The unique freedom of vanlife 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… That dream of liberty came true for me in July 2016, when I bought a van and started travelling around Australia. Here are the stories of the best moments of my nomadic life all around the country, from the coast of Queensland to the Nullarbor plain, from the Great Ocean Road to Tasmania. And as a bonus at the end of the article, a list of useful tips if you’re thinking of buying your own van!
I did two different trips in Australia with a van (as well as many short excursions), the first one on my own when I arrived in the country between July and October 2016, the second one with friends from December 2017 to February 2018. I drove thousands of kilometers, spent countless hours behind the wheel, and I lived so many extraordinary adventures that it would be way too long to list them all here. That’s why I decided to select seven of them, and to explain you why these moments were particularly unforgettable in this article!
1. Bingil Bay, Queensland, 24th of July 2016
Mission Beach, a little coastal town in the north of Queensland, became the very first stop of my road trip along the Australian east coast, one week after I had bought a van in Cairns. This is where I did one of the craziest things of my life, skydiving, and as I was recovering from my emotions on the beach, I randomly met a French girl who was working in a bar on the main street. Through the conversation, she explained me that if I was only staying for one night, I could park my van on a little day-use area next to the campsite where she lived with her boyfriend in Bingil Bay, a few kilometers away. I quickly understood when I arrived that this night wouldn’t be like every other night: the parking lot was directly next to the beach, at night the sky was full of millions of stars and sunrise in the early morning was one of the most beautiful sights I ever saw… I could’t have dreamt of anything better for my very first night in my van!
There are more kangaroos than human beings in Australia, but it’s actually not that easy sometimes to observe them! One month after landing in the country, I still had only briefly caught sight of a few of them from a distance… But that was before I went to Cape Hillsborough! I spent the night before on a very basic freecamp and I woke up super early to watch the sunrise on the beach, famous for kangaroos who were apparently often spotted on the sand at dawn… and it wasn’t a myth! I was almost alone (not more than 4 or 5 people on a very large beach), the landscape was fabulous, and the sight of kangaroos jumping around me with the gorgeous colours of the early morning was extraordinary.
That place had been described to me as a real hidden heaven by German backpackers I had met a few weeks before. 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 so amazing… Unfortunately, while I was cooking my breakfast the following morning in front of two curious kangaroos, a ranger arrived. I expected him to 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!
What a pleasure to drive for two days and a half on this iconic coastal road close to Melbourne! That trip included a gorgeous sunset over Bells Beach (a very popular beach for surfers), a friendly encounter with koalas in a forest of eucalyptus, countless lookouts over the rugged coast with famous rock formations such as the Twelve Apostles, and even a night on a campsite surrounded by kangaroos!
A Principality in Australia? Yes, for real! In 1970, Leonard Casley and his wife Shirley, a couple of farmers, decided to secede from Australia after a conflict against the government of Western Australia about agriculture quotas. The place kept a nebulous status until 2020, when Prince Graeme (the son of Leonard and Shirley), ribbled with debts, eventually dissolved the Principality to return to the Australian nation. But during my second trip in the country in December 2017, I had the chance to visit this tiny territory with Prince Graeme: I bought dollars of Hutt River, and even got a stamp on my passport! I also spent the night there in my van, and as Hutt River is very secluded (Perth is 600km further south), there is absolutely no light pollution. This remains without a doubt one of the most amazing night skies I ever saw!
There’s only one road connecting the states of Western Australia (Perth) and South Australia (Adelaide). This road crosses the huge plains of Nullarbor, a name with a latin etymology meaning “no trees”… Over hundreds of kilometers, there is no other vegetation than bushes! Between Norseman to the west and Ceduna to the east, there are no towns for about 1200km, nothing else than a few secluded roadhouses. One of the sections of this road doesn’t have a single turn for 146,6km! It took me almost three entire days of driving to get through this very inhospitable region, but I was rewarded with two unforgettable nights on lonely freecamps, stunning views over the tall cliffs of the Great Australian Bight, and the strong feeling of being alone in the entire world…
Tasmania is by far the best region of Australia for van life, with an impressive amount of free campsites everywhere around the island, often even in gorgeous places next to the coast. And as sometimes words are not enough to describe the beauty of a place, here is a gallery of pictures I took during the two weeks I spent there instead! You want to know more? Have a look at the two stories I wrote to describe this road trip: first part and second part.
Useful tips for travelling with a van in Australia
This is often the first question for many travelers! There’s no definitive answer as both options have their pros and cons, but here are some of the things you’ll need to ask yourself before taking a decision:
–for how long will you be travelling? Up to three weeks or a month, renting will very likely be the best option. For longer trips, buying would probably be more profitable;
–can you allow some extra days at the beginning and at the end of your trip? The chances that you’ll fall for the very first van you’ll see are low 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;
–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 to travel along the east coast from Sydney to Cairns for example, 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;
–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 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. But don’t worry, there’s no need to be an engine expert to enjoy a road trip in Australia!
There are four common ways to find a van: ads in hostels, posts on Facebook groups, 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!
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. Always do a test drive, listen carefully for weird noises and check if the brakes are good. If you have a friend who knows more about mechanics than you, ask him to come with you for the inspection; you can also ask the owner to get the van examined in the garage of your choice, but you’ll likely have to pay for it.
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 doesn’t have any, 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!
The “rego” or vehicle registration is a compulsory document that you’ll need to get to become the official owner of your vehicle; 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 (other people already did it better than me), so 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 as a proof… 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 also require 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 (for 3, 6 or 12 months depending on the states) as it’s only valid until a specific date. Never buy a vehicle when its rego has expired, and never deal with someone who’s not the legal owner!
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 WA are usually also more expensive.
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.
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 or tolerated. But the good news is that you’ll find a lot of free campsites around the country! These freecamps 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 freecamps. 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 many 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.
There’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. Even better, 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 and the best travel guide you can ever find!
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 I can only encourage you to try it: you’ll never regret it!