Australia’s most beautiful drives
Head out on four wheels to witness Australia’s most awe-inspiring natural beauty.
The road journey is an adventure classic like no other. In the sunburnt country, the land of sweeping plains, nothing beats setting your wheels spinning in some prime piece of real estate.
For some that might involve a four-wheel drive with a bull-bar on the front and a swag in the back, for others a rollercoaster ride through rainforests with birds serenading from the canopy overhead. Along the way you’ll discover majestic scenery, wildlife, national parks crammed with wonders, possibly some beaches the rest of the world would kill for, and country towns where every creaking door has a story to tell. (More: Must-do Victorian roadtrips)
Add a few essential lifestyle ingredients – country wineries, paddock-to-plate eating and overnight stays with character as well as comfort on the menu – and you have some great reasons to hit the road.
Here are five drives that deliver.
Slides: The Bay of Fires, Great Ocean Road, Mount Wollumbin (Mount Warning), Kings Canyon and Busselton.
Red Centre Way, Northern Territory
1135-kilometre loop (1750-kilometre loop for two-wheel drives). Allow five to six days.
The back road between Alice Springs and Ayers Rock, the Red Centre Way is a soul-stealing journey through the ancient, seared majesty of Central Australia. While it’s possible to tackle the road in a conventional two-wheel-drive vehicle in dry weather, a four-wheel drive is a safer bet. Better still if it’s a campervan. The region reserves its magic for those who sleep under the stars.
There are two options for driving the Red Centre Way, either the outer loop via Namatjira Drive and Glen Helen, or the more southerly route via Larapinta Drive and Hermannsburg. The outer loop takes you past the West MacDonnell Ranges but the southern route offers something unique in Finke Gorge National Park. Here the Finke River has sculpted a botanical wonder in Palm Valley, one of the last earthly toeholds for the red cabbage palm.
The Red Centre Way continues to Watarrka National Park, site of Kings Canyon, a natural rock amphitheatre chiselled dramatically from a sandstone outcrop by eons of flowing water.
After a steep climb to the top, the Kings Canyon walking trail winds through exquisite rock formations, including the beehive domes of the Lost City and the moist fernery of the Garden of Eden. Beyond the national park, an easy drive on bitumen will deliver you to Uluru/Ayers Rock. (More: Uluru beyond the climb)
A permit is required to drive the Mereenie Loop, the unsealed section of the Red Centre Way, available from the Alice Springs Visitor Information Centre for $5.
Caves Road, Western Australia
111 kilometres. Allow one day if just driving through, longer depending on the number of stops you desire.
Starting at Busselton, 220 kilometres south of Perth, Caves Road is just 111 kilometres end to end, but don’t be deceived. Reaching from the northern end of Margaret River to the south, Caves Road packs in a catalogue of wonders that cries out for an extended trip.
First stop, Yallingup Caves, where mother nature has embroidered a subterranean wonderland with stalactites, stalagmites and lace-like formations of calcite, a crystalline form of calcium carbonate. If time allows just one cave, Ngilgi is the pick. (More: World Heritage Sites you wouldn't believe are in Australia)
South of Yallingup, Caves Road parallels the coast, swooping across rolling farmlands through green tunnels of karri trees that lock arms overhead. This Australian biodiversity hotspot is at its peak in spring when the landscape erupts in a floral carpet. Some of the names alongside you might recognise from the bottleshop shelves – Driftwood Estate, Cullen Wines and Evans & Tate among them.
You’re approaching the heart of Margaret River, one of our legendary wine-producing regions. Stay a night or two at Margaret River, a town that knows all about the art of good living, stop at the visitors’ bureau and follow one of the region’s wine touring itineraries.
Back on Caves Road, turn toward the sea and you enter Leeuwin-Naturaliste National Park, a wild, flayed coastline where the tea trees have been knotted into bonsai shapes by the wind. Turn right into Blue Rock Road which becomes Boranup Drive and wind through the luminous ramrods of a white-trunked karri forest.
At the southern end of this coastline, Hamelin Bay is an awesome sweep of crystalline sand where bat rays and thorntail stingrays hover just a couple of metres from the shore, waiting to be hand fed. Step out into the water and a ray almost two metres across might glide over your feet, which is something you won’t forget in a hurry.
One of the seven natural wonders of the world, The Twelve Apostles.
Great Eastern Drive, Tasmania
176 kilometres. Allow two to five days.
Tasmania’s east coast is the way the world used to be. Seals sprawl on beaches the colour of refined sugar, cormorants arrow into opal bays and the sea romps and foams over granite boulders stained lobster-red with lichen.
The Great Eastern Drive begins at Orford, a one-hour drive north of Hobart, where the Tasman Highway skips across the Prosser River and turns towards the coast. Neighbouring Triabunna is the launch pad for trips to Maria Island, once used by indigenous Australians as a hunting ground.
Later it became a wildlife refuge, and even by Tasmanian standards, Maria Island feels like another world. Fairy penguins totter ashore onto its beaches, dolphins stitch the waters and peregrine falcons soar from its cliffs.
Stop at Swansea to sample the summery produce at Kate’s Berry Farm then continue to Coles Bay, from where the Freycinet Peninsula rises on the far shore with the peaks of The Hazards cresting like the vertebrae of a giant sea creature. In scenery, wildlife and sheer heart-wrenching beauty, Freycinet National Park is a five-star performer.
At the gentle bay at Cooks Beach the arrangement of casuarinas along the shore suggests a Japanese print while at Sleepy Bay on the seaward side of the peninsula, the exploding surf sends a tremor through the rocks at your feet. Exploring is made simple by a network of walking trails. The headliner is the Hazards Beach – Wineglass Bay Circuit trail that cuts across the saddle of The Hazards and down to Wineglass Bay, bracketed by granite boulders and one of the icons of Tasmanian tourism.
The drive ends at St Helens but continue a little further north to take in the Bay of Fires, a 29-kilometre ribbon of sea and surf that unfurls from the former whaling station.
The Great Ocean Road, Victoria
243 kilometres. Allow one weekend.
This is one of Australia’s definitive wonders, a dazzling, heart-stopping romp along the jagged edge of the continent with never a dull moment in all its 250 kilometres. In the east, the Great Ocean Road begins at Torquay. This is Australia’s Surf City, home to the world’s largest surf museum and Bells Beach, a legend in the surfing world (members save on stays at RACV's award-winning Torquay resort).
Between Anglesea and Aireys Inlet the road hovers above a saucer of blue sea enclosed by a long spit that ends at Split Point Lighthouse. Further west, Lorne is the beach belle of Victoria’s southern coast, a town with breezy manners and a Mediterranean taste in cafes to go with the stirring views across the broad, sandy crescent at its feet.
Between Lorne and Apollo Bay the Great Ocean Road sprints along the base of the cliffs with the foam off the waves almost licking your wheels before it ducks inland to skirt Great Otway National Park, where soaring forests of manna gums and mountain ash erupt from an understorey of tree ferns that surrounds them like lacy green petticoats.
Marvel in the beauty of one of Australia's most iconic natural landmarks as you drive past Uluru.
The Great Ocean Road returns to the coast at Princetown and for the next 35 kilometres the scenery meter runs off the dial. Here the limestone cliffs are besieged by a raging Southern Ocean that has left tall pillars of more resilient rock stranded out to sea.
The scenery reaches its climax at the Twelve Apostles, where the rock stacks are huddled photogenically close together. This is easily the most famous stretch of coast in Australia. Don’t miss Gibson Steps which lead down the 70-metre cliff face to a beach where the ocean is rearranging the coastline, sending creamy fingers groping across the sand. One of the world’s greatest drives? No question.
The Rainforest Way, New South Wales
650 kilometres. Allow roughly one day per trip.
This luscious region of northern NSW is a showcase for Australia’s subtropical rainforests, a biological wonderland shaped by the Tweed Volcano and home to more than a dozen national parks with World Heritage listing. On the valley floor the forest has given way to banana plantations, sugar cane farms and sleepy towns under siege from the surrounding vegetation.
Starting from Byron Bay, the Rainforest Way heads inland to Murwillumbah, where the World Heritage Rainforest Centre offers an overview of the rainforest ecosystems. From Murwillumbah, Tyalgum Road dawdles along the Oxley River through pastures that rise to the cliffs of the escarpment along the Queensland border.
Turn left along Brays Creek Road which becomes Byrill Creek Road as it snakes through rainforest on the western flanks of Mount Warning, the rhino-horn peak made from solidified lava at the core of the ancient volcano. Continue onto Mebbin Forest Road and take the 450-metre Byrill Creek walk through subtropical rainforest where the roots of the giant fig trees writhe across the forest floor. Continue to the Kyogle Road and head south to Nimbin, still the headquarters for the counter-culture society that took root here four decades ago, and still flaunting its tattoos, tribal body piercings and slightly outrageous manners with pride.
Surrounding the town is a landscape of astonishing beauty that more than justifies an overnight stop. Don’t miss the drive north from The Channon along Terania Creek to the walking trail that winds through a bangalow palm forest to the swimming hole at Protesters Falls, named after the campaign to halt logging in the area.
From here a short drive east will return you to Byron Bay.