Planning an Australian Road Trip: Serendipity & Compromise

September 25, 2013 in Australia, Oceania, Travelogue

Planning a road trip

Things are getting exciting over here.

In 13 days we push off on a month long road trip that will take us up through the red heart of Australia, from the extreme south of the Bellarine Peninsula, where we’ve been loving our house sit, to the far north at Cairns before we take a left turn and cruise down the coast to Brisbane where we’ll very sadly part with the land down under on November 5.

A friend pointed out on Facebook this week that people don’t really do road trips any more, that cheap airfare has made transportation quick and easy. Sadly, I think he is largely correct.

We’ve become a bubble hopping people. We book a flight, hop in the bubble, and magically appear in a brand new place a few hours later. I have a love hate relationship with that.

  • I love it because it’s allowed me to pop home for a wedding in 36 hours flat, from the far side of the globe.
  • I love it because it’s delivered people I love dearly and every time they walk off a plane my life is enriched immeasurably.
  • I love it because it’s freed the world up in so many ways, made so many places accessible, and it’s a tool for the advancement of humanity.
  • I hate it because quick, cheap flights have made it so tempting to speed up life even further and cut corners.
  • I hate it because arriving off of a plane is a bit like time and space travel, one lacks context upon arriving.
  • I hate it because for me, the joy really is in the journey.
  • I hate it because so much of what is deep and lovely and real about a place is in the serendipitous in between.

Of course having traveled continents by bicycle and foot, I could argue that even the road trip is too fast, that the vehicle insulates a person from the real world we’re whizzing through. I much prefer the forced interaction of cycling to driving. But I won’t split hairs. After all, we’re planning a rather epic road trip.

We could hop on a Jet Star flight and step off, fresh as daisies, in Cairns on October 9th, with a full month to lay on a beach, and snorkel to our hearts’ content. But could we say we’ve seen Australia having just touched the two coasts? 

Instead, we’re taking the long way, the hard way, the story-filled way, the adventurous way, the outback way, the road trip way.

Since “no one takes road trips anymore” it occurred to me that it might interest a few of you to have a peek behind the curtain on our planning process. It might be an encouragement towards the possibilities to know that we make compromises, we make choices, we downsize our expectations and upsize our flexibility in order to make the once in a lifetime possible.

Our original plan went something like this:

  • Rent an RV from Drysdale to Cairns (2 weeks)
  • Partner with a camper company that seemed likely to trade a camper for lots and lots of writing from Cairns to Brisbane (2 weeks)
  • Get the boys’ SCUBA certification finished on the Great Barrier Reef
  • Dive the GBR as a family (bucket list item)
  • Plan a route taking us the straightest route north from Melbourne and through the edge of the outback.

Seems like a neat package, doesn’t it? Comfy “camping,” the best of both worlds, part of it paid for with my work. Then we started doing the math:

  • Camper 2 weeks Drysdale to Cairns: $2250 AU
  • Camper 2 weeks Cairns to Brisbane: $2354 AU (this is with one week “free” and a lot of writing… how it came out MORE expensive is beyond me)
  • SCUBA certifications: IMPOSSIBLE apparently they won’t certify anyone under 12 on the GBR, but they will honor the certifications of kids as young as 10? Explain that one to me, please.
  • Diving as a family: $750 a person, approximately, for a 3 day 2 night trip with 11 dives.

Breathe with me into a paper bag

And of course we haven’t added in petrol, camping costs, food, any interesting activities, or anything else.

We’re definitely a “buy memories, not things” kind of family, but that’s just a nutty amount of money for a one month road trip.

And our Australian friends… they think we should take the more interesting coastal route, as there’s “nothing out there.”

Great. Back to the drawing board. Sigh.

Two nights of wine soaked conversations and negotiations and the man and I come up with a new plan:

What if we rent a mini-van, buy a tent & camping gear, research the heck out of free camping spots and explore what’s on the coastal route.

I found a van for $1800 AU for the month. It will be a squeeze with all of our gear, but we did a month’s road trip in Borneo in less of a vehicle than this 8 seater van and lived to tell the tale. Doable, and a heck of a lot cheaper.

Serendipity: A local store has a one day camping gear sale: ten man tent, sleeping bags, gas stove and lantern, picnic blanket: $400. Check that off the list. Clearly, it’s meant to be. We being to breathe easier and get excited.

Robert & Jess provided the final piece of the puzzle, in the form of an old school Australian road atlas and some well traveled advice.

“What route are you taking?” Robert asked, sipping a dark merlot.

“Well, we’d kind of wanted to go through the center, but all of our Australian friends say there’s nothing to see… so now we don’t know… what do you think?”

He nodded his head, in signature Robert style. Jesse threw herself back in her chair, “HA! Nothing to see?? You haven’t seen Australia if you haven’t driven through the middle!” she assured us.

I smiled and exhaled. Our instincts confirmed by people who know generations of our family’s travel style.

And so, we have a route:

  • Drysdale to Adelaide (hoping very much to connect with our dear friends at Going Anyway)
  • Adelaide to Ayers Rock (Grandpa desperately wants to see this, so we’re visiting in his honour)
  • Ayers Rock to Alice Spring
  • North to Three Ways and then a big right turn toward the coast


We’ll arrive in Cairns around the 25th of October, with lots of time built in for exploring cool stuff, and the recommendations are already rolling in from readers, including Coober Pedy, opal mines and underground towns! We’re working on the SCUBA plans (the boys finish their certifications tomorrow!) and we’re pouring over maps in the evenings.

Serendipity: I started doing some writing for Budget, you know, the rental car people. They need some Australia road trip stories. I have those. So I wrote to the guy, mentioned that we’ve been happily renting from them every weekend for two months now (road tripping!) and wondered if he might be interested in sponsoring our upcoming journey in trade for lots MORE stories.  Guess what… this road trip, brought to you by Budget. I think we can almost afford the Great Barrier Reef now!

 So what about you?

Would you hop the bubble from Melbourne to Cairns? Or would you drive into the desert, brave the dust, the bugs, the barren landscape and the hot days and chilly nights, sleeping in a tent, cooking on two burners, and eating on the ground in order to see a rock your Dad dreams of?