AS THE WEATHER WARMS, many holiday-makers head back to the southern capitals after spending time up north. The drive is often long and boring as they try to get home as quickly as possible.
But there are ways of making the homeward stretch part of the overall experience rather than a tedious postscript. For instance, a ‘circular’ itinerary will ensure that the trip back home continues to be a discovery. And if a circular route isn’t possible, you could start the return journey a few days earlier and drop in on some sights you missed on the way up.
Whichever way you approach this, it’s worth talking to the locals and fellow travellers about stops en route that don’t always make it into the main tourist brochures, and that are guaranteed to be memorable if only because they’re unexpected.
To help you on your way, the team at CW presents some hidden gems along Australia’s major highways – pleasant surprises that will break the drive back home for a day or so.
BRUCE HIGHWAY, QLD
Highway 1 along the Qld coast has lots of interesting places where you can pull in for a break, with the possible exception of the 335km Marlborough Stretch between Mackay and Rockhampton – once you pass the Carmila Beach turn-off (an okay spot south of Sarina), there’s not much of interest until you hit Rocky and it’s probably best to do this section in one hit.
If that’s not possible, however, there’s a good free stop for RVs at the polo ground at St Lawrence, 6km off the Bruce Highway 57km south of Carmila. There’s no power but you’ll find clean, coin-in-the-slot showers, a dump point and a central mains water tap, and it’s an easy walk into the little township (one of the oldest along the Qld coast) for groceries or a counter meal at the pub. Polocrosse takes place some weekends and when it’s on, you can buy food from the kiosk.
Apart from that, keep an eye out for the following places on your way south from Cairns:
Babinda Boulders – 7km west of the sugar-and-banana town of Babinda, 88km south of Cairns. Wonderful swimming hole and picnic area, impressive cascades over large, water-sculpted boulders, easy rainforest walk, free, council-managed camping area with facilities.
Murray Falls – One of North Qld’s prettiest waterfalls, 20km south-west from the highway turn-off 16km south of Tully. Great camping area with facilities (national park fees), good walks. Check the present situation with regards to swimming.
Bowen – A pleasant town just off the highway and definitely worth a stop-over. There are several waterfront parks, great fishing and beaches.
Jourama Falls – In the Paluma Range NP (5km down the turn-off 24km south of Ingham). Large camping area with facilities (national park fees), free gas barbecues, great walks, swimming when conditions allow.
Seaforth camping area – 18km off the highway north-west of Mackay. Beachfront, cheap fees, toilets and showers, no power. Beach walking, fishing, etc.
Childers – This lovely, heritage-listed town on the highway 320km north-west of Brisbane hosts a large Festival of Cultures at the end of July. Many travellers don’t bother stopping on their way through, but if you spend the night here, you could well find yourself staying an extra day.
PACIFIC AND PRINCES HIGHWAYS, NSW
Highway 1 along the NSW coast is known as the Pacific Highway from Brisbane to Sydney and as the Princes Highway from Sydney all the way to Adelaide. Pull off the main drag just about anywhere along here in NSW and you’ll find a hidden gem.
It’s hard to nominate favourites, but the following won’t disappoint:
Forster-Tuncurry – Instead of trundling down the Pacific Highway south from Taree, take a detour along the Lakes Way through the twin towns of Forster-Tuncurry that straddle the ocean mouth of Wallis Lake. Continue past Wallis and Myall lakes back to the highway north-west of Bulahdelah. Great beaches, good fishing and lovely camping spots ensure that the area is packed during school holidays, but it’s a pleasant drive and makes a refreshing break in proceedings on the homeward stretch.
Nowra to Batemans Bay – This section of the Princes Highway is full of worthwhile spots – quiet little places such as Jervis Bay with its white-sand beaches, St Georges Basin, Lake Conjola and Lake Tabourie. They’re not very quiet during school holidays, though.
Batemans Bay to Moruya coastal detour – This road provides an interesting alternative to the highway. Small towns harbour quiet coastal campsites, with boating, fishing and local national parks as attractions. North-west of Batemans Bay is Nelligen, which is much quieter than the hustle of Batemans and has a very nice caravan park on the Clyde River.
Eden – This fishing port and timber town on the far south coast, with its commanding location on Twofold Bay, tends to avoid the tourist crush that can overwhelm Merimbula to the north.
STUART HIGHWAY, NT/SA
The 2700km Stuart Highway through the centre of Australia, from Darwin down to Port Augusta in SA, goes through magnificent, ever-shifting landscapes. Travellers undertaking this classic Aussie road trip will focus on the well-known tourist draws, and on the roadhouses and rest areas that punctuate the journey.
About 145km south-west of Alice Springs, however, off the unsealed Ernest Giles Road, is the often overlooked Henbury Meteorites Crater Reserve, with a basic camping area and a self-guided walking track around the craters – a perfectly deserted camping spot where you can watch shooting stars at night and ponder our insignificance in the universe.
Much further south, 172km from Port Augusta, you could detour 6km off the highway into the (almost) ghost town of Woomera and, all on sealed roads, travel 81km from there to Roxby Downs and another 30km to the fascinating opal fields of Andamooka, though that would be quite a detour.
If your rig can handle reasonable gravel with occasional corrugations and potholes, consider leaving the highway at Marla or Coober Pedy and taking the Oodnadatta Track along the Old Ghan railway line down to Marree, and from there to the Flinders Ranges and Adelaide. So long as there’s no rain, the track will be almost as quick as the highway and potentially far more interesting.
STURT AND BARRIER HIGHWAYS, NSW
These two major routes between Adelaide and Sydney offer several points of interest in the seemingly endless plains. Where the Barrier Highway crosses the Darling River, for instance, is the old port town of Wilcannia, with a beautiful location on the river and some impressive sandstone buildings dating back to the 1880s, when Wilcannia was the third-busiest port in Australia. (Note: There’s a fair bit of negative opinion about this town on the grapevine. All I can say is that my own experiences have always been positive and the caravan park is not a bad place to pull in for the night, but perhaps you should see for yourself.)
Along the Sturt Highway, the town of Balranald on the lower Murrumbidgee floodplain is worth a stop for a look at Yanga NP on the site of the former Yanga Station. Leave your van at the caravan park for a day visit to Mungo NP 150km north-west of town – the road is mainly dirt but good going when dry (the tourist office has an informative Mungo Loop brochure).
BARKLY, LANDSBOROUGH AND WARREGO HIGHWAYS, NT/QLD
This main route from the Stuart Highway just north of Tennant Creek to Brisbane is a long, lonely run interspersed with towns that symbolise Australia’s mining and pastoral industries, such as Mount Isa, Cloncurry, Longreach and Roma.
Possum Park, 20km north of the small rural hub of Miles in south-east Qld, is an appealing tourist park on the site of a WWII RAAF base full of memorabilia.
NEWELL HIGHWAY, NSW
The quickest route between Brisbane and Melbourne is one of those roads where you can knock off 90-95km every hour while cruising at 100km/h. It’s mostly straight and flat and truckies love it. There are, however, a few worthwhile stop-overs:
Narrabri – The town itself is nothing special but the dramatic volcanic landscape of Mount Kaputar NP to the east certainly is. Leave your van in one of the caravan parks and drive to the top of 1510m Mount Kaputar, from where you can see 10 per cent of NSW. The Australia Telescope array of radio telescopes west of town is worth visiting, too.
Coonabarabran – Another town that’s worth at least an overnighter for its nearby national park and a series of telescopes, in this case the rugged Warrumbungle NP and the spectacularly sited Siding Spring Observatory west of town. If you want even more telescopes, visit the Parkes radio telescope, star of the movie The Dish, a further three to four hours’ drive down the Newell.
HUME HIGHWAY, NSW/VIC
The 880km inland highway between Sydney and Melbourne is almost entirely a dual-lane freeway now that it bypasses all but three towns en route. The road itself can be boring – even sleep-inducing with a vigorously policed speed limit that’s lower than the road’s design speed – but many towns along the way are steeped in history and well worth a small detour.
The Southern Highlands about an hour south-west of Sydney contain delightful towns such as Mittagong, Bowral, Moss Vale and Bundanoon, with lots of cafes, antique shops and a few wineries. It’s all rather touristy but pleasant mid-week and very easy to explore off the freeway. There aren’t many places to camp outside of the few caravan parks, but the small Gambells Rest campground, just south of the Bunadanoon railway station on the edge of Morton NP, is very quiet mid-week.
HIGHWAY 1 – WEST COAST
Highway 1 along WA’s western coast is known as the Great Northern Highway down to Port Hedland, then as the North West Coastal Highway to Geraldton and finally as the Brand Highway to Perth. Apart from the obvious attractions such as Broome, the Pilbara, the Exmouth region and Shark Bay, there’s not a lot to see and do and it’s a long way from anywhere – which is part of its appeal.
However, the Great Northern Highway section runs just inland along Eighty Mile Beach, one of the most impressive stretches of beach anywhere on earth, and there are several campsites along here not far off the highway.
Try the one at Barn Hill, 10km down a good dirt road 120km south-west of Broome (105km south-west of Roebuck Plains Roadhouse). Technically just north-east of Eighty Mile Beach, it offers great beach walks, fishing and, surprisingly, a bowling green that’s a happy-hour focus until attendees move their camping chairs onto the beach to admire the sunset.
EYRE HIGHWAY (NULLARBOR), WA/SA
This section of Highway 1 along the Great Australian Bight is often referred to as the Nullarbor, after the relatively short treeless stretch east of the WA/SA border. Slightly east of this stretch, 5km past the Nundroo Roadhouse and then 27km down an unsealed but usually fine road, is Fowlers Bay, an isolated coastal settlement among white-sand dunes, with an interesting history and great fishing.
Twitchers won’t want to miss the Eyre Bird Observatory on the WA coast about 50km south-east of Cocklebiddy. The final 12km of the track is 4WD only and unsuitable for caravans, but you can contact the caretakers on (08) 9039 3450 to arrange a pick-up.
Thanks to Tony and Denyse Allsop, Malcolm Street and Lionel Mussell for their contributions.
Source: Caravan World Oct 2009.