Open Road Adventures

Catherine Lawson — 3 June 2021
Sticking to the bitumen doesn't need to be a compromise. These blacktop adventures will take you around the country without shaking your chassis.

THE GREAT BARRIER REEF DRIVE, QLD

Cairns to Cape Tribulation, 140km 

On this tricoloured, tropical coastline, coconut palm-fringed beaches slide into the sea, sandwiched between lush green rainforests and luminous coral reefs. It’s wild, World Heritage-listed and oh-so-warm here. The fun begins on the northern edge of Cairns where the Captain Cook Highway hangs off the edge of towering cliffs into the deep blue sea. 



In Palm Cove, a bar and restaurant strip studs a sweeping arc of sand fringed by towering melaleucas and shaggy coconut palms. The pet-friendly Palm Cove Holiday Park puts caravanners amid this uber-cool scene, with waterfront views and a jetty to fish from. 

Leaving Palm Cove, you’ll barely warm up the engines before Ellis Beach pulls you back off the highway. Shaded by mango trees and paperbarks, Ellis Beach is the north’s only truly beachfront holiday park, with gentle boogie-board waves and a lively cafe-bar across the road (ellisbeach.com). 

Close to Ellis Beach, hang-gliders launch themselves into the abyss from Rex Lookout, Instagrammers stack rock creations at The Gatz, and you can breakfast with snapping crocodiles at Hartley’s Crocodile Adventures at Wangetti Beach — all of this and you haven’t even hit Port Douglas yet.

Despite its five star reputation, Port Douglas is a laidback and affordable destination for road travellers with an undertow to match. Budget boat trips whisk you away to stunning coral-fringed Low Isles up Dickson Inlet aboard the Lady Douglas on wild, croc-spotting cruises. Then you can wander Port Douglas's weekend markets, ride the historical Bally Hooley Railway, and float off Four Mile Beach — or even hike above it.

Between Port Douglas and the Daintree, stop at Mossman Gorge to learn about Kuku Yalanji culture and swim in some of the clearest freshwater pools on earth. You can overnight at Wonga Beach Caravan Park to launch a boat and fish off Snapper Island or push straight across the croccy Daintree River into World Heritage-listed Daintree National Park. 

Amids 35km of sand, sea, and great swathes of misty rainforest, you can swim in some surprising crocodile-free waterholes. Try following Emmagen Creek upstream to reach the Nudie Pool. There’s a 23m-high canopy tower to climb, coconuts to crack, and delicious tropical fruits and ice creams to taste. Of all the Daintree’s short wanders, don’t miss the circuit trail at Jindalba to spot endangered southern cassowaries and the saddle trail linking Cape Tribulation’s Kulki Walk to magical Myall Beach.

The Trip: Cairns to Cape Tribulation, 140km. Visit: May–October for stinger-free seas. Powered sites: Ellis Beach, Wonga Beach Caravan Park, Cape Tribulation Camping. More: tropicalnorthqueensland.org.au, parks.des.qld.gov.au/parks. 

THE NULLARBOR, SA/WA

Ceduna to Norseman, 1194km

Crossing the world’s largest and flattest limestone plateau remains a rite of passage for Aussie travellers. 

On the Nullarbor’s vast waterless plains lies the world’s straightest stretch of road — 146km of mind-addling blacktop — and little else but a few roadhouses, ruins, and rest areas for more than 1000km. Once you leave Ceduna’s small-town civilisation it’s just you, the wind, and the whales, but this lack of habitation can come as a breath of fresh air for big-city escapees. 

Its name comes from Latin 'nullus arbor', meaning ‘no trees’, but the Indigenous name Oondiri, meaning ‘the waterless’ more accurately describes this wild karst landscape harbouring underground caves and Australia’s largest population of the southern hairy-nosed wombats. 

Just beyond Ceduna, detour past the shimmering Blue Lake into Chadinga Conservation Park for giant white dunes, surf breaks, and a beach campsite at Port Sinclair. Across the headland at historical Port Le Hunte there’s a swimming enclosure, protected boat ramp, and a jetty to fish from. 

From May you can stand above crumbling sea cliffs at Head of the Bight to witness the great gathering of endangered southern right whales. By August some have calves, and they linger close to shore until September when they leave for Antarctica. Boardwalks from the interpretive centre get you closest to the whales, with entry costing $16/adult, $13/concession cardholders, and $7/child. 

Beyond the Bight, the Nullarbor Roadhouse pulls you off the highway with meals, fuel, powered sites, and access to Murrawijinie’s trio of caves 10.4km west, where you’ll find galleries of ochre hand stencils. Beyond here, you enter Nullarbor National Park and Regional Reserve and 200m of crumbling, vertigo-inducing coastline around the famously undercut Bunda Cliffs. While it offers no facilities, Bunda — located 75km east of the WA border — is the best of 10 free roadside rest areas on this stretch.

Devour the last of your fresh food before pushing across the blue bush plains into Western Australia. From the border to Norseman, make stops at Eucla Telegraph Station ruins, feel the underworld breathing at Caiguna Blowhole, and free camp at Newman Rock. 

The Trip: Ceduna to Norseman, 1194km. Visit: May–October for whale watching. Roadhouse stops: Nundroo, Nullarbor, Border Village, Eucla, Mundrabilla, Madura, Cocklebiddy, Caiguna, Balladonia, and Norseman. More: nullarbornet.com.au, headofbight.com.au. 

WEST MACDONNELL RANGES, NT

Alice Springs to Redbank Gorge, 156km

Rising above the Red Centre’s vast spinifex plains, the rugged West MacDonnell Ranges dominate a startling landscape carved with slender chasms and hidden waterholes, sacred Indigenous sites, and the awe-inspiring Ormiston Pound. Predicted to become our next World Heritage Area, Tjoritja/West MacDonnell National Park is the sort of place that compels travellers to strap on hiking shoes and explore. It also however, promises blissful, starry night camps, and resonating cultural experiences. 

Set out from Alice Springs — but before you get the car warmed up, pull out your bikes and tackle the bush cycleway to spot black-footed rock wallabies at Simpsons Gap, a 50km round trip. With the rig in tow, your first stop might be for a bracing icy dip at Ellery Creek Bighole or to wander beneath vibrant, striped cliffs at the Ochre Pits. 

On this adventure, move slowly enough to spend a night each at Ormiston Gorge. For mind-blowing views, venture into cavernous Ormiston Pound, Redbank Gorge, and Glen Helen Resort at journey’s end. 

Powered sites and excellent facilities make Ormiston Gorge a great base for hikers, and while nearby Glen Helen Lodge might be closed you can still access the deep permanent waterhole, framed by towering rock cliffs and carved by the world’s oldest waterway, the mighty Finke River. When you go, don’t miss a visit to John Flynn’s grave, and time your trip to catch the Finke Desert Race and the Beanie Festival — both in June — or Henley-on-Todd’s waterless regatta in August.

The Trip: Alice Springs to Ormiston Gorge, 156km. Visit: April–September. National park campgrounds: Ellery Creek Big Hole, Serpentine Chalet (free) Ormiston Gorge (powered sites), 2-Mile (4WD-only), and Redbank Gorge, bring cash. More: nt.gov.au, discovercentralaustralia.com.

THE INDIAN OCEAN DRIVE, WA

Perth to Dongara, 350km

Hugging a wildly scenic coastline of giant shifting dunes and limestone pinnacles, this drive delivers you to dazzling blue bays where sea lions hang out and national parks are ablaze with wintertime wildflowers. Here you can hike across precious Kwongan heathlands, go underground at Stockyard Tunnel, and at the world-famous Pinnacles in Nambung National Park photograph pinnacles and otherworldly ancient stromatolites and thrombolites. 

You’ll only clock up around 350km, so allow plenty of time to sandboard the largest sand crests in WA at Lancelin, swim with Jurien Bay’s 800-strong breeding colony of Australian sea lions, take a guided dive onto an historical shipwreck, and spend a few sleepy days casting a line from Sandy Cape Campground close to rare World War II ruins. 

Up until a decade ago, the Indian Ocean Drive didn’t exist at all. Now it provides access to the endlessly scenic Turquoise Coast, full of calm blue bays, white sand beaches, historical beach shack settlements, and small fishing towns where you can sleep within sight of the sea. The fishing will keep you well-fed and smiling, and water babies will find their nirvana here, surfing, diving, kiteboarding, paddling, boating and snorkelling on the edge of the Indian Ocean. 

The Trip: Perth to Dongara, 350km. Visit: July–September (for wildflowers). Top Camp: Sandy Cape Recreation Area ($20/site). Don’t miss: Grey Shack Settlement (before the shacks disappear). More: visitturquoisecoast.com.au, parks.dpaw.wa.gov.au.

THE MATILDA WAY, QLD

Blackall to Cloncurry, 740km

Carving a diagonal path through Central Queensland, this stretch of the Landsborough Highway leads travellers on an iconic outback journey ‘Beyond the Black Stump’. If you are heading to Darwin it might be the longest shortcut you’ll ever take, waylaid by so many historical landmarks, iconic outback pubs, and lots of excellent bush campsites. 

The adventure begins in Blackall, 960km north-west of Brisbane, home to Jackie Howe and the original ‘black stump’. This million-year-old petrified tree stump was used by early-day surveyors as a reference point while charting Queensland’s outback, and it was said that anything west of Blackall was ‘beyond the Black Stump’. 

If west is best, then you are up for a few thrills on this outback drive. You could push due north to stand before Barcaldine’s Tree of Knowledge, but that would rule out a stay at my favourite bush camp on the banks of the Barcoo River at Isisford. This shady spot is where yellow-belly dwell — golden perch to some — which make for a great freshwater feed. It costs just $5/night or $27/week for waterfront camping here, payable at the Outer Barcoo Interpretation Centre. 

Past the historical ruins and bush camp at 12-mile Dam, Ilfracombe’s Great Machinery Mile paves the way to Longreach. You can camp at Long Waterhole, 4km north-west of town ($5/night, $27/week) and spend a few days at the Australian Stockman’s Hall of Fame and, if you dare, walk the wings of a 747 or 707 at the QANTAS Founders Museum. 

The claim to fame of my favourite town on this route, Winston, is that AB ‘Banjo’ Paterson not only wrote his most popular ballad ‘Waltzing Matilda’ while visiting nearby Dagworth Station, but that its first public reading took place at Winton’s North Gregory Hotel in 1895. Once you’ve set up camp among the waterbirds at Long Waterhole, tackle a day trip into Bladensburg National Park, explore the Waltzing Matilda Centre, play a tune on Winton’s Musical Fence, and when it’s time to leave town, head 90 minutes west to Combo Waterhole.

For cold ales west of Winton, you’ve got two top choices: Kynuna’s Blue Heeler Hotel — where Banjo Patterson’s famed squatter and swagman took their last sips — or the Walkabout Creek Hotel where you can sit on the set of Crocodile Dundee. This journey ends at Cloncurry, or should you want to fit in, The Curry, through which Robert O’Hara Burke passed through with Wills on their ill-fated 1860 expedition, and the birthplace of the Royal Flying Doctor Service in 1928. Arrive in August to catch the Curry Merry Muster Rodeo.

The Trip: Blackall to Cloncurry, 740km. Visit: June–July. Free camp: Winton’s Long Hole and 12-Mile Dam. More: experiencewinton.com.au, longreachtourism.com.au.  

Tags

Travel Destinations Australia Blacktop-touring Caravanning

Photographer

David Bristow