Planning travel is rarely as fun as travelling, but it’s a necessary evil which rewards you tenfold for the time spent doing it right.
Everything from choosing the right rig, when to go, and what to pack, these are all forms of planning. Timing is perhaps the most critical, considering the weather extremes that bear down on this nation. Poor weather can form part of the adventure, but have too much of it and you’ll spend half your trip bunkering down.
With these provisos, however, we can still generalise about the best times to travel and enjoy the great outdoors.
VICTORIA AND TASMANIA
European-style seasons are most pronounced in our two most southern states, though they’re not as extreme as in Europe or the US. Be prepared for blustery cold fronts from across the Southern Ocean that can strike at any time though.
- In Tassie, it’s most pleasant from November to March and you can usually add a month either side on the east coast, which is milder and sunnier.
- In Victoria, aim for October to April for reasonably agreeable weather. When touring the Vic Alps, the temperature drops 6.5°C for every 1000m increase in altitude (the lapse rate), so November-March is preferable.
Spring is a great time for the flora, in spite of frequent chills. Midsummer (mid-December to early February) is the peak tourist season in both states; late summer and early autumn (late February to early April) are quieter and can bring the most stable weather with cool mornings and glorious days.
NEW SOUTH WALES, SOUTH AUSTRALIA, SOUTHERN WA, SOUTHERN QLD
The subtropical zone has hot summers and cool rather than cold winters, with average temperatures increasing the further north you go. The inland areas show greater temperature extremes than the coastal regions.
- Many travellers consider these zones a year-round destination
- South-West WA, southern SA and NSW South Coast can get chilly from June to August.
- South-West WA is abundant with wildflowers during September-November.
- In NSW’s Snowy Mountains, the same conditions apply as in the Vic Alps, while other parts of the Great Dividing Range in NSW (e.g., the New England Tablelands) can get cold in winter too.
NORTHERN WA, NORTHERN NT, NORTHERN QLD
These areas fall squarely in the tropics, with daytime temperatures between 25°C and 35°C all year. They’re likely to be near the lower end of that scale during the southern winter months (though Darwin rarely drops below 30°C), but you do need to consider the wet and dry seasons.
The Wet Season
- The Wet lasts from December to March, and it’s not unusual for serious rains to hold off till January and/or to last well into April. This is also the time of the worst cyclones, and if you catch one of those it’s a humbling experience.
- The Wet is a poor time to drive up north. Most unsealed roads are off-limits and even major highways get cut by flooding. It can, however, be good for a fly-in, fly-out holiday, with resorts and other tourism operations offering special deals.
November-December, also known as the Troppo Season, can be difficult, too, with temperatures in the low to mid-30s and high relative humidity. The landscape is parched, the flora is at its worst, and you can’t cool off in the sea due to stingers, present between October and May. That said, the birdlife is prolific at the shrunken billabongs, and the late-afternoon thunderstorms are spectacular.
The Dry Season
- In the early dry season (April-May), things have cooled down and the landscape rejuvenates, the fauna goes into overdrive and the waterfalls and rivers are on show. But many unsealed roads are still impassable with blacksoil bogs and fast-flowing, deep river crossings.
- The height of the dry season (June-October) is the best for monsoonal regions, with lush greenery (at first) and daytime temperatures most people can withstand. If unsealed roads are on your agenda, turn up in the second half of the Dry to avoid repeated bogs or river crossings.
The dry season up north is also a good time to visit the central Australian deserts.
- June-August (the southern winter) is ideal, with daytime temperatures in the low 20s you can explore the more spectacular tourist draws on foot – just beware of sunburn and dehydration.
- It is the peak season so the popular camping areas may be full, and temperatures at night can drop below freezing due to the dry air.
- September should be okay too but things start warming up in October. Steer clear of the Centre from November to March, when daytime temperatures under shade can vary between mid-30s to high 40s, and physical activities are out of the question.
- The unsealed roads are abandoned so you could be in real strife if something goes wrong.
So, what does this mean for your Great Australian Road Trip – assuming you’re starting from one of the southern capitals and time is irrelevant?
If you do the Big One - 18,000km around Australia along Highway 1 - try this route:
- Start exploring the south-eastern corner of the country from January to March and head up the east coast to arrive in Cairns in May.
- Travel the top of Australia from June to August and maybe dash down the Centre to Alice Springs and Uluru.
- Next, head down the west coast towards south-west WA for the start of the wildflower season in September-October.
- Make your way back east across the Nullarbor to the Flinders Ranges in SA before it gets too hot.
- Finally, tick off the other must-sees in south-eastern Australia as the area returns to summer.
If you travel this route anti-clockwise you’re likely to catch more tailwinds than not, especially across the top, saving fuel on those long, open stretches.
For the eastern loop, we recommend:
- Head up the Centre in May or June, visit Darwin/Kakadu in July or August and arrive in Cairns in September.
- Make your way down the east coast towards the southern summer.
Doing this clockwise should give you tailwinds up the Centre, which matter more than the prevailing (south-) easterlies you’ll face down the east coast. Anti-clockwise is fine too, and provides tailwinds west from Cairns (or Townsville) to compensate for most of the headwinds down the Centre.
For the western loop, we recommend:
- Head up the Centre in May-June, see Darwin/Kakadu and the Kimberley in July-August, and head down to South-West WA in September-October.
- Clockwise may suit you better, but the prevailing winds aren’t favourable and you may miss the wildflowers unless you live in Perth.
Whatever you do, make sure you go. Once you’re on the road and learn to take things as they come, an occasional spell of foul weather becomes part of the adventure.
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