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Driving a car in Australia - How to do it?

Australia is the dream destination that has everything for a great driving holiday – vast beaches, lovely big cities, the world's oldest rainforests, wild outback and last but not least – the Great Barrier Reef. But in a country with an area almost as large as the United States, the distances between sights are great. Add to that the fact that Australia is one of the world's most sparsely populated countries, it's left-hand traffic and often extreme weather. But don't be put off! We have driven in Australia several times and love it, but there are a few things that are good to think about before you get behind the wheel of the rental car. Here are my best tips for a carefree and completely wonderful road trip down under!

Driving in Australia
Left-hand traffic in the Atherton Tablelands

Left-hand traffic

The single biggest reason tourists don't rent a car in Australia is left-hand traffic. But how hard is it really? After almost 3 months in left-hand traffic, we regret not daring to rent a car the first time we were in Queensland. Sure, it's not entirely trivial to reset the brain after a long flight and the windshield wipers will wear a little unnecessarily at first, but there are some tricks!

  1. The roads are very well marked for left-hand traffic, probably because so many tourists are not used to this. There are even reminder signs after the road that you should "Drive left". The roundabouts have arrows that show direction so you can't drive wrong. Do you feel insecure? Hang on to another car! It is always easier to drive right behind another car.
  2. Rent a car with an automatic transmission. Shifting manually with the left hand can make driving a bit complicated.
  3. Make sure you get to know your car before you hit the road! Often buttons and controls are not where you expect them to be. The blind spot in particular can take a while to get used to which way you should be looking.
  4. For the first few days, the passenger in the front seat gets to act as co-pilot and gets a free pass to remind any number of times that it is left-hand traffic. The driver has no right to be angry. Driving on the right side is in the spinal cord. That is why the passenger must remind. Better once too much than once too little, is our mantra.
  5. Get insurance on your rental car! It's not only smart, but also gives you inner peace of mind when you need to pocket park from the "passenger side".
Queensland
The beach in Townsville

Don't try to see all of Australia in one trip!

Australia isn't just big, it's GIGANTIC! Would you imagine seeing the entire United States on one vacation? Well, thought so! Don't try to cram Sydney, Melbourne, Queensland and Uluru into one trip. It just ends with a mishmash of impressions and all days sitting in the car. Stop by and experience Australia for real instead!

Australia - Warning sign
Warning sign along the road

Make sure you are rested!

Don't plan to pick up the car at the airport if you've just landed after a 24-hour journey. This is not a recommendation, it is downright stupid to get behind the wheel tired and expose yourself to the risk of an accident. Check into the hotel, get a good night's sleep and pick up the car the next day when the brain has started working again.

Emu-Australia-Outback
An emu following the road in Western Australia

Watch out for the animals!

Me: "How nice it is to be on a driving holiday in a country where there are no large animals along the roads! No moose, reindeer or wild boar…”

My husband: "Er...wasn't that a camel?"

Australia is teeming with animals. Big and small. Kangaroos, emus, cassowaries, echidnas, cows and … dromedaries. The animals usually emerge after dusk and are active throughout the night. Sometimes they even come out after a heavy downpour. The animals you will see most along the roads are kangaroos and wallabies. When we drove in Western Australia this summer, the roads were lined with run-over kangaroos every ten meters. Emus and cassowaries are rarer. Inland Australia there are hundreds of thousands of wild dromedaries, but they range over large areas and the two dromedaries we encountered were unexpectedly in Queensland. Be prepared, pay attention, drive carefully and expect to encounter animals.

Driver Reviver - Driving in Australia
Driver reviver - free coffee and cookies

Plan stops along the way – Stop, revive, survive

Driving hour after hour among sugar cane plantations can be a real sleeping pill. Don't take a chance on the "next rest stop", but take the one you pass by. Better that you buy more coffee than you intended, than fall asleep at the wheel. A rule of thumb is to stop for at least 15 minutes every two hours you drive.

A good initiative from the Australian authority is the "driver reviver" program. During long weekends and school holidays, free coffee and cookies are offered at the rest areas along the main roads. If you see the sign above, be sure to stop if it's open!

Australia - dirt road
Road on Fraser Island - we did NOT drive here ourselves

Drive on unpaved roads

The roads along Australia's coastline are mostly well-maintained asphalt roads (sealed roads), but as soon as you leave the coast and visit national parks, unsealed roads are common. It is not certain that your rental car company allows you to drive on "unsealed roads", so talk to the rental company! Some rental companies allow driving on dirt roads if you rent a 4 wheel drive car, but there is always a list of places where you are NOT allowed to take the rental car regardless of the car you rent. For example, Fraser Island (pictured above) and the road north of Cape Tribulation are usually off-limits for rental cars.

Australia-Bilkorning - Road train
A "small" road train with three trailers

Road trains

There are long distances to transport goods between cities in Australia and the railway network is not particularly developed. The vast majority of goods are therefore transported by truck. In Australia, a truck is allowed to pull up to 200 tonnes and be up to 50 meters long, which often results in more than two trailers - often up to four! These long and heavy truck transports are called road trains. They often drive fast, have a very long stopping distance and don't brake for anything. When you meet a road train, you need to be a little extra vigilant. Keep your distance and make sure you have plenty of safety margin if you are going to overtake!

Australia-Driving - Road house
Fly-free road house restaurant

Service stations and road houses

Do you want to be part of something truly Australian? Stop at a road house! We drove last summer between Monkey Mia and Kalbarri, a distance of 40 miles without any towns on the way. The only real stop after the road was at the Billabong Roadhouse, about half way. Here everyone stopped and refueled, drank a coffee and ate a bite to eat. There was a small motel, gas station, restaurant (fly free - see picture) and an all-in-one store with everything from caps to toys. A sign read "If you are thinking, feel free to also buy something from our little shop! It helps us 8 people who live here to be able to keep the road house going."

And you – always fill up if you don't have at least half a tank! You never know when you'll pass by the next open road house.

Australia-Bilkorning- Funny sign

Long distances

As you've gathered by now - it's far everywhere in Australia. There is a joke picture that says "A European has 20 minutes to France, an Australian has 20 minutes from his house to the road". But can it be fun to drive on roads where nothing happens? Well, it happens more than you might think!

No state can make long distances as fun as Queensland. On the really long stretches, humorous road signs are shown at regular intervals and there is even a little road quiz!

When it gets lonely on the long, straight roads in the outback, you can always have fun talking to fellow road users. If you see text like "Sue and Bill vhf 40" on the back of a camper, it means they have a shortwave radio and like to talk a little. Why don't more motorhomes have it in Europe?

Australia-Bilkorning-Queensland
Car with snorkel in Queensland

Floods

Australia has extreme weather. In the summers the temperature creeps up to over 40 degrees and in the winter cyclones come towards tropical Queensland. If you're wondering why there are 2 meter long measuring sticks everywhere at sinkholes and waterways in Queensland, it's to show the water depth during floods. Does that sound extreme? Not at all. There's a reason most people living in Queensland have cars with snorkels.

Before you hit the roads: Check if/where it will rain and don't drive into large "puddles" on the road without making sure it's not a deep pothole.

Australia-Driving-Victoria
Dusk in Victoria

Avoid driving at night

A great many Australians do not drive at night. Especially in Western Australia and the Northern Territory. Here it gets very dark at night, the many wild animals are active at night and mobile coverage is really bad. In fact, there are some areas in some states where you are actually not allowed to drive your rental car at night at all. Check carefully what applies with the rental car company before you plan night driving in the outback!

Australia-Bilkorning-Pinnacles
Desert driving

Have a large supply of water with you

When you are going to drive longer distances, it is good to have plenty of water with you. If your car breaks down in 40-degree heat and you need to call for help, it could be several hours before you're back in civilization. Several liters of water per person are needed, preferably a large can of water. Feel free to bring some extra snacks as well.

Bilkorning-Australia
Straight roads

Mobile coverage?

There is really lousy mobile coverage outside the cities on the coast. But make sure you have a mobile phone with you in any case, it is often possible to make emergency calls. By the way, using the mobile phone while driving is strictly prohibited, so don't even touch the mobile phone while driving! Leave it to the passengers.

Cane training
Cane train

Cane training

In Queensland you encounter a phenomenon that I have never seen anywhere else in Australia. Cane training. When you least expect it, the little trains of sugar cane sneak through the plantations. There are often traffic signals on the Bruce Highway (the road between Cairns and Brisbane) to help warn when crossing the road, but on smaller roads the crossings are often unattended.

Australia-Driving
Great Ocean Road

General traffic rules and laws

The traffic rules in Australia are very similar to the Swedish traffic rules. The speed is shown in kilometers per hour and the distances are shown in kilometers. Some things that might be good to think about:

  • TOLLS: There are toll roads and toll bridges around the big cities of Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne. Most of the time it is not possible to pay on the spot, but you have to go to a website and pay afterwards. We haven't come across any road/bridge with a toll at all during our travels, so it's not particularly common.
  • SCHOOL ZONES: The school zones are active when it is not a weekend, public holiday or school holiday. During school hours, limited speed applies at given times. If you drive too fast, the fine is high.
  • U-TURNS: U-turns are not permitted unless explicitly stated
  • RIGHT TURN ON RED: NOT allowed in Australia
  • INTERNATIONAL DRIVER'S LICENSE: Recommended
  • MOBILE PHONES: Must NOT be used by the driver while driving

Do you want to read more?

  • On the side Staying Safe informs the New South Wales authority about safe driving in Australia.
  • The brochure "Travel Safely in Australia” on Australia's official tourism site is a good resource with phone numbers and information!
  • On my Australia page you will find more to read about some of the places we visited on our car holidays.

Want to read more of my travel tips? do not forget to like Rucksack on Facebook!

Bilkorning-Australia
Forests in Victoria
Do you want more tips about driving on holiday?
About the blogger

Travel blogger, gastronaut, photographer and family adventurer with over 55 countries in his luggage. Eva loves trips that include beautiful nature, hiking boots and well-cooked food. On the travel blog Rucksack she takes you to all corners of the world with the help of her inspiring pictures and texts.

8 Comments

  • Monica Månsson
    17 October, 2019 at 8: 30

    So fun to read. From my own experience, I can advise that an oncoming police car can speed you up and give you a fine for speeding. The fines were not entirely easy to pay from home in Sweden.
    So drive calmly and carefully ☺️

    Reply
    • Eva Gyllenberg
      17 October, 2019 at 12: 10

      Ouch, didn't know about the oncoming police cars at all! Thanks for the tip! We always drive super carefully! 🙂

  • Maria's memoirs
    17 October, 2019 at 8: 38

    Great practical tips there, now I miss life on Australia's desolate roads?
    Speaking of wild animals, big muscular kangaroos or loose cows are really not something you want to bump into, we came so close to bumping into a cow once in the dark? Driving in Australia, especially at dusk, is at least as dangerous for animals as it is at home

    Reply
    • Eva Gyllenberg
      17 October, 2019 at 12: 11

      Ugh, how lucky that it went well Maria! I'll add cows to the list of dangerous animals down the road, hadn't thought of that at all! Thanks! 🙂

  • Daniel at FlyingDryden
    19 October, 2019 at 18: 10

    What a great post and glad that I recognized myself, after the rental car days along the Great Ocean Road in September. The last picture looks like the winding road after Beech Forest, north of Cape Otway by the way. 🙂

    The thing about left-hand traffic was our big "moment of concern" before the trip, but it went unexpectedly well. The windscreen wipers had to work a lot of times but otherwise no major problems. Then we still cruised out of Melbourne the first thing we did. The roundabouts, the ones with refuges, were not difficult at all. It's like it's not possible to drive wrong in them without driving over a shelter? But yes, it's probably healthy to adapt the body to the right time zone before throwing yourself into the traffic down there.

    Reply
    • Eva Gyllenberg
      20 October, 2019 at 19: 17

      Nicely done – you nailed the spot on the picture Daniel! 🙂 Agree - it's almost impossible to drive wrong in left-hand traffic. It's probably only driving in parking lots that can be a bit tricky - the only places that aren't completely foolproof. By the way, forgot to add in the post that in Melbourne you also need to keep an eye on all the trams, it felt like they were everywhere when we drove there.

  • Daniel at FlyingDryden
    22 October, 2019 at 17: 33

    Ah, nice that it was just that place! We took a chance and took that road back as it seemed winding and fun. And that was it, haha! Yes, parking lots were tricky and in-and-out at times. At T-junctions, it was important to keep track of when to turn in. Of course, it's not easy, really not.

    We managed to duck for central Melbourne. Went from Port Melbourne and out. It was enough. I almost refuse to drive in Gothenburg precisely because of the trams. 😛

    Reply
    • Eva Gyllenberg
      29 October, 2019 at 19: 59

      Personally, I live with a tram outside the window, so it just felt like being at home in central Melbourne 🙂

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