For many intrepid travellers and backpackers, an Australian road trip is high on their bucket list. They picture speeding down long, empty dirt roads in the back of a ute, before rocking up at a campsite in the middle of the outback and cracking open a cold beer by the barbie. I guess you’re now expecting me to let you down gently and say “that’s not what it’s like at all”. But I have good news folks, the Aussie road trip experience is really how they describe it in the movies.

During my three-month summer break, while studying in Australia, I had the mad idea of buying a car in Cairns and driving it all the way back to Perth, where I was based. Somehow, I made it. And this is an account of my epic Australian road trip (well, part one at least).

Cairns/Great Barrier Reef

In early January, I arrived in a sticky and humid Cairns at 9am from Bali, having got precisely zero hours sleep on the plane. My friend April and I were not yet twenty-one, and as a result, the price to rent a car was extortionate. I had a quick skim through Gumtree and found a car for sale at $1000. This car, complete with extensive camping gear, was still cheaper than renting a car for ten days! Sleep deprived and delirious, I drove the car around Cairns (stalling several times) and offered the guy $800. “Done,” he said. And that was that. I had my first (probably mechanically unsound) car!

Cairns is a laid-back city that feels more like a town, situated on the famous Great Barrier Reef. Small enough to familiarise yourself with fairly quickly, yet large enough to find things to do, I found Cairns rather charming. My favourite part was the saltwater lagoon on the Esplanade, and I pictured myself moving there and getting into a routine of daily, early morning swims. The only problem was that the city didn’t seem very vibrant- there were no bustling streets or rowdy youngsters milling about- but that’s probably on account of the pervasive heat that enveloped and somewhat suffocated you. So my first tip would be:

Don’t go to Cairns during the summer months!

The Great Barrier Reef, situated a boat’s ride away from the city, was every bit as spectacular as I’d hoped. We’d just got our diving certifications in Asia and eagerly leapt at the opportunity to dive the most famous reef in the world. But just a quick warning: diving, especially in Australia, isn’t cheap. We paid over $200 for a mere two dives, but it was a full day trip and we got free lunch and biscuits! That’d win me over anytime. We chose to head to the outer reef, where brighter corals and more interesting fish were promised. My favourite dive site was a place called the “three sisters”, where three pinnacles, thirty metres high and teeming with life, rose from the seabed. It was truly breathtaking- which was rather worrying considering we had a limited supply of air.

Cape Tribulation/Port Douglas

The journey up to Cape Tribulation was a beautiful but nerve-wracking one, as at every precipitous turn I was sure my car was going to break down. We watched the scenery change from steep windy coastal roads fringed by palm trees to long open straights framed on either side by banana plantations, to even steeper roads in what I can only describe as the complete jungle. At one point, we reached a ferry crossing. Apparently, it was the only way up to Cape Tribulation, so we unwillingly handed over the $25 fare and crossed the river. The ferryman, casting us a friendly glance, said: “Whatever you do, don’t swim in that river”. And just like that, I was reminded that I was in the heart of Australia and everything was probably out to get me. We saw signs notifying us of cassowaries crossing- although at that point I didn’t even know what they were (they’re huge Ostrich-like birds), and signs everywhere warning of fatal jellyfish stings, sharks and crocodiles. Luckily, we didn’t see any of these, save for a flurry of feathers in the rear mirror.

Cape Tribulation is not a town, as I’d once thought, but a remote headland within the Daintree Rainforest. And it certainly felt like that. We had a hilariously horrendous first night, as the temperature was around 35 degrees at night, and we were sleeping in my sauna of a car. But we didn’t want to open the windows because of mosquitos, so we chose to soak in our own sweat. However, when I woke up in the morning, I was covered in no less than fifty bites. I think one of the best ways of giving travel advice is to use myself as an example of what not to do- and so here you have it.

  • Don’t camp in the middle of summer in Cape Tribulation or you’ll perish from heat exhaustion
  • Don’t forget to buy mosquito spray (maybe an industrial strength one), and use it generously, otherwise, you’ll wake up looking like you have chicken pox
  • Don’t run out of gas (guilty again). When the sign warns that it’s the last gas station, it really is!

But the morning we could truly appreciate the beauty of the place. We cruised along deserted roads and a local man told us to check out Cow Bay beach- a hidden paradise with palm trees sloping over white sand. We were also told that if you’re recommended by locals, you’re allowed to camp there. It was totally empty, and we went for an early morning dip, which leads me to my next tip:

  • Don’t swim in unprotected areas in Queensland without a stinger suit! Luckily, we were fine, but better safe than sorry, eh?

That’s all I have time for right now, but keep an eye out for the next stage of my Aussie adventure!

– Ottoline Spearman, Correspondent (Travel)