I wasn’t sure where to post this, since it is more about the journey than any destination, so I went with the general forum.
We took off on our second road trip from Canberra to Noosa on July 6 in our brand new rental Holden Cruze SRI. The route was up through Dubbo, catching the Newell Highway on the way up. Coming back, we changed our original plan and traveled south on the New England and over through Dubbo and down to Canberra. We are a family of 4 and had our children, ages 2 and 4, along for the (long) ride. We ran into lots of other families with kids in tow for ACT school holidays, so we are not the only ones crazy enough to drive or go these routes. I hope this is helpful to someone, and thanks so much to everyone who has helped us plan this and previous trips! My apologies to anyone who find this to be the most boring trip report ever.
Day 1: Canberra to Moree: 776km/482mi, travel time 9 hrs. 55 mins. including stops:
We pulled away from our apartment in Canberra at 7:15am and headed north. We drove up the Barton Highway toward Yass, then headed up through Boorowa and Cowra on the Lachlan Valley Highway, then Canowindra and Molong on The Escort Way, and through Wellington up the Mitchell Highway to Dubbo. From the turnoff in Yass, this is labeled on maps as Route 81, but does involve quite a few turns. We didn’t go through Yass, but all of these other towns are nice little towns with food and fuel options, and most having lodging options as well. We stopped for a coffee break in Canowindra (about 40 minutes) and stopped for lunch and fuel in Dubbo at 12:15 for an hour.
With the exception of part of the Barton Highway (dual carriageway), I believe all of this was a 2-lane road. Speed limits were 100kph outside town, and mostly 50-60 kph going through town. There were semi-frequent overtaking lanes everywhere except The Escort Way portion. It was generally possible to go the speed limit safely when not caught behind slower-moving traffic. There wasn’t a lot of truck traffic until the Mitchell Highway portion, which did have some road trains.
The rolling hills of the New South Wales countryside, frequent rivers and streams, lots of sheep and cattle and horses, a few kangaroos and some interesting birdlife, make this a scenic drive for those who like country scenery, which we do. We saw a group of about 5 Superb Parrots in a tree just by the road, which was a first-time sighting for me. It was not a foggy day, but there was some mist and frost as we headed out of Canberra.
From Dubbo, we caught the Newell Highway, which is a faster and more direct road, and that was our route all the way to Moree. Gilgandra, Coonabarabran and Narrabri all have food, fuel and lodging options. We stayed in Narrabri last year on the way home and found it to be pleasant enough. This is a designated road train route. Though it is only 2 lanes with semi-frequent overtaking lanes, the road is wide enough that road trains do not blow you off the road when driving by, but they do go under the speed limit and lack of overtaking lanes means getting stuck behind them a lot. The speed limits are 100 or 110kph, but we found that nearly every time we got to a 110kph section, we were stuck behind a slow moving road train. We stopped briefly in Coonabarabran for about 10 minutes, but otherwise went straight on to Moree, and we got to our motel at 5:10, which was just at sunset.
The scenery on this leg is more sparse, which is somewhat interesting in itself. The Pilliga Forest is a scrubby looking forest, in my opinion. The dirt is quite red in this area, which gives a sense of nearing the Outback, although still being pretty far away. It is also interesting to note the evidence of mining and gas exploration out here, which is so much in the news and such a part of the economy. We saw a few roos and wallabies, but fewer than in the area around Canberra.
Moree is a bigger town than we expected. We just drove through here last year, but there are quite a few parks, restaurants, cafes and even galleries here. There are hot springs as well, although we didn’t get to take advantage of them. Having heard a lot of negative things about Moree, it seemed like a really nice town, with lots of families and couples out walking in the morning and evening. On the other hand, there is a lot of evidence of high security ( we noticed this in Narribri as well), with secured car parks for the motels and quite a bit of ominous-looking barbed wire fencing. It was interesting to see a bit more of this town that was such an important part of the Civil Rights Movement here is Australia, although we of course barely scratched the surface. Overall, this was a pleasant and uneventful day of driving and went pretty much as planned, with only our first coffee stop taking longer than expected, but that is going to happen with small children!
Day 2: Moree to Landsborough : 540km/335 mi, travel time 8 hrs. 30 mins. Including stops and delays:
We got on the road at 8:00am and headed up the Newell Highway. This was generally a less pleasant day than Day 1, as Day 2 of any road trip is likely to be. North of Moree the landscape changes to a forest mixed with large succulent plants, which was kind of interesting, then to the Moree Plains. The best part of the whole day really was seeing a group a 5 wild emus, including 1 that was running at full speed across the plains. Beautiful. The emus in Tidbinbilla are *almost* like seeing wild, but not the same thing. I think we were very lucky to add them to the list of Australian animals and birds we have observed in the wild, even if it was from the car!
The worst was getting behind 3 road trains full of cattle going to market with a constant stream of very brown, smelly water splashing the car. It was almost impossible to get close enough to each of them, keep the windows clean long enough to see, and pass them. It took about 45 minutes to get past them all. Yuck. Now I know where the term “____ storm” comes from. It would have almost been funny except my partner was VERY unhappy driving and the smell was awful.
After Goondiwinidi, we were on the Gore Highway, which had a ridiculous amount of stop and go construction with only one lane open. There were at least 7 lights we had to wait in line for. We lost about 40 minutes on our planned time in this process. They were completing flood repairs, but it seems like working on a smaller portion of the road at one time would have been in order. These things happen, though. We stopped for lunch for an hour in Toowoomba and got fuel.
From Toowoomba, we decided sort of at the last minute to bypass Brisbane and go the back way. We took the New England Highway north out of Toowoomba and passed through Esk, Toogoolawah and Kilcoy on various roads on our way to Landsborough. This was a very scenic route. There was a bit of construction (I think 2 red lights), but otherwise the roads were in good condition and the speed limits were mostly 100kph . There was very little traffic, and to our great relief there were no road trains. The eucalypt forests grew very close to the road, interspersed with farm lands, and there were some twisty, but not too twisty, mountain parts (so, for example, not as windy and twisty as the Kings Highway from Canberra to Bateman’s Bay). There were peek-a-boo glimpses of the Glasshouse Mountains, although this route does not follow the actual Glasshouse Mountain scenic route. There were lots of signs to watch out for koalas, and given July is a time of year when koalas are on the move, we were unlucky not to see any, but lucky not to see any koala carnage. We arrived at Landsborough at 4:30 and went into town to get some takeaway to eat outside.
Day 3: Australia Zoo and on to Noosa: Travel to Noosa 75km/47mi, time 1 hr. 15 mins. Via Bruce Highway/M1:
Got to the Australia Zoo just before opening at 9am, had a fantastic time, left at 2:30 and got to Noosa at about 3:45 in time to get checked in and go out and see the sunset.
Days 4, 5, 6, 7: Noosa:
I will only cover a few things here that aren’t covered in my reviews, or that could use reiteration, as there is all kinds of information available about Noosa. We had a great time for the third year in a row. Once again, it was school holidays in ACT and a few other states and there were lots of people on the beach and in the ocean, and quite a few in the pool as well. Yes, the water is probably too cold for most people, but ACTers, Tassies and Victorians, along with Kiwis and assorted others (including us Yanks) were happy to jump in. Dress on the beach ranged from wool jumpers to speedos and everything in between. We haven’t been to every beach in the world or anything, but we really do love Noosa Main Beach.
In Noosa National Park, we walked all the way out to Hell’s Gate one day, which was quite a feat with the kids, and out to Dolphin Point with the pram another day. We saw a koala near the information centre both days we walked in Noosa National Park, with information on where to find the little fella on the board outside. Sometimes I wonder if that koala is truly wild, or if they keep sticking him up there, but I will count it as a wild koala sighting. And, I was lucky enough to get to watch and even take some pretty good pictures as the koala scrambled up the tree, which given how infrequently they move was a coup. With rainbow lorikeets in one tree, the koala in another, and brush turkeys vying for our lunch, and all in front of the sea, it was hard to know which direction to look. We ate lunch wraps from the information centre two days in a row because we thought they were so yummy, along with some coffee to recharge before walking back down to Noosa.
We went out to Main Beach every night for sunset. It is free, and beautiful. Two nights were too rainy for any color, but the other 3 were beautiful. On our last night there was a rainbow in the east and the sunset in the west at the same time. That is the way I will remember Noosa until we return.
Aside from a trip to the grocery store on the first day, we did not get in the car the entire time we were in Noosa, which has been the case in past years as well.
Day 8: Noosa to Tamworth: 741 km/460mi, travel time 9 hrs. 20 mins including stops:
We had originally planned on going back the way we came, but after the “storm” and the construction, we decided to go back the New England, but go around Sydney, which took only about an hour longer and we think was worth it. We retraced our route around Brisbane, since we enjoyed it so much on the way up. We left Noosa at 8am, and when we got into the mountains, it was a little misty, but the fog was lifting. It may not be a good idea to go through there too early, though.
Instead of heading into Toowoomba (which does take a while to go through, it is much bigger than we expected), we went through Gatton, down a route that is marked as route 80 on our map and goes south through Spring Creek to Warwick, where we picked up the New England Highway. Although it looked good on the map, and was the route both our Garmin navigator and Google maps sent us, I would not go this way. The road was very narrow- one lane with yield signs in many places- and there were a good deal of fallen rocks on the road. There were stretches of 40kph speed limits. It was quite pretty in here, but twisty and windy and not-so-safe, in my opinion. It was all sealed, so no rental car agreement issues involved. If we went through here again, I would go the way we went on the way up on 85/New England Highway through Highfields and Toowoomba. We made a fuel stop in what I believe was Hirstglen for about 15 minutes.
Once we hit the New England Highway in Warwick, it was pretty smooth going for the rest of the day. We had lunch in Warwick for about a half hour. All the towns we passed through were interesting, and I would have loved to spend more time in them. The scenery varied from interesting to somewhat boring, but at least it varied, with forests, mountains and plains. We saw a lot of carnage, but not many live wild animals. The road between Armidale and Tamworth is pretty windy and twisty, and also very pretty. It seemed safe and all, but I would not want to go here in the dark. Given that Armidale is the highest city in Australia and then the road winds back down to Tamworth, it makes sense, but perhaps not everyone would think of that. We reached Tamworth at about 5:20 and settled in with some takeaway for the night.
There were hardly any trucks on the New England Highway, and there were overtaking lanes at pretty regular intervals, which made it pleasant. We were able to go the 100/110kph limits outside of towns, and wished we had time to slow down some more when going through the towns.
Day 9: Tamworth to Canberra via Dubbo: 741km/461 mi, travel time 9 hrs. 10 mins including stops:
We didn’t get started until 8:30 due to various morning delays, so we were 45 minutes behind our intended departure. We headed out on the Oxley Highway toward Gunnedah, Coonabarabran and Dubbo. We had actually intended to go the New England to the Golden Highway via Scone, but our navigator took us this way, and by the time we realized it, we decided it probably wasn’t worth driving back through town to switch. The Oxley Highway was in good condition, with mostly 100kph speed limits and very little traffic. We drove for almost an hour without seeing a car. There were very few overtaking lanes, though. Gunnedah is known as the “koala capital of the world” and apparently they keep information on koala sightings at the town information centre. It was also the inspiration for Dorothea Mackellar’s “My Country” (I love a sunburnt country…) Had we known this and not been behind for the day, we probably would have stopped, but sadly, not on this day.
Once we got over to Coonabarabran, we were back on the Newell, and back in the thick of the road trains until Dubbo. This reminded us how much nicer our journey without trucks was. We got to Dubbo right at noon and ate lunch for about an hour, then headed back the way we came up from Canberra. We had a good deal of rain on the way, but it wasn’t too bad. A wildlife highlight was seeing a wedge-tailed eagle perched on a fence post pretty close to the road- it was huge! We actually made it all the way from Tamworth to Canberra on one tank of fuel. We got back home at 5:40pm to the Canberra winter!
Some thoughts on the trip:
I think there is value in driving up through Narrabri and Moree to see these parts of the country. It would be nice to spend more time seeing the sights in the area as well. I think we may have had enough of this route for the near-term, having driven it twice, though. For information and ideas on what to see and where to stop, I found this website useful: http://www.newellhighway.org.au/
We preferred the New England Highway to both the Newell and Pacific routes, and a lot of this had to do with road trains and levels of traffic, as well as scenery. If you have time to make stops on the way up, the Pacific is nice (we spent 3 nights on the way up last year, 2 at Port Mac and 1 at Byron Bay), but there are lots of great stops on the New England as well, and it is definitely better for just trying to get from point A to point B, and the scenery along the road is better. There are several websites on the New England, including: http://www.newenglandnorthwest.com.au/
All in all, I am glad we got to do all 3 routes over the past 2 years. If we go up again next year, I think we might try to go up through Armidale and do waterfall way, and then go up the Pacific Highway one direction, and then back by the New England Highway. In a few years’ time, I might want to try the Newell again and try to do some of the astronomy and see Sawn Rocks or maybe even head out to Lightning Ridge from Moree when the kids are older and we have more time, but we could use a break from that route.
Lodging in the country towns is not cheap and should be booked ahead. We paid $165 a night for a family room in Moree and $145 for a triple in Tamworth. Both places were nearly booked up when we checked in. Especially on the Newell, I think, the mining boom has the rooms filled up a lot.
The Rough Guide to Australia covered all the larger towns we went through, and most of the smaller ones. It is a great resource for understanding a little about the places you are driving through (Tenterfield is the “birthplace of Federation”, Armidale is the highest city and home to the oldest university, etc), as well as for making stops and “Plan B” if necessary. On the downside, the Rough Guide does call koalas “bears” (yikes!) and Toowoomba and the Darling Downs the “Outback”, so not always right on. Otherwise, having a navigator, a Google map and a good map or atlas are all helpful. Especially if you are getting off the highways, the navigator will not always steer you right. I tried to triple-check all routes where possible, and we still ended up on one stretch of road I would not have picked.
My lodging and some attraction reviews have been submitted in the relevant areas, so I didn’t cover that here.
Australia is a big, beautiful country with lots of open space. Some people find that beautiful, and some find it boring. But, given our time and budget, we were happy that we drove and will probably do it again.
If you made it all the way to the end of this, thanks for reading!