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 where you really find the best of what 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 on the best places to visit around the country.
For this particular itinerary, I would recommend starting in Cairns and 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 so much more of what 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 – General 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 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, whether 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 a podcast app, like Spotify, where you can download tunes/episodes, but we’ll get to that in the next segment of this blog post.
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 and sometimes nonexistent.
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 on to.
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 if you are caught doing so.
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 appears 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 top attractions that Australia has to offer… The Great Barrier Reef. But Cairns also has a reasonably well-serviced international airport with regular flights to the major Australian cities. While also being the most northern point of the trip, saving you from doubling back on yourself.
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 of long road trips is that you can be extremely flexible with your schedule and adjust accordingly. And Far North Queensland has to offer. So I wouldn’t recommend that book too much too far in advance. That will allow you to enjoy everything at your own pace and adjust as you find things that grab your attention.
Several of those things that the region has to offer are along the drive down to Townsville, the next stop on this itinerary.
You can complete the drive in a few hours, but I think you’ll find that once you’ve read the previous post, you will want to give yourself at least a day or two to complete the drive.
Besides its tropics and rushing isn’t something that’s done in that part of Australia.
Townsville, Queensland to Brisbane, Queensland
Townsville is the next prolonged stop on this grand adventure before continuing on the road down to Brisbane.
The unofficial capital of North Queensland, not to be mistaken with Far North Queensland that you would have 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 significantly when you arrive in Townsville.
By no means as heavily tourist-centric as Cairns, you won’t need quite as much time to see all that Townsville has to offer, but that’s not to say the city doesn’t have its own appeal.
I would recommend you spend about a week in Townsville. You’ll be able to explore all that it has to offer and also give you enough time to spend a couple of days over on Magnetic Island. A definite must-do while you are in the area.
Brisbane is the next stop-off point on this trip, but the lengthy drive down the rest of the Bruce Highway to get to that point is dotted with so much to see and do.
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 (probably two) to complete the trip. Especially with such iconic places like the Whitsundays along the way.
Just keep in mind that there are sections along this part of the Bruce Highway that are sparsely populated with quite limited places to stop (for fuel in particular). So please read my guide thoroughly for this part of the route so you can plan ahead accordingly.
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/or 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 the Gold Coast, then I would strongly recommend that you give yourself a fair amount of time to explore and enjoy both.
Being a city, a couple of days might be more than enough for you in Brisbane, but there is plenty to do there. So I would recommend that you give yourself a week or so. Especially if you are going to continue on the road from this point.
However, you could also easily split your time between Brisbane and the Gold Coast over a couple of weeks.
If you are travelling as a young family, maybe spend a bit less time in Brisbane and focus your attention on the Gold Coast. It is home to Australia’s major theme parks after all.
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 towns to visit along the way including Byron Bay and Coffs Harbour.
However, if like me you’ve done the Pacific Highway drive several times and would like to mix things up or just need an alternate route due to bushfires or floods. The New England Highway offers a great alternative option with a vastly different landscape from what you’ve seen to this point of the trip.
I’ve written that post in the opposite direction, but all the recommendations for towns to stop in applying regardless of which direction you are heading. Either way, onwards to Sydney.
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.
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.
If your travels have you in Sydney during the winter, it also might be worth doing a couple of day detour down to the Snowy Mountain region, just south of Sydney.
An extreme contrast to the tropics where we started this itinerary if you’ve never been to the snow before it’s well worth it. This post details everything you need to know to plan a trip to the Snowy Mountains.
Once you’re done exploring Sydney and the surrounding regions, the next drive on this route actually has you headed inland to Adelaide.
There are a few different roads between Sydney to Adelaide. However, we’re going to focus on the easiest, yet no less interesting, 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 explore some of the unique sites along the way. Especially Mungo National Park. Mildura and the Barossa Valley are noteworthy stops.
Just one thing to keep in mind with this part of the trip, there are sections of the drive along the Sturt Highway that are very remote and sparsely populated. In particular the Hay Plains section.
While it’s only a couple of hours section of the drive, planning a little bit ahead for fuel and food stops etc will make a big difference for this part of the road trip. 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 instead 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 to Brisbane and Sydney, Adelaide, also known as the city of churches, has its own abundance of things to do and is well worth spending at least a week to explore it all before heading towards Melbourne.
Much like the other cities I’ve mentioned earlier in this post, I’ve put together all of my best advice for Adelaide into its own blog post.
While you are in the area, you could also check out Victor Harbour to continue to mix things up. If your travels have you in the region during whale migration season (between June and September), it’ll be well worth a couple stopping in for a couple of days.
From Adelaide, you’ve got a couple of choices for heading back to Melbourne, but my strongest advice from this whole itinerary 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 starting that part of the trip from Adelaide is the best way to see all that The Great Ocean Road has to offer. Much more extensive than doing it as 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 for all the details.
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.
The alternate route for this part of the drive can be easily done in a single day, but I would recommend that you give yourself an extra one so that you can explore some of the natural wonders contained within the Grampians National Park.
Melbourne, Victoria to Sydney, New South Wales.
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.
But before you rush back home, no matter how much you’ve seen of Australia to this point, Melbourne has its own unique appeal and is well worth exploring as well.
With so much to see and do, you will need to give yourself at least a week, probably two, to properly explore the city.
Once you’ve wrapped up everything you want to see in Melbourne, I would also suggest that you make time in your schedule to also make a quick visit down to Phillip Island.
Located just a short two and half hour drive south of the city, Phillip Island is well worth the trip if just to see the iconic Penguin Parade. I will add a dedicated Phillip Island post here shortly.
Now, if by this point you haven’t had enough of the road and would like to continue to explore the unique and ever-changing landscapes and regional towns of Australia. Then you can continue the 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 drive.
Want to make your trip around Australia truly comprehensive? Why not take the Spirit of Tasmania over the island state?
If you’d like to get more information to help plan your trip to and around Australia… Check out the rest of my blog posts.