When I was over in Australia, I got behind the wheel and drove over six thousand kilometers, mostly in three huge road trips across the country. With such a vast country, distances seem to expand exponentially, and hundreds of kilometers are not uncommon between towns. This means that jumping on a flight (or falling asleep on a 12-hour bus ride) necessarily means missing out on vast swathes of the country.
In many cases, this is no big loss; Australia is a relatively homogeneous country and much of the outback is featureless, desiccated and dull. However, these journeys I took were some of the highlights of my time in Australia, unveiling some of the real heart of the place; wild Koalas, underground churches and rock formations that deserve to be more famous than Ayres Rock.
Part 1: The Great Ocean Road
Distance covered: 963 km
Dates: 16-18th April 2012
Before setting out on this drive, I had been living and working in Melbourne. It’s a great city, and one of a very few I’ve visited so far that I could see myself living in long term. But at the time, I was living in hostels, and working three uninspiring jobs at the same time, leaving no time for enjoying the place. Since coming to Australia I had jumped around the South East – Sydney, Melbourne and Tasmania, and despite having a few incredibly fun escapades, didn’t really like the country, or see much special about it. I decided it was time for a change of scenery and time to see a little more of the country that I’d found myself in.
Way back, when I was in Vietnam, I had travelled down the country with a friend called Matt who had just come across from Australia. He advised me to look into getting a relocation deal when I eventually made it over there.
“What’s that?”, I asked.
“Well, it’s basically this system set up by the rental companies they have over there”, he said.
“Say the season is changing, and they need more stock in Perth than over in Sydney. Or someone hired a camper in Cairns and drove it down to Brisbane. Well, they need to get it back, or at least relocate stock to cover demand. They give you the car, van or whatever, and you have to drive it to where it’s needed.”
“So, you just have to get lucky, and hope one of the companies needs a car sent on the route you want to take already?”
“Well, yes, there is an element of chance to it, but there are so many campers crossing the country all the time that your chances are pretty good. Worth a look anyway; they’ll often give you petrol money too.”
“So how do you find these deals then?”
“I’ll send you a link. But you’d be able to find a fair few just by googling ‘car relocation’”.
Matt was as good as his word, and emailed me a few links for finding these deals. These are listed below, and I hope any of you that plan on travelling in Australia check them out, because it’s a great idea. I found both of my relocation deals through the first link here, but the others were helpful too.
The deals offered vary. Typically none are going to charge more than $5/per day rental, although many are free. Some offer to pay some of your petrol money. All will set a time limit, based on the distance, and the majority will set a distance limit.
Bored in Melbourne, I picked up a relatively good deal. Four days to get a two-berth 4WD to Adelaide, with a healthy distance limit. They even threw in $150 towards petrol. I was leaving on Monday, one short weekend away.
I took the tram over to the depot to pick up the beast of a converted 4WD that I was looking forward to driving down the coast, with the power and ability to head up the dirt roads and sand dunes that I was privately hoping I’d get the opportunity to play on.
A couple of hours later, I was driving down the motorway out of Melbourne in a Toyota hi-top campervan. Not exactly what I had anticipated. The car I’d been looking forward to playing with was being serviced, so they had given me this instead. Further dampening my spirits had been my decision earlier to drive straight into the heart of the city to collect my last wages from one of my jobs. Imagine the chaos of a standard drive in a big city, and then add trams. It was terrible, and I didn’t even get everything that I was owed.
The van was an awful drive, being blown around by the slightest breeze on the motorway, and handling terribly at high speeds. Parking it was like trying to park a battleship, and there was no rear view mirror. I had struggled to get up after the farewell weekend, and now I was driving to an unknown city in a van I didn’t get on with at all.
But then I hit the beginnings of the Great Ocean Road, and all was forgiven.
With the possible exception on the Ho Chi Minh Highway, the Great Ocean Road is the best road I’ve ever driven on. The sheer beauty of the route is staggering. Towards the beginning, the road slopes down to gorgeous sandy beaches along your left-hand side (when travelling, as I was, East to West), with rolling surf. These gradually give way to a limestone coastline of sharp cliffs, precipices, caves, arches and stacks.
It is also incredibly fun. The road itself seems to be made up of an almost unbroken string of hairpins and sharp corners, connected with enough straight road to get some speed up. It is immensely good fun, and the campervan came into its own. With the wheels seemingly placed at the extreme corners, and what felt like no bonnet at all, it drove as if it had been designed solely to take corners. I lost myself in the joy of driving for a while.
I couldn’t stay entirely focused on the road for too long though; there were too many beautiful sights to see. Stunning and unique vistas would open up at such regularity that it hardly seemed real.
One spot that well worth taking the time to stop off at is Kennet River (oddly, named after the River Kennet we have back in Wiltshire), cited by the guide books as one of the best places in Australia to find wild Koalas. I was expecting to turn off the main road and see them lining the trees along a wooded track.
What I actually found was a car park full of beautiful lorikeets and galahs. And the odd Kookaburra, laughing at all the tourists hanging around the buses that had just voided them, gazing around in the hopes of spotting a hidden koala.
Feeling grateful that I had my own van, I picked a road(/track) and drove up the hill, away from the flocks of photographers at the base, and was almost immediately rewarded with koalas foraging in the treetops.
Driving (perhaps a little too quickly) around a corner, I had to brake hard for a koala running across the road in front of me. They run in a strange rabbit-like hopping motion with both hind legs working in tandem, and flashing a bright white rear end. Clearly happiest when in the trees, this koala made a beeline for the nearest trunk and clambered up to a hight of a couple of feet, where it stayed and watched me.
By this time, I’d slammed on the brakes, jumped out of the car, and raced to the base of the tree. I gingerly approached the koala, but now I wasn’t in a multi-ton metal box racing around the hillside I was clearly less of a threat and the nonplussed koala merely hugged the tree and watched me with an air of detachment. So unfazed was the animal that it didn’t object to me inching as close as I dared, reaching out, and touching him.
That’s definitely one thing off the bucket list: petting a wild koala!
Reluctantly, I drove on. Along the main road, at surprisingly short intervals, I would pass the same three signs, over and over.
- No passing – use laybys. (I guess these were pretty sensible. You would hope that they’d be common sense, given that the road was a single lane each side, with virtually every corner being completely blind, but it was a nice reminder for the slower drivers ahead to get out of the way!)
- Warning! Kangaroos. (The most stereotypically Australian road signs out there, aside from ‘last pub for 432km’. I thought they were only up for tourists until a couple jumped out of a hedge and narrowly avoided smashing up the front of my van. Still, those were the only ones I saw until I properly started heading into the bush on my second roadtrip)
- Drive on left. (Seriously. I genuinely thought this one was a joke, until I started to see them up everywhere. Especially prominent around the exits to major tourist spots. I hate to generalise an entire nationality for anything, but I blame the Germans for these. Purely based on numbers)
Each night, I would just pull up on the side of the road and camp there. With such massive distances between anywhere in Australia, roads in the outback are deserted at night. I’m not certain whether there are any restrictions on stopping overnight on the side of the road in most of the country, but either way any law would be unenforceable, so I basically just stopped when I was tired. And, as a bonus, the stars were phenomenal.
Probably the most well-known part of the Great Ocean Road is the eroded stacks known as the Twelve Apostles (except there are only 8 apostles. I counted).
Another highlight is the stunning Loch Ard Gorge.
And London Bridge, part of which fell down in 1990.
After that, there’s honestly not much until Adelaide, except for the Giant Lobster. I passed this with an air of bemusement and incredulity, and too quickly and suddenly to photograph. The air of incomprehension lasted until I was well down the road, at which point I considered turning around. But a drive of that distance doesn’t lend itself to turning around, and the 2-lane road didn’t either. So I can only offer this photo, stolen from the internet.
The last hiccup before the big city was the fuel gauge. Before taking this drive I thought that a sensible time to buy petrol was when you are running low on petrol. Not so in Australia.
It turns out that a sensible time to buy petrol down under is any time you see a petrol station. This is mostly because the next petrol station is going to be around 200km away, rather than the 10km we’re used to.
Unfortunately it took me a while to learn this lesson. On the last stretch towards Adelaide, the distances between petrol stations were expanding, but I didn’t realise this. Roughly 100km out of one town, my ‘low fuel’ light turned on. Just as I passed a sign showing 100km to the next town, the fuel light turned on. Crap.
At this stage, I was driving though fields of nothing. Slowly, economically, and holding out hope that I would be able to crawl on to the next town. Finally, after a lifetime of driving, a petrol station appeared over the horizon. Somehow I’d managed to drive 100km on nothing but fumes. Hinting at a principle that Ford, Toyota, VW and the rest could earn inordinate money out of, if only they could work out what it was. Somehow I made it to Adelaide, washed up, returned the van, got a bus into the city, found my hostel, sat down and realised I was utterly exhausted.