To embark on my journey around Australia, I needed a car. I spent weeks looking into my options. Do I rent a car? Do I buy a car? Do I join a group of backpackers? It was exhausting, and I was filled with doubts about my options. My main concern was getting stranded in the outback. I needed something reliable, but also budget-friendly.
Highway 1 is a series of connected roads that create the world’s longest highway. It’s 14,500 kilometers (9,000 miles) and takes you through all of the states in Australia, including Tasmania (after taking a ferry or a flight to get to the island). When I drove from Los Angeles to Alaska and back the year prior, I ended up driving over 10,000 in four months. At that time, I had to worry about not running out of gas because the gas stations can be a couple of hours away from each other. The other concern was cold temperatures. You can only drive the Alaska highway during summer months, and one section of it is gravel.
In Australia, I had the same concerns about running out of gas, but now I also had to think about the cost of fuel. Australia has a high cost of living, and fuel isn’t an exception. In fact, the fuel in the outback gets more expensive as you get more remote. I needed a fuel-efficient car.
The roads in the outback are often gravel and extremely corrugated. The main highway is paved, but if I wanted to camp, most of the roads leading to campsites were rough gravel. There were also several outback tracks that I was interested in driving, which are not only coarse gravel; they tend to flood. The Toyota Prado is a very popular truck to drive in the outback because the exhaust goes up the front and top of the car. That way, you can drive through water without a problem. I needed a vehicle that could handle the outback roads.
While I would be driving through the outback, I also planned to explore the cities, especially along the east coast. I didn’t want a huge car that was difficult to maneuver in large cities and impossible to get into parking spots. Many of the vehicles that I looked at were also manual (stick-shift). I used to drive a manual from ages 16-26, but that was shifting with my right hand. I’d have to change gears with my left hand in Australia, and I wasn’t confident that I’d be able to. I needed a car that was easy to drive.
The hotels in the outback can be costly. Outside of the cost, I wanted to have the outback experience of camping. Many of the backpackers drive vans that have been converted, so they have beds inside. There are even Toyota Prado’s that have been converted and have a mattress in the back. It’s cheaper than an RV, but it’s cramped, and vans can’t drive on all of the rough outback roads. I wanted to camp inside when I needed to, even though it wouldn’t be my primary way of sleeping. I planned to stay mostly inside motels and Airbnb’s, but I wanted the option to sleep inside my car.
Renting a Car
I considered renting a car, but I ran into a few problems. The cheapest car that I could find was $3,000 (USD) for five months. That was a tiny compact car, something that could only handle paved roads. If I didn’t bring the car back to the same city that I rented it from, the fee was high, sometimes a few thousand dollars. I would have to return it to Adelaide, which was inconvenient.
I also had the problem of insurance. My credit card and car insurance back home don’t cover rental cars outside of the U.S. and Canada. When I rented a car for five days to drive the Great Ocean Road, the insurance was $20 a day. Australia doesn’t require car insurance, but I would be on the hook for any damage. Driving in the outback is tough on cars, and some companies don’t allow cars to be taken into the outback.
By buying a car, I would sell it before I left the country and hopefully make most of my money back. Renting a car meant I wouldn’t get any money back. Backpackers seemed to have success in selling the car, and some even sold for the same price as they paid for it. I decided that I would not rent a car.
Relocating a Campervan
Because so many people rent a car or a campervan and don’t return it to the original city that they rented it from, vehicles end up in the wrong cities. Australia is vast. It is almost the size of the continental U.S., but 90% of it is uninhabitable. Some companies help relocate these vehicles for rental companies and only charge the driver $1 – $5 a day.
I looked into Imoova and TransferCar. There were mostly campervans and big RVs that sleep six (or more) people. I could handle a van that slept two to four people, but not the huge ones. The biggest problem with this service is the restrictions. They do not give you much time to get from point A to point B. They list where the vehicle is located and where it needs to go. I found a relocation from Adelaide to Alice Springs, but there was nothing available in Alice Springs. Being in the outback without a car would cause problems. The cost to rent something that remote would be steep.
Some of the relocations are scheduled months in advance, while others pop up with a few days’ notice. I didn’t want to rely on this and be stuck somewhere. I also wanted to take my time. With their time tables, it would mostly be driving. Some companies gave you the option of adding days (usually no more than a couple), but you’d pay a regular price for the extra days. The gas would be expensive, and I’d still have to pay for a campsite with hookups so I could use the sink and fridge. I decided this was not a good option for me.
Searching for a Vehicle
Many European backpackers drive around the country, and Adelaide is one of the cities that many people start or end. There is a website called Gumtree, where people (as well as dealers) sell used cars. I used this to search for vehicles. The one problem that I kept encountering was, how do I pay? My bank was a U.S. bank, and there were no locations in Australia. I read horror stories about people using Paypal, and the buyer took their money back once they took the car. Because of this, many sellers wanted cash. I couldn’t take that much cash out of the ATM, and they couldn’t take my credit card. They were private sellers, so there is always a risk that they’re selling you a car that they don’t own or have a lien.
There is a Facebook group for backpackers who are looking to buy or sell their vehicles. It was helpful to see what was available and the prices, but I had the same problem figuring out how to pay. Because many of them were leaving the country, they often sold all of their camping equipment, which was great. The listing usually included how many people had owned the car so far and talked about why it was an excellent car for camping (they were always four-wheel drive and could handle rough roads).
If it were a vehicle that wasn’t converted to sleep people in the back, it had a pop-up tent on the roof. The tent was attached to the top of the roof and had a hard shell around it. Once you park, you can open it up and pull down a ladder. It looked cool and efficient (you’d be off the ground where snakes and spiders were less likely to get you), but there were two problems that I saw with it. 1.) It adds weight and isn’t super aerodynamic, so it impacts your gas mileage. 2.) Australia can get extremely windy. I read reviews of some people saying they felt like they were going to blow off the car and couldn’t sleep. I had already experienced enough wind to know that I didn’t want a tent top of the vehicle. There’s also the fact that you have to climb down a ladder if you have to pee.
The majority of the vehicles that I had seen were priced between $4,000-$12,000 and were manual. The average car was also built in the late 1990s and had over 200,000 kilometers on it. I get it – it is a car and a motel room, and it was already ready for the outback. However, I’d still have to pay for a campsite (especially if I needed power). There is a lot of free camping available in the outback, but there’s usually no bathroom. If you want a campsite with hookups or a shower, there’s often a $35 fee. Most of the camping on the east coast is not free.
Used Car Lots
After looking at the websites, I decided that buying from a used car lot would give me the best protection, and I could use my credit card. I narrowed down my options to either a Toyota Prado or a Subaru. They are both reliable manufacturers, and I could possibly sleep in the back if I put the seats down. The vans were all too expensive, and I didn’t like the idea that I couldn’t drive on rough roads.
One day, I took a 45-minute bus ride and then walked a mile to get to a used lot that had a Subaru Forester that I wanted to check out. By the time I arrived, it was 4:00 pm, and they closed at 5:00 pm. It was a small, old, dirty lot with one man working there. I asked to see the 2006 Subaru Forester so that I could judge the size of the inside. The car cost $5,250 and had 200,000 kilometers (124,000 miles) on it.
The man unlocked the car, and I climbed in through the back hatch and laid down the back seats. It was a little small, but doable. I couldn’t stretch out entirely because I’m too tall (6’1”). I told the man that I was considering a Forester or an Outback, but the Forester seemed too short in the back. He agreed that an Outback is more prolonged and would likely be a little roomier for length. He wouldn’t budge on the price and would charge a 3-4% credit card fee. I decided to pass on that car.
Another day, I took an Uber to a car shop at Christie’s Beach to look at another Forester that I saw online. The lot was small, and the man who came outside to help me was a redneck with such a thick accent that I could barely understand him. He reminded me of the movie, Wolf Creek, that I had watched a few days earlier. He took a picture of my driver’s license and let me take a spin around the block. As I drove, I heard rattling in the back, and the service light was on.
When I returned, I told the man about the service light and said he wouldn’t have his mechanic take a look. He was creepy and untrustworthy, so I left. I took a bus to another used car lot. They had a 2006 Subaru Outback listed online for $4,000. When I found the car, there wasn’t a sign on it, so I asked the guy working there. He said they’re selling it consignment for a friend, and the service light just came on. He said they planned on checking it out, but the next day was Saturday, and their mechanic doesn’t work on weekends.
The guy was in his 30s and seemed to be flirting with me. I told him that I liked the car, but I was leaving on Sunday, and I needed a car by then. He took my number and told me that he’d see what he could do and would call me.
There was one more car that I wanted to check out, but it was back in Adelaide. The busses took forever, and they closed at 5:00 pm, so I took a $40 Uber to get there. I arrived at 4:45 pm, and they were closed. There was a sign on the door with a phone number, so I called it. A man answered and said he couldn’t come to the shop because he was babysitting his grandkids. He explained, “It’s Friday, so we left early. We do that from time to time, especially Fridays.” The man assured me that he’d be there tomorrow afternoon once I finished a bike tour.
I told the guy at the other place not to worry about rushing to get the service light checked because I found another car. I figured this car would be a better bet because it was in good condition, had fewer miles, didn’t have a service light on.
The next day, I arrived at the car lot and Tony, the man I spoke with over the phone, showed the car to me. He explained that he had just listed the car and never had someone look at it that fast. It was a 2003 Subaru Outback for $6,000 and had 193,000 kilometers (119,900 miles). It was in excellent condition on the inside and the outside, but it wasn’t my favorite color (a light gold-greenish color).
The Subaru Outback that I owned back home was a newer model, which has a higher clearance and is better for off-roading. But this car would still drive okay on gravel and could handle the outback.
Tony was salesy and told me how the car only had two owners, and the logbook in the glove compartment was completely filled out, showing all of the service histories. The woman who previously owned it took it in for service work but decided to sell it to the dealership and buy a new car. She lived in Port Lincoln, and Tony purchased the vehicle in an auction. He recently spent $550 repairing the left sprocket thing and the rear brake pads.
Tony went on and on about what a fantastic car this was and how it hadn’t been driven in the outback, which can do a lot of damage to a car. I told Tony that my main concern was not breaking down in the outback. I needed a reliable vehicle that would get me around the country. He assured me this car would do that. I took it for a drive around the block and Tony came with me. I felt like the car slightly pulled to the left, but Tony pointed out how the road was uneven.
When we got back, I continued looking around at the car, and I noticed that a couple was interested in it, if I didn’t buy it. I asked Tony why the car was $2,000 more than the Subaru Outback that I looked at the day prior at another lot. He explained that the kilometers on his car were much lower, and it was in excellent condition. Tony was proud that he “goes above and beyond” to make sure he only sells high-quality cars. I told him that if he were willing to reduce the price to $5,500, pay for the registration fee, and not charge me a credit card fee, I would take it.
Tony agreed, and we went inside to do the paperwork. While I was looking at the car, Tony asked where I was from, and he was surprised because he used to live in Orange County, California (close to where I used to live) decades ago. Tony knew of the exact street where my ex-in-laws lived. He kept marveling about how small the world is and insisted that we were destined to meet.
While completing the paperwork, Tony tried to increase the price by $100. I hesitated and explained that I’ll still have to pay an additional $150 in taxes. He said, “Fine, $5,500.” Tony filled out the registration and covered three months of registration fees, but I still needed to register it in my name. I felt that the car was a little overpriced, but without paying the 3-4% credit card fees and having a car that wasn’t rattling, it was worth the price.
The conversion to U.S. dollars was $3,900. It wasn’t much more than the cost of renting a small, economical car. I could take this car into the outback and handle gravel roads because it was four-wheel drive. I could sleep in the back if I put the seats down, but it was still easy to drive and maneuver. The gas mileage was also a lot better than a van or a Toyota Prado would get. I couldn’t help it, but I liked the fact that I owned a 2016 Subaru Outback back in the U.S. and would now own a 2003 Subaru Outback in Australia. What better car to take into the Australian outback than a Subaru Outback?
I bought the car on a Sunday, and Service SA (South Australia) is closed on weekends. It’s like the DMV (Department of Motor Vehicles) in the U.S. I knew that I needed to get my car registered, and Monday I left Adelaide. By Tuesday, I was in Port Augusta, three and a half hours away. When I walked into Service SA, there were four-five women behind the counter and only around two customers. A woman motioned for me to come over to her and asked what I needed.
I explained my situation, and she told me that to register the car, she needed a bill with name and address on it (the address had to be in South Australia). I showed her a statement with my friend Matt’s name on it. He told me that I could use his address. The woman talked with her supervisor and said Matt would need to sign a form stating that I’m staying with him.
I told the woman that I just left Adelaide because I was driving to Coober Pedy. She told me that I could use the hotel address once I get a receipt from the hotel in Coober Pedy. The confirmation just needed to have my name and a South Australia address on it. I showed her a confirmation from a hotel that I stayed the night before in Clare, and she said it would work. She printed the proof and put Matt’s address down as my mailing address so that I would get my renewal there.
The supervisor was standing next to the woman helping me, and they were all so lovely. I was the only customer in there at this point, so the attention was on me. The supervisor said she’s so jealous when she meets Americans. She said, “I want to go there and live there forever. But I’ve never been yet.” I laughed and said, “Americans want to come to Australia.” The woman explained that she wanted to visit the U.S. because of all of the natural wonders.
Before I left, the women intently listened when I explained that our DMV is the worst place on earth and takes around three hours to get called to the window in Los Angeles. Not to mention how rude the employees are. I thanked them for being so friendly and helpful to me. One woman said, “I’ve seen in movies that the DMV people are portrayed terribly.” I explained that it’s because it’s how they are. When I left, I said, “Our DMV could learn from all of you!”
As I mentioned earlier, car insurance is not required in Australia. In the U.S., car insurance is required. In Australia, basic insurance is included when you register your car (which is why it’s so expensive). It covers if people are killed or injured in an accident involving your vehicle. Third-party insurance would cover me if I damaged someone else’s car or property (like a fence). My car was too old to get the coverage that would pay for damage to my car, but I just wanted to be safe in case I hit someone else.
I’m so used to having insurance that I couldn’t imagine not having it. I drove to RAA, which is like our AAA. I talked with a woman inside, and she told me that I could get third party insurance for $23 per month and roadside assistance for $13 per month. I signed up for a one year package to get that price, but she informed me that I could cancel at any time.
The girl walked me through coverage options. There were three roadside assistance options, with the maximum coverage including up to 200 kilometers (124 miles) of towing. I was heading into the outback, so I figured this was a good idea. At $13 a month, it seemed like a good deal. Spoiler alert, this ended up being a lifesaver.
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