Do you dream of tackling a Big Lap on your next Aussie adventure but don’t know where to begin? As winter approaches, now is the time to plot your course, pack your bags and hit the road, and here’s how to make it happen.
In those dreamy moments when you picture yourself in the great Australian outback, are you floating beneath Kakadu’s Jim Jim Falls, hiking the Larapinta Trail through the Red Centre, or flying over the Bungle Bungle Range? Are you snorkelling with whale sharks on Ningaloo Reef, wining and dining in Margaret River, or canoeing with freshwater crocs on Lawn Hill Creek?
Big dreams start with a big map and a long list, so combine the two and you’ll start to discover just where your trip might take you. On your Aussie map, circle 10 places you‘ve always wanted to explore, then circle another 10 destinations hosting festivals, sporting events (think camel racing in Alice Springs) and natural phenomenon (mating sea turtles in Ningaloo Reef anyone?).
Whatever you are into – bushwalking, fishing, surfing, or diving – circle the top 10 places to indulge your passion. Now that you’ve identified your top 20 Aussie destinations, attempt to join them into some kind of Big Lap, making use of 4WD tracks if your vehicle will be off-road ready. Work out a good direction to travel in, taking into consideration your starting point and the best months to visit your top destinations.
Now ask yourself, what kind of camper am I?
The single biggest decision every Aussie traveller has to make is whether to choose an on- or off-road rig. 4WD vehicles offer the greatest flexibility and the reality is that there are many places in Oz that you simply won’t get to see without an off road ready rig (unless you fork out for pricey helicopter flights). If the road-less-travelled appeals and you yearn to tackle desert tracks or explore Australia’s remote national parks, think 4WD. It doesn’t have to be new, it just needs to be sturdy and well maintained and you’ll make considerable savings by buying second-hand.
If you don’t dream of rocking it off-road, you’ll save huge amounts of cash by buying a conventional set-up. Minimalistic couples who can handle the microcosm of small motorhomes and 4WD campers will find them economic to run and easy to park.
For space and comfort, caravans score points and can be easily unhitched when you want to explore and if you choose an off-road model, can go just about anywhere. Lightweight pop-top caravans are a particularly affordable choice, popular for their low profile and quick set-up, while camper trailers suit active travellers and families with the patience to set them up every night – rain, hail or shine!
My advice is to set a realistic budget and look at as many different rig configurations as possible – models, sizes, shapes and layouts. Browse Gumtree, eBay, local caravanning forums and other online buying sites, and if in the market for a small motorhome, consider ex-rental models that are regularly sold off at heavily discounted prices.
Whatever turns your head, look for features that will extend your time off the grid and save you money: solar panels already wired up, a good bank of new, deep cycle batteries, LED lighting, fridge-freezers with a high energy star rating, and unless you are travelling light, a large capacity holding tank for your toilet waste, and voluminous holding tanks for both fresh and grey water.
Being such an enormous, dynamic country, there is simply no way to arrive in every destination at precisely the best time on a Big Lap. You might want to avoid the far north during the worst of its humid, rainy wet season, but its thundering waterfalls, reduced crowds and cut-price accommodation make off-season travels suddenly appealing.
Once you actually hit the road, you can make big savings on daily fuel expenses by travelling slowly, covering shorter distances each day and staying longer to enjoy each destination and the company of other travellers you meet.
The single best way to save money is to free camp
The single best way to save money is to free camp, so if that’s a priority, look for travel routes with roadside rest areas, community campgrounds and low-cost national park campsites, and make the most of your self-sufficient rig.
Even if you don’t need to work along the way, many travellers keep their wallets full by volunteering as national park campground hosts in return for a free campsite during their stay. It’s a great way to really get to know a destination, meet lots of travellers and let the dust settle for a while. Prime hosting destinations are worth a detour; search national park websites, state by state, to find out more.
7 Top Tips for Free-living Travel on a Big Lap
Become totally self-sufficient
To maximise your time off the grid, stay longer away from holiday parks and save yourself big bucks, amp up your onboard power supply. Install as many solar panels as your rig needs (including a mobile panel that you can shift around to follow the sun), invest in a micro wind generator (perfect for moody off-season weather) and wire up a generous bank of deep cycle batteries.
Reduce your power drain by switching to LED lights, installing the most energy-efficient white goods you can afford, insulating your rig against the cold and heat, and replacing the seals on your fridge and freezer. To stretch your precious water supply, install low-flow taps and water-saving showerheads, and ensure your greywater tank is large enough to accommodate prolonged stays in free and low-cost camping areas.
Tap into free public WiFi
You can make huge data savings by seeking out free Wi-Fi zones as you travel, and putting off your daily Facebook fix until you hit those spots. On the Warlu Way in WA’s Pilbara region, free, solar-powered WiFi is available at 18 free overnight and day-use areas from Exmouth to Port Hedland and Karratha to Karijini National Park. Many towns across the country provide free public WiFi. Look for it in shopping centres, libraries, visitor information centres, fast-food outlets, holiday parks, restaurants, pubs, cafes and bars and save your data for truly remote destinations.
You’ll use up to 25% less fuel travelling at 90 km/h than 110km/h.
Sleep on the cheap
Free camping saves you money daily and Australia’s diverse network of free and low-cost rest areas, community camps and state forest campgrounds provide scenic places to stay. In some states, national park camps are a budget-busting choice: the NT charges a tiny $3.30-$6.60 per adult (half-price for kids and discounts for families too), in Queensland it’s $6.15 per person, Tassie’s blissful Bay of Fires allows free camping to up to a month, and you can still find freebies off the beaten track in NSW and Victoria too.
The best way to track down free camps is via a free camping app like wikicamps.com.au, or via your vehicle’s navigation unit (eg. Hema’s Navigator 7). Large holiday park chains such as Big 4,Top Tourist Parks and Family Parks offer 10% discounts to club members for fees of around $40 – $50 (2-year membership) and motoring association membership cards, seniors cards (www.seniorscard.com.au) and pension concession cards attract discounts too.
Take toys with you
Whether you know how to use them or not, hitting the road with a surfboard, kayak, snorkeling gear or bicycle on board will not only keep your entertainment costs down, but you’ll get healthy and have fun outdoors too. A fishing rod might reel you in a few free meals, and using a bike will keep your fuel costs down too.
Fuel is a major travel expense so squirrel away those discount vouchers and haul a couple of jerry cans to get you through those stretches of road where prices skyrocket. Although we love to hate them, the big supermarket chains offer great fuel savings, or better yet, use their vouchers at the independent servos. Similarly, stockpile lower priced food, spares and other supplies to avoid being hit with inflated prices off the beaten track.
In peak travel seasons, many national parks offer free, ranger-led activities and local community calendars are packed with rodeos, horse races, music festivals, art exhibitions, town shows and markets. These are a great way to meet locals and get a feel for each new destination while you squirrel away your cash to knock off another Big Lap bucket-list adventure down the track.