Before coming to Australia, we did a lot of research on what it’d be like to drive through the country in a campervan, especially looking at driving through the outback. I read a lot of blogs giving advice and information on driving conditions out here. We’ve been driving around the outback for about a month now and while some of the info in the blogs has been spot on, I think we’re ready to add our own two cents.
So here it is – things you need to be prepared for while driving through the dusty Red Centre.
I read a lot of warnings on the price of fuel in Australia and I have to call bullshit. Filling up your car isn’t expensive, but the distances you travel to get anywhere makes the trip through the centre one of the most expensive road trips you can do. Fuel here isn’t expensive at all, it’s just that you use a lot of it. Petrol prices in the UK are about £1.20 per litre… on the east coast of Aus we sometimes paid about $1.30 per litre, which works out about 80p per litre back home. Cheap as chips.
In the outback the highest price we paid was at King’s Canyon, which, to be fair, is in the back of beyond. We paid $2.30, which still works out the same as petrol in the UK.
We didn’t even think about the fuel costs while we were driving down the coast, as the distances we were covering weren’t exactly huge, so it never really bothered us. In the outback, however, we spent nearly a week driving for 6 or 7 hours per day, every day, with only one stop at lunchtime for food and fuel. As you can imagine, the price of fuel is suddenly significant. Some days we could spend over £50 just on fuel.
Another thing on the petrol – if you’re just sticking to the Stuart Highway and the Overlanders’ Way, don’t worry about bringing extra cans with you. You won’t run out if you keep your tank topped up as you go.
Oh my god I wish I’d been warned about the flies. Maybe my eyes just skimmed over that section in whatever blog I was reading, or maybe I just dismissed it as a mild annoyance not to worry about. They are the number one most annoying thing about the outback, without question.
When we were just starting our great outback adventure, down south, they weren’t too bad. In the Flinders Ranges we giggled at people hiking with black fly bags over their heads, sniggering at how ridiculous they looked. In Coober Pedy we’d begun to dive in the van as quick as possible to keep the flies out. By Ayer’s Rock we were combing through the shops to buy our own fly nets, not caring how ridiculous we looked. Anything that kept the little bastards out of our noses and eyes was fine by us.
If you’re going to be walking around anywhere north of Uluru then I definitely recommend getting a fly net because even tropical strength repellent will not help you for long, unless you top it up every half hour. You could snort DEET and the flies would continue to crawl up your nose. If you’re feeling really posh, you can get one of those elegant looking explorer hats which has a fly veil that buttons up discreetly when not in use. Or you can be like us and just have the draw string bags that are super effective but make you look like a complete tit.
We’d heard a lot about road trains before we got here, and then from a few people on the coast. Road trains are lorries with 3 or sometimes 4 trailers attached, creating a big thundering vehicle up to 50 meters long. I guess they exist because if you’re transporting anything from one end of Australia to the other, it’s going to take you ages, so you might as well make it worth your while and hitch on a couple more loads too.
Our impression, before we drove the Stuart Highway, was that if a road train is coming then we’d better get out of the way because it’s not stopping for anyone. So many blogs gave advice to pull up on the side of the road if you see one coming in the other direction, because if it has to move for you then you’ll end up with a shattered windscreen from all the stone chips it’d kick up. And god forbid trying to overtake one, you must make sure you have LOADS of room.
Wellll ok they’re not small. But seriously? Move to the side of the road if you see one coming the other direction? It’s a two-lane road. There’s plenty of room. They don’t need to move and neither do you, unless you’re driving some ridiculous vehicle that takes up more than one lane. And overtaking isn’t an issue. The most eventful part of our long-drive days is seeing a bend in the road. Usually, the road is straight, and you can see for miles. Overtaking is just the same as it is back home, you just need to be aware of how many trailers the lorry is pulling.
If you’re worried about road trains, don’t be. They’re fine. Use common sense and you’ll be OK, they’re big but they are not scary.
Sleeping in the van
One of the hardest things to get used to has been the weather, especially at night. Some nights are so humid and sticky, it makes sleeping in the van pretty miserable. Other nights are so cold that extra layers are needed.
The answer: come prepared. We bought a little electric fan from Aldi for $30. It charges up when it’s plugged in so you can use it the next night if you’re staying at an unpowered site. It’s been the only thing allowing us to sleep on some nights. Although we’ve still looked jealously at the caravans with air conditioning, the show offs.
The van came with standard bedding – duvet and sheets. That was fine for the coast but once we started edging our way into the middle, it wasn’t enough. On the way through a little town, we stopped at a charity shop and bought a thick woolly blanket for $5. On the nights where we woke up at 3am shivering, we just pulled that over us and burrowed in.
Generally speaking, it’s dry and cold at night further south, but once you get up past Three Ways, the humidity hits and the nights get gross. I can’t imagine what the rainy season is like up north, it must be awful.
While we didn’t bring extra petrol with us, one thing we did buy was a 10 litre container of drinking water for emergency use. It’s really come in handy.
Many blogs suggest bringing 20 litres of water per person, which seems like overkill… but I suppose if you break down you could be stuck there for a while, although we’ve never gone more than an hour without seeing another car on the Stuart Highway or on the Overlanders Way.
While we haven’t broken down or anything dramatic, some campgrounds won’t have drinking water available from the taps. Instead of buying endless plastic bottles, we’ve just used the emergency water and topped it up again when we get to a campground with drinkable water.
To be honest, most places have drinkable water so we’ve never worried. We always know if the one we’re staying at doesn’t have water or it tastes funny, we’ll just use the emergency water and usually be able to top up at the next place. We’ve never run out.
Also – buy juice to make the funny tasting water taste nice.
Places to Stay
The one tool that’s amazing for driving around Australia, no matter whether it’s the outback or the coast, is WikiCamps.
It’s an app you download to your phone and can use offline. It is a database of Australia’s campgrounds, constantly updated by the users, with useful info such as price per night and the state of the bathrooms. Users can even upload pictures and give each ground a star rating out of five.
You can filter your search in all sorts of ways. You can get it to show, for example, only free sites, or sites with drinking water, or WiFi, or swimming pools.
I’d recommend WikiCamps for anyone roadtripping around Australia, it’s like a campground bible. We use it every day.
Get a Telstra SIM for your phone. No other network has the same coverage if you’re driving the Stuart Highway. I had a Lebara SIM for the east coast, which uses the Vodafone network I think. I had to switch it as soon as I got to Port Augusta because the coverage was rubbish compared to Blakey’s Telstra.
You can currently get a massive 35gb of data and free Australian and international calls for £20 per month, which is a bargain. I never thought I’d use all that data but it’s been useful for emergencies like downloading the new Game of Thrones every week and hotspotting the laptop so I can write the blog. Essential stuff.
Soo there you have it – that’s our outback roadtrip advice. In a nutshell – don’t worry, it’s not as scary as people make out. Be prepared for using plenty of fuel and driving long distances, and to wage a constant war against the flies.