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A mistake many first-time travellers to Australia make is underestimating the sheer size of it – this is not a country you can see in a month, let alone a week. But if you’ve got plenty of time and a willingness to drive for hours seeing nothing but the occasional road sign warning of kangaroos, you’ll be rewarded with scenes of staggering natural beauty that you’d never expect to find in the middle of a dusty, red landscape. If a 14,500km drive around the perimeter of the entire country sounds like a bit too much to handle, we’ve picked out a few easier (and shorter) road trips.
Mackay to Port Douglas: 800km
We hate to use clichés but sometimes they’re undeniably true: the drive from Mackay to Port Douglas really is about the journey, not the destination. The road between the two cities is essentially a long chain of destinations – we’ve never had our ducks in quite as neat a row – the first of which is Airlie beach. As well as being a stepping point for trips to the paradisiacal Whitsunday Islands (if you only visit one, make it Whitsunday Island), it also boasts palm-fringed beaches, waterfront parks and a relaxed, tropical atmosphere. Don’t spend too long beach and island hopping, however – from here it’s a 600km drive up to Port Douglas along sugar cane lined highways, with detours to as many deserted bays and sleepy towns along the way as you want (and there’s plenty). Before you hit the city, be sure to make a side trip to the Atherton Tablelands for waterfall hunting and enjoying the regions abundant local produce – preferably picnic style. Once in Port Douglas, you’ve got two choices – embrace the Far North Queensland lifestyle and do nothing but laze in a hammock for the rest of your trip, or head further up the cape into the wild Daintree Rainforest, where trickling creeks and rainforest-lined shores await (just watch out for crocs).
Darwin to Alice Springs: 1,500km
If you’re eager to get the real outback experience – potential for crocodile-related injury included – the road from Darwin to Alice Springs is for you. Head straight out of the NT capital (trust us, you’re not missing much) and make your first stop Kakadu National Park for indigenous exploration, dramatic vistas and unhurried adventuring. The falls and creeks here are a look but don’t touch experience due to crocodiles, but if it’s wild freshwater swimming you’re after, Litchfield National Park is just across the highway, and dip-approved during the dry season. Further down Highway 1 you’ll find Katherine, worth a stop for the gorgeous Katherine Gorge, where you’ll also spot crocodiles, but at a safe distance – as long as you stay in the boats that carry visitors up and down the waterways. Continuing on, spend the night at the quirky town of Daly Waters, with its historic pub full of eclectic memorabilia collected from 80 years of patrons. After a good night’s sleep, set out for Karlu Karlu (The Devil’s Marbles) in the morning, where you can wind your way through granite boulders stacked and scattered across the desert floor and camp for the night. Round off your trip in Alice Springs, where the nearby iconic Uluru is eclipsed (in our opinion) by the jaw-dropping Kata Tjuta rock formation. White clothing isn’t recommended (red dust is horrendously difficult to wash out – you have been warned).
Brisbane to Byron Bay (and back): 350km
With write-home restaurants, excellent beaches and a laid-back atmosphere awaiting you in Byron Bay, an eye-on-the-prize mentality is understandable, but it’s also a shame with so much to see along the route. Fly into Brisbane and spend a night or two checking out the city’s up-and-coming dining scene, which is far less pretentious than Sydney or Melbourne’s but no less prodigious. Jumping in the car, head straight down the M1 for the glittering shores of the Gold Coast, famous for its 52km of beaches and vibrant nightlife. Once you’ve had your fill of healthful cafés and not-so-healthful cocktail bars, continue down the coast (perhaps with an overnight stop at Cabarita Beach) to Byron Bay and do as the locals do: cheer up, slow down and chill out. Depending how much time you’ve got, the route back to Brisbane can be direct or meandering – head inland for a detour to explore lush rainforests at Lamington National Park and taste test local wine, beer and cheese in the Tamborine Mountain region, with a freshwater swim at Cedar Creek falls on the way.
Perth to Albany: 500km
The road from Perth to Albany hides some of the most underrated beaches in the country. Beginning in Australia’s up-and-coming coastal city – overflowing with new bars and restaurants – drive south to Fremantle to enjoy the small-town lifestyle, and if a selfie with an Australian marsupial is on your road trip to-do list, Rottnest Island and its resident quokkas are just a ferry ride away. From there, continue down the coast to Injidup Natural Spa, an impressive natural rock formation on the beach that makes for an ocean spa to rival any wellness retreat. Hopefully all the swimming will have worked up an appetite because your next stop, Margaret River, is known for its wineries, craft breweries, cheese producers and endless other local produce – so leave room in your suitcase for all the goodies you’ll be bringing home. Your final stop before Albany is Greens Pool and Elephant Cove in William Bay National Park, two dreamy stretch of sand and sea dotted with large rock boulders and perfect for snorkelling. The otherworldly beaches continue all the way along the coastline, so maybe don’t take off your swimming costume at all. From Albany, it’s a straight road back to Perth – just be sure you don’t take a wrong turn and wind up along the 1675km Nullarbor Plain.
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