The best Sydney to Melbourne inland road trip route

Scenic detours off the Hume Highway

The best Sydney to Melbourne inland road trip route
By David Whitley

Most Australians fly between Sydney and Melbourne or take the Princes Highway along the coast. The alternative is a direct route inland down the Hume Highway, which is a 10 to 12-hour slog behind the wheel. However, by building in scenic detours and making the drive part of your trip, this Sydney to Melbourne route offers up much of what makes Australia great.

The route and driving times

Here are the stops on a Sydney to Melbourne inland route.

Sydney to Bowral in the Southern Highlands (1hr 20mins driving time)
Bowral to Canberra (1hr 50mins)
Canberra to the Snowy Mountains (2hr 30min)
Snowy Mountains to Beechworth (3hr 30mins)
Beechworth to Echuca (2hr 20mins)
Echuca to Ballarat (2hr 30mins)
Ballarat to Melbourne (1hr 25mins)

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Spot kangaroos in the Southern Highlands

Wildlife spotting in the Southern Highlands

The first deviation, around 90 minutes or so out of Sydney, should be to the Southern Highlands, where a wine and food trail can be put together alongside scenic back road forest drives. The town of Bowral, which greedily hoards gardens, heritage buildings and cafés, is a pilgrimage site for cricket fans. The International Cricket Hall of Fame is next to the famously picturesque ground where legendary batsman Don Bradman first wielded the willow.

Cricket aside, the Southern Highlands are also reliably good for spotting Australian wildlife. For that classic wild Australian kangaroo sighting, look for areas of open grassland with bushes and trees at the edge — golf courses are absolutely perfect, but campsites work too.

Wombats — adorably comical furry tank-like marsupials — are harder to spot, but can be found snuffling around at dusk, often around the same golf courses.

Aus Australian national war memorial in Canberra

Australian national war memorial, Canberra

Seeing Canberra’s cultural museums

An hour and a half from the Southern Highlands lies Australia’s capital, Canberra, which was built to a distinctive plan of many roundabouts and boulevards around an artificial lake. It can feel strangely empty at times, although the Braddon area is developing a hip reputation for dining and drinking — think artisan coffee, microbreweries and busy restaurants.

Canberra’s strength is its cultural collection, though. Parliament House, the National Gallery of Australia, the National Museum of Australia and the Australian War Memorial are all thoroughly absorbing. Get to the latter just before closing time, when a lone piper or bugler plays the Last Post in a simple, moving ceremony that gets hairs standing up on the back of the neck.

Should action trump museum-trawling, then hiring a bike to cycle around Lake Burley Griffin — detouring to see the architecturally outlandish embassies in the Yarralumla district — makes for an invigorating day out. Alternatively, get a different perspective of the city by taking a hot air balloon trip over it.

Canberra’s less-heralded strength is the countryside on its doorstep. The green, canopy-covered Namadgi National Park is home to several excellent bushwalking trails — and it’s the sort of place where you can easily find kangaroos bouncing along the road ahead of you.

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Mt. Kosciuszko, Snowy Mountains

Heritage towns and hiking in the Snowy Mountains

Despite the reputation for being hot and sunny all the time, Australia does get snow, with several ski resorts found in and around the Snowy Mountains. Peak season is July to September, although snow can be present for around a month either side, and snow chains are often required on cars during this period.

Do the trip outside these months and accommodation prices in ski resorts such as Thredbo can be bargains, while walks along alpine streams and meadows are considerably more pleasant. The big conquest of Australia’s continental summit — the 13km walk to the top of 2,228m-tall Mt Kosciuszko — is surprisingly easy-going. Much of it is along metal walkways designed to limit erosion, and it’s very much a walk rather than a climb.

The Alpine Way, which snakes through the mountains with several top drawer lookouts along the way, is a fabulous drive and leads to the New South Wales — Victoria border. Here, glimmering highland lakes and lumbering dairy cattle await, along with a series of heritage towns.

Of these, Beechworth feels the most lovingly preserved, with a 19th-century streetscape now filled with bakeries and cafes. This is also the epicentre of the Ned Kelly legend — walking tours from the Visitor Information Centre take in the prison cells, newspaper offices and pubs that feature in the story of Australia’s most notorious outlaw.

Aus Paddle Boat Billy Tea on the Murray River

Paddle boat on Murray River

Cruising Murray River and Australia’s gold rush

There’s more timewarp Australia to enjoy at Echuca, where paddle steamers depart from the long, wooden wharf for cruises along the Murray River. The Murray, Australia’s longest river, is the lifeblood the provides irrigation for much of the country’s best agricultural land. There’s a very good reason why rural Victoria has more than its fair share of quality restaurants and wineries — it’s a region that believes in living well off local produce.

The river cruises slowly trundle past groves of silvery gum trees, as a bonanza of bird life flits between the branches. It’s a scene Aussies would recognise as quintessentially Australian.

On the way towards Melbourne, the route enters the goldfields where, in the 19th century, huge fortunes were made. The city of Bendigo was where the biggest seams of gold were found, and the Central Deborah Gold Mine explores the gigantic hauls before taking visitors underground for a tour of the mining tunnels.

Ballarat, further west, wasn’t quite as lucrative, but it played a bigger part in Australia’s story. The Eureka Stockade, where miners dug in against police in a bid to win political representation, is seen as a turning point in the nation’s history. The Museum of Australian Democracy at Eureka does a good job of telling the story — and that of Australia’s transition from colonial backwater to first-world democracy. But the more entertaining interpretation comes at Sovereign Hill, where the evening show combines light, sound, indigenous beliefs and live-action across a sprawling recreated colonial mining settlement.

Sovereign Hill is an extraordinary place during the day, too. It combines reenactments and mine train rides with activities such as gold-panning and candle-making. Traditional crafts, most notably wheelwrighting, are practised here too — and as genuine businesses rather than just-for-tourists shows.

On the way into Melbourne, park up the car and take time to explore one of the grungy neighbourhoods that give the city its strong sense of urban cool. Footscray is up-and-coming, but Fitzroy, just north-east of the city centre provides the best introduction to what Melbourne’s about.

Handsome old pubs become live music venues at the weekend, vegan restaurants and artists’ markets congregate around Rose Street, street art murals adorn the side lanes and the eating options take on a global flavour, with dozens of cuisines represented within a single block. After a road trip that focuses on Australia’s nature, landscapes and heritage, this is the man-made, 21st-century flipside.

Aus graffiti artwork at Hosier Lane Melbourne

Street art decorating Hosier Lane, Melbourne

The best Adelaide to Perth road trip route

How to experience Australia's remote Nullarbor Plain

The best Adelaide to Perth road trip route
By David Whitley

The lure of the Big Nothing is strange, and by no means universal. Many will shudder at the thought of taking Australia’s most notorious drive; others will see crossing the Nullarbor Plain on the way from Adelaide to Perth as a quintessentially Australian challenge, and a humbling, epic adventure.

For those who want nature to make them feel small, and show them worlds with barely a sign of human influence, conquering the outback’s lonely highway quenches an almighty thirst.

Road versus rail is the first decision, and the experiences are very different. On the Indian Pacific train, the conquest is done in comfort, with lavish meals and complimentary drinks served on board while chugging across the Outback. There are also organised excursions built into the three-day ride, including dinner under the stars and a visit to the Nullarbor ghost town of Cook.

Going by road — and this is often cheaper done in a campervan than a car due to one-way rental fees — is considerably less pampered, although the first stages can lull you into a false sense of security.

Adelaide to Perth route and driving times

Where to stop between Adelaide and Perth

Here's where to stop on your Adelaide to Perth road trip.

Adelaide to Barossa Valley (1hr driving time)
Barossa Valley to Whyalla (4hr)
Whyalla to Port Lincoln (2hr 45min)
Port Lincoln to Baird Bay (3hr 10min)
Baird Bay to Ceduna (2hr)
Ceduna to Head of Bight (3hr 10min)
Head of Bight to Eucla (2hr 20min)
Eucla to Balladonia (5hr)
Balladonia to Kalgoorlie (4hr 10min)
Kalgoorlie to Perth (6hr 20min)

Aus Vineyard in One Tree Hill

Vineyard in One Tree Hill, Adelaide Plains of South Australia

Wine tasting in Barossa Valley and Clare Valley

Heading north from Adelaide, the Barossa Valley and Clare Valley line up like sirens determined to lead dedicated sailors astray. Two of Australia’s — and arguably the world’s — greatest wine regions have dozens of welcoming cellar doors, eager to host wine-tasting sessions.

The Australian way of doing wine tasting is arguably the best on earth. Most wineries will allow you to taste at least part of their range without charge, in the hope that you’ll like what you get and buy a bottle or two afterwards. There’s very little snobbery, although the cellar door managers will offer a little educational information as you go.

The two regions have different personalities. The Barossa is quite showy, specialising in big, bold reds, and playing host to some of the major international labels, although visits to the smaller wineries are often more rewarding. The Clare works the charm harder, is smaller scale, and has fewer wine tours available, with the star wines often being the Rieslings.

Aus cliffs near port lincon

Cliffs near Port Lincoln

Visiting the coastal regions of the Eyre Peninsula

Beyond the Clare, however, the endless plains of wheat abutting the dry outback kick in, and much of the Eyre Peninsula is farming country. The triangle-shaped peninsula is far more famous for its seafood than its cereal crops, however, and heading along the coast rather than ploughing straight across allows for a series of experiences to be built in.

In Whyalla, the tours of the gargantuan steelworks are weirdly fascinating, but Port Lincoln further south is the Peninsula’s most appealing hub. Known as the tuna capital of Australia, cruises head out to see the tuna farms and sea lion colonies — although the more adventurous can up the stakes with a shark cage dive. On dry land, the oyster farms in and around Coffin Bay are the highlights, with what are generally regarded as Australia’s best oysters available as fresh as they can possibly be.

The western coast of the Eyre Peninsula is more remote, but from the hamlet of Baird Bay, one of Australia’s most remarkable aquatic experiences is on offer. Two decades of trust-building have meant that the sea lion colony living here is happy flitting around playfully as humans snorkel alongside. They’re puppy-like and inquisitive, contentedly sharing their underwater home with flailing, splashing visitors.

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Sign for Western End of Treeeless Plain, Nullarbor Plains

The Big Empty — driving through the Nullarbor Plains

Ceduna, around 90 minutes northwest, marks the start of what can be regarded as the Big Empty. The true Nullarbor Plain comes around 300km further into the drive, but Ceduna provides the last drop of mobile phone signal for a few days, and it’s where the Nullarbor Links golf course starts.

This gloriously absurd project — 18 holes stretch 1,365km across the desert towards Kalgoorlie — is as much about keeping people interested as it is about keeping to the fairways. Most holes are outside the roadhouses that punctuate the drive every hour or two, with signs posted next to the tees explaining aspects of Nullarbor life.

The Nullarbor stretch can theoretically be tackled with one overnight stop, but realistically you need two. And because drivers have a choice of roadhouses to slot them in at, accommodation standards are surprisingly high. It’s usually simple but solidly decent cabins, plus pitches for campervans. Camaraderie builds at the bar at night, as the Nullarbor conquistadors share stories of roadkill and silly games invented to pass the time.

The surprising thing is how little such games are needed. The stops along the Nullarbor come with unexpectedly gripping oddities. There are the pink lakes near Cactus Beach, one of the world’s great remote surf spots. There’s whale watching from the cliffs at Head of Bight, where the visitor centre doubles as a fascinating museum about the Nullarbor’s wildlife and heritage. Eucla has the ruins of an old telegraph station and tales of the continent-changing telegraph line being built. And Balladonia has an exhibition about when it became home to an unlikely media scrum when the Skylab space station crashed nearby in 1979.

The landscape isn’t as flat and scrubby as many expect, either, particularly towards the western end where woodland takes over. But spending a few days crossing the Nullarbor has the effect of taking you out of the real world, to the point where getting phone signal in Kalgoorlie is jarring and almost disappointing.

Aus Head of Bight Nullarbor Plain

Head of Bight, Nullarbor Plain

Gold-mining and ‘super pits’ in Kalgoorlie

Going via the gold mining city of Kalgoorlie is the quicker, inland route to Perth, but there’s a coastal option too. This makes the back end of the trip a more traditional holiday, with impressive beaches and wildlife-filled National Parks around Esperance, whaling and World War I heritage in Albany, canopy walks and terrifying 65-metre tree climbs around Pemberton, plus caves, surf and wine around Margaret River.

Kalgoorlie, though, is different. Its star attraction is the giant Super Pit, where you can watch some of the planet’s biggest diggers spiral relentlessly into a deep cut hole. Elsewhere, museums and tourist mines tell the story of the gold rush, and the attempts to make life amongst the parched landscape workable.

One of these attempts — and a successful one — is one of the world’s great engineering projects. The 556km freshwater pipeline from Mundaring in the Perth Hills is a constant accompaniment along the side of the road on the way to Perth. It’s a symbol of man conquering the inhospitable Australian outback - and the perfect one to escort drivers coming to the end of their Nullarbor adventure.

Aus aerial view of Super Pit goldmine in Kalgoorlie

Aerial view of Super Pit goldmine, Kalgoorlie

Month-by-month

January, February and March are the hottest months of the year in the south of the country, with January, in particular, being when Australians hit the beach due to school holidays. It’s the heart of the wet season in the north — remote roads can be flooded out, but accommodation prices are low and waterfalls in full flow.

Up north, the wet season transitions into the dry during April and May. 4WD tracks to key sites in National Parks reopen, and jellyfish more-or-less disappear from the Great Barrier Reef. Down south, temperatures cool a little, while still being shorts and T-shirt weather most of the time. It’s a good time for bushwalking.

June, July and August are the winter months down south — the ski season kicks in for the Snowy Mountains, and big city temperatures can drop into single figures. Sea temperatures are a couple of months behind the land, though, so you’re good for a swim surprisingly deep into winter. Up north, it’s warm, dry and blue skies.

September and October are essentially springtime in the southern states. Weather is changeable, but warming up, with wildflowers exploding into life — particularly in Western Australia — and native wildlife becoming more active. In the north, the humidity starts to crank up.

The rains return in the north during November and December and tour, hotel and trip prices drop. But it’s prime time in the south, often hot without being unbearably so, and even fussy locals agree the sea is warm enough to swim in again.

Aus Brisbane Streets Beach in South Bank Parkland

Inner-city man made beach at South Bank Parkland, Brisbane

Events and holidays

The long, hot January days are accompanied by the Australian Open tennis in Melbourne and Australia Day festivities across the country on January 26. Expect plenty of fireworks.

February and March see the world’s second and third largest fringe festivals take over Adelaide and Perth, while the Mardi Gras parade in Sydney becomes a riotous celebration of all things LGBTQI+. Motorsport fans can also take in the Formula One Grand Prix in Melbourne.

April’s main event — the ANZAC Day commemorations on April 25 — is a more sombre, but hugely moving and community-spirited affair. There’s also Tasting Australia — a nationwide food festival.

In May and June, Sydney is illuminated with the Vivid light art festival, and the country’s sporting obsessions are on full display with the rugby league and Aussie Rules football seasons hitting their stride — the Grand Finals are held in October.

That’s also when the famed Bondi to Coogee coastal walk in Sydney, which also becomes a giant open-air sculpture gallery for Sculpture By The Sea.

In early November, Aussies use the Melbourne Cup horse race as an excuse for a boozy party, and revelry throughout December culminates in the New Year’s Eve celebrations. Again, the big cities blow serious budgets on fireworks.

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New Year's Eve fireworks display, Sydney Opera House

Australia's best road trips

David Whitley

David Whitley spent five years in Australia editing backpacker magazines and has visited twice a year since coming back to the UK. He works for major magazines and newspapers both at home and in Oz.

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