I Traveled Around Australia in a Van, and Here Are 10 Things I Learned
As my dog Tilly and I set off on our indefinite van adventure I had no idea it would be the most challenging but rewarding experience of our lives. Of my life. We headed west and followed Highway 1, which completes an entire lap of Australia. “Vincent Van Go,” the name given to my van by a friend, became our shelter from the harsh Australian heat and a place for new and old friends to share stories — it was our home. It became a place filled with amazing memories, heart-warming laughter, music — both man-made and from nature, and also soul-healing tears.
My name is Ash, and this is the story of my van trip around the strikingly beautiful countryside of Australia.
Today I’ll be telling Bright Side readers about this journey of both geographical and self-discovery, and the things I learned along the way. Be sure to read through to the end to find out what I wish I knew beforehand, and watch a short video of the trip.
1. A small space requires very little imagination to be used efficiently.
Some vans come with plenty of built-in storage-space, however I retrofitted an old delivery van to meet my requirements. I’m pretty tall, so I chose a bed long enough to fit me and my doggo, and also high enough to slide large storage boxes underneath. This solved the issue of storage perfectly for a solo traveler. Mind you, Tilly’s food took up an entire storage box!
I also put in a vintage storage box made from reconditioned wood, which had 3 functions — give the van an aesthetic boost, storage for my clothes, and provide an extra seat for van gatherings. As for water, I made sure to keep plenty of it, which I’m glad I did, as you’ll find out.
2. There’s a lot of driving, so I made sure I had the world’s longest playlist!
It became apparent to me pretty quickly that Australia and its towns were very spread out, with long drives. Unfortunately my co-pilot/navigator Tilly doesn’t have her license, so I had to do all the driving.
We followed Highway 1 (pictured below), which is 14,500 km / 9010 miles in length and is located pretty close to the coast. I ended up driving almost 23,000 km / 14,291 miles, with all my added “side-journeys.” In one section, where we diverted from Highway 1, we traveled down into the “red center” from Darwin, and experienced not only the hot dryness, but charm of central Australia.
The west coast of Australia is far more spread out in terms of distance between towns, compared to the east coast, so I made sure I planned my fuel stops and had enough supplies in case we got stuck in the middle of nowhere. Also, the more remote we traveled, the more expensive the fuel was.
I certainly became very familiar with my Spotify playlist by the end of the trip! I would love to hear what everyone else does to entertain themselves on long road-trips.
3. Australia has some of the most spectacular scenery in the world.
Despite the many hours of driving, the road took us to some miraculously wonderful places. We wandered through magical rainforests, walked the endless pristine beaches, climbed towering mountains, swam in refreshing waterholes, camped in remote bushland, and witnessed the brightest stars in the desert night sky—each ecosystem as magnificent and unique as the last.
Above, Tilly is overlooking the Bunda Cliffs which run alongside the Great Australian Bight. Stunning!
Here’s a fact for you: there are 10,685 beaches in Australia, and it would take you more than 27 years to visit every single one if you were to visit one per day. There’s even a beach called Ninety Mile Beach, and yes, it really is that long! It’s worth a visit, but we were only able to visit a short section of it.
The beach pictured in my selfie above is called Wineglass Bay and it’s in Tasmania’s Freycinet National Park. Being there took my breath away. From the steep climbs to its spectacular beauty, it truly was a place where I felt my soul being refreshed through the power of nature.
We found this stunning rock formation in Litchfield National Park in a place called The Lost City, situated in the Northern Territory, not far from Darwin.
The above photo was taken at Mary Pool in Western Australia. A perfect place for Tilly and myself to recuperate after a long, hot drive. And go for a swim!
There are too many places to recommend visiting in one article, but here are few:
4. You’ll discover some of the most diverse wildlife (and they’ll probably cross the road in front of you).
Depending on where you are in Australia you’ll discover kangaroos, emus, wallabies (pictured below), koalas, wombats, echidnas, crocodiles (northern Australia), and thousands of stunning bird species. You’ll likely hear a kookaburra laugh, a koala grunt, and if you leave food out at night you might have a visit from possums or even dingoes.
While driving, there are many sections of road without fences and chances are, as I experienced, you’ll have every type of animal cross the road in front of you.
The Nullarbor Plain run alongside the Bunda Cliffs, which form part of the Great Australian Bight. It is here, toward the eastern end, where the endangered Southern Right Whale breeds during winter—and this is a sight to behold. Around Australia, depending on which beach or reef you snorkel at, you’ll encounter a myriad of wildlife from different species of fish species to seals, dolphins, whale sharks (pictured below), turtles, and many other wondrous ocean creatures.
As a worldwide traveler, people often ask—"Aren’t there deadly snakes and spiders everywhere in Australia?" This is an overstatement that needs to be addressed as it depends where you are, and mostly they just run away from you if you disturb them. If you’re unlucky enough to be bitten by a snake, immobilize the limb and try to remember what it looked like so you’re able to tell the medical staff and so they can get you the specific anti-venom. That said, they could also take a sample of the venom from the bite and figure it out from there.
But this shouldn’t dissuade you from the many incredible walking trails that are so worth exploring!
I also found it a good idea to bring an extensive medical kit with immobilization bandages. You can learn more about snake bite first aid here.
5. You’ll meet some intriguing and incredible people, and make life-long friends.
Traveling by van is pretty common in Australia, particularly on the popular east coast, where the larger cities are closer together. Whichever town I was passing through, there were travelers and locals alike willing to share their time and stories.
Along the long and lonely Nullarbor I met an older gentleman who shared his story of post-traumatic stress and how travel soothed his soul. Much like my own story.
On the Margaret River, in Western Australia, I sat around a fire chatting to sheep-shearers about life and we even discussed veganism amicably.
At Lake Argyle I met a lovely couple from Austria who showed me photos of their hometown during the summer and winter, and I remember finding the stark differences astounding.
In Darwin I met a conservationist, in central Australia an Indigenous Elder, and in Cairns a group who go fruit foraging to help save money.
I picked up hitchhikers in Tasmania who had traveled all the way across the world in this way.
I fell in love, my fickle heart mesmerized so easily by the kindness and affection of another.
I made many friends in the main cities dotted around Australia who took me and Tilly in, and we will be forever grateful for their generosity and the reminder of the comforts of home.
It didn’t take me long to realize that every stranger was just a friend I hadn’t met yet.
6. But sometimes you’ll be by yourself for days or weeks.
Being alone can be frightening at times, but also empowering.
I prepared myself with supplies, a camp kitchen, plenty of books, and enough water to last me at least a week or 2 should the need arise. I brought a first aid kit with all the essentials, and I was confident that my medical knowledge from working as a paramedic would come in handy if required. I was also aware that one of the reasons I chose to do this trip was to escape the traumas I’d witnessed in this very job.
One significant thing I learned was that there really is no escaping the emotions that run deep within you, especially when you’re alone, away from friends and family, and disconnected from the distracting online world. I mean, getting out into nature is healing in itself, but quieting my mind brought up those repressed memories and my demons, and I was forced to face them. I experienced the full spectrum of human emotions and I don’t regret any of it.
Perhaps it was the long drives where all I could do was ponder life and existence. Perhaps it was sitting quietly alone on a beach or in a forest. Or perhaps it was the beautifully complex mash-up of the entire van-life experience, but I know for certain it left an indelible mark on my heart and changed my world-view forever.
7. A van is great for freedom and ease of travel.
One of the most alluring aspects of traveling by van is the freedom you have. My rough plan went something like this — “Head west, and go from there.” I had an idea of the places I wanted to visit, and a flexible timeline. Not everyone has this level of flexibility, so it’s great to have some sort of a plan.
That said, many times I had planned on reaching a certain town or campground, but stumbled across somewhere I found so stunning or unique that I ended up staying, occasionally for days.
Traveling by van is like having your own little home and Australia has thousands of places you can park, often for free. I used WikiCamps and campground books to help find free camps, most of which had some form of facilities. Bathing in the ocean or a river is nice, using chemical-free soap of course, but on the occasion that I wanted more facilities, I would stay in caravan parks. Some towns were “RV friendly,” others weren’t, but I never found it very difficult to find a place to park for the night.
Here are some of the basics that I found made van travel easier and cozier:
- To charge my laptop and phone, I had a second long-life battery, which I could recharge with a portable solar panel.
- To wash my clothes I’d use laundromats, or hand-wash if I was in a remote location.
- For food, I stacked my storage boxes with non-perishables. I had a small ice-box for perishables, which I would replenish when I could. Being vegan meant I didn’t need to worry about keeping meat products fresh. Oftentimes, especially on the east coast, I’d stop at randomly located fresh produce stands on the side of the road. I’d also try to find local farmer’s markets, which are great places to meet the local residents and find out some tips.
8. Vans are also great for festivals.
Since I’m a big fan of music festivals, I planned my trip to coincide with 2 of my favorites — Falls Music and Arts Festival and Blenheim Music and Camping Festival. Unfortunately no animals are allowed at these festivals, so Tilly had to stay with friends. It was hard to leave her after so long, but anyway... Falls Festival is in various locations around Australia, and I chose Marion Bay in Tasmania.
As for Marion Bay, not only is the location spectacular and the music mind-blowing, but the people we met were incredible. The van became a meeting point and also a place for shelter when it rained. We even ended up having a talented musician (Elijah Hewitt — pictured above) play for us on one rainy night.
I’ve been to many music and camping festivals, and having a van with a proper bed and some home comforts made it so much more enjoyable.
9. Naturally, some days will be tough.
Halfway across the Nullarbor, one of the longest stretches of road with limited resources and little to no phone reception, was precisely where we encountered our first issue with the van. It was a very hot day, so I had planned to continue driving until dark, with the air-conditioning on to keep Tilly cool. That was until I noticed my temperature gauge all the way up so I had to pull over immediately. Luckily we were able to park underneath some trees and find some shade far enough off the road that I could let Tilly out and about.
It was obvious there was a coolant leak, but I couldn’t figure out where it was. Meanwhile, a swarm of bees flew into my van and straight to my large fresh water tank. It took me ages to get them all out, without hurting any of them—they’re vital little beings, bees! I ended up using a “stop leak” fluid and drove slowly throughout the cool of the night to the nearest mechanic (approximately 500 km / 310 miles).
This was the first of luckily only a couple of mechanical breakdowns. For myself, as previously mentioned, I had my own breakdowns. Being far away from my friends and family, my comfort zone, and confronted by my darkest demons, I was challenged to the core fiber of my being. I filled many journals with my thoughts, and spent many tear-filled nights reading all the sweet messages friends had written on the inside of my van before I’d left Adelaide and from people I’d met along the way.
Despite being alone, these messages helped me through the darker days, and I was able to enjoy the vast majority of the beautiful country of Australia. Also, a big shout-out to Tilly — my little black dog who kept me company and helped me fight off the big black dog of depression.
It was out there, on the open road, in the stark wilderness, lost in the midst of the time and space, that I found myself. And it is something so beautifully unique and wonderful I hope everyone has a chance to experience it.
10. Here’s what I wish I knew beforehand and what I would do differently next time.
For starters, I wish I lived in this incredible tiny-home on wheels, pictured above. The man living in it even had his own herb garden inside!
Anyway, allow me to dream a little longer... I was pretty happy with my minimalist set-up, but there were a few things I needed to buy along the way, and other items I wish I had had:
- Mosquito net — I knew it’d be hot up north, but some days the humidity was almost unbearable. Plus the flies and mosquitoes became a nuisance, so I ended up placing netting over the bed and sleeping with the side and back door open to catch a cross-breeze.
- Camp shower and toilet — many larger vans and motorhomes have these facilities, and I managed fine living in the minimalist way I did. However, it would’ve been a nice addition at times, particularly on hot days away from water sources, to have a quick cold shower and freshen up.
- More space — with my height I couldn’t stand up in my van, but luckily my bed was so comfortable, and doubled as a couch.
- Tilly was the perfect companion, but if I were to travel for such long distances again, it’d be nice to have a friend or 2 to chat with and share the drive.
Other than that, I can’t think of anything else I would’ve done differently.
Ultimately it was the best thing I’ve ever done for my mind, body, and soul. And I would honestly encourage anyone else considering it to take the plunge and go for it. Go all the way. Do it.
It will change your life.
Bonus: My trip summed up in a one-minute video
What interesting travel stories do you have? Have you ever traveled by van? What were your experiences? Leave your comments below.