Melbourne to Cairns Road Trip
While enjoying our week in Tasmania, I had been keeping an eye out for special RV relocation deals on the internet. The idea is that if hire companies need one of their vehicles moving to a different depot, then you can volunteer to do the drive for them and in return they give you the vehicle for $1 per night.
This sounded too good to be true when I first heard about it, but after much searching I found a deal that worked for us. For less than the cost of a coffee, we’d be the proud, temporary owners, of a 6 berth RV. In return, we simply had to move the vehicle from Melbourne to Cairns. We had 7 days.
Looking at a map of Australia, Melbourne is at the extreme bottom and Cairns is very close to the top. A quick google search revealed that the shortest driving route is 2,944 kilometres, with a best case driving time of 32 hours.
Coming from the UK it’s hard to comprehend this distance. The furthest we’d contemplate driving at home is maybe 4 or 5 hours in any one direction. Beyond this I’d be booking flights, or else we’d be driving into the sea.
My maths brain kept reassuring me that 32 hours over 7 days was only 4-5 hours driving per day. But it still looked a reasonably long way on the map.
Fresh Tin Can
We arrived feeling fresh at the Melbourne Maui depot at 10am. This is where we’d been instructed to pick-up our vehicle, rather than a random sightseeing trip.
I half expected to be presented with a ten year-old wreck that was being sent to a retirement home in Cairns. Instead we were handed the keys to a freshly minted RV, with its cutlery still in a plastic wrapper, making its maiden voyage to warmer climes.
We felt like campervan pros after our 12 nights in New Zealand, so after a quick inspection we were off. After 0.5 kilometres we stopped for supplies. This took over an hour as the kids were hungry and needed feeding. At this rate, it was going to take us a lot longer than a week to get to Cairns.
After a late start, we stopped off in a caravan park just before sunset, at a bend in the Murray River called Tocumwal. We were only 300km outside of Melbourne, but given the abundance of Australian wildlife littering the roads, I was keen to avoid night time driving unless it was absolutely necessary. It’s hard to see a kangaroo in the dark and I didn’t fancy the job of scraping a dead one of the road.
Instead, I thought we could get an early start the following morning, with the goal of reaching Dubbo by afternoon, which was 500km away.
At 6am it was still dark and a heavy mist covered the ground, with icicles hanging from the wing mirrors. I was starting to question the wisdom of setting off so early. I couldn’t see more than ten feet ahead and visibility was probably worse than if it had been the middle of the night. At least the road was mostly straight and there wasn’t too much in the way of traffic.
Conditions improved as the sun rose and we made Dubbo in reasonable time. After starting to exhibit early symptoms of cabin fever, the kids were ecstatic to find that our campsite had a swimming pool and waterslides. The day had warmed up nicely and I was equally pleased to open a cold beer while notionally standing on lifeguard duties.
Glancing at a map, I was pleased to see that we were now north west of Sydney, which felt like reasonable progress. Cairns was still off the map though, a very long way away. I was starting to formulate a back-up plan in my mind, involving Anja and the girls catching a flight from Brisbane, while I bravely drove the lonely road to Cairns.
A Typical Day in the RV
We reached Moree on day 3, after a relatively short day because we didn’t set-off until gone 10am. The kids wanted one last go in the swimming pool and I was happy to take a break after yesterday’s early start.
Our standard routine was getting pretty well drilled, with a couple of hours driving followed by a rest stop, preferably somewhere in the vicinity of both a playground and a bakery. The bakery was mainly for my benefit, so that I could top up on fresh coffee or grab a pie for lunch.
Two or three spells of driving each day would theoretically be enough to get us to Cairns.
We’d stopped un-making the beds each day to save time and effort. This left us with one small table in the back, where the girls sat during the day and where we could all eat dinner.
Sunset was around 5pm, so by the time we had found a campsite and eaten, it was pitch black and we were all ready for sleep.
Nearly Half Way
Rather than stick to the inland route all the way to Cairns, day 4 saw us heading towards Brisbane. This wasn’t technically in the right direction, but Anja wanted to catch up with some friends from a previous visit to Australia.
Brisbane looked about half way to Cairns on the map, so I was happy that we could afford the diversion and still leave ourselves 4 days up the coast road.
It was lovely to meet our Australian friends and get out of the campervan for a few hours. We were greeted with food and beer, the kids had toys and a few lizards to play with. Everybody was happy.
Having come this far, we decided that we couldn’t miss a chance to visit Australia Zoo. This was the home of Steve Irwin.
I’m sure there are videos on youtube if you are not familiar with Steve’s work. He used to be on TV at home quite often, wrestling wild crocodiles and catching ridiculously dangerous snakes. He was killed a few years ago by a stingray, but his legacy lives on.
Australia Zoo contained all the standard wildlife that you’d expect to see, including cuddly koalas, cute wallabies and brick shaped wombats. But we only had eyes today for the crocodiles.
Two crazy Aussies jumped into one of the crocodile pens. This was a planned event that a crowd had gathered to watch, not a spectacularly stupid suicide mission.
Crocodiles are stealth hunters, evolved over millions of years to sneak up on their prey, before crushing their unsuspecting victim with the most powerful set of jaws in the animal kingdom. Our crocodile man was standing within striking distance of the water with some raw chicken in his hands, which didn’t seem the brightest move.
The show was good fun and the crocodile appeared well accustomed to aiming his teeth at the raw chicken rather than the human surrounding it. But even from the safety of our vantage point, it was still a touch unnerving to be so close to such a dangerous killer.
Australia zoo contained plenty of other treats and we happily spent the day wandering back and forth. I was surprised to find tigers and rhinos complementing the usual line-up of Australian marsupials. We could have stayed longer, but the zoo was closing up and the road was beckoning.
Is it a good idea to drive around Australia in the dark, in an over-sized tin can that requires a decent amount of advanced warning before coming to a halt?
I think the answer is probably not, and I’m pretty sure the official answer is not.
But there was no way we were reaching Cairns without some night driving, especially after our day at the zoo. So I set the sat-nav for a distant camping spot and tentatively steered a course through the darkness.
It turns out that it is possible to spot kangaroos in the dark, but only at a distance that makes it impossible to stop if any of them decides to cross the road. My driving speed dropped from a steady pace to a slow crawl and we inched into our roadside camping spot, ready for bed.
Life in a Lay-by
After experimenting with driving in the dark, we also discovered that the majority of campsites closed up for the night around 7pm. This left us with two options. Carry on driving, or park up for the night in a designated rest stop just off the highway.
I used our campsite app to locate a potential rest stop ahead, expecting to find little more than a deserted patch of tarmac and an overflowing waste bin.
It turns out that highway rest stops are, in fact, thriving spots of tourist activity. I was actually pleased to find that we would have some company. Safety in numbers. But I was surprised that so many people had decided, purposefully, to spend some of their holiday camping next to a major road.
Having survived our first experience of life in a lay-by, I decided that I quite enjoyed the fact that we could camp for free, surrounded by fellow travellers sharing a simple need for rest.
I could get used to this I thought. Many of our fellow campers appeared to be grey nomads. Caravans attached to their 4x4s, drifting around Australia as the mood takes them. Not a bad looking life.
By this point in the trip, we had dispensed with all but the basic essentials of human existence. We had no need for fancy shower blocks or flushing toilets. We were at one with nature. Focussed only on reaching Cairns in one piece, no matter how bad we all looked.
We Need A Wash
As we edged up the north eastern coast of Australia the temperature started to climb. After leaving Melbourne feeling distinctly cool, we were heading up into the tropics, and officially crossed over the Tropic of Capricorn in a place called Rochampton.
As the weather grew warmer, so the roads became lined on all sides by sugar cane fields. Narrow train tracks weaved around the giant plantations, with toy trains ready to help with the harvest.
Our roadside stops did not surprisingly come with en-suite bathroom facilities, and it was a non starter trying to take a shower in the campervan. The shower enclosure was so small and in such close proximity to the toilet that it would have been easier to take a bath in the kitchen sink.
So I decided to treat the family to a shower.
At Rockhampton we headed for the open air pool and washed, then swam, then washed again just to make sure. Having enjoyed our wash so much, we decided to repeat this process for the next few days. Breaking our journey at whatever municipal swimming pools we could find, in favour of taking playground stops.
You Have Reached Your Destination
We didn’t have time on this trip to explore the coastline in any depth, or visit numerous attractions, but we did get a sense of the scale of Australia and an idea of life between the big cities.
Towns that we had never previously heard of are now at least slightly familiar, and we learned about many other places that we would like to visit again.
It was, however, a great relief to reach the Cairns motorhome depot at bang on the agreed time of 2pm, almost exactly one week after we had pulled out of Melbourne.
No more driving. We’ll sit still for a week in tropical Cairns and hopefully get out to see the Great Barrier Reef.