If you’re thinking of buying a car to travel around Australia, please read this article on how.
Australia is a big country, the 6th biggest if we’re being pedantic. So if you plan on venturing out of whichever city you first heaved your backpack off the carousel into, and my god you should do, you’ve travelled far enough to get there! Then you’re going to need something with wheels and an engine.
In The Rescuers Down Under (the Godfather 2 of early 90s Disney), young Cody travels around the Northern Territory on the back of a 30ft golden eagle. Regretfully, these seem to have been decommissioned now. Bloody health and safety! Thankfully, there are other, less traditional, but no less practical means of travelling Australia, and I’ve done the research so you don’t have to.
Train travel wasn’t really as embraced in the building of this nation as it was in Western Europe. Largely because it’s not really economically viable to run a regular rail network between towns that have more miles between them than residents.
So unfortunately locomotives are not a hugely reliable option for travelling around Australia unless you’re really limited in where you want to go. Or if you’re just doing a day trips from metropolitan areas, like say The Blue Mountains from Sydney. What railways there are in Australia however, can often be a destination unto themselves. The Ghan and The Indian Pacific in particular are two of the world’s great rail journeys, albeit with price tags as jawdropping as the scenery.
Buses are far more prevalent and accessible up the east coast than west, and there are a couple of companies to choose from:
There’s absolutely no reason why you’d take an Oz Experience bus for a single trip. However if you’re looking for package tours to take you all the way up the East Coast and don’t know what to go for, then it could be for you. But first please ask yourself the following questions:
- Are the films Titanic and Men In Black ‘before your time’?
- Are you easily marketed by bright colourful logos?
- Do you own and wear at all occasions, even I imagine, weddings and funerals, a leaver’s hoodie from a home counties private school?
- Does your travel bucket list include a half-arsed surf lesson and aggressive gonorrhoea?
- Do you hate comfortable seats?
- You are offered two Kit Kat Chunkies: One is 50p and seems to be in perfectly good condition. The other is £1, the packet’s ripped, it smells suspiciously of what you’re reasonably sure is piss, and you have to eat it next to a teenager vomiting on your shoes, BUT it is being waved suggestively at you by a hot Australian in an STA uniform. Do you buy the second one?
Score yourself 1 point for each question you answered ‘Yes’ to. If you scored more than 4 then Oz Experience could be for you!
In contrast the Kiwi Experience over in New Zealand is actually reasonably good and seem to make an effort with their passengers, helping them get to know each other and offering free activities rather than just herding you from one vomit to the next. It’s still vastly overpriced, but less like an open audition for What Twats do in Kavos organised by Butlins.
Easyrider Tours are another backpacker bus company that operates along the West coast of Australia, but I actually quite like these. They’re comparable in value to public bus travel considering the extras they include, the drivers are friendly and they sometimes include free activities and walking stops.
Greyhound, Premier and McCafferty all offer basic long distance bus services that both travellers and real people can ‘enjoy’ (and I use this term lightly). They’re all less-costly than the backpacker orientated services; Greyhound is the most frequent but Premier is cheaper. If you’re travelling by bus in Australia, I’d recommend you take one of these. You’ll still meet backpackers, and of a more varied sort. You’ll make friends, you’ll get drunk, you’ll get up to exactly the same things as you would on Oz Experience, but with a fuller wallet at the end of it, and less rashes.
If you’re in Australia for only a short period or on your own, or both, then buses are certainly an easy option, but by far the best way of getting around is in a slightly smaller vehicle…
Hiring a Car/Campervan
Hiring a car or a campervan is a great way to explore the country. Travel in a fried-out Kombi on a hippie trail with a head full of zombie (or at least in a Ford Econovan) on your own whims without the pressure of having to sell a car before you fly or any of the paperwork that’s involved in ownership. If you’re only there for a few weeks, or only want to go on a short term road trip then hiring is easily your best option.
If you’re town-hopping up Australia’s east coast, then a basic car is all you need. Town-hopping is fine of course, but Australia only really comes into it’s own once you leave the major cities and Oz Experience routes. If you can avoid the more poisonous natives this country is also a camping paradise, so I’d wholeheartedly recommend any backpacker getting a camper and going bush.
Wicked vans are each uniquely designed with a graffiti style paint job. This looks pretty cool but the real jump-up-and-down joy comes when you spot the exact same slightly racist van you inhabited on a boozy trip down the Great Ocean Road rattling out of a Woolies carpark in Brisbane 6 weeks later.
It’s an odd experience, first you’re excited, like bumping into an old friend or lover. But that’s quickly followed by a sting of bitterness that some other backpackers are now lording it about behind the steering wheel like they’re the first person to ever hire her. It takes a lot of restraint not to march up, tap on the window and make it known to the smug bastards that you were together first and their experience will never be as special as what you guys had. Then comes the comedown guilt as you remember that that van has seen things that none of us are proud about and the sooner we all forget them the better.
They’re cheap, and very basic inside, but if you want to nail the hippy camper look for a few weeks, and offend the local mums while you’re at it, then hire one of these badboys. And if they breakdown? Well that’s why you hired. If you want a smoother, comfier, and cleaner ride, Spaceships are a great alternative.
Now, there’s a way you can travel from one city to another, in your own vehicle, any route you like, from only $1 a day, and you might even get money towards your fuel.
The only catch is you’ll have a limited amount of days to do it in; 3-4 days for Brisbane to Sydney, about 7 days for Perth to Broome and so on. So you won’t exactly be racing against the clock, but you won’t really be in a position to camp a few days here and there at your leisure either.
Campervans and motorhomes from major rental companies like Britz and Apollo are often hired in one city and dropped at another, this means that some branches end up with more vehicles than others and they need to be taken back, which is where skinflint backpackers come to the rescue.
Imoova.com lists relocations that are available all over Aus, New Zealand, North America and Europe, you just pick the country of your choice (Australia in this case, obviously) and browse the offers for the journey you want to take.
Sounds too good to be true? Well if within seconds of picking up your keys in Melbourne Britz, you instantly steer the enormous 5 berth motor home with a loud crunch into the side of another massive fucking RV. Right in front of the horrified receptionist you’ve just cockily turned down $18 insurance from because “I’m a good driver”, causing both the branch manager to come running out into the car park and your very much needed $1000 deposit to evaporate in front of your eyes, then yes, it is too good to be true. Then what was previously a bargain leisure cruise will swiftly become the most expensive, seething and resentful 14 hours driving of your life.
So learn from my mistake, don’t do that. Or get insurance.
If you want to travel around a country without worrying about timetables, tickets, deposits, or dropping it off at the right branch before 10am, AND you have enough time to wait for a sale once you arrive at your final destination, then buying your own vehicle really is a no brainer.
If you’re savvy there’s no reason why you won’t be able to sell it for the same price as you bought it, or even make a profit. Prices vary from place to place; inevitably there are more cars for sale in cities in which backpackers tend to start or finish their trips (Melbourne, Cairns, Sydney, Perth) and therefore supply brings the prices down, and visa-versa.
I once bought a car for £1500 in Perth and sold it 5 months later in Broome for £3400 purely because there was less competition. It was also at the end of the dry season so people were buying cars to leave the tropical northern town, so keep in mind that time of year can make a difference too. October-November is a great time to buy in Melbourne and Sydney for instance, because herds of dusty backpackers with empty bank balances will be ending huge road trips from the other side of the country, and looking to settle down and get a job for the summer.
“Yes, that all sounds wonderfully adventurous”, I hear you say. “But once we’ve reluctantly handed over an fat pile of 50s for a Ford Falcon that sounds like it’s suffering from acute tuberculosis, won’t we then just have to spend whatever we’ve got left on gas stoves, inflatable mattresses, ketchup and other camping essentials? We’ll have no money left for petrol or an air freshener that looks like a tree!”
…Fear not young explorer, the beauty of buying a car from a backpacker is that it’s already kitted out for backpackers, and the original owner isn’t going to want to take any of it with them. Frying pans and plastic plates have been passed down through generations upon generations of foreign twenty-somethings trundling across the continent drinking wine from bags and not owning proper shoes. I once found a spatula made from flint.
Of course, this ain’t no bag of crisps you’re buying. It’ll probably cost more than your flights. All of them. Put together. So there are just a few things you need to be aware of before you part with your wads of waterproof wonga. Luckily, I’ve bought my share of backpacker wagons down under, so have written you a handy guide on WHAT to buy and HOW…
In every single hostel in the country there’ll be at least one scrap of paper pinned to the noticeboard reading something along the lines of this:
“Hi! We’re two super-duper friendly French/German/English/Irish guys/girls who are heading up/down to X in our legend of a Holden/Ford that we’ve lovingly called Sheila/Bruce next week! We’re offering a lift and megabantz in exchange for splitting fuel costs. Fun and singalongs guaranteed!! Call Pierre/Helga/Mark/Aoife on +61 4xxxxxxxxx”
Once you’ve swallowed the sick in your mouth, give them a call, they’re probably not as bad as they seem.
Of course, we live in a digital world nowadays, so it’s not all paper notes, telegrams and threppenny bits. You can also find lifts on sharing websites like coseats.com or one of a dozen Facebook groups like this.
Plus side: You get to live the hippy fantasy and have the freedom of cruising about the country in your own vehicle, but without the cost of your own vehicle or the fear that the engine will fall out as soon as you’ve gotten 50 miles from the person who sold it you. And fuel is pretty cheap in Australia, so once it’s been split between you and your fellow passengers this option is by far the cheapest possible.
Down side: Because it’s somebody else’s car you’re probably going to have to go along with whatever route and schedule they have planned. And if they’re friends who all know each other already you’re always going to feel like a guest who’s only there to keep the costs down. The ideal situation is a solo car owner who’s looking for two or three other passengers to join them, or even better, to jump in with a load of friends you’ve already made in a hostel.
If you’re not planning on moving around much whilst in Australia – maybe you’re just planning on working in Sydney for a few months and perhaps darting up to Fraser Island for a few days and take in a Byron Bay wet t-shirt competition while you’re there? Maybe you just want to get from A to B and don’t care about what’s in between? Or maybe you simply can’t drive? If these apply to you, take the bus.
For any other trips you’re planning of a day or more you should hire a car or campervan. You don’t want to be restricted to the timetables and locations of infrequent buses or trains when you’re trying to explore, and if you counter in the money you can save by camping it might not even be much more expensive. Australia is fucking huge and most of that has no bus stops, so get behind the wheel if you have the chance. Do you think Mad Max would’ve been able to avenge any deaths at all if he had to wait for the 185 to Coober Pedy? No, he wouldn’t.
If you’re planning on being there for enough time that you can afford to remain static for up to a week to find a good deal on a car, and 2 or 3 weeks at the other end to sell it again without panicking. And of course if you’re planning on travelling around enough to use it – and if you’re going to Australia for more than a month or two why wouldn’t you want to see as much as you can? – then buy your own. If you’re buying with travel buddies then it could cost as little as a few hundred each, which you’ll hopefully get back when you sell it. Check my Australian Car Buying Tips first and she’ll be apples, mate!
Happy trails ya flamin’ drongos!