Road Trippin’ Down Under: An Unexpected Journey

Our Aussie wheels
Our Aussie wheels which we christened Kerri-Anne

One of the most popular ways to travel Australia is in a hired campervan. Here’s an account of the two weeks I spent driving up the east coast with my elder sister, Sophia.

Collecting the van did not go smoothly. We had hired a ‘Hippy’ campervan which was painted with purple flowers – dreadfully girly paint job. It was a pretty compact vehicle which I hoped would make it both easier to manoeuvre and harder to crash. It was 11am when we arrived at the rental office, and 4pm when we finally drove away in our new wheels. The service was appalling (to say the least) and there were a lot of people waiting in a four hour long queue to collect the vans they had hired. We were not happy bunnies. Add to this the fact that I had been out in Sydney the night before and gotten only four hours of sleep, I didn’t really enjoy sitting in an office with no food and being ignored for five hours. They compensated us all of $15 to make up for wasting our precious holiday time. Wonderful.

Eventually we got the van and drove off. Getting out of the city took longer than anticipated, mainly due to the lack of a decent map. We had decided to go old school and use printed maps to navigate the country rather than a smartphone or GPS. I think map-reading is a dying skill and I liked the idea of doing it the old-fashioned way. We were hindered in this decision when we discovered we had been given a book of maps from five years ago which proved to be hopelessly out of date. Fantastic.

Road trippin’ soundtrack: this was when we discovered the radio in the van didn’t work and cut out every couple of minutes.

The Three Sisters at the Blue Mountains
The Three Sisters at the Blue Mountains

When we finally made it out of Sydney, we set off to the Blue Mountains. It was about a two hour drive to get to Katoomba, the main town in the region. By the time we arrived it was getting dark, thanks to our rental company, so we showered, had some food and got a really early night ready to make the most of the next day. After a rocky first night sleeping in the back of Kerri-Anne we rose early in the morning and headed to Echo Point, a set of viewing platforms from which you can take in the beautiful Jamison Valley and the Three Sisters rock formation. It was stunning, and we spent a great day bushwalking around the mountains and taking in many striking landscapes.

Our next stop was the Hunter Valley wine region. The journey here was eventful, to say the least. We set off around 4pm, hoping to arrive by about 6pm to the town of Cessnock. We in fact arrived in the dark at 8.30pm after I had driven for four straight hours without a break.

By this point on the trip, I had noticed a few things a bit off with our van. I had a real problem getting it shifted into 3rd gear, which as you can imagine causes some issues while tootling along at 40km/hour and not in any gear whatsoever. The brakes appeared reluctant to work as well – by which I mean they didn’t really work at all. At one point I attempted an emergency stop to really test them out. I slammed my foot down on the pedal and Kerri-Anne vaguely slowed down a little bit. It was a tad worrying to say the least. My solution to these issues was swearing loudly at the van when it won’t go into gear, and leaving a LOT of braking distance between myself and the car in front at all times.

'DELAYS EXPECTED' - you don't say
‘DELAYS EXPECTED’ – you don’t say

Anyway – the nightmare journey to Hunter Valley. It started off well as we headed out on a main road. We were supposed to take a left turn to continue on the main road to Cessnock, but somehow we missed it and I was going to turn around but the map suggested we could take the next turning and it would also take us in the right direction. It seemed more of a minor road, but I thought it would be ok. It turned out to be the windiest road ever, up and down mountains. At this point a huge storm broke. Driving along bumpy, twisting roads with sheer drops to one side in the rain does not make for a quick journey. Soon we got out of the mountains and everything seemed better. Then the road ended at a lake. I was confused and about to turn around, when my sister pointed out a car ferry coming across the water. How I laughed when I realised we had to get on a ferry to continue our journey! Another hour and a half in the rain and dark took us to our destination, where the hostel we wanted to stay at was locked up for the night and we had to get some French people to let us in just to use the bathroom before sleeping in the van.

Road trippin’ soundtrack: Fleetwood Mac Greatest Hits. Even this beauty couldn’t stave off my driving angst.

After indulging in too much wine, drinking games and deep conversations in Hunter Valley, we next drove back to the coast and headed north to Port Macquarie for the night. It had decided to rain the entire day we were driving up, so since going to the beach was out of the question we decided to stop off the Billabong Koala & Wildlife Park. It was pretty fun in there actually. We got to see lots of cute koalas in their breeding centre and stroke one of them. There was a whole section of wallabies and kangaroos that you could feed and pet. A lot of wallabies had tiny joeys in their pouches which were adorable. After killing a couple of wet hours here we headed back to the van to find a place to sleep. This was when we discovered I had left the headlights on and we had a flat battery. Great. Luckily, Sophia ran inside and found a lovely Aussie bloke who helped us jump start our van and get on our way. By this point I was really starting to dislike Kerri-Anne and all the trouble she was causing.

Happily taking snaps of koalas, unaware of the bad news awaiting me outside
Happily taking snaps of cuddly koalas, unaware of the bad news awaiting us outside

After a night in Port Macquarie the sun finally decided to grace us with his presence. We spent an hour on gorgeous Flynn’s beach in the morning, then headed up the coast to our next destination, Coffs Harbour. I was going to revisit some of my old blueberry picking chums there. I had read about a route called the Waterfall Way, which was a scenic drive we could incorporate into our trip north. We turned off towards the towns of Bellingen and Dorrigo. The sun was shining and the road was pretty spectacular. It was all idyllic farms, rolling hills and the incredible purple blossom of the Jacaranda tree. We drove all the way to Dorrigo, where we stopped for a mediocre lunch. Then we had a gander at the map – it seemed we could continue down another, smaller road to get to Coffs. You’d think I would have learned my lesson about the minor roads by now, but no – we decided to take the alternative route.

Just your average gravel path through the Australian rainforest
Just your average gravel path through the Australian rainforest

It started as a narrow one-lane road through the countryside, but things soon changed. The road we were taking was shown as a dotted line on the map and we soon found out why. The country lane became a rough gravel path through the Dorrigo National Park rainforest. For 20km. It was stunningly green and lush – we felt like we were in Jurassic Park or something. But the driving was tough. I rarely got above 2nd gear and there was usually a scarily sheer drop to one side, plus lots of hairpin bends. We saw some amazing old trees and a wild wallaby. We didn’t see another car until we’d finally got off the gravel, out the rainforest and back into the real world. It was certainly an adventure.

Road trippin’ soundtrack: soul classics and Dirty Dancing Original Soundtrack. Don’t judge, it suited the rainforest!

Once we made it to Coffs we decided to stick to the main road from then on, saving time as well as petrol. The trip had been pretty eventful so far but we weren’t in the mood for much more drama. It had been fun exploring the country on our own steam rather than being restricted to the Greyhound route, but I found the driving pretty tiring and was undeniably glad to see the back of our deathtrap, Kerri-Anne, once we got to Brisbane. I would recommend doing the campervan thing in Australia as it is convenient and you have much more freedom. Two weeks is probably enough, though.

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