A week on the road for $31

The Australian east coast is a stunning journey of seaside villages, magnificent beaches and unique wildlife encounters. Or so I’ve heard. I’ve never actually been to anywhere on the east coast besides Sydney and Far North Queensland.

My partner and I had been living in Port Douglas, a touristy beach town an hour’s drive north of Cairns. With the onset of wet season our work hours had dried up (terrible pun intended) so we decided to return to my hometown in Victoria for a short time.

With a friend’s wedding coming up we had just under two weeks to make the 3199 kilometre drive south. For comparison, that’s like driving from Paris to Moscow, from Salt Lake City to Cincinnati, or between London and Dorset 15 times.

We had two main options; the scenic, interesting coastal route popular with travellers or the potentially drab but more direct inland route. We chose drab. We decided to follow the coast from Port Douglas to Rockhampton before turning inland and continuing south.

We are fortunate to own a van that we can sleep in which opened up plenty of options for accommodation. Most places we stayed didn’t have major tourism or hotels so free campsites didn’t conflict with local business. Instead, they provided a trickle of visitors that spent dollars on food and fuel.

The route we drove is not something I’d recommend if you want an amazing travel experience. We took it out of necessity and I wouldn’t go out of my way to drive it again. So if you’re looking for a blog post about someone’s super fantastically awesome adventure through the most spectacular places ever, you’re definitely in the wrong place. If you’re curious about some unimpressive backwaters that give an insight into Australia, read on.

We were moving out from our home as well as hitting the road so we spent the morning cleaning the last of our flat and running errands in Cairns. Our actual travel time on the first day was a grand total of two hours away from home, which was pretty much expected as we hadn’t planned to get far on the first day anyway.

Rex Lookout (20 minutes south of Port Douglas)

First stop was Babinda boulders, a gorgeous swimming hole with some stunning river rock formations a short walk away. We stayed the night at a free campsite a few minutes from the swimming hole. A sunset walk to see the rock formations made for an eerily beautiful view and very un-instagram-worthy photos.

The photos of the boulders didn’t turn out so here’s the resident campground peacock

For the next two days we skirted the coast. The landscape remained very much like Port Douglas; steep forested hills rising out from fields thick with high cane. We also went past an essential element of small town Australia; a giant piece of fruit.

There are over 150 “big things” in Australia, including a prawn, banana, guitar, peanuts, wine bottle, and an earthworm. Given that our country is already friggin’ huge, the reason Australians are obsessed with making more big things is a mystery. The most reasonable one is actually a big poo, which was created by locals in Kiama as a protest to poor management of wastewater.


The second night’s accommodation was a spare lot next to a country pub east of Mackay. We planned to buy some beers but the pub had closed by 8.30 so Troy gave the cleaning ladies $5 in the morning. We continued to follow the coast until turning inland at Rockhampton.

Soon enough we left the tropics behind and the scenery transitioned to agricultural fields other than cane, including some cotton. Call me ignorant but I didn’t know cotton was grown much in Australia, especially given that it’s a thirsty crop and we’re in drought. By now the landscape was getting very flat.

This photo is of the hilliest landscape I’d seen in hours

On night three we stayed at a lovely camp stop in Theodore with $1 showers and camp fees by donation. Proceeds were being put towards a new clubhouse for a local sports club. We dropped $10 in the donations box, a small price to pay for a riverside campsite with one other person. In the morning we got petrol in town from a station where the owner came out to pump our fuel. Yes that still happens. Quaint.

By day four we were well into flat expansive cropland. After many, many hours the wide uninterrupted landscape gets boring but it still has a certain beauty. Sadly, the effects of drought could be clearly seen with some areas consisting of paddocks of pure dust.

On night four we stayed at our only paid campsite ($15) of the trip at a stop in the showgrounds in the town of Goondiwindi, operated but the friendliest camp host I’ve ever met. There were heavy clouds in the evening and we woke to distant lightning and heavy rain.

Incoming storm at sunset

The next section of our journey brought us through an area where people do actually visit; Parkes. It’s the location of “the dish”, the observatory that played a role in broadcasting the moon landing. The dish is about a kilometre off the highway and is more impressive the closer you get. There’s a free visitor centre with permanent exhibitions about space, the moon landing, and science. It’s not exactly something I’d go out of my way to visit but it was neat to see.

We stayed at a free campsite next to a river south of Parkes. It was one of the busiest places we stayed but it also had the most wildlife; tons of birds and when I went for a wander along the river I saw a Swamp Wallaby.

Sulphur-Crested Cockatoo

Our final night of the trip was spent on the banks of the Murray River in Tocumwal. We were lucky to get the site that we did as it was Australia Day long weekend. The campground was very full but we explored a bit and found a relatively secluded spot. Despite growing up in Victoria I’ve never stayed near the Murray and I was impressed with how beautiful this part of the river is.

The Murray River marks the border between New South Wales and Victoria before making its way through South Australia. Deciding on the fairest way for the three states to share this valuable water resource is like three siblings arguing over ice-cream; nobody’s ever satisfied.

We arrived in Clifton Springs in Victoria six days after leaving Port Douglas. In total we spent $30 on camp fees and $1 on a shower. We could have tried to sneaky camp for a couple of those nights and saved about $20 on coffee but the effort just didn’t seem worth it, especially when it cost us hundreds of dollars in fuel anyway.

It’s rare to have the opportunity to take such a long journey though rural, non-touristy locations. Whilst I’d definitely recommend plenty of other routes above this one it was still a unique trip in it’s own sense and overall enjoyable. In a few month’s time we plan to travel back to Port Douglas taking the coast. I think I’ll appreciate that journey all the more having driven the un-glamorous inland route.

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