Very much a hot mess in Melbourne with an imminent flight to Queensland out of Perth, I knew I had to get my life in order and head to the west coast. I’m not sure when the thought occurred to me, or why it did so late in the game, but I had a bit of an aha-moment: Instead of flying, why not join a roadtrip from Melbourne to Perth?
I was really lucky that my dates aligned with an outgoing trip badvertised on Gumtree (Australian’s version of Craigslist, an online classifieds website). On the 1st of May, Alex picked me up from where I’d been couch surfing in Melbourne and we took off in his sweet converted van on our grand adventure.
I spent 9 days traveling with 3 Germans: Alex and I in his van, and Leon and Caroline in their car. We picked up a French-Canadian, Emilie, who traveled with us a couple days around the Grampians before leaving us in Adelaide. I had so much fun traveling with these guys! With all of us being very laidback with a slow travel mindset, we got along well as roadtrip buddies. My sole gripe was their excessive smoking (am I the only one who’s often on the cusp of dry heaving upon sniffing cigarette or marijuana smoke?). I’ve never been around people who smoked that much, so that was an adjustment. It’s good to know that I can cope with it if I have to, I guess!
As for the roadtrip, we drove from Melbourne to Perth via the Great Ocean Road, Grampians, the Nullarbor, and Esperance. Here’s what 4200 km (2600 mi) in 9 days looks like:
Great Ocean Road
A couple weeks after roadtripping on the Great Ocean Road, I got to do it all again. I was pretty ok with this – I mean, did you see how stunning this road is?! Even better, we made a few different stops this time around, resulting in my having a more well-rounded experience on the Great Ocean Road.
The view just opposite of the 12 Apostles lookout
What awaits down the stairs at Loch Ard Gorge
Port Campbell National Park is the runaway winner for Best Thing To See On The Great Ocean Road. There’s just no competing with the famed 12 Apostles, the glorious beach at Loch Ard Gorge, and London Bridge-turned-Arch.
We also camped one night inland in the Otways amidst a forest of ridiculously tall skinny trees that moaned and creaked in the breeze. From our campsite, we did a short hike to Beauchamp Falls before returning to the Great Ocean Road.
For more details, read: Highlights From A Great Ocean Road Trip
Australia isn’t particularly known for its mountains, but the Grampians in western Victoria are pretty darn cool. The first thing we did there was hike up a closed-off road to Mt. William. The top 20% of it was cloaked in fog, so we didn’t get much of a view from the top. It’s ok though, ‘cause we got to climb out onto some rock ledges and look straight down at the valley way below, and that’s even cooler!
Grampians National Park has a great mix of hikes and scenic lookouts, and we alternated between both on our one full day in the park. We kicked off the day with the fairly easy but still satisfying Pinnacle hike. The view from the ledge at the end isn’t as awesome as what you’ll see from some of the lookouts further on in the park, though.
View from the Pinnacle walk in the Grampians
From there, we went viewpoint hopping from Boroka Lookout to Reeds Lookout to the Balconies and hung out on some cliff edges again. There are signs everywhere saying camping is not allowed, but Alex said when he was there a month ago, he and his friend took their sleeping bags out onto the ledge at the Balconies, slept there, and woke up to watch the sunrise over the mountains. Incredible!
On our way out of the park, we couldn’t resist stopping for one more hike before sunset. At Mt. Zero there’s a short but sweat-inducing hike to the summit, but my god the 360-degree view from up there is more than worth it. We were just mesmerized by the sunbeams radiating over the countryside.
Sunset from Mt. Zero
In two lifetime visits to Adelaide, I’ve clocked a grand total of about 5 hours in this city. I’ve never visited for the sake of it, just passed through en route to more appealing destinations. This time around, I spent my one hour in town scouring the city center for some decent coffee beans to take with me on the road. You wouldn’t believe how challenging it was to find them! Then on my way sprinting back to the van, I ran into a massive double rainbow over the CBD – pretty much the best (i.e. only) thing I’ve seen in this city.
Clearly, I have no useful firsthand experiences to share about Adelaide. I can, however, recommend exploring the surrounding wine regions. The Barossa Valley in particular is a major player in Aussie’s wine game, with their products being readily available all over Australia. Clare Valley and McLaren Vale are two others worth doing some wine tasting in.
In my opinion, this portion of the route is totally skippable; we only stopped there because we wanted to break up a long, featureless drive with SOMETHING. That something happened to be Murphy’s Haystacks, which reminded me of the Devil’s Marbles up in the Northern Territory – i.e. big ass boulders randomly sitting in the middle of nowhere. Interesting to see I suppose, but not worth making any effort to get to. The peninsula is known for its oysters, so if that’s up your alley then it might be worth a stop somewhere along the peninsular coast.
I did enjoy the countryside landscape on the peninsula, though – it wasn’t much like anything else we drove through on this Melbourne to Perth roadtrip.
First, a little fun fact: Nullarbor means “no trees”. That should give you a decent idea of what awaits on this long, long drive across southern Australia (*cough* nothing much). Nevertheless, crossing the Nullarbor is somewhat of a rite of passage in this country. As if enduring 1200 km of hot desert driving is a bragging point (all the “I Crossed The Nullarbor!” stickers and decals seem to say so, at least).
Just shrubs and bush for hundreds of miles in the Nullarbor
The Nullarbor Plain is comprised of the largest limestone bed in the world, through which the Eyre Highway runs from Ceduna to Norseman. It is flat, arid, and remote. With roadhouses spaced at least 2 hours apart, this is not the place to play the *how far can I drive my car on E?* game. Stock up on water and fuel whenever possible. And my god, bring plenty of food to last the entire drive because food and drinks at the roadhouses are insanely marked up. I paid $5 for a hideously crappy cup of coffee once and regretted it almost as much as taking out $80,000 worth of student loans (but not really – nothing will ever top that one!).
Not surprisingly, there’s not much to see on the Nullarbor. It’s a great opportunity to space out, think about things you’ve pushed aside for lack of time, and read. Until you reach the sign that says World’s Straightest Stretch of Road, which is enough excitement to last at least 5 or 10 minutes. The rest of the 146 km (90 miles) to Norseman is pretty uneventful. There are signs along the way for camels crossing, but we never saw any; kangaroos, on the other hand, all seem to come out at night. After the other car we were traveling with hit one on the first night on the Nullarbor, we resolved to only drive during daylight hours. Which is what everyone advised us to do before we set out on our roadtrip, obviously for good reason!
Typical amusements outside a Nullarbor roadhouse
There are a few attractions off the highway that you can stop off at: the Bunda Cliffs for whale watching, Eucla to see the old telegraph station, various golf courses (including the world’s longest!), some caves a bit inland. We only bothered stopping in Eucla to check out the station and the surrounding sand dunes.
Eucla Telegraph Station
My favorite thing about crossing the Nullarbor was that each night we’d be driving into the sunset, since we were heading west toward Perth. We’d watch the sunbeams spill down toward the ground as the sky started to morph into a yellowish-orange hue. Around sunset, we’d pull off the road wherever we were and set up camp for the night. The Germans would strum on their guitars and sing a song they coined earlier on the trip, “The Wrong Way To Perth”, while I’d photograph the stars. By 8pm I’d be curled up in the van, falling asleep to the sweet sounds of massive freight trucks thundering past on the highway.
Cape Le Grand National Park
At the western end of the Nullarbor, the first major town you’ll hit is Norseman. From here, you can either continue westward on to Perth or detour south toward Esperance. I highly recommend the latter option if time permits. From Esperance, it’s another half hour drive east to Cape Le Grand National Park. If you can budget at least 2 days here, DO IT. Some of the most insanely gorgeous beaches in the entire country are contained in this park. There’s a good chance you’ll spot some kangaroos on them, too.
We only had from just before sunset to just after sunrise to enjoy Lucky Bay before heading out to Perth, but I’d have killed for more time to explore the other beaches and do some of the hiking tracks around the bays. There are some killer views of the beaches to be had from the headlands above.
Sunset on Lucky Bay
You can camp in the national park for $10/night per person, which includes use of an outdoor kitchen and hot showers. Our campsite was about a 30 second walk to the beach at Lucky Bay – it doesn’t get much better than that!
For more details, read: The Luckiest Bay in Australia
I’m not sure where my fascination with this odd natural rock formation came from, but I was super bummed to have missed it when I roadtripped in Western Australia 9 years ago. Smack in the middle of the 8 hour drive from Esperance to Perth is the small town of Hyden, a tourist outcrop that couldn’t be more tacky if it tried. I can put up with (and roll my eyes at) cheesy signs like “Hyden: Bush Living At Its Best”, but charging to park in the small dirt parking lot at Wave Rock? Come on now!
Alex had a very specific photo in mind that he wanted to get at the rock, which involved him skateboarding at a certain angle as if he appeared to be skating the wave. I eagerly obliged as his photographer. We got the shot just before a staff member scolded us for riding on the rock, claiming that there were “signs everywhere” prohibiting it. No exaggeration: there were precisely ZERO such signs, and we even went back to look afterwards. Alex put on his thick German accent and luckily got out of the fine with a warning.
At any rate, Wave Rock was kind of underwhelming. I’m glad I finally saw it, but it’s not something I’d go out of my way for.
The sunset we saw just before arriving in Perth