one for the road warriors in all of us.
Pull in at Taronga Western Plains Zoo in Dubbo (taronga.org.au), take a detour to make like a mole and spend the night in the White Cliffs Underground Hotel (undergroundmotel.com.au) or visit the hot mess that is the Palace Hotel in Broken Hill. Star of The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, this stately old pub is full of lollipop-bright murals by indigenous artist Gordon Waye.
But the trip highlight is the destination of Silverton, where self-isolating is de rigueur. You have to stop for a beer at the Silverton Hotel (silvertonhotel.com.au), a watering hole so remote that it’s a darling of the silver screen, starring in films such as Wake in Fright, Razorback and Mission: Impossible II.
“If someone hasn’t come here, then they haven’t been to the Australian Outback,” says Peter Price, owner of the Silverton Hotel.
“The big drawcard over the years is the filming. We’ve had over 180 movies and ads filmed here – and we have had the Mad Max 2 Museum for 10 years.”
The lengthy opening chase sequence of Mad Max 2 was shot on the nearby Mundi Mundi plain, where you can see the sun set over 1000km of red sand. And if, like us, you happen to arrive at Silverton’s Penrose Park campground during a 4WD rally, it can seem like Max and pals never left.
The trip: Darwin to Litchfield National Park Drive time: 1 hour 20 minutes
Sights: By all means see Kakadu, but even closer to the Top End’s top town is Litchfield National Park, a day trip that’s short on drive time and big on natural wonders.
You need a four-wheel drive, and some offroad driving skills, to get to Litchfield’s Lost City, but the butt-bouncing ride to these sandstone outcrops is worth it. Millennia of harsh weather have whittled the rocks into a maze of corridors and dome-topped towers that look like a man-made mini-metropolis.
Wander this 500 million-year-old rocky formation long enough and you might even start seeing the shapes of people and animals made by nature’s harsh artists, wind and rain.
For a taste of the less-travelled Top End swimming holes, take a 40-minute trek from the Litchfield car park and you’ll discover the Upper Cascades. Waterfalls have carved out a series of natural baths in the dark-brown rock, just for you to cool off in.
The trip: Cradle Mountain to Mole Creek Drive time: 1 hour 30 minutes
Sights: Go beyond the wombat-covered slopes of Cradle Mountain to the spider-infested Mole Creek Caves. These aren’t just any old arachnids, but Tasmanian cave spiders – dinner plate-sized, prehistoric creepycrawlies. They’re so macabre that they attracted the attention of British author Neil Gaiman – known for twisted tales such as Coraline – who made the documentary Sixteen Legs about the spiders when he was there.
Visit Trowunna Wildlife Park (trowunna.com.au), a small park dedicated to helping save the Tasmanian devil from the facial tumour that is blighting the local wildlife; time it right and you can watch them feed on the hind leg of a wallaby provided by park staff – a gruesome but fascinating sight.
And stop in for a beer at the Mole Creek Hotel (molecreekhotel.com.au). It’s doing its bit to keep the story of the Tasmanian tiger alive with an ephemera-filled Tassie Tiger front bar and thylacine-themed craft beers.
The trip: Melbourne to the Budj Bim National Park
Drive time: 3 hours 40 minutes straight; 6-plus hours via the Great Ocean Road Sights: This road trip to western Victoria finishes up at Australia’s newest World Heritage site, where the Gunditjmara people created a complex aquaculture network to farm short-finned eels, or kooyang, nearly 7000 years ago – predating both the Pyramids of Giza and Stonehenge. Eileen Alberts, a Gunditjmara elder, remembers being taught to feel for the eels with her toes as she waded through wetlands surrounding Budj Bim, the nearby dormant volcano.
On a recent visit, Eileen told me, over some traditionally smoked eel, that she wants people to come and experience the “land knowledge” here with operators like Budj Bim Tours (budjbimtours.net).“The knowledge that no matter where they go, there is always going to be people like us that care for country,” she says.
If you take the coastal route, stop off for a meal with a view at the Wye Beach Hotel (wyebeachhotel.com.au), try the latest outlet of MoVida in Lorne (movida.com.au) or have a local craft beer at Salt Brewing Co (saltbrewing.co) in Aireys Inlet.
The trip: Exmouth to Kermits Pool
Drive time: 8 hours
Sights: Miles from anywhere, Karijini
National Park feels positively other-worldly, especially when you slip into the pale-green water at Kermits Pool, surrounded by rock faces that look plucked from Mars. The short but sometimes tricky walk to this natural wonder takes you along narrow canyons and is best done with an experienced guide. Nearby Karijini Eco Retreat (karijiniecoretreat.com.au) offers glamping in canvas cubes right on the red dirt in the heart of the national park.
On the return to Exmouth, you have to get in the water again to experience Ningaloo Reef, one of the world’s largest fringing reefs, and for the chance to dive with the world’s largest fish, the whale shark (ningaloocentre.com.au). Then turn left for Perth, or right for Broome – the choice is yours and that’s the beauty of road trips.