Australia’s beaches and sunshine, its spectacular red centre, and the outdoors lifestyle all combine to make it a top travel destination; the huge size and open roads make it prime road trip territory, and its participation in the working holiday visa scheme means it attracts huge numbers of backpackers. All this means it’s well geared-up for overland travel – although actually getting there in the first place will involve flying in the vast majority of cases.
Travel to / from Australia overland
Being an island nation without any near neighbours, you can’t reach Australia overland. Of course, by the same token Australia is surrounded by water and arrival (or departure) by ship is possible – but not by regular passenger ferries, as there aren’t any.
If you want to travel to Australia by sea, there are basically three options – cruise ship, cargo ship, or private yacht. Cruise ships are the most expensive, but by far the easiest to arrange if you have the budget; I’m sure it’s a nice way to travel, though I’m yet to experience it.
The other two are a bit harder to set up, requiring significant planning (and funds) to land a berth on a cargo ship, and good timing / good luck to score a spot (as a paying passenger or as a crew member) on a yacht. In the case of cargo ships, while some do have berths for paying passengers, it doesn’t seem to be all that common and most ships don’t take passengers. For those that do, you can contact them directly through their company websites (like here and here) or book through specialist cargo cruise travel agents (like this and this) – you need to do this months ahead of your desired travel time, as available berths and departures are limited. The going rate seems to be around 100 to 150 US dollars per day, and obviously with passage to Australia from Asia taking weeks this isn’t exactly a cheap option – but then, considering that it essentially covers all food and accommodation costs, it doesn’t seem too bad as long as you find the time on board to be a good travel experience and time well spent rather than wasted.
Personally, I would love to travel by cargo vessel at least once – those enormous hulks are incredible and it would be pretty cool to be onboard, to see how they look and work inside, to see the daily lives of the crew, and to experience the pace of life aboard ship. Even more than that, I find the workings of global freighter trade fascinating – all those ships, all those containers, all filled with so much stuff, all going here, there, and everywhere… all those ports and docks and their workers running to and fro every day, loading and unloading all that stuff to send it on further, here, there, and everywhere by rail and road… first seeing new lands not as a miniature patchwork out of a plane window, but as the cliffs and towns of a rugged coastline; and first arriving in new lands not in the sterile confines of an international airport, but in the nitty and hustle and gritty and bustle of a container port.
I did actually once attempt to arrange passage on a cargo ship (carrying shrimp) sailing from Cairns to Merauke (Papua, Indonesia); myself and two friends went to the docks in Cairns and asked around, and eventually met a heavily tattooed, wild-eyed, foul-mouthed seaman from New Zealand who I can only describe as a complete character – one of the most louder-than-life individuals I’ve ever encountered – who thought his ship might be able to take us. He took us to meet his captain, who explained that they couldn’t legally take us unless we were crew – but that as it happened he was looking for a chef for their next sailing. My Irish friend almost took that position, until it was made clear that he wouldn’t be allowed ashore in Merauke and would also be required to sail back on the return leg. So that didn’t work out, but it was pretty cool getting a tour around their ship (just a small one by container ship standards though, not one of the behemoths) and listening to this madman’s stories… we then went for a few beers with him, but as he was getting louder and scarier with every beer we said our goodbyes before he could combust into a 1-man bar fight, went and bought a load of fresh fish from the dockside wholesale market, and took it back to the hostel for a barbecue. It was a pretty cool day out in Cairns in the end, but I reckon that any attempt to randomly find cargo ship passage like that will end in similar failure – you do need to get it all arranged well in advance through the good old internet.
It seems that the departure points for a cargo ship journey to Australia are not the nearby islands of Indonesia, but the major Asian ports like Hong Kong and Singapore, or from California for the full trans-Pacific crossing.
Finally, there’s the yacht option. Some yachts will take paying passengers, but it’s more common to pay your way by working as a deckhand. For yachts to Australia, it seems the best bet is to travel to Indonesia and look for a yacht sailing from Bali; the main yachting routes around the world are generally done in specific directions at specific times of year, so your timing needs to be right.
I’ve read reports of travellers rocking up at the Bali marina and finding boats almost immediately, but those seem to be the lucky exceptions; others report knocking around in Bali for weeks with no joy and then giving up / running out of visa time. Perhaps the best way to go about this, though, is to set it up through findacrew – this website allows captains to advertise for crew for upcoming crossings, and through it you can get things set up in advance instead of winging it at the marina.
A word of caution though – two British co-workers of mine in Canada had attempted to travel from England to Vancouver overland, and having made their way by train down to southern Spain and then by ferry out to the Canary Islands, they sailed all the way across the Atlantic as crew on a yacht arranged on findacrew… only to be promptly arrested upon arrival in Antigua for not having the correct yacht crew visa and deported back to the UK by air and at their own expense! Obviously that’s Antigua and not Australia, but if you manage to secure passage this way make sure you have whatever paperwork you need and don’t find out the hard way.
For more information and ideas for reaching Australia overland and sea (especially if the UK is your starting point), Seat 61 has a good page you should check out.
Travel around Australia overland
A continent-sized country with vast distances, wide open spaces, lots of wilderness, good roads, and not so many people; Australia is dream road trip territory. The east coast is by far the most heavily populated part of the country, but for long-distance driving elsewhere you need to make sure you have enough fuel, enough water in your engine, enough water and food to survive a while if you break down, and generally know what you’re doing out there. Two friends of mine bought a car to drive to Alice Springs and Darwin, and had a high speed collision with a kangaroo in the middle of the desert; thankfully they were both fine, but it was curtains for both car and kangaroo. They stood there for hours until they could flag down a bus, and the car had to be left to rust (you see quite a lot of them lying around out there – and quite a lot of dead kangaroos and dingos too).
Various bus companies connect all the major cities, and there’s the famous Oz Experience bus providing hop-on hop-off buses for backpackers. I did a mix of car and bus (plus a couple of domestic flights), the buses were comfortable and worked just fine but obviously the road trips by car were way better. Do the latter if you can! These days you can book online for major bus routes, see here.
Trains are also an option, though Australia’s long-distance railroads are pretty underdeveloped and aimed more at scenic railway tourism than regular rail transportation. The most famous routes are the Ghan from Adelaide to Darwin right up through the middle of the country, and the Indian Pacific from Perth to Sydney. These trains are slower than driving and way more expensive than the bus, but they would surely be a great way to see the Outback.
If you’re heading to Tasmania, you can get there by sea using the Spirit of Tasmania ferries from Melbourne, taking around 10 hours (unfortunately I didn’t get to do this as I went to Tasmania with friends who were on a tight travel schedule, so my overland instinct had to be suppressed and we flew). This can be booked online here (in addition to various shorter crossings to the islands off Western Australia, Queensland, etc).
Things to do in Australia
Do some trekking – we did the Overland Track in Tasmania, and it was awesome.
Experience the dubious joys of hostel life.
Scuba diving. The Great Barrier Reef is the big draw, but the best dive I did in Australia (and perhaps the best dive I’ve done full stop) was the incredible SS Yongala shipwreck located off the Queensland coast in the vicinity of Townsville.
Uluru (Ayer’s Rock) – Australia’s most iconic natural feature and of great spiritual importance to the local tribes, Uluru is usually visited on a bus tour or road trip from Alice Springs also including Kata Tjuta.
Enjoy the cafes, restaurants, and cocktail bars of Melbourne.
See the famous Sydney Harbour with its iconic bridge and opera house, and visit the city’s beaches – Bondi is the most famous, but Manly is a good call as you can get there on a ferry across the harbour and enjoy some great views en route.
Go on a self-drive tour around wild Fraser Island.
Go sailing in the Whitsundays and spend three miserable days puking your guts out or watching a boat full of other people puking their guts out. Seriously – most backpackers do this and it is very pretty indeed, but if you get seasick don’t sign up and pay your money unless you know the forecast is for good weather and calm waters.
Resources and Useful Links for Visiting Australia
Search Agoda for hotel deals in Australia.
Book bus tickets online here.
Flexible travel insurance from World Nomads, especially useful if you’re already overseas (this can be an important point, as I once found out the hard way in Bangkok). If you’re going scuba diving, make sure your insurance policy includes scuba diving cover; ski bums, check out their snow sports cover.
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