Sunshine Coast Birds

Birding and other wildlife experiences from the Sunshine Coast and elsewhere in Australia - and from overseas - with scribblings about travel, environmental issues, kayaking, hiking and camping.

Thursday, 16 October 2014

Camping Trip Around Australia 2014 - Tips, Highlights, Ups and Downs

Camping at Kings Plains National Park, NSW
Having successfully motored around Australia on our four-month camping trip, a few notes are offered on how to plan such a sojourn; to summarise ups and downs (mostly ups) encountered along the way; and to report some highlights, birding and otherwise.

The whole journey, from when we departed the Sunshine Coast on June 4 this year - my Subaru Forrester towing a campervan - to when we returned home on October 3, was planned carefully. I've long been a firm believer in travel planning. It saves an extraordinary amount of time and energy to know where you are going and have a fair idea of where you are staying. So first up, our route needed to be sorted out. I have travelled around Australia twice, hitch-hiking as a teenager the first time and spending five years doing it the second time (living in Adelaide, Alice Springs, Darwin and Perth along the way) so I had a good idea of where we wanted to head.

We opted to travel through western Queensland, across the top of the Northern Territory, continuing west through the Kimberley of Western Australia, then south to the Pilbara, the mulga lands and on to south-west WA. Our route would take us east from there across the Nullabor to South Australia, through the Eyre Peninsula to Adelaide, and on through the mallee of north-west Victoria to western and north-east NSW before returning home. Four months proved to be a good length of time for the task. We left out north-east Queensland, south-east Australia, Tasmania and Central Australia; to do any of them adequately would have needed more time.

 Bitter Springs, Mataranka, NT
One of us is a birder and the other a non-birder, so the first principle is to plan an itinerary that caters for both. I aimed to combine a fair smattering of birding hotspots and bush camping with a decent look at towns and cities and staying in caravan parks. We think it worked out fine.

Before leaving, I put together a list of places we wanted to visit and nutted out an itinerary, which we followed with a few variations along the way. I worked out travel times between destinations, using sites such as the RACQ travel planner ( I believe it is important to limit distances driven on any day and not to drive at night. The most driving we did on one day was 6-6.5 hours on just 3 or 4 occasions; often we drove for a comfortable 2 or 3 hours between destinations.

Nourlangie Rock, Kakadu National Park, NT
We thought it was desirable to spend at least one night at each destination to get to know the place, but we overnighted at a handful of places when long travelling distances required it. Mostly we had 2 or 3 nights at any given spot with longer stays in Darwin (one week - our longest stopover), Broome, Perth and Adelaide. We became adept at assembling and dissembling our Jaco Finch campervan, taking an average of 30 minutes to do either. At Karijini National Park (blog post here we chose to move camp because when we arrived, the only spot available was in a zone allowing noisy generators; when a generator-free spot became available the next day we shifted to it, taking just 45 minutes to complete the move.

Cambridge Gulf at sunset from Five Rivers Lookout, Wyndham, WA
On the subject of generators, they are a major disincentive to stay at designated free camping spots, such as those in Camps Australia Wide. We used the guide to help find 2 or 3 overnight spots out of the 122 nights we were away. These free camping areas are usually noisy, crowded, and close to busy highways; the guide can be a useful indicator of where not to stay. We found a couple of unmarked spots off the road for bush camping; one near Cue in the WA mulga was especially pleasant.

Wildflowers in the mulga - Yalgoo, WA 
While planning the trip, I researched the requirements and costs of camping in national parks in each state and territory. I checked out the prices of various caravan parks in towns and cities and used Trip Advisor to get an idea of their quality and position, so we had one picked out in each destination in advance. I often corresponded via email with caravan parks before we left. Although we were in the tropical north in winter, at the height of the grey nomad invasion (of which we seemingly were part) we needed to book ahead just once, for Broome.

Everywhere else, we simply turned up and were able to find a camping spot, electing mostly to take unpowered sites. Our campervan is connected to the vehicle by an Anderson plug which keeps the van battery charged and the fridge going while driving. We did not have television, air-conditioning or the like so our power needs were minimal and met by the battery and gas. Unpowered sites were usually considerably cheaper than powered, and often were more nicely positioned on the periphery of parks. We stayed in a motel just once – 3 nights in Margaret River – and had 4 nights with a friend in Adelaide. We spent $3,200 on accommodation – an average of $26 a night. National park camping fees varied between states; the $30-a-night charge for a pit toilet and nothing else in Victoria's Hattah-Kulcoyne National Park was outrageous.

Wandoo woodland at Dryandra, WA
Nor were camping conditions as crowded as we expected on the grey nomad trail. In Darwin, for instance, although the Lee Point Resort and Caravan Park was almost full, we had a reasonably private spot overlooking the bush. The exception was the cheek-by-jowl Tarangau Caravan Park in Broome, where the owners pack in as many as they can. (Fortunately some Brisbane friends had flown over to join us in Broome. They booked a motel room across the road, so we had a bolt-hole to escape to .) In southern Australia, as it was late winter, there were no hordes of grey nomads to contend with and on several occasions we were the only people camping.

Cape Arid National Park, WA
Petrol varied widely in price, and predictably was most expensive in such isolated fuelling stops as those on the Nullabor Plain and Barkly Tableland. The price went from $1.56 a litre in Mt Isa to $1.96 at Camooweal, a relatively short drive north. The most expensive petrol was $2.16 a litre at the garage at the turnoff from the Great Northern Highway to Purnululu (Bungle Bungles) National Park, WA. We intended to visit the park, staying at the Spring Creek Camp Ground near the entrance. However, we were told by camp ground staff that the Subaru would not be able to drive through the park as it was not 4-wheel-drive, and that we could be fined by national parks officers if we tried. We learned later that this was a ruse, with the aim of signing people up for expensive 4-wheel-drive tours, so beware if you go there. In any event, the camp ground was dirty and crowded, so we were happy enough to give the place a miss.
Incidentally, the Subaru proved perfectly capable of going everywhere we wanted to go, including some suitably bumpy roads.

Nullabor Plain, SA
We spent a total of $4030 on petrol, chewing up 2,444 litres – an average of $1.65 a litre. The cheapest petrol was on the way home in south-east Queensland. We had no mechanical problems with the vehicle and suffered just two flat tyres. Unfortunately they happened at the same time, at Kings Plains National Park ( in NSW. Apart from replacing the tyres and having a wheel alignment done at the time, the only vehicle repair costs on the trip were replacing the car battery and campervan battery, and servicing the Subaru in Perth – a total of $1300. Added to that are the costs of servicing the campervan and vehicle after returning. So not including food, alcohol and a few odds and ends such as museum and national park entry fees, the trip cost the two of us around $9,000.

Flooded River Red Gum, Hattah-Kulcoyne National Park, Vic
We worked around being in the Top End of the NT and the Kimberley at the height of winter, a sensible strategy to escape the cold but one which had us in south-west WA in early-August, a little earlier than the optimum time to see wildflowers at their best and to avoid the wet winters of that region. We were fortunate with the weather, however, being confined to the campervan by rain for just one of the 122 days we were on the road.

The weather in south-west WA was uncharacteristically mild and fine, and we enjoyed some quite spectacular wildflower displays, especially in the mulga lands and at Cape Arid. In Eyre Peninsula in SA we encountered some serious winds at times, particularly at Whyalla where we feared our little abode was going to be torn apart. The inland was usually cold at night though never severely so; the long johns and woolly gloves were left unpacked. Sometimes temperature fluctuations were startling – the thermometer dropped from 28 to 18 degrees in the space of an hour as we headed south into the Pilbara in WA.

I'm often asked for trip highlights. Birding highlights later but in terms of aesthetics and landscapes, I was blown away by the view from the Five Rivers Lookout at Wyndham (; the vast expanses of the Cambridge Gulf at sunset simply took my breath away. Another memorable sight was rounding a corner at Muirella in Kakadu National Park to see Nourlangie Rock glowing on the horizon, the sandstone massif reflected in the wetlands stretching below it. The fabulous Dale Gorge at Karijini National Park, referred to above, was another heart stopper. Karijini, by the way, was the only place where we paid a penalty for not carrying spare petrol; we would have liked to have visited other gorges in the park but did not have sufficient fuel.

Port Lincoln National Park, Eyre Peninsula, SA
We never tired of the stunning coastline of south-west WA – at Cheyne Beach, Albany, Walpole, Cape Arid (this national park east of Esperance was especially appealing ( and elsewhere – and of southern Eyre Peninsula in SA, particularly around Streaky Bay and south of Port Lincoln ( Cape Keraudren in the southern Kimberley ( was an unexpectedly beautiful stopover.

Darwin and Perth are former home cities of mine and it is a pleasure to revisit them; our week in Darwin was especially blissful. Smaller towns each had their own character and we enjoyed getting to know them a little as much as the cold beer and pub counter meals. (To avoid drink-driving, the proximity of pubs to caravan parks was a factor in our caravan park selections.) Among the towns we liked were Blackall in Queensland; Pine Creek in the NT; Kununurra and Wyndham in the Kimberley; Geraldton, Cervantes, New Norcia, Bunbury, Albany and Esperance in south-west WA; Port Lincoln and Whyalla in  SA; Mildura in Victoria and Broken Hill in NSW. Margaret River in south-west WA, surrounded by tall forests and beautiful beaches, is a stand-out in the town stakes.

Broken Hill and surrounds, NSW
On the subject of food, cooking while camping, while pleasant enough, can become a bit of a chore after a while. We generally avoided canned or frozen meals but tried to keep it simple so we did not waste time. We had a small Weber Q oven for frying and baking, and quite often made use of facilities such as microwave ovens in caravan park camp kitchens. Outside the van we had some pleasant culinary experiences - a duck curry at a hotel in Mt Newman and lobster seafood platter in Cervantes were especially memorable. Food costs varied hugely. A steak with chips and salad at Pine Creek, NT, cost $35; the same meal, with a bigger steak, cost $11 in Esperance.

If you like a drink, beware of the difficulties of purchasing alcohol in northern WA and the NT as authorities try unsuccessfully to put a lid on the indigenous drinking problem. Often we could not purchase cask wine or could do so only at certain hours (for instance, after 2pm in Katherine). Sometimes it was not possible to buy reasonably priced wine. For a bottle each of their cheapest reds and whites in a pub in Wyndham, we paid $46; the same wines at home would have cost $18.

Notwithstanding my pre-trip research, some caravan parks did not live up to expectations. The Norseman Caravan Park in WA was a rip-off at $38 a night for an unpowered site, especially when our view was the back of a shed and a pile of rubbish. Conversely, some parks were delightfully positioned and suitably private. Stand-outs were the Bathers Paradise Caravan Park in Esperance, WA; Coalmine Beach Caravan Park near Walpole, WA; Pinnacles Caravan Park at Cervantes, WA; Mataranka Cabins and Camping at Mataranka, NT; and the Discovery Tourist Park at Kununurra, WA.

Camp grounds in national parks also varied sharply in appeal. We were particularly impressed by the Congelin camp ground at Dryandra, and the camp grounds in the national parks of Karijini and Cape Arid in WA, Kakadu in the NT, Port Lincoln in SA, and Bald Rock in NSW.

Bald Rock National Park, NSW
We did not encounter problems with crime or harassment of any kind. We suffered no injuries or serious illness. We managed even not to lose anything. One serious hiccup was the collapse of the focusing function on my near-near Sony Cybershot 300 camera; I was without a camera for a week until my old Cybershot 200 arrived in the post from home. The only experience with a mildly scary twist was me running into a very large Saltwater Crocodile while birding the mangroves at Wyndham (

The trip is detailed in a series of 40 blog posts preceding this one. All up, we drove 19,999.3 kilometres in four months to complete the trip. And no, we felt no compunction to drive around the block for a few hundred metres to round it off.


I saw 441 bird species, 3 of which were lifers due to recent taxonomic splits: Nullabor Quail-thrush, Western Quail-thrush and Pilbara Grasswren. I tried though failed to see another potential lifer – Western Ground Parrot. I also saw a few races which are potential splits, notably the south-west WA forms of Rufous Fieldwren and Crested Shrike-tit. I was not after a big list and because I was not preoccupied with chasing ticks, I was able to indulge the pleasures of photography and reconnecting with birds I had often not seen in decades. We saw a total of 49 Wedge-tailed Eagles on the trip. Some of the birding highlights follow.

Hooded Parrot, Edith Falls, WA
Western Queensland. Plum-headed Finch at Blackall; Flock Bronzewing, Spinifex Pigeon & Grey-headed Honeyeater at Bladensburg National Park.

Rufous Owl, Kakadu National Park, NT
Northern Territory. Rufous Owl at Mataranka and Kakadu National Park; Hooded Parrot & Gouldian Finch at Edith Falls; Black-tailed Teecreeper, White-lined Honeyeater, Partridge Pigeon & Little Kingfisher at Kakadu National Park; Rainbow Pitta at Fogg Dam; Purple-crowned Fairy-wren at Victoria River.

Gouldian Finch - Wyndham, WA
Kimberley, WA. Star Finch, Sandstone Shrike-thrush, Buff-sided Robin, Yellow-rumped Mannikin & White-browed Crake at Kununurra; White-breasted Whistler at Wyndham, Broome and Cape Keraudren; Gouldian Finch at Wyndham; Great-billed Heron at Derby; (Asiatic) Gull-billed Tern & Black-breasted Buzzard at Broome.

Pilbara Grasswren - Mt Newman, WA
Pilbara-Mulga Lands, WA. Painted Finch at Karijini National Park and Mt Newman; Pilbara Grasswren & Spinifexbird at Mt Newman; Western Quail-thrush & Ground Cuckoo-shrike north of Cue; good numbers of White-fronted, Black & Pied Honeyeater in the mulga; Chiming Wedgebill at Yalgoo.

Western Whipbird - Cheyne Beach, WA
South-West WA. Musk Duck, Blue-billed Duck and other waterfowl in Perth; Rufous Treecreeper, Blue-breasted Fairy-wren and other SW WA specialties at Dryandra; Red-eared Firetail at Margaret River, Cheyne Beach and Walpole-Nornalup National Park; Rock Parrot at Cape Leeuwin and Cape Arid (and Lincoln National Park in SA); White-backed Swallow at the Pinnacles; Crested (Western) Shrike-tit near Walpole; Rufous (Western) Grasswren near Cervantes and at Cape Arid; Western Whipbird, Western Bristlebird & Noisy Scrubbird at Cheyne Beach; Hooded Plover & Cape Barren Goose at Esperance.

Malleefowl - Hattah-Kulcoyne National Park, Vic
South Australia. Nullabor Quail-thrush & Slender-billed Thornbill at Nullabor; Southern Scrub-robin at Lincoln National Park; Western Grasswren at Whyalla Conservation Park.

Redthroat - Broken Hill, NSW
Victoria. Malleefowl, Gilbert's Wistler & Chesnut Quail-thrush at Hattah-Kulcoyne National Park.

Spotted Quail-thrush - Bald Rock National Park, NSW
NSW. Redthroat & Chirruping Wedgebill at Broken Hill; Chesnut-rumped Heathwren at Kings Plains National Park; Spotted Quail-thrush, Red-browed Treecreeper & Superb Lyrebird at Bald Rock National Park.

Western Pygmy-Possum, Cheyne  Beach, WA
Mammal highlights included Western Pygmy-Possum at Cheyne Beach, and Southern Right Whale at Cheyne Beach and Cape Arid.


  1. Wonderful post Greg. We too are very much like you in that we plan the trip before hand. Especially if we only have a certain time limit. When we did the big trip - 1999-2004 (5 years long) - we had no plan, just went with the flow. We travel in a bit more comfort than you, but unlike you, only ever stayed in a caravan park when in the capital cities. We have always free camped with the exception of a couple of National Parks. We do have a generator though very rarely use it. And when we do, we are always somewhere down a track where no one else is. I agree with you .. they are so noisy. Our roof was all solar panels. I thought you both were serious birders so was surprised to find it only you the birder and not your partner. So you did extra well to keep him amused in towns that might take his fancy. Loved the post. Jude

    1. Thanks for that Jude. Yes one becomes quite a hand at looking after the interests of non-birding companions. Plenty of experience. Greg

  2. Thanks for this final post I have found the whole trip blog list very informative and entertaining. Gave me very itchy feet !!! Thanks again, Moyra