Exploring Australia has been a dream of mine since I was a small child. Now that this dream is a reality the questions on how to best explore the continent has filled our time with hours of research. Can we backpack using public transportation or hitchhiking? Is public transportation sufficient? If we buy a vehicle should it be 4WD or 2WD? What season is best for which areas? What are the places we should make sure our on our list to see?
Backpack or Drive
This was one of the easier decisions we had to make. While public transportation in the cities is good and there are buses to get from city to city and even a train for some of the long hauls, there would be so much that will be missed in between. Besides, the cities are where we wish to spend the least amount of our time. We knew right away that a vehicle would be the only option for our type of travel. Public transportation is expensive and given the size of Australia, we would not be able to walk to many places like we did in South America.
Lodging is also expensive in Australia. We can find an Airbnb that costs between $30 to $40 if we are lucky in the big cities, most would be much more. Some out-of-the-way towns would be no less than $100. This feels like a huge jump to us after spending on average only $10 a night for the last two years in South America, but we came expecting this. We knew this would not be a repeat of our first year of travel that only cost $5,000 each. Lodging in the outback in the places we want to explore would be non-existent. We knew it had to be a vehicle we could camp/live in.
If we were to stay in Airbnbs and hostels for a year in Oz at an average of $50 per night, it would be over $18K for the year. In a vehicle with camping gear we could hope to keep campground cost for the year under $4K, there’s a lot of free camping. Plus, we have the luxury of taking our home with us everywhere we go – without having to carry it on our backs.
What Type of Vehicle is best to explore Australia in?
Wheels, Do we purchase 4WD or 2WD?
This was a more difficult decision. There are vast areas in Australia only accessible by 4WD. I read blog after blog and joined in multiple forums discussing 4WD or 2WD. There were many who were adamant about needing 4WD then there were others who, having done the Big Loop themselves in a 2WD, assured us that we would have a grand time even with 2WD.
After many discussions, it finally came down to the fact Australia is so big. Either way, we will have more places to see then we can cover in a year. It would be a fun year regardless of the wheels. Having a 4WD meant more adventure and more remote places, which is what we love. It also increases our likelihood of getting stranded in some creek bed miles from any town. The 2WD would be a more comfortable year.
Most of the 4WD options had tiny spaces that would mean the bed and the kitchen sink could not be used at the same time and showers would be cold water from a hose outside the vehicle so it would most likely also be breezy as well (brr). I’m not a fan of being cold. My worst night in South America was a very cold night in the Bolivian Salt Flats. I didn’t want a repeat of that, although elevation won’t be a problem here. This is the lowest and flattest continent. Apart from Antarctica, it is also the driest.
It came down to comfort
After almost three years backpacking I was really longing for a home, a space to live in. So in the end, we decided on a 2WD that included a bed, kitchen, fridge, shower, and toilet all inside. It would include solar power so that we could pull off the road anywhere (where allowed) and “camp” for the night. No more packing and unpacking every day, or the hassle of setting up every night.
So 2WD it is, we could always come back later if we felt we wanted to do a year in a 4WD.
Settling on a make and model?
Very quickly in our search on Gumtree (Australia’s version of Craigslist), Facebook Marketplace and car dealership sites, the Toyota Coaster quickly became a primary option. It’s a small bus that’s popular in many parts of the word, but it has not been introduced in the USA. We researched many other vehicles and this one seemed to have the best reliability. Given its popularity in Australia, finding spare parts and service would be easy.
The day after arriving in Melbourne we walked the entire day visiting the long strip of caravan dealers in Melbourne. We concluded that we do not want to pull a camper or have to set up every single night with a pop-top. Yes, I guess we were looking for a bit of luxury, relatively speaking.
There is no Kelly Bluebook in Australia. They have Red Book, but it is primarily for cars. All Toyota Coasters start their lives as a bus. Many are converted into motorhomes later, some by individuals and some by professional motorhome conversion companies. So there is really no “book” to look up the value of one of these Coasters. There are companies that can determine the value of your motorhome to help you get it insured.
How many kilometers on a Toyota Coaster is too many?
We found some converted Toyota Coasters for sale with low kilometers, and some that had all the way up to 850.000 KM (528,000 miles) on the clock. Reliability seemed obvious.
The Coasters also had the layout and the space that we were looking for. After deciding on the vehicle we then wanted to figure out the sweet spot between the age/mileage of the vehicle and its resale value.
So I created a spreadsheet because, well, that is the fun thing to do. I listed every Coaster I found for sale noting the year, mileage, amenities and cost. Coasters below 200,000 kms seemed to have the most drop in value for every 50k kms. Around the 200,000 km mark the “new” feel starts to wear off and the price seems to remain somewhat steady, dropping much slower as the mileage increases. Between 200k and 300K they seem to retain their value quite well. Around 400,000 they take another significant drop (but not always). Even at 500,000 and above they still have a good deal of value.
We wanted a vehicle that would be reliable and fun for the year, but something that we could resell and hopefully get some of the money back out of it. All vehicles depreciate so this is not an investment, but we do hope to recover some of the expenses by reselling it when we are done. We narrowed our search to a Coaster with about 200k-230 kms on it.
Our final decision on how to explore Australia
We decided on a Toyota Coaster with around 200,000 kilometers on the engine. Rather than doing the conversion ourselves, we were looking for one already converted and fully self-contained (toilet/shower/solar).
We found one on Gumtree down in Tasmania that looked promising and within the price range that we were looking. But we were still in Melbourne. We contacted the seller and asked them to take the Coaster to a mechanic for a pre-purchase inspection at our expense. Then we arranged to fly to Hobart, Tasmania. If this was the right one, it could be a bonus to be able to explore Tasmania with our new home and only have to ship it across the Bass Strait once.
Note: If you are shipping a vehicle between Tasmania and the mainland be sure to research the best time of year to do so. We were able to find a ticket for around $300AUD (for the coaster and two people) however in peak season the prices can skyrocket and you may even have to wait a few days or weeks to sail.
We landed in Tasmania, picked up our rental car and drove to the mechanic who inspected the vehicle for us. I loved the Coaster as soon as I saw it. It looked good. It looked better than the pictures. We met the seller Kerryanne and her husband Dale and we instantly felt comfortable around them.
After talking to the mechanic and inspecting the motor-home ourselves, we made an offer. We exchanged counter offers and settled on a price. I was so happy I jumped for joy. Not only did we shake hands, we exchanged hugs.
How to buy as a foreigner:
We are allowed to drive in Australia on our USA drivers license for only three months. So Trin got a Tasmanian drivers license. It’s a straightforward process if you already have a license from the USA or a few other listed countries. You just need a proof of address and there is no need to take a written or practical test.
You can walk into most banks and open a bank account using your hotel’s address, your Airbnb address, or a friend’s address. Ask the bank to print your bank statement and you’ve got a proof of address. Kerryanne graciously offered to let us use their address not only for the license but also to register the vehicle in our name.
So on the same day, we opened a bank account, got a Tasmanian drivers license, and then transferred the rego (that’s Australianese for registration, pronounced with a soft G). Easy peasy.
Well, not quite.
How to pay for the Coaster. We looked at all the transfer options of moving money from a USA bank to Australia and quickly settled on doing this through Charles Schwab. They ended up being the most inexpensive way to wire the money. I HIGHLY recommend Charles Schwab to any traveler from the USA. Their service is the top noch and the most inexpensive way to get to your money. (No, I’m not an affiliate with them)
Our mistake was not realizing the laws about transferring money internationally. The Federal reserve requires a 48-hour hold on large transfers from the USA to any other country. We submitted our request late on a Thursday and the coming Monday was a holiday. The bank told us we may not see it until Wednesday. So that rego transfer was not going to happen so fast.
We would have to extend our car rental and pay for lodging. Our first night here in Tassy (as everyone here calls it) was spent in the back of our rental car. Our sleeping bag is excellent but by morning we were cold. I did not want to do that again.
The Australian Kindness
Kerryann called us and said, “Why don’t you go ahead and stay in the Coaster in our driveway overnight till the money goes through, then if you have questions you can ask Dale.” When we first met them at the mechanics they asked where we were staying. We told them that we were sleeping in the car. It bothered her that we were staying in the car.
I was so grateful for the offer and on Sunday night we moved into the Coaster. We were surprised on Monday the funds had become available in Australia and we signed the papers over on Tuesday morning, rego transfer completed.
Dale and Kerryanne were really great about giving us a walkthrough and showing us how everything worked even answering the same questions a few times as we tried to quickly digest everything. Dale even installed an additional strip of LED lighting that really brightened up the interior for our off-grid nights. They are such good folks, they are cementing our initial impressions of Australians as being warm and caring people.
Note: The place in the wall where you plug things in - that thing we call an outlet in the USA? Here in Australia it is called a power-point. We had a little confusing conversation, me talking outlets and Dale power-points before I figured it out.
Australia is headed into Summer (Dec-Feb). Once we finish exploring Tasmania we plan to spend some time going up the east coast toward Sidney then head back down towards Adelaide and over to Perth. It seems best to spend time in the South during summer then head north into the Northern Territory, up to Darwin and then toward Cairns during the winter.
These are the destinations we have marked so far. If you have any suggestions not on this map please let us know!
Help us name our Coaster!
Lastly, we would like to name our Coaster. Trin suggested Gandalf, I’m not so excited about that name, but I’m not coming up with any brilliant alternatives either. Want to help us choose a name? Give us suggestions in the comments below or comment on Facebook.
UPDATE: Thanks to your help we have named our Toyota Coaster Lil’ Beaut.
Stay tuned next week for some mysteries of Tasmania – our exploration begins!