How to travel Australia without robbing a bank
NEXT to buying a house, it has become the great Australian dream. You know, to buy a van and explore the length and breadth of the entire country. But most people seem to think they have to be retired "grey nomads" to make this kind of epic trip possible. You don't. You can do it, even on a moderate income, and you can take your children with you. We did it with our three children, aged between seven and 14, and we did most of it (23,000km) in less than four months. Here's how we went about it.
The hardest part: deciding when
There is never going to be a perfect time and you are never going to have enough money. We spent years dreaming about doing this kind of holiday with our children, but we always put it on the backburner because of seemingly insurmountable pressures that cropped up.
Our salaries weren't exactly red hot and we had a mortgage to pay off. We had pets and we had jobs.
We decided it was going to plunge us into debt, but this is what we had credit cards and mortgages for. Doing the trip together as a family was more important than doing the trip when we could afford it. We wanted to head north to Darwin first, so it was important we left before the wet season started.
Tying in with my leave availability, we picked October 3 as our departure date. If you are planning a similar trip, going north and then down along the west coast and across the bottom, I would suggest leaving at least a month earlier. Many of the farm stations on the west coast of Australia had closed for the season by the time we got there and it was also incredibly hot.
Mode of travel
Who knew there was so much choice of travel? Our first plan was to do the trip doing "relocation deals", driving motorhomes to various destinations for travel companies. You can get these kind of deals in a state-of-the-art motorhome for as little as $5 a day so these seemed like the budget option.
But once we realised we would be stuck when we got to a destination with no indication as to when the next relocation would come up, we scratched the idea. We chose a wind-up camper with a full kitchen that slept all five of us comfortably and could be easily towed by our four-wheel drive. We discounted a motorhome because it becomes a problem when you spend a few days in a national park and you have to take your home with you to go to the shops.
We loved our wind-up camper. It was so comfortable and easy to set up and that fridge kept the beer for the end of the day ice-cold. Remember to pack a fan and a heater. We needed both.
Next to budgeting, worrying about our children's education was the hardest part of the entire journey. We chose to do the trip in the last term as we figured this was the least important of the school year and we could take assignments with us. After extensive investigation, we decided not to register with a home school as it was too expensive and too complicated for one term only.
This was a wise decision as it was not long into the trip before we realised traditional schooling was not going to happen as planned. Trying to get kids to sit down and write assignments when there are new areas to explore is almost impossible. We focused on two areas only, grammar and maths, and we had numerous spelling bees on the road. You can go online and do relevant school work and it does not cost you a cent.
But, really, this was the school of life and what our kids lost in algebra and humanities they gained in life skills. They can wash dishes, set up a van in less than 20 minutes, feed a hawk and they can kayak on their own. It took them a school term to catch up on the school work they missed out on, but I believe the time away has made them more motivated and their school results are significantly higher this year than before we left.
Make it affordable
Your biggest expense, if you plan carefully, is going to be fuel. We found prices varied from 99 cents a litre (unleaded) to $2.16 at places on the Nullarbor. We wish we had bought a better car with a diesel engine. The theory is travelling down the coast of Western Australia means you will travel with the prevailing winds.
I don't know what happened to that theory when we were driving head-first into winds between Broome and Perth. But where you can really, really save is on accommodation. In the three months, we probably stayed in about five official caravan parks.
A jumping pillow and TV room never appealed to us as much as an open sky and being able to build a fire. We didn't stay in many free parks as I like my hot shower. We chose to stay in showgrounds and gun clubs as they have the best bathrooms and wide open space. We did mix up our stays with free parks and national parks.
Initially we used the brilliant book Camps Australia Wide to guide us. But then we learnt about the app Wikicamps and we never looked back. It shows what accommodation is coming up and gives comments on what it is like and how much it costs. It is good to use Wikicamps in conjunction with Camps Australia Wide as you don't always have internet connection.
Talking about the internet
I worked for the entire trip. This meant, of course, I needed internet and we worried we might find this difficult. We didn't. It turns out even my husband's Vodafone account picked up in most areas across Australia.
How to save on a big expense
Money will disappear fast if you go for take-away or buy food at expensive servos along the way. I made sandwiches and snacks every morning, which we kept in a cooler box to eat on the road. And when it came to the desperate call for ice cream on hot days, we found a cheap way out. Instead of buying five cones, we would buy a two-litre carton and with our five spoons we all had more than enough.
Attractions, they cost a fortune
We avoided the stereotypical tourist attractions (like theme parks and guided tours), but we still saw top locations. The trick is to do your research beforehand. We couldn't really afford for our family of five to kayak or go on a boat trip up the Katherine Gorge, so we took our own kayak.
We avoided doing activities in tourist hotspots, such as Kakadu, but we were able to do them in other areas. We couldn't afford to go croc feeding in Kakadu. At Timber Creek, the tiny campsite we were staying at for less than $50 a night offered free croc feeding and kite feeding. Most towns had attractions that were low cost and as they were new to our kids, they loved them. Take Darwin, for example. Did you know some of the best water slides around the town are absolutely free? Just Google "free attractions" in whatever place you are staying and you will get a list. Travelling out of school holidays also saves huge costs as most places offer discounts. Don't be shy to ask.
What's your favourite part of Australia?
We actually compiled a list as we were travelling and pretty much it goes like this:
Ningaloo Reef (near Exmouth, Western Australia), Mataranka (Northern Territory), Litchfield (Northern Territory), Denmark (Western Australia), Esperance (Western Australia).
In truth, there was only one place we plan never to go back to and that title goes to Cleaverville, near Karratha in Western Australia. Or, as we liked to call it, Leaverville.
How much did it really cost?
How long is a piece of string? All up, we were probably looking at $13,000 to $15,000 on petrol, accommodation and attractions over the nearly three months. I'm not going to count food as everyone has to eat. We had to replace the clutch (about $2000) in Perth and we had to put on four new tyres (about $1000) in Mount Gambier. But our car wasn't exactly brand new so I'm not including those either. We sold the van as soon as we got back and it held its value.
If you go there
Total distance: 14,500km, just for the straight lap and not including any detours. The lap was Sunshine Coast via Gympie to Roma, then Darwin, west to Broome, down to Perth, further south to Esperance, across the Nullarbor to South Australia, to the Grampians, along the Great Ocean Road to Melbourne, then past the Great Lakes and inland to Jindabyne and Thredbo, off to Canberra, Sydney, then to the Blue Mountains, Glen Innes, Lennox Head and home.
Average distance between fuel stops in remote areas: 200km.
Cost of camping: from free to $55 a site out of season.
The best time to do the trip is out of school holidays as it is significantly cheaper and less crowded. But you need to do the top end (Cairns, Darwin, Broome) before November or the hot weather, stingers and mosquitoes become a problem.
Remember that as you travel through states you will go through border control and lose your fruit, vegetables and honey.