Travelling and Touring the Outback
Cost and Accessibility
Australia is a vast continent with a small population that generally huddle near the coast - fanned by the cool summer breezes.
This fact means that the dry flat interior - the outback, has long stretches of uninhabited roads (many unsealed), interrupted only by occasional roadhouses or small towns.
Outback Australia is probably unlike anywhere else you've encountered. Parts of Africa, Mongolia and the Middle East share similarities in remoteness and isolation, but inland Australia offers a few challenges and obstacles unique to the outback.
The magnificent public transport systems of places like Europe and Japan don't exist out here. Although Australia has a basic public transport system (designed to move smaller numbers of people around major centres) trains, buses and planes just cannot get you to many destinations worthy of a visit.
Iconic outback destinations like Uluru, Karijini, Cooberpedy and The Bungle Bungles are serviced by regular public transport. These places exist because of their unique geography and there is a world to see in the environs surrounding them.
The costs of covering the vast distances between outback destinations can be high and transport and accommodation will be your biggest cost.
It is for this reason we recommend that you travel independently through outback Australia rather than relying solely on public transport to take you from one place on the map to the next.
Much like train and ocean liner travel of old, touring Australia should be about discovery and the journey - rather than the destinations. The destinations and attractions are just an excuse to make the journey.
The Caravan/Camper Trailer Combo
Touring the outback with a caravan or camper trailer in tow is almost a rite of passage for Australians and many retirees (grey nomads) hit the highways as soon as they finish their working lives.
It's a comparatively cheap way to travel and live - a nights accommodation can range between $7 and $30 or even nothing if you choose to pull up at a roadside camp or even a quiet creek.
The initial capital outlay can be quite substantial once a reasonable four wheel drive to tow the caravan has been factored in. Add many thousand dollars more for a rooftop dinghy, generator and the associated bits and pieces and a hundred thousand dollars can easily be eaten up.
Camper trailers can be had quite cheaply and there is an abundance of second hand units on the market.
Camper trailers tend to be lighter, easier to tow and store. An off-road unit can go places caravans can only dream about.
The trade off for the extra manoeuvrability and lower fuel use is a slightly reduced level of creature comfort.
A camper trailer can however get you into some pretty remote areas of outback Australia and provide accomodation that lies somewhere between pure 'blanket-on-the-ground' camping and a luxurious caravan.
This is our preferred method for seeing Australia and we spend most of our time on the road in a Toyota Landcruiser Troop Carrier or Nissan Patrol utility.
Four wheel drive campers are highly mobile, don't attract the higher costs fuel associated with towing and can get get you almost anywhere.
We speak in depth about them in this article - Touring Australia in a 4WD Camper
Cars and Camper Vans
Cars and camper vans are a cheap and easy way of getting around provided you don't want the added benefit of four wheel drive.
A 2WD car will take you to most destinations easily and in the right season, will even cover iconic 4WD treks like the Gibb River Road.
Lower profile cars don't have the wind resistance of the larger 4WD vehicles and without anything to tow can offer really good mileage when driven at reasonable highway speeds.
The highways of Australia are swarming with sightseers (mostly 20 - 30 year olds) driving rented or specially purchased vans, wagons and sedans. Two, three or four people will often pool their funds and head off for a carefree, destination free trip of a lifetime, stopping wherever there's a beach or a good time.
Australia is still a pretty safe place to visit and you'll see these groups camping by the side of the road and showering and barbecuing in public parks and beaches where public amenities are provided. Great fun.
Companies like 'Wicked' and 'Juicy' rent or sell campers and cars, often under a guaranteed buy-back scheme.
The alternative is to buy a cheaper, good condition, second hand unit and fit it out yourself.
The second hand car market in Australia is substantial and finding reliable transport is simple. There are plenty of high kilometre lemons out there - so buyer beware. Vehicle inspections by reputable mechanics are recommended.
Australian made Holden Commodore and Ford Falcon station wagons and sedans are good starting points. They are made in Australia for Australian conditions, have reasonably powerful yet economical six cylinder engines and are proven performers.
Trains are a fantastic means of travel.
Sleeping and living on rail as you fly through the spinifex and red dunes is sensational as is watching the outback sunset from a carriage window with a beer or a wine.
Sadly Australia's huge distances and small population cannot support the infrastructure required to build something like Japan's fantastic Shinkansen(bullet train) system.
Classic outback rail journeys are a rarity and extremely expensive. Rail trips such as The Ghan (south coast to north coast) and the Indian Pacific (west coast to east coast) are a voyage in themselves and much like a cruise ship - the journey is considered the destination.
Other localised passenger rail systems exist and are more prevalent on the east coast where there is a larger population.
Many people consider travelling by train to be the actual voyage and if considered in this light a flying visit across the outback on rail could be just the ticket.
If the purpose of your touring holiday is to get amongst the Australian flora and fauna and spend some time camping under outback skies then trains may not provide the solution.
The Bus System
Australia has a far reaching bus service - designed to get people to specific destinations at specific times.
Depending on location the local bus may arrive in a remote town once a day, once every second day, once a week or not at all. It's about cost and viability. Huge distances, high fuel prices and small passenger demand all contribute to ensure outback residents are provided with just the bus service they need and no more.
If you don't own a vehicle then the buses can be a reasonably cheap and convenient means of hopping from place to place.
We encountered one elderly European gentleman who visits Australia every year. He bus-hops where he can and then hires a car to take him to the destinations he wishes to see. His theory is that he doesn't tire from cross country driving and can look out the window all day at the passing scenery.
Long distance buses in Australia are usually fitted with a unisex toilet, cold drinking water, air-conditioning, the odd movie, big windows and reasonably comfortable seats.
They are notoriously slow, making lots of passenger stops and beverage breaks. Get used to roadhouse food if you plan on using them.
The aviation industry is in reasonable health with a fair supply of services.
Travel between the major cities is regular, reasonably priced and widely utilised. It is considered nothing for a Western Australian resident to hop on a plane for a weekend to watch the Melbourne Formula 1 Grand Prix or the AFL Grand Final (3240km by road).
Satellite services work from the major centres and there is a continual stream of flights into smaller towns, carrying locals and remote area employees. These smaller air services can be expensive. Again it is a case of supply and demand. It is cheaper for many Australians to fly into Asia for a holiday than to fly across their own country.
The Problem with Buses, Trains and Planes
The issue with travel by air, rail or Greyhound is what to do when you arrive at your destination. Many small towns have no public transport at all and may not have a single taxi. Car rental is widely available but not likely in towns of a couple of hundred people.
Buses, trains and aeroplanes tend to embark and depart very close to the centre of the CBD of the country town they service. Most of the popular tourist stops and outback destinations are located away from the regional centres and this means once you arrive you will have to get yourself to where you want to go.
If you can't rent a car, take a tour coach or bum a lift you're going to see an awful lot of one street towns and not much else.
Touring Australia is about getting out and seeing something unique and new. This can be difficult without your own independent means of transport.
Motorbikes, Pushbikes, Hiking, Hitchhiking and all the Rest.
There are plenty of people riding motorbikes and bicycles all over the country. From people who enjoy the challenge to folk who are fundraising for one cause or another.
The Australian summer is hot and for the most parts dry (except in the tropics where many roads become impassable anyway). Good preparation and a good level of fitness are required for travel by pushbike or motorbike. We've seen people who were doing eight week trips on motorbikes and absolutely hating every minute of it. We've also seen people who are circumnavigating the continent for the second time and would't have it any other way. Without a support car the amount of equipment that can be taken is fairly small. Small equipment levels equal small comfort levels and forgoing a decent bed and shower is unacceptable for many who spend a long day in the saddle.
There are people hiking or riding camels, horses and donkeys. People leading grown bulls by a rope or pushing wheelbarrows filled with camping gear. People driving tractors, riding unicycles and jogging in teams.
We are unable to recommend hitch-hiking although we have done it ourselves. It is illegal and getting caught may involve receiving a fine. As we mentioned Australia is still a safe place to visit but on occasion people do go missing or suffer life-changing events. Encounters with really dangerous individuals are uncommon but do occur. However, people do still hitch-hike and people do still pick up hitch-hikers.
The way you decide to tour the outback and Australia in general is really down to cost and comfort. If money is no object and the thought of camping unattractive then hiring a Winnebago and staying at the best hotels you can find is a reality. (You won't find true 5 Star or possibly even 4 Star in much of outback Australia.
Public transport is an option but again you're faced with the dilemma of how to get around once you arrive.
If you're not keen to tow a caravan or camper trailer and for many short term visitors this is not a financially viable option anyway - then we suggest you buy or hire a car or four wheel drive camper.
Australia is a massive country and part of the attraction is the sense of remoteness. Grab some camping gear, research some destinations and hit the road.
Further reading about pulling off the road for the night can be seen at Roadside Camping
Also The Outback Survival Guide offers some insights on what to do if if you get stranded in the bush.
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