To Travel Fast or Slow?

David Cook — 18 March 2019
We’re all tempted to head north as it cools off. But what approach will you take? Will you race to your destination or explore along the way?

As the seasons transition from the heat of summer to the cooler months of winter, the hearts of adventurous Australian campers begin to beat faster and their perspectives swing north and open out to encompass lands a long way past the horizon. This is a time to tighten the last of those plans that have been germinating over too much Christmas pudding and crowded beachside resorts down south.



BRUTAL NORTHERN SUMMERS

The summers in far northern Australia – well, pretty much anywhere north of the equivalent of the NSW-Queensland border – are just too uncomfortable for camper trailer or campervan living. That isn’t to say that there aren’t plenty of locals who spend many happy hours in campers around the Sunshine Coast or even farther north of that, but they’re locals, who don’t have to travel any distance to enjoy those places. If you have to tow a couple of thousand kilometres, driving past beautiful resort towns and remote national parks, why would you want to keep going into a world where the heat is much more intense, the rain heavier and the stingers even stingier?

The long-term average maximum temperature in January for Port Macquarie, about midway up the NSW coast, is 27.7 degrees Celcius; at Ballina it’s 28.4 degrees; at Noosa, in Queensland, it’s 29.1 degrees; and at Rockhampton it’s 32. 

And that’s along the coast. Take the inland route and the temperatures are much higher. At Tamworth, in NSW, the long term average maximum temperature in January is 33 degrees Celsius; at Moree it’s 34.2; at Roma, Queensland, it’s 34.5; at Barcaldine it’s 35.7; and at Mt Isa it’s 36.

And if the temperature doesn’t get you then the humidity will. From October on it starts to rise rapidly. In Mt Isa in mid-November the sweat is just dripping off your nose, steaming up your glasses and oozing stingingly into your eyes with any form of exertion. It’s fine sitting in your air-conditioned car, but any time you step outside into that blast furnace you’ll know why you should get back in and keep driving.


DREAMING FROM AFAR

It’s for these simple reasons that travellers from down south head back towards home from late September and early October and spend their summers in milder climates during the worst of summer. But through all that time of coping with the excesses of Christmas and the grandkids and the extended family, the brain is working overtime on places as yet unseen, or favourite spots that need another visit, or on finishing an area that had to be called off last time because of unseasonal rain or a flooded river or a bushfire. Maps are pulled out of drawers, travel atlases consulted, websites trawled, travel articles read and reread.

What starts out as casual chats as you get into bed with your partner develops into serious planning sessions around the dining room table, long conversations with other well travelled campers and the drawing up of bucket lists.

The camper gets its annual maintenance overhaul – bearings repacked, grease points lubricated, shock absorbers checked, brakes adjusted, gas struts and hinges cleaned and checked, gas bottles checked, canvas scrubbed down, bedding aired, bolts and nuts retightened, water filters flushed out, zips lubricated, and wheels rotated.


TWO SCHOOLS OF THOUGHT

One of the most critical factors for this northern journey is a start date. Depending on the distances to be covered this can vary widely.

There are two schools of thought. For some it’s a case of getting as much of the very far distant destinations ticked off that bucket list now, while the body will stand it. Simply getting to where your trip really starts can be a monumental task. Obviously each trip starts with that moment of excitement as your head out of your front gate and turn left or right, but if you are leaving, say, Melbourne, and you’re heading for the Kimberley, then the two or three thousand kilometres between your home and that first night in the actual Kimberley is simply padding, something to be bypassed as quickly as possible. For this type of person, who simply wants to reach the best immediately, clicking off 800-plus kilometres per day can be the norm. It’s exhausting but all forgotten as you pull into that campsite at Katherine and know that from here on life slows to a crawl and you have many days of soaking in the tropics and enjoying each and every little town or destination.

As you get older these trips can become harder. Not the leisurely end game, but those long transport stages – getting into camp late, leaving early, driving past enticing side roads to all manner of enriching attractions.

But for another cohort that sort of wild charge to the north is simply anathema. When this type heads out the front gate their first destination may only be 200 or 300km up the road, and every little town that looks to have a good bakery or a well set-up free camp on a river deserves a night or two. These are the people with time, and plenty of it, who might spend as much as a year on that Kimberley sojourn, but they’re retired or have taken a break from their career or life’s treadmill, often with the kids in tow, and set off to see as much of Australia as their funds and careers will permit.


A MATTER OF TIMING

For the former group leaving in mid-March is okay, but they know they will be contending with quite a few creeks and rivers that will still be in flood. It will mean that the crocs might be a little edgier and the mosquitoes and flies a tad more annoying. But they will also know that in those hectically popular spots the queues for camping spots will be shorter and will start an hour or two later each day. Entry fees will be cheaper, camp fees more tolerable and the crowds smaller. As for the resorts and attractions closer to home – they can be enjoyed in later years, as the body wearies of the long distance dashes.

For the latter group that big junket starts earlier, maybe in February, and they’ll be getting to those creeks when the water level is lower but the banks more churned up. They’ll have to use all of their tolerance and patience because the popular activities will sell out sooner, the campsites be filled earlier, and the crowds more annoying. No lonely swimming holes to be enjoyed without company for them.

Of course, there are a thousand other formats for the way you might want to tackle Australia – it is a big place after all – but whichever way you want to do it, especially in this age of climate change, the calendar will be your guide and the metronome of your great travel memories.