From Up Yonder to Down Under – Comparing RVing in America vs Australia
by Paula Loehr R.N.
Most experienced RVers have a “bucket list” of RV camping adventures they want to experience before their days of rolling down the road come to a close. The whys and wherefores of those dream trips are favorite topics of conversation around RV rally banquet tables and campfire circles. Ever since the seventies when my husband, Dennis, and I started camping together, we’ve talked about RVing in Australia. Our fantasy trip finally became a reality this summer when our youngest son, James, who was studying abroad in New Zealand, convinced us to go RV camping in Australia.
After we mapped out a flexible itinerary and booked a flight to Brisbane, the next step was renting a motorhome that could maneuver around Australian roadways while comfortably accommodating four adults (Dennis, sons Ryan and James, and me) – for a 23-day campout.
RV Rentals Down Under
A quick internet search revealed a full spectrum of campervans and Class C minis available for rent from Australia-based suppliers such as KEA, Maui, Britz and Apollo. After researching individual companies, I settled on a KEA 4-berth motorhome with spacious beds as my top rental pick. KEA’s smartly designed, fully equipped rigs are manufactured in New Zealand and Australia, and the company earns plus-points for promoting green business practices. KEA
Motorhomes travel well too, providing livable features such as built-in water filtering systems, ample storage space, durable wood-look flooring, and user-friendly kitchen and bath units.
Following e-mail consultations with several rental agents, I reserved our KEA with Eddie Teh, owner of Aussie Campervans & Car Rentals. Eddie and his wife, Sue Teh, stand out in the crowd, as they run the extra mile (uhhh… kilometer) to make sure their customers get super deals on quality RV rentals.
In the interest of hitting the Australian roads without delay, it’s important to make sure your driving credentials are in order before departing from home. Valid drivers’ licenses from English-speaking countries are acceptable in Australia for visits up to three-months. Drivers licensed in non-English speaking countries must apply for an International Driving Permit in their home country before arriving in Australia.
When driving in Australia, convert your thoughts to metric. Speed limits and driving distances are posted in kilometers. American drivers have other adjustments to consider, too. Australian drivers sit on the right sides of vehicles, and in rigs with manual transmissions, left-handed gear shifting is required. Australia’s hilly terrain complicates the shifting process, so consider renting an RV with an automatic transmission, unless you’re totally at ease when shifting gears manually.
As compared with America where you drive on the right side of the road, Australian law requires staying in the left lane. The full impact of that switch hits hard when you navigate your first right turn at a busy “roundabout.” This Australian equivalent of an American traffic circle is found at many intersections, in lieu of stop signs and red lights.
Just as in America, seat belts are legally required for drivers and passengers, and infants must be properly restrained in approved safety seats.
In Australia, don’t expect to travel at speeds that are customary in America. When converted from kilometers to miles, speed limits are generally comparable to those in the U.S., but during our recent trip, we rarely reached the maximum allowable limit. Major highways and thoroughfares connecting large cities are generally well-maintained, but many roads do not match U.S. standards. Australia’s most populous regions are coastal, so seaside communities boast the best roads.
When traveling between small towns or in the “Outback” (interior of the country), secondary roads can be challenging to traverse in an RV. Quite a few roads have narrow, “unsealed” (unpaved) gravel surfaces with two-lane, two-way traffic, and numerous potholes. Four-wheel drives are a must in many instances. Stocking of adequate supplies is a key concern on secondary roadways, due to long distances between sources of fuel, water and food. Even on primary roads, many fueling stations are closed after sundown and on Sundays. It’s advisable to fill your tank at every opportunity, and to keep lots of drinking water on hand.
The Australian national emergency number, equivalent to 911 in America, is 000. Cell phone service is unreliable, even when big cities are nearby. Our American cell phone with an add-on Australian service plan only worked inside major cities. If you require trustworthy cell service in Australia, it’s best to buy a rechargeable phone down there, following local folks’ recommendations.
Australian “city centres” (large downtown areas) charge tolls for using selected roads, tunnels and bridges. Automated toll-paying detection systems verify compliance and bust offenders by recording images of their license plates. Toll registration rules and payment requirements vary from state to state. To avoid unexpected fines, be sure to ask your RV rental rep to provide toll paying and registering instructions for each state and “city centre” you intend to visit.
During three weeks plus Down Under, we saw less than a handful of patrolling police officers. Speed cameras and stoplight monitoring videos identify speeders and drivers who disobey traffic signals. Toll fees and traffic violation notices are routed through RV rental companies, which in turn charge toll costs, related fines, plus administrative fees to renters’ credit cards.
Wherever you venture, be sure to bring a Global Positioning System (GPS). We borrowed an Australia-loaded GPS from our oldest son, Ross, who had already taken three RV trips to Australia. Ross’ GPS helped us travel effectively from here to there to everywhere with “no worries” about getting lost along the way.
Aussie RV Parks
“Caravan parks,” “holiday parks,” “RV camping grounds” and “tourist parks” are Australia’s stylized versions of American RV campgrounds and resorts. Popular park networks and RV camping membership clubs include the Caravan Parks Association of Queensland, Inc., the Caravan and Camping Industry Association of New South Wales, Family Parks, Big 4 Holiday Parks, and Top Tourist Parks, all of which provide helpful information about excellent RV accommodations. When you pick up your RV, be sure to ask about current RV camping discounts for your rental company’s customers.
We checked into twenty different “tourist parks” during our stay in Australia. In every case, our hosts were friendly and helpful. We found that Australians are generally fun-loving and pro-American. Not only do we share the bond of a common language, but our two countries’ troops have served beside each other in every key conflict since WWII. The Aussies we met expressed great interest in learning about America, from political, economic and environmental issues to the latest sports scores and entertainment news.
Many “tourist park” offices close up shop around sundown, varying with the season. It’s wise to pull off the road each night before dusk, or phone ahead for late entry consideration. Australian campers tend to hunker down inside their rigs soon after the sun sets.
Most campground offices are neatly maintained and attractively landscaped. Entry/exit gates are accessed via security code numbers or key cards. Be sure to check your vehicle’s exact height before driving through an entry or exit port at an Australian campground. Rigs there are typically shorter than in the U.S.A., so overhangs are frequently lower than Americans expect.
A large number of Australian “caravan parks” are located on or near the Pacific Ocean or Tasman Sea, with ocean views that knock your socks off – unspoiled sandy beaches and sparkling blue-green waters. Individual campsites are closely spaced, open and grassy with few trees or shrubs. Most have concrete pads that are barely large enough for a 24-foot motorhome or travel trailer. Our 6.8′ meter (22.3 foot) long KEA mini was labeled “oversized” at some Australian parks.
Hookups at most sites include electric connections, as well as lines for incoming fresh water and outgoing grey water. On-site sewer lines for disposal of black water were rare or non-existent in the parks we visited. Our Class C KEA was equipped with a portable, self-contained “cassette” toilet on wheels, which we rolled and emptied at central dump stations.
When arriving at “tourist parks,” prepare yourself for sticker shock, and remember that campground fees are posted and paid in Australian dollars. It’s up to you to do the current conversion so you’ll know how much American money you’re spending. One reason why prices in Australia are high is that the national minimum wage is nearly double the American standard. This translates into high costs for everything from food, fuel and entertainment to “camping ground” stays. The basic campsite rate covers two people, with additional fees applied for each extra person. Steep charges for internet access are common, and many connections are slow and unreliable, even within close range of cities. On the positive side, there are no taxes levied on campsites, so the price you are quoted is the amount you will actually pay.
“Amenities blocks” (bath houses) are usually locked and accessed via keys or numeric security codes. They’re conveniently located throughout most parks. Without exception, the toilet and shower facilities we used at 20 different parks were sparkling clean and meticulously maintained. Tidy laundry rooms with modern washers, dryers, and immensely popular clothesline yards are the norm. Across the board, Australian campground hosts appear to take great pride in caring for their facilities.
A nice routine feature at most parks is the indoor/outdoor “camp kitchen,” equipped with barbecue grill, picnic or dining tables, stove, refrigerator, sink and microwave oven. At larger parks, kitchens are sometimes housed in combination with recreation rooms and television lounges. Individual sites do not have grills, and campfires are prohibited.
A small fraction of the “tourist parks” claim resort status, with special features like tennis courts, swimming pools, children’s water parks, and heated spas that are lushly landscaped to look like rain forests.
During our travels through coastal Queensland and New South Wales, we observed that the majority of local RVers own small “caravans” (travel trailers) or pop-ups with tent-like add-on rooms attached up front. We saw just three large Class A motor coaches over the course of 23 days. Compact “campervans” (comparable to American Class Bs and B-pluses) and small Class C motorhomes are more common in Australia.
As in America, there are marked seasonal variations in campground prices and crowds. Australia’s winter off-season (summertime on the American calendar), is a great time to camp Down Under. Temperatures are pleasantly cool (progressively colder as you head south and warmer as you head north), prices are relatively low, and the numbers of visitors are minimal. Before you set your dates for travel in Australia, check school holiday periods, which differ within each state. Avoid vacationing during holiday time frames, if possible. Australians are avid RV
campers, so “tourist parks” are full to capacity and rental “campervans” are in high demand when children are out of school. Just as in America, if you arrive in Australia during the high summer tourist season (U.S. wintertime), it’s advisable to reserve each night’s campsite well in advance.
Soon after arriving Down Under, we realized that Australia falls nothing short of dreamland in terms of natural wonders. From pristine beaches and verdant rainforests to arid deserts and craggy mountain peaks, there’s something great to see, something energizing to do, and someplace special to camp around every bend in the road. If you plan to explore Australia’s national parklands, you have a whopping 540 options, 12 of which are United Nations World Heritage Sites.You can hike through a rainforest to sacred Aboriginal grounds at Mount Warning, catch sweeping sea views from Smoky Cape Lighthouse at Hathead, spend the night at a shady RV site at Lane Cove near Sydney, or choose from hundreds of other stellar possibilities.
Australia’s exotic animal sightings are another terrific bonus for observant travelers. Instead of the deer and raccoons you encounter in America, you might cross paths with a sprightly kangaroo or tree-climbing koala. Unfortunately, in the vicinities of posted yellow wildlife crossings, you’re also likely to find fallen animals. So drive with utmost caution, and slow down to see (and protect) crossing
Your best chance to view kangaroos and koalas at close range is at a wildlife preserve or sanctuary, such as Currumbin in Queensland. Migrating whales may be watched at close range from May through October, off one Australian coast or another. Flying foxes (fruit-eating bats) with wing spans up to 1.6 meters (exceeding five feet) seem to swoop all over the place in inky night skies. Although they appear formidable, my husband and sons were quick to remind me (as I shrieked) that direct interactions with fruit bats never happen, unless you’re a pineapple.
Like bats, Australian birds are numerous, and easy to see. With more than 750 bird species in residence, clear views of diving pelicans, jewel-colored parrots, crested cockatoos, and foraging brush turkeys are delightfully common.
Too Many Attractions, Too Little Time…
If all those sand-swept beaches, flora and fauna leave you wishing for a touch of commercialism, the Australian continent can answer the call. Board a narrated glass bottom boat ride to view the watery world of the Great Barrier Reef. Consider the quirky yellow appeal of a photo op at Coffs Harbour’s Big Banana, or soak up sophisticated city sights in Sydney – the Opera House, Australian National Maritime Museum, a Harbor Bridge stroll, or the weekend marketplace.
Kicking the Bucket List
My family’s positive RV camping experiences in Queensland and New South Wales convinced us that RVing is the best and brightest way to tour Australia. We like the fact that Australian and American RVing are similar as well as different. On a future trip back to the Southern Hemisphere, we intend to divide our travels between southern and western Australia and the north and south islands of New Zealand. The other entries on our bucket list will have to wait. When travel dreams take you from up yonder to Down Under, a one-time RV adventure simply isn’t enough.
For more info about RV travel visit the Good Sam Club Trip Planning section where you can route your RV trip, read interesting RV travel articles, learn about points of interest, find RV campgrounds and print out RV checklists.