Chasing the Sun – From Melbourne to Cairns Via The Road Less Travelled
Just as humpback whales migrate from Antarctica to warmer waters for the winter, many travellers in Australia choose to wave goodbye to the crisp, wet climates of the south and enjoy winter in the tropics, where bikinis and thongs are fashion staples year-round. You can reach the tropical paradise of Far North Queensland in an easy 3-3.5 hour flight from Melbourne, Sydney, or Adelaide, or a 6-hour flight from Hobart. But if adventure’s what you’re here for, that’s almost… too easy. Many travellers instead opt to drive via the coastal route, stopping in all of the popular tourist hotspots – Byron Bay, Gold Coast, Brisbane, Airlie Beach – we’ve heard it all before. If you want to see a different side to Australia, or you’re short on time, you can choose the secret third option: driving the direct route.
This route will take you through some of the vast yet massively under-populated areas that make up such a significant amount of Australia. You’ll see beautiful desserts, bushland, farms and small, rural villages; a side of Australia that’s so often neglected by visitors. Whilst this is an exciting road trip experience, there are some things you should be aware of before hitting the road. Firstly, due to the rural nature of the area, you’ll need to carry plenty of food and water, and make sure to fill up on gas regularly – servos can be few and far between on parts of this expedition. It’s also worth investing in a good map and a compass, as you often won’t have GPS signal. Secondly, watch out for kangaroos, particularly if you’re driving around dusk or dawn. Finally, the following itinerary is based on a 6-day drive, however, if you’re feeling tired it’s essential to stop and avoid pushing yourself too hard. You’ll be driving for long hours if you want to make the journey within a week, so be sure to download a rocking playlist and some entertaining podcasts for the trip.
The following itinerary is based on travelling from Melbourne to Cairns via the most direct route. Campsites are suggested because they’re an important part of any road trip experience, and most of them are free because road trips should be as budget-friendly as possible. However, other accommodation options are available.
Total km: 3100
Total driving time: Approx 34.5 hours
Budget: Allow at least $1,500 for food, gas, camping fees, and an emergency fund.
Day 1: Melbourne to Grenfall.
On your very first day, you’ll be crossing state lines as you leave Victoria behind and breeze into New South Wales. It’s a long day of driving so make sure to hit the road early – at least the longest drive is out of the way at the start! Day 1 will see long stretches of open highway, slowly getting quieter and quieter as you leave the city behind and venture into the unknown.
Total km: 650
Total driving time: ~7 hours
Camp at: Holy Camp. This is a free campsite with drop toilets, picnic tables, and fire pits. Hot tip: bring firewood – you’re in for a chilly night!
Day 2: Grenfall – Walgett
Take in the lush green fields and trees on either side, as you drive through day two towards Walgett. Enjoy the small, rural towns, and stop in popular holiday destination, Dubbo, to stretch your legs and re-energise with a coffee. You’ll find that your campsite is a lot closer to the town tonight and most likely a lot more popular. There’s a handy newsagent selling everything you need, from newspapers and soft drinks to guns and ammo. However, if you happen to be here on a Sunday, don’t expect the shops to be open in the afternoon.
Total km: 500
Total driving time: ~5.5 hours
Camp at: Alex Trevallion Rotary Park. This free campsite has an open feel and offers flushing toilets and cold water to wash up. There’s a beautiful lake and a stunning view of the sunset on the right night. There’s no clear information on whether campfires are allowed or prohibited, so it’s best to wrap up warm instead.
Day 3: Walgett – Yuleba
The time has come to cross state lines again, leaving behind New South Wales in favour of the warmer climates of Queensland. Travelling in the dry season means you’re likely to be welcome with clear blue skies and sunshine, as well as slightly warmer temperatures. Enjoy outback vibes as you pass through tiny, undeveloped towns, and drive over that red dirt that we associate with the heart of Australia.
Total km: 490km
Total driving time: ~5.5 hours
Camp at: Judds Lagoon. Yay, another free campsite! Pitch your tent by the water and enjoy a cold beer by the campfire. Drop toilets are available, but there are no other facilities. There is firewood for sale (cash only), but no fire pits, so be careful where you spark up, and always put it out before you go to bed.
Day 4: Yuleba – Clermont
It’s another long drive! Enjoy mountain views and farmland as you cruise through Queensland. Full disclosure – today’s drive includes one rather long and slightly boring stretch of road. Top tip: download some comedy to listen to on this part of the trip! Look out for cows in the road as you drive along – they like to wander. Roma and Emerald are convenient places to stock up on food or other supplies that you may need.
Total km: 600
Total driving time: ~6.75 hours
Camp at: Theresa Creek Dam. This lovely campsite is $15 for the night, but let’s be honest, at this point in the journey you need a shower. As well as hot showers, there are flushing toilets, sheltered camping areas, a coffee shop, and lovely water views. You can also enjoy a campfire here – camping budget well spent.
Day 5: Clermont – Balgal Beach
Today’s an exciting day because you’ll hit the coast! Enjoy your last bit of inland driving before you hit Townsville. This is a handy place to stock up on food and supplies, although it can be a bit of a culture shock being in a busy supermarket in a city again after all those small towns. As you venture north up the coast, be sure to stop at Mission Beach for a walk by the sea. Look out for cassowaries on this drive, and keep an eye out for kangaroos as you approach your campsite.
Total km: 590
Total driving time: ~6.25 hours
Camp at: Balgal beach. This beachside campsite is not only free but also stunning. Wander along the beach, then tuck into some tasty fish and chips from the on-site restaurant and shop. Watch the sunset over the ocean with a lovely glass of wine. Hot tip: you’ll need some insect repellent spray to avoid being eaten alive overnight here!
Day 6: Balgal Beach – Cairns
The last day of your trip has arrived! The adventure is almost over, but a new one is just about to begin. This coastal drive makes a stunning backdrop for your last day of driving, although you will have to get used to driving on busy roads again. You’ll be pleased to know that your final day of driving is also the shortest, leaving more time to settle into your new home.
Total km: 300
Total driving time: 3.5 hours
So you’ve arrived in Cairns, and now you’re on your own. What will you do next? Head further north to the beautiful Port Douglas, venture into the tropical Daintree Rainforest, or snorkel the Great Barrier Reef? The choice is yours and the tempting options are endless.