Getting Around Australia: Transport Picks
Caravans, Footpaths and Walkabouts: Top Australia Transport Picks
By Marie Javins, GoNOMAD TRANSPORTS GUIDE
Whether you're a jolly swagman or just a seppo* looking for a two-week holiday, Australia is a friendly, inexpensive, and English-speaking destination. Geographically, it's nearly as vast as the continental United States, but the center is mostly desert.
The majority of the population of 19.5 million lives on the coast. Don't try to visit the entire country at one time -- it is massive even when covered by airplane. Instead, focus on a few regions. The most popular routes cover the East Coast from Cairns to Melbourne, with sidetrips to Alice Springs or Darwin thrown in.
FLY ACROSS THE OUTBACK
If you have some spare room in your budget but not in your schedule, fly as much as possible. Qantas is the main Aussie airline but it has some regional competition, while Virgin Blue offers heavily-discounted fares on select routes. Qantas offers the multi-leg "Boomerang Pass" which can only be purchased in conjunction with an international ticket.
Australia's national bus network is Greyhound Pioneer/McCafferty's. It goes places the train doesn't go near. Bus passes are reasonably-priced, and coaches are comfortable. Be forewarned though -- as distances are great and stops are few in the Outback, you may find yourself on more than one 20-hour bus trip. Local and regional bus companies often provide competing services on similar routes.
TOUR BY TRAIN
Australian trains won't get you off-the-beaten path; in fact, they'll barely get you to the beaten path itself. The seats and sleeper cars are comfortable even in economy class but the routes don't cover most rural areas so you'll have to supplement your rail travel with local buses or operators. Each state has a different body that governs its rails, but info on most lines can be found at either "Australia by Rail" or at Western Australia's rail site. A variety of passes covers the east and south, and substantial discounts are available to students and seniors. Long-awaited "Ghan" service has been extended from Alice Springs to Darwin.
Renting a car in Australia is much like renting a car in North America or Europe, and many of the companies are the same. But "caravan" rental ("r.v." to us Seppos) is far more common down under. Dozens of places offer caravan rental. Try "Britz" or for the budget-minded "Wicked Campervans." Many companies also offer 4WD rentals and motorcycle rentals. Search the GoNOMAD Transports listings under these and other categories for more useful contacts.
Travelers can buy and insure used cars in Australia, but re-selling can be difficult under time constraints when you want to go home. One way around this is to enter into a "buy-back" agreement, where the seller agrees to buy the car back for 30 to 50 percent of your purchase price.
Australians drive on the left. Seatbelts are compulsory, drunk driving is taken seriously, and kangaroos sometimes wander onto the road. Be cautious. North American AAA members have reciprocal right with Australia's AAA.
TRAVEL IN A PACK
When you have a limited amount of time or are traveling "on your Pat,**" consider going with a group. You may not be the sort of person who normally goes on group tours, but consider that all your arrangements are made and you won't waste time digging up tickets and hotels. Operators such as Contiki and the hop-on/hop-off Oz Experience cover most of Australia and offer inexpensive youth-oriented coach trips,
Local operators are recommended in rural areas where there is no other way around without your own vehicle. Areas such as Kakadu National Park, Uluru (Ayers Rock), and the Queensland Hinterlands are difficult to see by public transport.
BIKE ALONG THE COAST
You'd have to have "a kangaroo loose in the top paddock" to bike the circumference of Oz, but there are several shorter routes that cyclists rave about. Australia has both a hill and population shortage, making it a cyclist's dream. Biking is not recommended on major highways, and bikers should drink plenty of water and always wear sunscreen. Helmets are compulsory. Beware of enormous "road trains" in remote areas. Some outfitters offer supported bike tours. Try Boomerang Bicycle Tours or Remote Outback Cycle Tours
The most famous sea voyage within Oz is the 10-hour "Spirit of Tasmania" trip from Melbourne to Devonport, Tasmania. The ship travels at night during low season but also offers day sailings during the Australian summer. 20-hour trips to and from Sydney are available three times a week.
Other Australian sea transport is primarily regional: Sydney's harbor offers several ferries that will zip you to nearby communities, the Whitsundays are popular for sailboat and yacht rentals, and dozens of small ships will take you from Cairns to the Great Barrier Reef.
TO THUMB OR NOT TO THUMB
GoNomad does not recommend hitching in Australia. Many people do it, but hitching is never completely safe and in Australia, some hitchhikers have encountered deadly situations. If you must hitch, use a backpackers service instead of standing by the open road.
*"seppo" is Aussie rhyming slang for "American." "Yank" rhymes with "tank," thus a "yank" becomes a "septic tank," and as everything is shortened in Australia, a "septic tank" becomes a "seppo." Take it in stride. It's Australian humor, not an insult.
**"on one's Pat" is Aussie rhyming slang for "alone." "Pat Malone" rhymes with "alone," and "on his/her Pat" is short for "on his/her Pat Malone." Why do they do this? Don't ask me... this "sheila" is completely confused by a culture where one talks on the "dog and bone" instead of the "phone" and where "dead horse" somehow means "ketchup."
FINDING THE CROCS
Crikey! How does a budget-minded backpacker on walkabout get to the Crocodile Hunter's "Australia Zoo" without a set o' wheels?
No worries, mate. Courtesy shuttle buses make the rounds through Noosa, Maroochydore, Alexandra Headlands, Mooloolaba, and Caloundra. And if you're coming from further afield, take the train to Beerwah or Landsborough and catch a courtesy bus there. Greyhound has morning and afternoon stops right outside the Australia Zoo's gates. Catch it at Brisbane Transit Centre for the hour-long ride, or even board as far away as Byron Bay.
And if you can't make it up to the Sunshine Coast, there are plenty of crocodiles, wombats, and Tasmanian devils at zoos all over Australia. Try the picturesque Taronga Park Zoo in Sydney, or just keep your eyes peeled as you wander through the country. You're bound to come across a kangaroo, wallaby, or kookaburra in your travels.