We look at some hidden gems along Australia’s highways that are tailor-made for a stop-over on the homeward stretch.
In October-November, many holiday-makers head back to the southern capitals after spending time up north. The drive is often long and boring as they try to get home as quickly as possible.
But there are ways of making the homeward stretch part of the overall experience rather than a tedious postscript. For instance, a ‘circular’ itinerary will ensure that the trip back home continues to be a discovery. And if a circular route isn’t possible, you could start the return journey a few days earlier and drop in on some sights you missed on the way up.
To help you on your way, we present some ‘hidden gems’ along Australia’s major highways – pleasant surprises that will break the drive home for a day or so.
Pacific and Princes Highways, NSW
Highway 1 along the NSW coast is known as the Pacific Highway from Brisbane to Sydney and as the Princes Highway from Sydney all the way to Adelaide. Pull off the main drag just about anywhere along here in NSW and you’ll find a hidden gem.
It’s hard to nominate favourites, but the following won’t disappoint:
Forster-Tuncurry - Instead of trundling down the Pacific Highway south from Taree, take a detour along the Lakes Way through the twin towers of Forster-Tuncurry that straddle the ocean mouth of Wallis Lake. Continue past Wallis and Myall Lakes back to the highway north-west of Bulahdelah. Great beaches, good fishing and lovely camping spots ensure that the area is packed during school holidays, but it’s a pleasant drive and makes a refreshing break in proceedings on the homeward stretch.
Nowra to Batemans Bay - This section of the Princes Highway is full of worthwhile spots – quiet little places such as Jervis Bay with its white-sand beaches, St Georges Basin, Lake Conjola and Lake Tabourie.
Eden - This fishing port and timber town on the far south coast with its commanding location on Twofold Bay, tends to avoid the tourist crush that can overwhelm Merimbula to the north.
Stuart Highway, NT/SA
The 2700km Stuart Highway through the centre of Australia, from Darwin down to Port Augusta in SA, goes through magnificent, ever-shifting landscapes. Travellers undertaking this classic Aussie road trip will focus on the well-known tourist draws, and on the roadhouses and rest areas that punctuate the journey.
About 145km south-west of Alice Springs, however, off the unsealed Ernest Giles Road, is the often overlooked Henbury Meteorites Crater Reserve with a basic camping area and a self-guided walking track around the craters – a perfectly deserted camping spot where you can watch shooting stars at night and ponder our insignificance in the universe.
If your rig can handle reasonable gravel with occasional corrugations and potholes, consider leaving the highway at Marla or Coober Pedy and taking the Oodnadatta Track along the Old Ghan railway line down to Marree, and from there to the Flinders Ranges and Adelaide. So long as there’s no rain, the track will almost be as quick as the highway and far more interesting.
Sturt and Barrier Highways, NSW
These two major routes between Adelaide and Sydney offer several points of interest in the seemingly endless plains. Where the Barrier Highway cross the Darling River, for instance, is the old port town of Wilcannia, and with beautiful location on the river and some impressive sandstone buildings dating back to the 1880s, when Wilcannia was the third-busiest port in Australia.
Along the Stuart Highway, the town of Balranald on the lower Murrumbidgee floodplain is worth a stop for a look at the newly established Yanga NP on the site of the former Yanga Station. Leave a day to visit Mungo NP 150km north-west of town – the road is mainly dirt but good going when dry.
Barkly, Landsborough and Warrego Highways, NT/QLD
This main route from the Stuart Highway just north of Tennant Creek to Brisbane is a long, lonely run interspersed with towns that symbolise Australia’s mining and pastoral industries, such as Mount Isa, Cloncurry, Longreach and Roma.
Possum Park, 20km north of the small rural hub of Miles in south-east Qld, is an appealing tourist park on the site of a WWII RAAF base full of memorabilia.
The quickest route between Brisbane and Melbourne is one of those roads where you can knock off 90-95km every hour while cruising at 100km/h. It’s mostly straight and flat and truckies love it. There are, however, a few worthwhile stop-overs:
Narrabri - The town itself is small, yet lively, but the dramatic volcanic landscape of Mount Kaputar NP to the east is the real highlight. Drive to the top of 1510, Mount Kaputar, from where you can see 10% of NSW. The Australia Telescope array of radio telescopes west of town is worth visiting too.
Coonabarabran - Another town that’s worth at least an overnighter for its nearby national park and a series of telescopes, in this case the rugged Warrumbungle NP and the spectacularly sited Siding Spring Observatory west of town. If you want even more telescopes, visit the Parkes radio telescope, star of the movie The Dish, a further three to four hours’ drive down the Newell.
Hume Highway, NSW/VIC
The 880km inland highway between Sydney and Melbourne is almost entirely a dual-lane freeway now that it bypasses all but three towns en route. The road itself can be boring – sleep-inducing with a vigorously policed speed limit that’s lower than the road’s design speed – but many towns along the way are steeped in history and well worth a small detour.
The Southern Highlands about an hour south-west of Sydney contain delightful towns such as Mittagong, Bowral, Moss Vale and Bundanoon, with lots of cafes, antique shops and a few wineries. It’s all rather touristy but pleasant mid-week and very easy to explore off the freeway.
Highway 1, West Coast
Highway 1 along WA’s western coast is known as the Great Northern Highway down to Port Hedland, then as the North Coastal Highway to Geraldton and finally as the Brand Highway to Perth. Apart from such obvious attractions such as Broome, the Pilbara, the Exmouth region and Shark Bay, there’s not a lot to see and do and it’s a long way from anywhere – which is part of its appeal.
However the Great Northern Highway section runs just inland along Eighty Mile Beach, one of the most impressive stretched of beach anywhere on earth, and there are several campsites along here not far off the highway.
Eyre Highway (Nullabor), WA/SA
This section of Highway 1 along the Great Australian Bight is often referred to as the Nullabor, after the relatively treeless stretch east of the WA/SA border. Slightly east of this stretch, 5km past the Nundroo Roadhouse and then 27km down an unsealed but usually fine road, is Fowlers Bay, an isolated coastal settlement among white-sand dunes, with an interesting history and great fishing.
Twitchers won’t want to miss the Eyre Bird Observatory on the WA coast about 50km south-east of Cocklebiddy.