The unique freedom of van life in Australia

Driving in the middle of nowhere with kangaroos hopping by the side of the road. Watching sunsets in the outback. Sleeping under a sky full of stars. Waking up with the sound of waves breaking on an unspoiled beach. Who never dreamt of that? That dream came true for me in July 2016, when I bought a van and started travelling around Australia. I can’t think of a better way to explore that country and enjoy the countless amazing things it has to offer. Here are my personal tips to help you experiencing the true and unique freedom of living the van life in Australia.

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1/ Buying vs renting

This is the first question for many travelers: should I buy or rent a van? There’s no definitive answer as both options have their pros and cons. Here are some of the things you’ll need to ask yourself before taking a decision:

  • for how long will you be travelling? If it’s less than 3 weeks then renting will very likely be the best option. For longer trips, it could become really expensive.
  • can you allow some extra days at the beginning and at the end of your trip to buy/sell a van? Buying a van is an important decision: the chances that you’ll fall for the very first van you’ll see are low (even though that’s what happened to me) and you’ll probably have to meet a few different sellers before finding the rare gem, while you can rent a vehicle on the day of your arrival. Same when it comes to the moment of selling it: if you don’t have enough time, you’ll have to accept lower offers and let it go for less money than you would have expected.

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  • when will you be travelling and what will be your itinerary? Season and location are 2 key factors for buying and selling a van. It will be much faster to sell a vehicle in summer and the price will be higher, while it will be cheaper to buy one during winter. It’s also much easier to sell a van in big cities like Sydney or Melbourne, so if you decide for example to travel along the East Coast from Sydney to Cairns, it would probably be a good choice to rent a van as you might struggle to find a buyer when you’ll be so far north of Queensland. I did the opposite and bought my van in Cairns, in winter, which was the perfect combination to find really cheap vehicles. A couple of German backpackers even literally begged me to buy their van and offered me a huge discount when I turned down their initial offer (fun fact: I spent a night next to that van and its new British owner a few weeks later, hundreds of kilometers away from Cairns).

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  • what is your budget? Buying a van might be more expensive than renting, but keep in mind that you might also get that money back (or at least part of it) at the end of your trip.
  • do you know anything about mechanics and do you feel confident driving a van in the middle of nowhere? If not, renting might be better for your peace of mind, as you’ll have road assistance included in your booking.

If after asking yourself all these questions you still want to buy a van: great, more tips are coming in the next parts. If you prefer to go for a rental, you can move to the fourth point already; just try to avoid Wicked Campers, which is known to have very old vehicles that might break down at any time. Prefer a company like Jucy, which is supposed to have one of the best price-quality ratios.

2/ Buying a van…

So you’re going to buy a van: a big decision that requires some precautions if you don’t want it to ruin your trip.

australia-van-lighthouseThere are four common ways to find a van: ads in hostels, posts on facebook groups like “Australia Backpackers” or “Backpackers in Melbourne” for example, gumtree (a website on which you can find pretty much anything, including vehicles or job offers) and car markets (only in big cities). I can’t recommend one of these options more than the others, but be sure to always have a good look at the van before paying anything. It might seem obvious but sometimes people will ask you to “take it or leave it” even before you had a chance to see the vehicle. If that happens, there’s only one thing to do: run away!

I don’t know much about mechanics so I can’t give you proper advice on this point, but if you have a friend who knows more than you ask him to come with you for the inspection. Never accept to check out a vehicle after dark even if the owner says that he’s “very busy” during the day: it might be a way for them to hide a problem more easily visible in the daylight like a leak for example. Be careful of bumps on the body of the van: whatever created them might as well have created hidden and more problematic issues. Finally, always do a test drive, listen carefully for weird noises and check if the brakes are good.

Vans in Australia might be working very well up to more than 400,000 kilometers, so don’t be afraid if you see ads for vehicles with more than 250,000 or 300,000 kilometers on. If they have been well taken care of, they should be fine for many more trips. Ask to see the receipts of previous repairs; if the owner says that he doesn’t have them because “a friend of his did it”, be very careful.

There are many types of vans available, from the basic ute that you can completely design by yourself to fully equipped luxury vehicles… which will be obviously much more expensive. It’s basically impossible to say how much you should pay for a van as the price depends on so many different factors, but try to have a look at similar offers to see if you’re over paying. You’ll have to trust your own judgement in the end!

3/ …and the nightmare of the “rego”

The “rego” or vehicle registration is a compulsory document that you’ll need to get to become the official owner of your van; you usually transfer the rego from the previous owner to you. The requirements differ from one state to another which might make it a real nightmare for backpackers. It would take an entire article to detail the rules for every state so have a look at the Australian Government website for that. In this article, I’ll only explain you quickly how the system works and what you should expect.

First, your vehicle should be registered in the state where you are and you’ll have to give a residential address… which can be complicated when you’re travelling and when your home is on wheels! The trick here is to give a fake address in the state where your van is registered, ideally at a friend’s place, otherwise a hostel. If in some states it’s possible to transfer the rego online, some others require you to physically be in the state for that which can be another problem if you’re travelling around Australia…

Some states (Victoria, Queensland…) require also a “roadworthy certificate” to register or transfer the registration of your vehicle. If it’s an old one, it might cost you a lot of money to do it. And it’s not even a proof that your van is in good condition: the inspector delivering the roadworthy certificate doesn’t care if your engine might blow up in 200 kilometers, as long as your mirrors aren’t broken!

Finally, once you managed to transfer the registration and officially become the owner of your van, you’ll have to renew it regularly as it’s only valid until a specific date. Depending on the states, you can renew it for 3, 6 or 12 months… and it can be really expensive. Never buy a vehicle when its rego has expired, and never buy it from someone who’s not the legal owner. True story: while I was looking for a van in Cairns, I met a French guy who told me that the rego of his vehicle was still under the name of the previous owner because he “didn’t have time” to do the paperwork. It is illegal and you might have big problems to transfer the registration to your name.

You might think so far that this system is extremely complicated and completely inappropriate to backpackers; well, that’s true, but there’s good news. The registration of Western Australia can be transferred and renewed super easily online or by post, and you don’t have to do a roadworthy certificate in this state. A Grail for travelers… but vehicles registered in this state are usually also more expensive.

4/ Complete freedom?

Travelling around Australia in a van sounds like the definition of freedom: free to go wherever you want, spend the night in the place of your choice, stay in the same spot for as long as you wish. Actually, this isn’t completely true.

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In Australia, you can’t camp for free wherever you want. It’s actually the opposite: it is forbidden to spend the night in your van apart from some places where it is allowed. But the good news is that you’ll find a lot of free camps around the country and that you won’t have to pay for a campsite or a caravan park every night. These free camps can have very different levels of comfort: sometimes they’re just a gravel area without any facilities, sometimes they have toilets, running water or even showers… but it’s very rare.

The closer you get to touristic places or big cities, the harder it is to find free camps. Your options then are paying for a camping spot or a hostel dorm, staying further away with the inconvenient of driving longer or sleeping somewhere where you’re not supposed to, like a day-use area or a residential street. I’ve done it a few times myself and never got fined (although I got waken up once by a ranger who told me to leave straight away and never come back). Try to stay in remote areas, leave early in the morning and obviously be respectful to the environment and/or the neighbours and everything should be fine.

wikicamps.pngThere’s an app that every traveler in Australia should buy: it’s called Wikicamps, it costs 8$ and it’s a real Bible. It features on a map the location of every single campground (free or not), every hostel or caravan park around the country, but also day use areas and points of interest like lookouts, beaches or libraries and public toilets. It is the best travel guide you can ever find: thanks to Wikicamps, you’ll find amazing places that you’d never have discovered by yourself. It’s not only helpful to find places to stay for the night: thanks to a very well-conceived system of filters, you can use it to look for the nearest shower, drink water taps to fill up your tanks, power plugs to charge your electronic devices… You can also read other users’ comments and see their pictures. It is definitely a must-have!

Apart from overnight staying, there are a few more things that travelers in a van need to think about. Be careful with your fuel: in remote areas, gas stations might be hard to find and petrol will be a lot more expensive. The quality will be lower as well: the unleaded 91 fuel is the cheapest but if you’re constantly using it, it will dirty your engine. Fill your tank regularly with premium fuel to “clean” it. When it comes to food, you’ll easily find a Coles, a Woolworths or an Aldi on the East Coast, but if you’re travelling in Western Australia, you’ll have to get products from shops like IGA where everything is more expensive, so make stocks of long-life food when it’s cheap. Always make sure to carry enough drinking water as well.

Australia is a really big country and the road network isn’t the best: apart from the East Coast where most of the population lives, only the major links and highways are sealed and the rest are just dusty tracks, sometimes only suitable for 4WD. Try to avoid as much as you can these dirt and unsealed roads: they’re not good for your van and you’ll have to be much slower, especially on corrugated ground. But sometimes they’re the only way to get to a specific point…

All of that said, experiencing the van life in Australia is still one of the most amazing things to do and the feeling of freedom that you’ll get during your trip will be incredible. I’ll explain you why in the next part.

5/ My best memories of living the van life in Australia

I did two different trips in Australia with a van. The first one on my own between July and October 2016, the second one with friends from December 2017 to February 2018. Both were fabulous and will remain forever as extraordinary memories as I lived some unbelievable experiences. Here are my best memories of van life:

  • that night in Bingil Bay, next to Mission Beach in the north of Queensland. A girl that I met in Mission Beach where she was working in a bar told me that if I was here only until the next day I could stay on a day-use area next to the campsite where she was staying with her boyfriend in Bingil Bay. Camping was officially forbidden but actually tolerated for one night. That place was unbelievable. It was directly next to the beach, at night the sky was full of millions of stars and sunrise in the early morning is one of the most beautiful sights I ever saw.
  • that morning with kangaroos in Cape Hillsborough, Queensland. I spent the night before on a very basic gravel area next to a couple of French backpackers travelling in their van too. We decided to get up early the next morning to go together to the beach of Cape Hillsborough, famous for its kangaroos often spotted on the sand at dawn. We were almost on our own (maybe 4 or 5 other people on a very large beach) and the sight of kangaroos jumping around us with the gorgeous colours of sunrise was extraordinary.
  • that 2-day trip on the Great Ocean Road, Victoria, with fantastic coastal roads, a gorgeous sunset on Bells Beach, koalas in the Cape Otway National Park and stunning views of the Twelve Apostles and other rock formations. It’s so much better to do this iconic road trip in a van, being able to pull over wherever you want and sleep in beautiful locations!
  • that stay in South West Rocks, New South Wales. That place had been described to me as a real hidden heaven by German backpackers so I decided to have a look. They were right. It was one of the loveliest beaches I ever saw, there were dozens of kangaroos on the grass around… and I was on my own! Camping was forbidden but I decided to stay for the night anyway as the place was just too beautiful to leave. Sleeping there with no sound but the waves was amazing, and once again the sunrise was extraordinary. Unfortunately, a bit later while I was having my breakfast surrounded by curious kangaroos, a ranger arrived. I thought he would give me a fine, but he just told me that I wasn’t supposed to camp here, that I should be more careful for signs the next time and that “the weather is awesome today mate, have a look at the path over there before you go, the view is beautiful”. So friendly!
  • these 3 days in the Cape Range National Park, next to Exmouth in Western Australia. The Cape Range is famous for its coral reef called the Ningaloo Reef, not as big as the Great Barrier Reef on the East Coast but with the huge advantage of being directly next to the coast, which means that you can snorkel with turtles and stunning fishes just next to the beach. As it’s a National Park, you can’t free camp but there are a few relatively cheap campsites very close to the ocean. The view of this so clear water in the morning is probably the best way to start the day.
  • that night under the stars of Hutt River, Western Australia. As I explained in a previous article, Hutt River is a very peculiar place: in 1970, Leonard Casley and his wife Shirley decided to secede from Australia after a conflict against the government of Western Australia about agriculture quotas. The place is now called the Principality of Hutt River, and you can meet Prince Graeme (the son of Leonard), buy Hutt River dollars and even get a stamp on your passport! You can also sleep there for 5$ per night, and as it’s literally in the middle of nowhere (600kms north of Perth), there’s absolutely no light pollution, which means one of the most gorgeous night skies I ever saw.
  • that very long drive through the Nullarbor Plain, 1200kms without a single town between Western and South Australia, including Australia’s longest straight road, 146,6kms without a turn, but also beautiful views over the Great Australian Bight, secluded campsites on top of tall cliffs and the feeling of being alone in the entire world
  • these mornings with a view in Tasmania, by far the part of Australia where freedom camping is the easiest. There are a lot of free camps all around the island, often in really gorgeous locations next to the coast. I’ll end this article with a few pictures of this amazing trip, hoping that it made you want to experience the freedom of van life in Australia!

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