uluru at sunset driving in australia

Driving in Australia – 10 Top Tips, Essential Facts and Advice

Welcome to Driving in Australia – 10 Essential Tips. A collection of useful facts and figures about driving in Australia. Tips that are essential when taking to the roads in this immense island continent! We’ve covered topics like:

  • Hiring a vehicle for driving in Australia
  • Driving in Australia – what you need to know. Including general Australian vehicle and driver’s license information
  • Dealing with the vast distances you’ll encounter
  • The hazards that you may come across on the highways and byways,
  • The variable seasons and climates.

Hiring a car and driving around Australia is an incredible adventure. But, if you want it to go well, your trip must be well planned.

driving in australia is an epic adventure
Relax, take the views all in. Driving in Australia is an adventure in itself and so much fun!

But First, A Few Facts About Australia….

Australia is the world’s largest island nation. Covering some 7,692 million square kilometres in landmass, it is 4042 kms from east to west. If you want to drive from north to south, it’s 3860 kilometres. It’s surrounded by 2 of the world’s largest oceans – the Indian Ocean on the west and the Pacific Ocean to the east. The Indian Pacific is a popular passenger train service that runs from the east coast to the west coast. The Ghan is a similar train that runs from Adelaide in the south to Darwin in the north.

In 2016, the Australian population stood at 24.13 million. A very diverse 24.13 million people! Representatives from around the world proudly call Australia home. The original inhabitants, the Australian Aboriginals, were here some 50,000 years before Europeans arrived. Modern Australia though is very much a multi-cultural society. In the words of the well-known song – “We are one, but we are many. And from all the lands on earth we come.”

It’s not only the Australian people that are diverse. The country itself is also a land of massive contrasts. As Dorothea Mackellar famously wrote, Australia truly is “A land of sweeping plains, Of rugged mountain ranges, Of droughts and flooding rains.” It can be flooding on one side of the country whilst the other is engulfed in fierce bush fires or soul-destroying drought. The north of the country is lush and tropical with 2 seasons – wet and dry. As you drive south, it changes to semi tropical with wet summers and dry winters. Further south it becomes a dry Mediterranean climate with wet winters and dry summers. All in the one country!

Driving In Australia – The Best Way To See This Great Island Continent

There are many ways to get around Australia. The most rewarding, the one that will let you see more of this vast country is by hiring a car and driving. Around every bend in the road, you’ll find breathtaking natural scenery. There are also many famous drives to explore. The Australian Natural Heritage listed Great Ocean Road is one of them.

The Great Ocean Road  is a 243-kilometre stretch of highway along Victoria’s southeastern coastline. It runs between the towns of Torquay and Allansford. As you’d expect from a Natural Heritage listed area, there are all kinds of fascinating things to explore. This brings us to another point. Some of the best off the beaten track destinations are only accessible by vehicle.

Driving In Australia – Different Ways To Travel Around Australia

Various options are available for tourists interested in driving in Australia. The most common is hiring a car. As Australia is an island, most tourists arrive by air so all major airports have car hire kiosks. You can prearrange your hire or you can do it upon arrival in the country. Be aware though – most of the vehicles available for hire at airports are cars. These are only suitable for highways and major roads.

If you plan to do any off road driving, you will need to arrange to hire an appropriate vehicle. Usually this will be a 4WD of some sort. Most 4WD hire places have a range of different types of vehicles. For the serious off road adventure, you’ll need a serious 4WD made for roughing it off road. If you plan to meander along a few unsealed country roads and get a bit of dust on the vehicle, you will likely get by with an ‘urban’ 4WD. Check the terms and conditions of hire and the insurance first.

Another thing to bear in mind is the availability of spare parts where you’re intending to travel. Some of the remoter locations may stock spares for common makes and models used in the area. They likely won’t carry anything for more exotic vehicles. It may be tempting to hire the latest, fanciest vehicle you can. However, something like a standard Toyota Landcruiser is a much wiser choice!

If you’re the type of person who enjoys camping out, a camper van could be more your style of travel. Once again, there are vehicle hire places that specialize in all types of camper vans. Some are 4WD so it’s horses for courses. Hiring a caravan is another option depending on where you plan to go. Towing though uses up a lot more fuel and if you plan to go off road may not be practical or safe. They can also be a problem to tow.

Not sure you’re up to driving yourself? Not a problem. Many tour companies specialise in offering exciting on and off road ‘safaris’. Or book a luxurious coach tour! Treat yourself to a chauffeured, catered trip with pre-arranged sight seeing and accommodation. Talk to us about the various options and we will advise the best possible solution.

Driving In Australia – What You Need To Know

To make the most of your road trip around Australia there are a few things you should be aware of:-

  • Steering wheels are on the right hand side of the car.
  • Australians drive on the left hand side of the road.
  • Seat belts are compulsory in all states.
  • Speed is in kilometres per hour and distances are measured in kilometres and metres as well.
  • You must carry an original valid driving license. An appropriate foreign license written in English is legal for stays of less than 3 months.
  • If you have a driver’s license in any language other than English, you must get an International Driving Permit before you leave home.

When hiring a car for driving in Australia:-

Three quarters of Australian cars have automatic transmission, including most hire cars. Most will also have cruise control fitted. This is a handy way to avoid breaking speed limits! You may be able to find a hire vehicle with manual transmission. In that case, you need to remember to

  • Use your left hand to change gears.
  • The indicators are on the right hand side of the steering wheel. Moving the stick downwards activates the right hand indicators. Moving it up activates the left hand indicators.
  • The windscreen wiper stick is on the left hand side of the steering wheel
  • The foot pedals are as per the worldwide configuration.

Highway speed limits vary throughout the country with no national standard:-

  • Speed limits for highways vary between each Australian State. They range from 100 km/h to 130 km/h and are usually well signposted.
  • The only exception to this is on certain ‘off the beaten track’ gravel roads.
  • The thinking here is that speed limits suggest safe speeds when in fact much less than the legal limit is achievable.
  • Speeding fines are heavy which is why the majority of Australian drivers don’t speed.
  • Speed cameras are common and various monitoring methods of drivers’ speeds are frequent.

Another thing to note, especially if you get off the major highways, is that some states have derestricted speed signs (black circle with a bar through it) on rural roads outside built up areas. This means that the maximum speed limit for the state applies. In all states bar Western Australia and the Northern Territory, this is 100 km/h. For Western Australia, it is 110 km/h. Whilst in the Northern Territory, it is 110 km/h on most roads except for the certain sections of the state’s 4 major highways, where it goes up to 130 km/h.

Driving in Australia under the influence:-

Australia has strict DUI laws that apply to both alcohol and drugs. The legal blood alcohol level for driving is 0.05% right across the country. For Learners and Provisional drivers it’s 0.00 %. Random breath testing (RBT) for alcohol, and mouth swabs for drugs, are carried out on both major highways as well as back streets. It’s also done in cities and in the country. Getting caught behind the wheel of a vehicle with a blood alcohol reading in excess of 0.05% will land you in court. You will also face a fine and usually a suspension of your drivers licence.

General observations about driving in Australia:-

  • In the main, Australian drivers are considerate and courteous to other road users.
  • Trucks will indicate it is safe to pass by flashing the right indicator.
  • Frequent and well-signposted rest areas are a common feature on highways. These might be simply somewhere to pull off or buildings with lots of facilities.
  • Parking can be an expensive business in big cities, at beaches and tourist hotspots.
  • Many Service Stations are not 24 hour, even on major routes.

Tolls and toll payments:-

  • These are payable on some highways and at some city tunnels and bridges.
  • All toll payments are now electronically registered and cash no longer accepted.
  • Most major hire car companies include some element of toll payment as a rental inclusion or optional extra. Check what the arrangement is at your point of hiring.
  • Some Aboriginal native title areas, mostly in Western Australia and the Northern Territory, require permits to enter or cross.

Distances When Driving In Australia

Unless you are from the US or Canada it is unlikely you will ever have encountered such vast Australia driving distances. What can appear close at hand when glancing at a map is actually many hours’ drive away. If you intend to drive between major cities, you are typically looking at a journey of at least a few days. For example, Sydney to Brisbane, which looks a short hop on the map, is 1000 km! Sydney to Adelaide is 1410 km and Melbourne to Brisbane 1681 km while Perth to Darwin is 4,166 km.

While many road trips around Australia have incredible sights and views to keep you engaged, there are also those that offer little variety. 90 Mile Straight, the section of the Eyre Highway between Balladonia in WA and Caiguna in SA is one of them. This 143.3 kilometre long, straight stretch of highway crosses the Nullarbor Plain. It is one of the longest straight stretches of road in the world. The Eyre (pronounced Air) is also Australia’s longest single highway.

driving in australia nullarbor plain
Nicknmed ‘Nullar-boring’ for it’s straight road – it was once a sea bed but we think the drive is a once in a life-time experience!


The Road Network In Australia

Most of the population live in the eastern and south-eastern areas of the country. The major cities and towns are located along the coastline. This is because early colonial settlements depended on shipping to bring in supplies. So it made sense to establish colonies close to the coast, usually where major rivers meet the sea. All the state capitals except Darwin are on major rivers.

  • Brisbane (Brisbane River),
  • Sydney (Parramatta River & Sydney Harbour),
  • Melbourne (Yarra River),
  • Hobart (Derwent River),
  • Adelaide (Torrens River),
  • Perth (Swan River).
  • Darwin is built on Darwin harbour, a large natural harbour on the north coast of the country.

Connecting and well-maintained sealed roads connect these main centres. Also in the quality road category are most of the highways that connect state capitals. For these you can expect two lanes for the majority of their lengths. Most don’t have central dividing barriers. Road maintenance in Australia is the responsibility of the respective state governments.

Many of Australia’s major highways and roads are numbered according to the Alphanumeric Route Numbering System. This consists of an identifying letter and number. Highway 1 for example follows the coastline right the way around the country. It is actually made up of many state highways. Sections are labelled 1, M1, A1 or B1 depending on its quality and type. For example, in South Australia, A1 is the Eyre Highway. At Norseman in Western Australia, it becomes the Great Southern Highway to Perth. In Perth, it changes to the Great Northern Highway and heads north. These western sections are labelled 1.

Outside of these major roads, you will encounter many unpaved gravel and limestone roads. Most are in various states of repair and condition. Some are impassable at certain times of the year, particularly in the north where it floods. Many require 4WD vehicles.

driving in australia hazard sign


Driving Hazards In Australia

Some drives around Australia present three principle potential hazards or areas of concern. All need careful consideration. These are

  • wandering wildlife and livestock,
  • unpaved roads
  • remote regions driving.

Encountering Wandering Wildlife And Livestock Whilst Driving In Australia

Wandering wildlife and livestock, such as kangaroos, emus, horses, cattle and even camels are possible road encounters. Kangaroos seem to be especially fond of sudden leaps into the road. At night they appear to be paralysed by oncoming headlights. Emus will dart every which way but out of the path of an oncoming vehicle! Although wildlife is a potential hazard on any Australian road, it is more common in bush and remote areas.

Even smaller animals such as rabbits, foxes, dingos, feral cats, sheep and goats, can be a serious road hazard. They can cause drivers to swerve suddenly to avoid collisions. Larger animals when hit at higher speeds can do considerable crush damage to vehicles and may leave you stranded in a remote location. You can’t always rely on being able to phone for help either. Some of the remoter areas do not have mobile phone coverage. Road deaths caused in this way are also not uncommon. Protective bull-bars are a common feature on outback vehicles for this very reason.

The highest risk times are dawn and dusk. Many animals are more active during these periods and also less visible. You will also need to be more alert on roads that run near rivers and reservoirs. Many large stations also tend to be unfenced hence the wandering livestock! If you intend to hire a car in either Western Australia or the Northern Territory, you might find curfew conditions imposed at or after sunset. The excesses payable for vehicle damage are often higher for animal impact incidents. We advise you make sure you have adequate insurance.

hazard kangaroo sign post driving in australia
Take good care of jumping kangaroos, especially at twilight and night time


Encountering Unpaved Roads When Driving In Australia

Unsealed roads are a common feature of Australian driving once away from the cities. The surfaces might be sand, gravel or limestone and conditions vary from good to terrible. Conditions along the same road are not consistent either. What started as a ‘good’ road can deteriorate fast depending on climate and vehicle-use. Road reports will usually advise if creek-crossing washouts or severe ‘rutting’ have occurred. This puts low clearance vehicles at risk of ‘bottoming out’ on raised sections. Often you will not be able to use unsealed roads without a 4WD vehicle. This includes some entries into national park camping areas or popular scenic sights.

Aside from the general conditions and poor maintenance, dust clouds can also present a driving hazard. Created by passing traffic, dust reduces the visibility of any vehicles travelling behind.

Almost all car rental companies prohibit their vehicles from being driven on unsealed roads. If you do so and have an accident, you might find yourself facing enormous bills or car replacement costs.

What To Expect In Some Of The More Remote Areas Whilst Driving In Australia

If you want to head into the great Australian Outback you will need to plan your trip very carefully. Much of this country is arid, remote desert. Distances here can be vast with hundreds of kms between facilities of any kind. These include places to refuel, places to buy food and drink, and public toilets. You may go long hours without seeing a town or even another vehicle on the road. Mobile phone coverage is also patchy to totally non-existent in some places. This means you can’t rely on this if you have a breakdown or other problems.

Be Prepared – Have An Emergency Contingency Plan

It is vital to have plans in place should the worst happen and you break down in the middle of nowhere with no way of contacting anyone! Prearrange to call someone at regular intervals along the way when you have phone coverage. If you don’t make a designated call, they can notify local authorities to check up on you. Don’t underrate the dangers of this country! People have died after getting stranded in some of these remote locations! Another rule is to stay with your vehicle if you do break down.

Once again, people have died because they decided to walk for help. Those who stayed with the vehicle got rescued. Ensure you have plenty of fresh water and food with you in case…. A good hat, sunscreen and protective clothing are also advisable. This also applies generally, not just in case of breakdowns.

If driving in areas prone to flooding, keep an eye out for hazards such land slides, fallen trees across the road, washaways and similar.

landslide hazards when driving in australia
Keep an eye out for hazards such land slides

Be Aware Of Climate Changes

The Australian climate also offers some challenges. Passengers in cars without air-conditioning might find themselves sweltering in daytime temperatures. These can reach 45°C. At the same time, night-time temperatures can literally be freezing. Heavy rains can present a variety of problems. These include rising water levels in creeks that might make creek-crossings impassable. They can also convert road surface dust into dense clay that clogs wheels and will eventually bring a non-4WD vehicle to a halt.

Watch Out For Fatigue

Fatigue can set in fast where roads are straight, flat and sometimes featureless for hundreds or thousands of kilometres. As mentioned earlier, one such road is the Adelaide to Perth highway, otherwise known as driving the Nullarbor Plain. General driving advice recommends rest stops after every two hours. Throughout Australia, there are even free coffee handouts at some local services. These are part of the ‘Stop, Revive, Survive’ campaign.

If you like the idea of wide-open spaces and freedom there’s nothing like driving in Australia. We hope you have enjoyed reading our top tips. Please contact us for further travel advice especially concerning which drives in Australia we consider the best!

driving in australia map