Australia is a big place, like a really, really big place.
And while flying between the cities is the best way to quickly see parts of certain parts country, it’s exploring all the places in between that is the best way to really see everything that Australia has to offer.
No matter if you’ve chosen Van Life and are looking to do this in one big trip or more like myself do this as a series of smaller trips over a couple of years… There are plenty of approaches to see all that Australia has to offer.
From the Great Barrier Reef to the Great Ocean Road, I’ve spent a lot of time driving around the country and used that experience to compile a series of blog posts with the best places to visit around the country.
For this particular itinerary, I would recommend starting in Cairns making your way down to Melbourne, via Sydney and Adelaide for an approximately 5000km journey that showcases the vast diversity of landscapes, wildlife, cities and much more that Australia has to offer.
That said you can also break the trip up into smaller segments, much like what I did, and explore certain regions over a few days or a couple of weeks, without spending months on the road.
This route doesn’t require a four-wheel-drive or any other sort of specialised vehicle. And that is very deliberate. Quite literally any serviceable car (with air conditioning!) will be able to complete the trip just fine.
If you have some sort of campervan or caravan, you’ll be able to save some money on accommodation costs, but there are plenty of hotels and other accommodation options along the route as well so all you really need is a car that you are comfortable spending long stints behind the wheel in.
Australian Road Trip Advice
Before we get properly started, to help you make the most of the trip, I do have a couple of tidbits of advice that will make your road trip easier.
Smart Phone Apps
During the summer, in particular, the weather around Australia can be quite volatile with flooding and bushfires a regular occurrence. So I would strongly recommend downloading the following apps to help keep aware of changing conditions while you are on the road.
- Google Maps – Simple up to date navigation and traffic.
- Fires Near Me – Most up to date information about bushfire locations (State by State and Australia wide versions available)
- Floods Near Me – Most up to date information about flooding and road closures (NSW Only)
- Live Traffic – Another option for checking traffic and road closures (NSW version also works in Queensland, Victoria and SA)
- Emergency Plus – In the event of an emergency this app will give you your precise location to give to emergency services
These can be extremely valuable in helping you make decisions about segments of your trip, be that delaying the next part of your drive by a couple of days or taking an alternate route.
I would also recommend having good quality music and podcast app that you can download tunes/episodes, but we’ll get to that in the next segment.
Another important thing to keep in mind is that there will be long stretches of the road, particularly in the more regional/remote areas that don’t have phone/data coverage.
Most towns will have some sort of 4G/5G reception coverage in the main township, but in between those towns, it can and will be very spotty.
Make sure you take advantage of Google Maps’ download maps feature so you will be able to use the maps, especially if you need to detour off your pre-determined route for any reason. GPS will work without data, but it will need the downloaded maps to overlay the information onto.
As I just mentioned it will also be worth downloading music/podcasts (both?) so that you aren’t stuck at the mercy of long quiet stints behind the wheel.
One more thing that I should note about smartphone usage whilst driving around Australia. Most (possibly all?) states around the country have some sort of rule against using/handling your phone while driving with some very heavy fines attached to them.
That said they usually include some sort of exception about using your phone for navigational purposes, so make sure you set your phone before you depart. The best way to avoid any issues is to purchase some sort of mount to attach the phone to your car so you can have the maps up and visible without having to actually touch the phone.
Australian wildlife is amazing, except when it pops up unexpectedly on the road in front of you.
On any road trip around Australia, you will experience this in one way or another. You really need to be alert particular around dawn and dusk when animals like Kangaroos tend to be most active around highways.
Kangaroos are probably the most notorious for causing car accidents because they can leap out behind trees and shrubbery and land right in front of you with little to no advanced warning. If it doesn’t happen to you personally you will absolutely see the remnants of where it has happened to someone else recently.
I’ve also spotted out and had to avoid on the roads Emus, Echidnas, Cassowaries and Snakes in different places around the country. While it hasn’t happened to me personally, I can vouch for the fact that Wombats are the worst to come across on the road. They will destroy your can and leave you stranded on the side of the road waiting for help.
In the more regional farming areas, it’s also not uncommon to come across herds of farm animals. Particularly cows and sheep.
If you do come across a herd blocking the road entirely and need to continue along the route… Do not stop! Continue driving forward slowly (very slowly, like walking pace) and the animals will make way for you. Ideally, you will want to avoid them, but if there isn’t any way around continue along the road.
Each state has its own set of road rules that you should at least have a quick look at.
For the most part, it’s all common sense, but there are intricacies in the way different states apply certain rules and the consequences attached.
Just one example is that in Victoria and South Australia they go out of their way to hide speed cameras to catch people out, while in New South Wales they need to be clearly signposted. It’s worth having a look for your own peace of mind.
Check out each state below:
Now for the Ulitmate East Coast of Australian Road Trip… Starting with Cairns:
Cairns, Queensland to Townsville, Queensland
Cairns is the ideal starting point for this trip. Firstly you’ll get the chance to tick off one of the major attractions that Australia has to offer… The Great Barrier Reef. But it’s also the most northern point on this trip that regular commercial flights operate to, including some international carriers.
Now for the itinerary, I’ve put together two posts that will help you plan your time when you arrive in Cairns before starting your journey south.
My Everything You Need To Know Before You Go To Cairns post is a great place to get started to assist in your planning. While my 12 Must Do Things In Cairns will give you a pretty good idea of the best attractions that the Far North Queensland city has to offer.
Ideally, I would recommend that you give yourself at least a week (probably two) in Cairns, but whatever you do, make sure you don’t leave without spending some time out on the Great Barrier Reef.
The great thing about these style long road trips is that you can be extremely flexible with your schedule and adjust accordingly. So don’t book too much too far in advance, that’ll allow you to enjoy everything at your own pace.
Now for the drive down to Townsville… The first stint on the road is going to be a relatively easy one that I’ve detailed in my Cairns to Townsville along the Bruce Highway post.
You can complete the drive in a few hours, but I think you’ll find that after you’ve read my Best Places To Stop Between Cairns and Townsville post that you’ll want to give yourself a couple of days to complete the drive.
Besides its tropical Far North Queensland, rushing isn’t something that’s done in this part of Australia.
Townsville, Queensland to Brisbane, Queensland
Townsville is the next prolonged stop on this grand adventure before making the trip down to Brisbane.
The unofficial capital of North Queensland, not to be mistaken with Far North Queensland that you’ve just driven from, is a stark contrast to the tropical rainforests to this point in the trip.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s still tropical and warm, but the landscape does change when you arrive in Townsville.
It’s also worth noting that while Townsville has its own appeal, it’s by no means as heavily tourist-centric and Cairns and you won’t need quite as much time to see all that the city has to offer.
I would recommend you spend about a week in Townsville, which will also give you time to spend a couple of days over on Magnetic Island. A definite must-do while you are in the area.
Again, much like Cairns, I’ve put together a couple of blog posts that will come in handy while planning this segment of the trip. Starting with my Everything You Need To Know Before You Go To Townsville post. While my Must Do Things In Townsville post should give you a good idea of what the city has to offer.
For the next part of the road trip, this one is going to be a lengthy drive all the way down to Brisbane.
You could complete the drive in as little as two days, but I think you will find that once you’ve read my Townsville to Brisbane via the Bruce Highway post that you’ll quickly work out that you will need to give yourself at least a week to complete the trip. Especially with such iconic places like the Whitsundays along the way.
Brisbane/Gold Coast, Queensland to Sydney, New South Wales
After a fair bit of time on the car to get to this point of the trip in South East Queensland, spending a few weeks in Brisbane and on the Coast Coast is a great way to refresh before the next part of the drive.
If you haven’t spent much time in either Brisbane or on the Gold Coast, then I would strongly recommend that you give yourself a fair amount of time to explore and enjoy both.
Brisbane, the capital of Queensland, has plenty to offer as a big city. I’m currently in the process of putting together my best advice for Brisbane into its own blog post (which I’ll link to here once its complete).
In the meantime, Brisbane has some great museums and galleries to check out. While the Southbank area just across the river is extremely popular with both tourists and locals alike.
If you are travelling as a family, you could easily spend a few weeks on the Gold Coast alone, with all of Australia’s major theme parks contained within the area.
The Gold Coast is another major tourist hub, so its both quite popular with travellers of all ages for different reasons but also well set up for short term stays.
Once you are ready to spend a bit more time in the car, it’s time to head across the New South Wales border and down to Sydney.
At this point, you do have two options. If you’ve never driven between Brisbane and Sydney before, then my suggestion is to follow the Pacific Highway route along the coast.
Firstly it’s a much easier road to drive, but it also has some of the more popular places to visit along the way including Byron Bay and Coffs Harbour. Check out my best places to stop along the Pacific Highway between Brisbane and Sydney post to find out more.
However, if you’ve done that drive before, need an alternate route due to bushfires or floods, or just couldn’t possibly spend another day at the beach. The New England Highway offers a great alternative option with a vastly different landscape to what you’ve seen to this point of the trip to really mix things up.
If you’d like to know more about the New England Highway route, check out my Best Places to Stop Between Newcastle and Toowoomba post. The stops are the same, just in the opposite direction.
Sydney, New South Wales to Adelaide, South Australia
Sydney as the most populated city in Australia has plenty to offer before embarking on the next part and in my opinion the most interesting landscapes on the way to Adelaide.
I will put together a Sydney specific blog post detailing all that the city has to offer in the not too distant future (I’ll get started on it once I’ve finished up with the Brisbane one!).
That said, in the interim, you can’t go too far wrong by exploring Darling Harbour where you find some of Sydney’s most noteworthy attractions.
I’d also recommend taking at least a day trip (if not a couple of days) out to the Blue Mountains region of New South Wales.
I’ve written a full detailed blog post with all the information to plan and make the most of your time in the Blue Mountains that you should definitely read. But even if you don’t make sure you don’t miss the opportunity to see the iconic The Three Sisters rock formation.
As for the drive, there are a few routes from Sydney to Adelaide. However, we’re going to focus on the Sturt Highway option for this road trip.
You will need at least two days to complete the drive between Sydney and Adelaide, but I would recommend giving yourself three or four days to be able to properly explore some of the unique sites along the way. Especially Mungo National Park.
You can find out more about all of that in my Best Places To Stop Between Sydney and Adelaide – Sturt Highway blog post.
Just one thing to keep in mind with this part of the trip, while the journey to this point has had towns on a regular basis (well, for the most part, Townsville to Brisbane has some lengthy stretches between towns). The drive along the Sturt Highway is quite remote and sparsely populated through the Hay Plains section.
While it’s only a couple of hours of the drive, I would recommend planning a little bit ahead for fuel and food stops etc. It’s also worth noting that accommodation can be limited in some of the smaller towns during peak times so you might need to book ahead to be assured of having somewhere to stay.
Alternatively, if you have no ambitions to head to Adelaide (which would be a real shame) you could take the Hume Highway directly to Melbourne, which is covered in detail in this post.
Adelaide, South Australia to Melbourne, Victoria
The most westerly part of this trip, Adelaide is a massive contrast to the cities that you would have seen to this point of the trip.
While only a small city in comparison, Adelaide has its own abundance of things to do and well worth spending at least a week to explore before heading towards Melbourne.
Much like the other cities I’ve mentioned in this post, I’ve put together my best advice for Adelaide into two separate posts. Firstly Everything You Need To Know Before You Visit Adelaide, and secondly my picks for the Best Things To Do In Adelaide should give you a good insight into what to expect from the city.
From Adelaide, you’ve got a couple of choices for heading back to Melbourne, but my advice would be to take the most iconic stretches of tarmac that Australia has to offer… The Great Ocean Road.
No road trip around Australia would be complete without driving this stretch of road and the trip from Adelaide is the best way to see all that The Great Ocean Road has to offer, instead of just a quick day trip out of Melbourne.
The drive can be done in as little as two days, but you’ll really want to give yourself at least a week to take in all the sites in between. Check out my Great Ocean Road blog post to find out more.
If for whatever reason you choose not to take the Great Ocean Road route… The Dukes/Western Highway presents a quicker option for the trip between Adelaide and Melbourne.
This drive can be easily done in a single day, but I would recommend that you give yourself an extra day or two so that you can explore the wonders contained within the Grampians National Park.
As one of the major international hubs of Australia (alongside Sydney), it makes perfect sense to end this ultimate east coast road trip in Melbourne.
That said, no matter how much you’ve seen of Australia to this point, Melbourne has its own unique appeal.
To find out more about Melbourne, I’ve got two blog posts that you should read… Everything You Need To Know Before You Go To Melbourne and The Best Things To Do In Melbourne. Between those posts, you should get a really good idea of what might appeal to you in the southernmost city on this journey.
I would also suggest that you make time in your schedule to also visit Phillip Island which is about a two and half hour drive outside of Melbourne. Phillip Island will get its own dedicated blog post soon, but at the very least you need to see the Phillip Island Penguin Parade.
If you haven’t had enough of the road at this point and would like to explore more of the unique landscapes and regional towns in Australia. Then I would recommend continuing your road trip back to Sydney.
You will have two options, the Hume Highway which is the quicker option through rural farmlands. While continuing around the coast along the Princes Highway (blog post coming soon) is the far more scenic and interesting option.
Otherwise, why not take the Spirit of Tasmania over the island state. Watch this space for my ultimate road trip guide to Tasmania.
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