Hit the off road again!
For many good reasons, it’s time to explore Australia for the first time – or again.
By Michael Browning
State by state, region by region, road by off-road, Australia is awakening from its enforced Coronavirus travel slumber.
There is no universal advice yet, but it’s fairly safe to say that by the next round of school holidays in late July, you should be able to travel to most of the country, although some remote communities may remain off-limits a little longer to keep them safe. So this is very general advice and you should do you own detailed homework before hitting the road.
Just how far you will be able to travel, and when, could vary. It looks like many states will allow you to venture up to 500km away from home, maybe more. For some, this represents a solid day’s travel; for those taking less-travelled roads, it will take longer.
But if the Coronavirus shutdown has taught us something, it’s to slow down, smell the roses and ignore what our parents told us – talk to strangers.
Like a football team re-emerging to play, we need to prepare for this new dawn like it’s our first. Even the experienced amongst us will need to recall our hitch-up routine, check there are no ants or mold in the water tanks or taps, lubricate some moving parts that have been dormant for many months and ensure we’ve packed all necessities of off-grid travel: power cords and water hoses, an extra spare wheel, a jump starter or leads, a fuel jerry can, a working jack and puncture repair kit, basic tools, snatch strap, etc.
For many, the trip will be their first beyond the safe cocoon of the caravan park and here you need expert advice and some pre-planning. Be aware that when the travel ‘gun’ goes off, many people will be off and running for the best spots, whether in your state or someone else’s.
For example, following the cancelation of the sold-out 2020 Big Red Bash in early April, most existing ticket holders are planning to be there from 6-8 July, 2021 rather than get a refund.
The BRB organisers say only around 10 per cent of ticket holders have asked for and received a refund for this year’s event and these tickets will go on sale via the event’s website from 9am on Tuesday, June 2. So if you want to be there, you need to act now. This is just one example.
As one of a handful of Australian companies exclusively manufacturing extreme off-road camper trailers, hybrid off-road caravans and now – since its recent purchase of long-established custom off-road caravan specialist, Trakmaster – TRACK – and its many owners, has proven history here.
The experience in meeting demanding Defence Force contracts and the collective remote area experience of its many owners has been incorporated into its RV products over more than 30 years, allowing owners to head into difficult terrain with unique confidence.
There’s no disputing that the Tvan is a hard shell camper trailer icon, after being voted Camper Trailer of the Year several times since its introduction in 2000, with its profile as distinctive and proud as that of a Porsche 911.
The hybrid pop-top Topaz launched in 2011 shared much in common with the Tvan, but its larger size made it more appealing to many couples and long-term travellers. The latest T4 range introduced last year is ever roomier inside and brings many new comfort and technical features to this extreme off-road range.
Now with the addition of Trakmaster caravans, TRACK adds larger off-road caravan expertise from a specialist custom manufacturer to its range, offering long-term travellers the confidence to live off the grid in comfort for extended periods.
A common feature of all these models is that they were designed with harsh operating conditions in mind, meaning that they are highly sought after on the second hand market, where they hold their value better than most faux off-roaders.
If you are considering investing in an off-road camper or caravan, you really need to benchmark them first against other ‘off-roaders’ on the market.
So, once you’ve done your homework and made your choice, where should you go?
Victoria is the undisputed home of bush camping, with many opportunities to access idyllic remote areas and some of Australia’ best National Parks within a day’s drive of Melbourne.
Heading east, you can put your travel dollars into fire-affected Mallacoota Inlet, travelling via the Princes Highway to Genoa and then turning right. OK, it’s all on bitumen to there, but once you get to the coast, you’ll find an entire network of fascinating forest tracks that take you back towards Melbourne via the Croajingalong National Park through great camping places like Wingan Inlet, Shipwreck Creek, Mueller Inlet, Thurra River, Point Hicks and Cape Conran.
Or, from Melbourne, take the alternative northern route via Bruthen after Sale and you can access Victoria’s fabulous High Country to Omeo, where you have a wonderful range of camping options along the Cobungra, Bundara and Mitta Mitta Rivers, surrounded by one million acres of Alpine National Park. Maybe shortcut to Dinner Plain or Hotham Heights to enjoy the roof of Victoria.
Closer to Melbourne, vast alpine wilderness areas extending from Mansfield to Heyfield awaits you, with many stunning camping spots around Dargo, Walhalla, Wonnangatta Station, Jamieson and Howqua along pristine rivers.
Sheepyard Flat in the Howqua Hills Historic Area near Mansfield, is one of the best places you can cut your teeth on free camping, but because it is very popular, you’ll need to be aware of social distancing requirements. And – like all Victorian National Parks – check availability before you pre-book online.
North of Melbourne, there’s the vast Lake Eildon area and the Murrindindi Scenic Reserve, north of Kinglake.
Heading west, there’s the Lerderderg State Park that you can access via Gisborne or Bacchus Marsh, with some delightful pubs at Greendale and Blackwood.
How long since you’ve been to the Grampians National Park? Or depending where you live, you can access the Wyperfield or Murray Sunset National Parks.
What about the Great Ocean Road? With the bans on overseas arrivals, you’ll largely have the place to yourself, without dodging overseas drivers. Continue past Lorne to the Wye River or Kennett River camping areas and from there, head inland into the Otways.
Or keep going to Mount Gambier, visiting the Lower Glenelg National Park for some kayaking before exploring the fabulous wines of the Coonawarra region, just 50km north of the Blue Lake City.
NEW SOUTH WALES
New South Wales has been quick out of the blocks, encouraging travellers to explore Australia’s most populous state. But while vast, you don’t have to travel very far to ‘get lost’.
Go north from Sydney and you have the magnificent Wollemi, Barrington Tops and adjacent National Parks, or follow the coast to Crowdy Bay and numerous other great Central Coast camping spots.
Cross the Great Dividing Range into Outback NSW and explore some wonderful historic towns around Inverell, like Tingha and Bundarra. Taste the wines of the Hunter Valley, or travel west of Sydney to immerse yourself in the vast Blue Mountains National Park, with its breathtaking lookouts, wild rivers and remote camping spots.
What about Mungo National Park, north of Mildura, with its great indigenous history, or if you would like to make your trip historic, follow the route of famed explorers Burke and Wills via Menindee, from where they forged their way towards the Gulf of Carpentaria.
Travel down the South Coast and your dollars will be really appreciated in the bushfire-affected areas. Visit the zoo at Mogo, enjoy an ice cream at Tilba Tilba and a coffee on the wharf at Tathra, with great seaside camping in the Bournda National Park, just south on the way to Merimbula.
Then of course there’s the vast Kosciuszko National Park, with superb camping if you have a heater in your RV or are allowed to enjoy an open fire.
In the State’s deep south, there’s idyllic camping along the banks of the Murray River. Pack your rods and almonds for that pan-cooked fresh trout! Then zip over the river at Corowa to indulge the wonderful Rutherglen, Victorian wines.
Contact your NSW Dealer:
The ACT might be small in area, but it’s a very rewarding destination, with superb camping areas easily accessed in the magnificent National Parks that surround it east to the NSW South Coast and south to the Kosciuszko National Park. There’s also some fascinating history surrounding the creation of the nation-building Snowy River Hydro-Electric Scheme in the late 1940s and early 1950s.
Contact your ACT Dealer:
Camperact on (02) 4624 9911
Due to its 20-degree-plus daytime temperatures, Queensland is ‘tourism central’ for southerners in the winter months, but its accessibility from other states was still under question at the time of writing, so you need to keep checking the link below before making definite plans.
‘Must do’ highlights for Tvan or T4 owners include the Cape York Peninsula, where the very challenging Telegraph Track through gullies and across rivers is an option to the corrugated, but less demanding bypass road to the Jardine River and then further to Pajinka at the very tip.
But you don’t need to go that far. Cross the Daintree River just north of Port Douglas and there are some great camping spots on Cape Melville and further north at Lockhart River on the east coast.
In the Gulf of Carpentaria there is Karumba, while Adels Grove on the river adjacent to the Lawn Hill National Park on the NT border is a true oasis at the end of a very corrugated road, with plenty of local history to explore in the area.
If you, or your kids, are into dinosaurs, then 50,000-year-old remains of giant kangaroos have just been discovered at the South Walker Creek mine site in Strathfield, Central Queensland. However, the area around Winton and Longreach is more commercially accessible to view our Nation’s fascinating pre-human history.
Further south, there’s the real Outback Queensland, where you can immerse yourself in the history of the mysterious Min Min lights at Boulia, watch camel racing at Bedourie, horse racing at Birdsville, or visit the remote Betoota Hotel, with its adjacent caravan park, when it finally opens for business, hopefully in 2021.
Or instead, go offshore and the beach driving sands and inland lakes of Fraser Island beckon. Don’t forget to wash the salt from underneath your tow car and camper or van when you leave.
There are some great places to holiday in South Australia, but my highlights extend from Arkaroola in the Northern Flinders Ranges to the Lincoln National Park and in particular Memory Cove at the southern tip of the Eyre Peninsula.
Meanwhile, at the top of the Peninsula there are adventures for well-prepared intrepid travellers with a Tvan or a T4 in the Gawler Ranges and Lake Gairdner National Parks, while for a Simpson-like experience, there’s the challenging and sandy Googs Track.
The Flinders Chase National Park on Kangaroo Island used to offer great camping but I’m not sure what’s left following the devastating January bushfires. Check with locals. Make sure you have fresh whiting at the Kingscote pub! Sadly, the ferry from Cape Jervis is expensive for the relatively short trip across Backstairs Passage.
Further around the coast towards Victoria, there’s historic Port Elliot and Goolwa, while on the other side of the Murray River mouth there’s superb camping and sand driving permitted areas in the Coorong National Park.
Back north and make sure you stop off at Clare for some of Australia’s best Shiraz and Riesling wines, but ensure there’s time for a memorable lunch in the garden of picture-postcard Skillogalee Winery and a side-trip to historic Burra.
Further up in the Central Flinders Ranges, a stay and some great hiking at Wilpena Pound is highly recommended, as is a trip through beautiful Brachina Gorge on your way to the Prairie Hotel at Parachilna for a ‘roadkill’ lunch.
But there’s so much more of SA to visit, so ask the people who live there. Have a chat to Mike and Anita Pavey at The Dirt Off Road Campers at Mount Barker on (08) 8391 627 or the team at Dave Benson Caravans on (08) 8262 2500.
Western Australia is so vast and varied, it’s hard to know where to start. From Perth, there’s the whole Southwest, starting with the French Burgundy-inspired wines of Margaret River and extending around to the beautiful beaches and wild southern coastline east of Esperance.
Travel in wildflower season from August on and you are in a blaze of colour from Perth northwards, but as the blooms explode at different times in different regions and times varies from year to year, you’d be advised to do some local checking first.
A good place to start would be WA’s TRACK dealership, George Day Caravans on (08) 9493 5557, as thanks to the products they sell, they are in touch with adventurous people like you on a regular basis.
As you head north from Geraldton, some of Australia’s best Outback camping awaits you.
You can’t go wrong anywhere around Denham, but you will find a true WA coastal camping experience at Gnaraloo Homestead, south of the Ningaloo Reef capital of Exmouth.
For spectacular gorge country, head east into the spectacular Karajini National Park in the Pilbara, then perhaps cross the girth of Australia from Marble Bar to Alice Springs via the visually interesting and surprisingly good Telfer Mine Road that becomes the Garry Junction Highway.
Way further north, Broome is worth the trip, but you’ll need to lock your camping dates in well in advance, as it’s a favourite sport for adventurous Southerners.
Once there, you’d be mad not to take the trip up the Dampier Peninsula to Cape Leveque. The road is sandy and badly corrugated in parts, before it becomes bitumen north of Beagle Bay, but TRACK’s MC2 suspension will handle it probably better than your tow car’s will!
There are several good camping spots on the Cape. The wilderness camp at Kooljaman, which is surrounded by a range of natural wonders, is the most upmarket option, but there is excellent camping close to the bitumen just short of One Arm Point.
If you’ve got this far north, why not tick another travel icon off your bucket list and head east to the Gibb River Road, stopping at the excellent Windjana Gorge campground just off the road as the bitumen ends, travel up the Kalumburu Road to camp just short of the spectacular Mitchell Falls and perhaps explore the many campgrounds and enjoy walks that abound further along the GRR.
But be sure you check local road conditions first with the WA Department of Main Roads, as late rains in the Kimberley can see the two main intersecting rivers, the Durack and the Pentecost, badly swollen and tricky to cross. Best to wait until the Council graders have come in from both the WA and NT ends, as they usually drop some rocks in these rivers for an easier crossing, as well as allowing access to some of the best off-road areas.
Across the Pentecost, El Questro is well worth the dusty 17km detour, while after you meet the Wyndham Road, turn left and then explore the fabulous bird life in the Parry Lagoons Nature Reserve a bit further on the right.
Want another truly iconic WA travel experience? The Canning Stock Route, which runs from Halls Creek at the top of the Tanami Track and runs 1,850km, south to Wiluna, is still regarded as Australia’s greatest off-road adventure. But if you’re in a Tvan, don’t worry. A number in the hands of well-prepared travellers have done the CSR before.
But wait, there’s a lot more in WA an it’s all worthwhile!
You are unlikely to run out of places to explore in the Northern Territory, but you’ll never, never know if you never, never go. Obviously, most tourists head to Kakadu, Litchfield, Daly River, Alice Springs, Uluru and Kata Tjuta – and so you should if you’ve never been, as these are truly great places that deserve time exploring.
But you can also access less travelled places, like some areas in Arnhem Land, remote parts of the Gulf of Carpentaria, the Bungle Bungles, the Gregory National Park and the West and East MacDonnell Ranges, all offer great camping options, as does Palm Valley, the Chambers Pillar area off the Finke Road, and let’s not forget the incomparable Simpson Desert. Plenty of TRACK Mates, Tvans and Topaz hybrids have traversed the Simpson via the popular French Line.
Why not travel the Tanami Track or to visit some Aboriginal communities at Haasts Bluff, Tilmouth, Herrmansburg or Santa Teresa to admire and purchase their artwork?
Tasmania is less visited by camper trailer and caravan owners than the mainland states, largely because of the relatively high cost of getting your rig across Bass Strait. But that means it’s worth spending more time there to get the best bang for your buck and with relatively short travelling distances, there’s no shortage of travelling options on offer.
Launceston and Hobart both have a lot to fascinate tourists, as do the many quaint towns and fine wineries that sprinkle the island, but I’d recommend a full ‘lap’, travelling down the East Coast to Freycinet and then down the Forestier Peninsula for starters.
After Hobart, the trip down the Huon Valley is truly beautiful, particularly in autumn, when Tasmania is ablaze with colour, while the trip to Queenstown and Strahan via the Lyell Highway will keep you reaching for your camera.
Make Strahan your base to explore Tasmania’s pristine Franklin River wilderness region and, further north, visit Cradle Mountain for some World Heritage hiking in the Lake St. Clair National Park.
There’s good remote area camping down the West Coast ideally suited to a well-equipped TRACK Mate, Tvan or T4.
Ask the staff at Outback HQ to connect you to other off-road enthusiasts who rate under-trafficked Tasmania one of Australia’s remote area gems.