Australia is a big country (der). But it is hard to appreciate exactly how big it is, and how far apart places are, until you start planning a trip, and try to figure out exactly how and when you’re going to get everywhere in, most cases, a limited timeframe.
For example – did you know, up in the Kimberley there is a dam (Lake Argyle) that is larger than Switzerland? And that there are cattle stations in the Northern Territory that are bigger than some countries. And even though Alice Springs and Uluru are both in the centre – they are actually about 500kms away from each other. These immense distances are not the only thing you have to get your head around in the planning stage. There are also the seasons, weather and travelling conditions which change from one colossal region to the next.
Australia has such diverse climates – ok, admittedly it is about 75% a big, hot, dry outback-y desert, but around the edges there is a lot of variety. We are spoilt for choice for holiday environments and destinations – beaches galore, rainforests, mountains, valleys, rivers, waterfalls, gorges, bush, outback, desert. If you want to see it all, or even if you want to do one environment at a time, it makes sense to think about the best time of year to go.
Trip planners have to factor in not just summer and winter, as we think about it in the southern parts of Australia, but also the wet and dry seasons, pre-monsoon humidity and full-on blow-your-caravan-away monsoons, floods, cyclones, temperatures above 50C, and temperatures below zero – river crossings, wind, snow, how cold the water will be, will there be too much water, will there not be enough water? Which animals, flowers, birds will be around when?
Uluru in winter is not without its charm
So how do you line all this all up, and fit it in one trip? If you’re like us, you just take a hit or miss approach, zig-zag around and take forever to do it. When we started out on what we thought would be a year around Australia, we set out from Sydney in January with no set plan other than to stay south-ish for summer, and north-ish for winter. We stuck to that until South Australia when we decided to hang a right and head into the middle.
What we thought would be twelve months on the road, has turned into a lot longer. Because we spent a dry season in the Top End and the Kimberley and headed down the west coast, this meant we missed the dry season in Queensland. Which equals another year on the road (woo hoo!) But if you’re a bit more organised, and forward thinking than we were, there are probably more sensible, and seasonally and directionally efficient options.
Here are some lessons we have picked up on our Australian travels:
The Top Bit
If you’re heading north (imagine drawing a line across Australia right about the point where you suddenly get very wary about becoming a croc’s dinner – say a line from Port Hedland, WA to Rockhampton, QLD), you probably have places like the Kimberley, Kakadu, and Cape York on your must-see list. Dry season is the time to go to these places if you’re towing your home behind you, or if you want to tackle some of the unsealed roads and 4WD tracks.
In the wet and monsoon seasons, tracks like the Gibb River Road and Old Telegraph Track close, rivers rise and become un-drive-throughable (and get that extra bit croc-y…eek!), and caravans can get blown away. Seriously. Forget about it altogether if you’re in a camper trailer – a tent on wheels ain’t going to cut it in a far north cyclone. Although the wet season is truly spectacular and well worth checking out, it’s probably better for fly in fly out (FIFO) visits (and having walls) than camping. Caravaners, camper trailer-ers and tenters are going to want to be up there between May and October (give or take a few weeks at both ends depending on the severity and length of the wet season).
The Red Centre
The heart of Australia can be pretty harsh. Dry, hot, remote, with food and water supplies few and far between. The best time to head to the middle and see Uluru, Kata Tjuta, Kings Canyon, West and East MacDonnell Ranges, the Larapinta Trail and Alice Springs is May to August. Although it gets bone-chillingly chilly at night (bring your thermals), the days are usually sunny and great weather for walking through big rocks with little shade.
Cooling off at Red Gorge in the West McDonnell Ranges
The searing temperatures in November to February do not make for good walking weather – and most walks generally close by 9am for safety. May to August is also a good time to tackle the Oodnadatta Track and visit Dalhousie Springs. We went to those hot springs in March – silly us. It was 46 degrees outside and jumping into the 43 degree springs held no appeal whatsoever (other than perhaps to escape the swarming flies and locusts). We looked on enviously later in the year at those travellers who had timed it to perfection and showed off their pics of hot spring dips in the cool of winter. That said, getting to Alice Springs in March meant we got there at the best time to swim in the waterholes of the West MacDonnells. Later in the year it is too freezing, and earlier in the year there is very little water. I’ll add the Flinders Ranges in South Australia to an “avoiding in the heat of summer” list too – although not technically the centre – bloody hell can you get hot and bothered and really not feel like hiking if you turn up there in December, as we did. Lucky there are lots of pubs.
I’m not sure there’s ever a bad time to visit the west coast. It is beautiful and sunny and turquoise water-y all year round. I’m also not sure if there is ever a good time to avoid the gale forces that rage along the coast from Port Hedland down to Perth. The west coast will blow you away – literally. Ask anyone along that stretch if there’s a way to avoid the wind and they will say, “Why do you think it’s called WA – stands for Windy Always.” Again with the tent on wheels whinge, but we had major caravan envy at some particularly gusty beach camp spots. While our canvas was flapping away precariously, we looked on jealously as our neighbours escaped into their tin can fortresses of security. Just assume it will be windy any time that you plan to be there, hold on tight, and make the most of any calm patches in paradise. If, like many, you want to swim with a whale shark while you’re around Ningaloo, March to September is the best window for this.
Swimming with whale sharks at Ningaloo
South of Perth and around to Esperance. A quite delightful pocket of the country. The beaches are incredible, with Lucky Bay, in Cape Le Grand National Park claiming (and quite rightly so by my un-scientific and un-empirically tested analysis) to have the whitest sand in the world. The water takes a while to heat up down there and can still be a bit chilly in December, but then it stays warm(ish) until around April. If you’re there outside these months, you may just want to suck it up and jump in anyway. The water is oh so turquoise, and oh so tempting. You’ll be glad you did – the shivering and blue lips are temporary, the smugness of that Instagram shot in the crystal clear water is, well – that’s probably temporary too, because you’ll move on to more insta smugness before too long (perhaps with a shot from a Margaret River vineyard). Seriously, there is year-round insta smugness potential in this amazing part of the country. Beaches, cliffs, vineyards, old growth forests, tree walks, 4WD tracks – year round photogenic fun.
West coast beach camping
It’s a bit like the south-west, but with more people. Plus mountains and snow and some tricky driving and camping conditions that you need to be mindful of if you’re planning to be in the Victorian high country or Snowy Mountains between June and September. The Great Ocean Road is spectacular all year round, though there are fewer crowds in the colder months. Taking a pic of the Twelve Apostles can get a bit argy-bargy, elbow pushing-y, dodging busloads of tour groups when it starts to warm up. Oh, and there are whales galore – take your pick along the coast. Best time for whale spotting in Warrnambool, VIC is June to September, all the way round to Eden, NSW where they tend to hang around from August to November.
So much to do on this incredible island, and so few warm days to do it in. Be prepared for beanies and uggies weather at any time of the year, though January and February can actually be delightfully warm – some days. Just last week (in early Feb) it was 38 degrees in Hobart. Of course, it was forecast to snow on Mt Wellington a few days later. Ah Tassie #yourehotthenyourecold. If you’re heading to Tassie for some beach action (yes, there are awesome beaches) then summer’s your best bet – though if you’re bringing your car, book well ahead on the Spirit of Tasmania: it fills up quickly in those months. If you can handle some chill factor, there are mountains, rivers, hiking, fishing, wine tasting, whisky tasting, cheese tasting, all sorts of other tasty local produce tasting that can all be enjoyed well into the colder months.
A few more things to throw out there.
We found that often, arriving somewhere on the fringe of the “best times” was actually the best time. You can strike it lucky with the conditions and avoid crowds and peak pricing – bonus. On top of all this, be sure to check dates for the school holidays which vary from state to state. Also check for local festivals, shows, races, rodeos, mining conferences – sometimes you want to be around for them and join in the action, and sometimes you want to get the hell away from there. Small towns with limited accommodation, and large distances until the next town, can fill up pretty quickly when there’s something on.
Ok, got all that? You’re all set then. But wait, which way do you go? Do you stick to the coast for the big lap, or cut through the middle. Clockwise, anticlockwise or a figure eight? How do you fit in the Red Centre and Uluru without doubling up on the Stuart Highway? If you have a 4WD, and what you’re towing can handle dirt and off-road conditions, then that opens up a whole new set of options by making use of some “shortcuts” to cut diagonally through the country. The Tanami cuts from the Kimberley to Alice Springs. The Great Central Road - Australia’s “longest shortcut”, will get you from Uluru to Kalgoorlie. You can take the scenic route from Mt Isa to Alice via the Plenty Highway. Or if you’re really adventurous (BYO water – heaps of it) you can drive across the Simpson Desert - from Birdsville in outback Qld, to Mt Dare at the top of South Australia (and take a dip in Dalhousie Springs to wash off when you’re done).
Ah, the joys of trip planning around Oz.
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