So, you’ve planned to see Australia, or parts of it, and your itinerary has road trip written all over it.
“The best way to see the country,” everyone says. “YOU decide where and when you go.”
Overall, the message is DO IT. There are stunning free spots and others that are front row to top locations, like Mataranka Springs, The River Murray or Litchfield National Park.
But is it safe? Do you save money? Where are these places? What will you need?
Everyone needs fresh water. Many places won’t have it, and you could be a long way from where you can buy it, so carry 10 L per person per day in several small containers (https://www.flyingdoctor.org.au/about-the-rfds/preparing-to-travel/). They’re available from most supermarkets and some petrol stations. DO NOT ASSUME that what comes out of taps is safe to drink. Bore water is used in country Australia and is fine for washing your hands, or clothes but not always for drinking.
Many free campsites have a toilet and some have a shower, but others have neither. The resources, listed below, usually tell you what is available if those comforts are important to you. Of course, some travelers wake early and go to the nearest fuel station or caravan park to use their facilities, carrying a small shovel and toilet paper in case they can’t make it. The porta-loo (portable toilet) is about $80 from camping stores and you buy chemicals to put in it, which mixed with water breaks down the waste matter. The loos can be emptied at sullage points, usually near caravan parks, when the flush is dry. WE have found roadside toilet facilities to be very good and NT and WA keep theirs in top condition. Always carry toilet paper, just in case the roll is empty.
You cannot use a river or the ocean as a bathing spot, as the soaps will damage native flora and fauna. There are other dangers that can lurk there, too.
If you suffer from the heat you will want air-conditioning, which means you need power. It is rare to find a free campground with power, but not impossible. If you have solar or gas power, they will not usually keep an air-conditioner going for a whole night, as well as powering cooking devices, etc., so check storage capacity.
Depending on your mode of transport and accommodation, you will need shelter, or protection from the wind and rain. A tent is easy to come by in camping stores and department stores like Target and Big W. You can even go on Gumtree (online local sales) to get bargain buys. We had a Dutch couple pick up a mattress for the back of their van. Some free sites are on cliff edges, in open plains or near river banks, and are therefore not suitable year round, or on a particular night. No matter how tired you are, the conditions need to be considered before pitching camp.
If you don’t have a small burner, you’ll need places with BBQs or fire pits. They are uncommon. You might as well spend a little to buy a burner, plate and cutlery, cup and tongs. Dig a hole to bury any waste, so that you don’t attract dingoes (wild dogs), foxes or other vermin.
Regarding sites near riverbeds, look for the banks, as you could be IN the riverbed and if there is a big downpour you could find yourself swept away. There are sometimes warnings about this, but not always. Similarly, don’t park yourself too close to the ocean‘s edge, as the tide could come in further than you thought and uproot you, or bog you. It is EXTREMELY expensive to be pulled out.
You do need water, food and shade, to stay alive and well.
Australia has many snakes and 2 of the top 10 deadliest snakes in the world. However, snake bite is pretty rare and anti-venoms are available. Most snakes avoid humans, but the Eastern Brown snake, a very ordinary looking specimen with a very venomous bite, will go up to people. Be watchful and stamp your feet a lot, especially on the way to the toilet at night. Many sites have warnings regarding snakes.
Spiders have to be the next topic. We have some pretty venomous spiders, the worst inhabiting tropical, wet places, but spider bites are rare and you should always have closed shoes when walking or hiking. The red back spider is easy to spot, but does not approach humans unless provoked.
Far more likely to bite you is a bee and many people don’t realise that they are allergic to them. The rest of the world may be saying goodbye to bees, but our ecology is still going well. Bone up on beesting first aid and make sure you have phone reception in remote areas.
Insect repellent will keep the flies and mosquitoes at bay.
In tropical areas, crocodiles are a very real threat and you should be aware of the possibility of their being in the area, as there have been 8 deaths in the last 4 years. There are fresh and salt water crocs, so during the wet season, keep well clear of bodies of water, even when they look appealing. Crocodiles will walk a fair way for food!
Company, while being something you were trying to escape on your holiday, can keep you safe. Safety in numbers, having another pair of eyes, whatever your expression, you can’t deny it. Around 4pm you’ll see experienced campers pulling over and making camp. Join them! They will share stories of where they have been, what is a good spot, what to avoid and you might make a friend for life, or be invited to their neck of the woods.
Summers are hot in Australia and in some areas that means an increase in fire danger. If you are in a fire-prone region there will be signs, warning you of the level of risk and you need to stay alert. Recently states have trialed the use of media, where an alert is sent to your phone, telling you to leave the area and in what direction to head. Carry a fire extinguisher.
Isolation is caused by more than being alone. In such a big country, you could be a very long way from a town or settlement, with all the dangers that brings. Have your phone charged, consider using Telstra as your provider, as they currently have the widest reach of wifi and internet. Alternatively, you can download ‘Emergency + ‘ or take a satellite phone with you if you plan to be remote. If anything happens, stay with your vehicle.
The original owners of the land, the Aboriginal people, have protected areas in some places, like on parts of the Nullarbor Plains. Research this, as you are strongly advised not to trespass.
There are warnings everywhere – that while you are on holidays, thieves are not; lock your cars and vans, etc. When you meet so many friendly people and it is blazing hot at night, you can be tempted to leave everything open and welcome everyone. In the majority of cases, that will work out well for you, but there have been serious crimes and misadventure in Australia. As a percentage of travellers, it may be low, but surely any fateful encounter is unwanted. Be vigilant and contact 000 (emergency) if anything happens.
It is pretty expensive to drive around Australia. Our fuel costs are huge. You can get memberships discounts at various caravan parks but free camping is definitely cheaper. One caravan park was $140 /night for a basic cabin (no toilet or shower) and $30 for an unpowered site.
Car hire is better in some states than others, and there are tales of companies saying you caused damage that was already there – so take photos of the vehicle and get insurance.
If you are not experienced in 4WD driving, don’t attempt anything daring, as it will not end well. Similarly, if you notice anything odd with your vehicle, get it checked immediately. We are members of the RAA (Royal Automobile Association) of South Australia. Each state has a similar organisation and it’s worth investigating their cost, as they provide emergency assistance and towing for free or a reduced cost. There are mechanics in most towns with fuel stops. Repairs are likely to be expensive, in labour, parts and accommodation.
Most towns have facilities for paying by card or withdrawing cash. Some will not take American Express. All fees associated with withdrawals from banks have been almost removed. Check with your bank or credit union. Most ATM (automatic telling machine) machines accept other cards.
Some sites are free and others have a low fee ($2 or $5 per night per vehicle).
So, where are these free campsites?
We have subscribed to WIKICAMPS, which has information that you download, so that it can be accessed when you don’t have wifi. As you drive along it will tell you if there is a campsite ahead, what it was rated by users and whether it has a toilet or not. You can just download it for a one-off fee, but not add comments or new spots.
There is also CAMPS 8 and CAMPS 9, books that you can buy with the same information, but maps added. The reviews I have read suggest that WIKICAMPS updates quicker due to it’s members being able to add information instantly. However, CAMPS is an app as well.
We use a UBD touring atlas, available at the RAA or online. Made up of comprehensive maps, divided into states, it shows sites as rest area only, free campsite no toilet, fees, free campsite with toilet and rest area with toilet. Its only downfall is that it is large (A3).
Some areas and states have a lot of free camps and others do not. It is worth mapping your route ahead of time and be mindful of the distance. Western Australia is made up of very long stretches between towns and they take longer than you would expect if you work out distance and speed. I don’t know why!
There are some absolute gems, so get your vehicle, tent, table, chair, water bottles, hat, sunscreen, insect repellent, food for 2 days, small burner, fire extinguisher, pillow, sleeping bag and download Wikicamps.
Thousands of places waiting to say g’day.