Australia is not just a country – it’s a continent – and a big one at that. It’s an ideal destination for a three-month backpacking sabbatical because that’s about the minimum time that a traveller needs to get a taste of the ‘real’ Australia.
The land down under is made up of six states and two territories with very different climates – tropical in the north, temperate in the south and a large dry desert region in the centre.
It’s for that reason that planning a trip to Australia needs to take account of the seasons, because it’s not pleasant to be backpacking in 40-degree heat in the desert regions in the middle of summer or battling cold wind and rain in the southern states in the winter. Therefore spring or autumn are always the best seasons for travelling.
Most overseas visitors to Australia book their flights to Sydney or Melbourne – the two largest cities, but a better starting point for many travellers is Brisbane, the capital of Queensland.
Brisbane is in the sub-tropics so if it is the start of spring, travellers can head north into the tropics and then do a circuit through the dry centre before it gets too hot, and finish touring in the southern states when it is warming up.
If it’s the start of autumn, a reverse itinerary is the best option doing the southern states as they are cooling down and ending up in the tropics after the hottest months up north have finished.
Starting in Brisbane also enables travellers to stock up on luggage and travel accessories at one of the five Luggage Direct superstores, which is much cheaper than buying new gear in Europe or US because of the favourable Aussie dollar exchange rate.
3 Months in Australia: Map
First Region: The Coasts
Brisbane offers the opportunity to spend some time on Australia’s famous Gold Coast (one hour south of the city) or the greener and more eco-friendly Sunshine Coast (one hour north of the city) to get over jet lag if you’ve arrived from the other side of the world.
Remember that the body ideally needs one day of rest for every hour shift in time zone to be fully recovered from the effects of a long journey by air. So travellers from the UK or Europe will need 6-8 days to fully recover whilst travellers from the Americas will need 10-12 days.
“Travellers from the UK or Europe will need 6-8 days to fully recover whilst travellers from the Americas will need 10-12 days”
Whilst most backpackers want to get on the road in a much shorter timeframe than that, the longer you can take it easy after arriving in Australia, the better your immune system will be to cope with the rigours of backpacking in a country where long distances are the norm.
For example, travelling up the east coast into the tropics north of Brisbane takes half a day by road between each of the main cities, and between many towns in the interior of the continent it can take a full day.
Both the Gold and Sunshine Coasts are great places to chill out before embarking on an Australian adventure, and Brisbane itself is a laid back city with plenty of cheap eating places, great coffee shops and accommodation in all price brackets from backpacker hostels up to more expensive hotels.
For those on a budget but looking for something better than hostel accommodation, Airbnb has many properties that welcome backpackers all over Australia.
Second Region: The Tropics
An ideal three month itinerary assuming you are starting in early spring would be to head up to Cairns and see the Great Barrier Reef and the Daintree Rainforest stopping off at the Whitsunday Islands on the way.
This part of the country needs at least two weeks to see properly, so allowing for a week around Brisbane to start with, that will account for the first three weeks of the trip.
After Cairns, more adventurous travellers usually head over to Darwin, the capital of the Northern Territory, and head out to the Kakadu National Park, which offers some of the best barramundi fishing in Australia.
Darwin itself is Australia’s smallest capital city, and in parts has an almost Asian feel, as well as some great opportunities for boating and seeing ‘wild’ Australia.
Third region: The Deserts
For those not into cowboys and crocodiles, an alternative option is to head straight to Alice Springs from Cairns. This is a long trek overland so the trip is best done by air.
From Alice Springs it is just a short hop to iconic Uluru – or Ayers Rock as it was once known – and the many beautiful gorges and rock formations of the so-called ‘Red Centre’.
Accommodation is not cheap in this part of Australia, and there are limited hostels and Airbnbs because the towns in the desert regions are quite small, so many backpackers don’t stay here for as long as they might like.
A week touring around Alice Springs and the adjacent desert regions will take up to about a week, so this will mark the end of your first month in Australia. Next stop should be Melbourne, the capital of the southern state of Victoria.
Travel from Alice Springs to Melbourne can be either on a direct flight, or by train or bus. The overland options take several days but travellers will see a lot of interesting country in between, and overland travel provides the option to visit South Australia’s wine growing regions on the way.
Fourth Region: The Mountains
From Melbourne, Australia’s Snowy Mountains are easily accessible. Straddling the states of Victoria and New South Wales, this mountainous region receives snow during the winter, and even has several ski resorts – although they pale in comparison to those in Europe or the US.
This region offers lots of opportunities for hiking (called bush-walking in Australia), and mid-spring or mid-autumn are the ideal months to so this. For those interested in hiking in forest and wilderness areas, the island state of Tasmania is easily accessible from Melbourne and offers some of the most beautiful bush-walking trails in the country.
Whilst in the southeastern part of Australia, many travellers like to visit the capital, Canberra, which is not a particularly exciting destination for backpackers, but it’s interesting to visit to see how Australia’s most-planned city has turned out.
The other mountain region that is popular with hikers is the Blue Mountains west of Sydney where there are also opportunities for adventure activities such as rock climbing, zip-lining and ATV tours.
To see all that rural Victoria, New South Wales and Tasmania offers takes at least four weeks, so this will easily complete the second month in Australia.
Fifth Region: The Cities
Australia’s two big cities – Sydney and Melbourne – deserve at least two weeks each. Sydney needs no introduction with its iconic Opera House and Sydney Harbour Bridge that is the site of the first big fireworks display every 1 January as the world welcomes the new year.
There is a lot to do in and around Sydney with some interesting country north and south of the city including the wine-growing region of the Hunter Valley. Sydney’s nightlife is amongst the best in the southern hemisphere and there are many hostels in the centre of the city catering to international backpackers.
Melbourne is regarded as the cultural capital of Australia and has some excellent eating places – many run by descendants of the first Italian and Greek migrants who made up a large proportion of the city’s population in the 1960s and 70s.
Travellers who enjoy city life may want to spend their last month in these two cities, enjoying all the cosmopolitan experiences that they have to offer, and depart directly from either Sydney or Melbourne.
Others who may want to see a little more of rural Australia may choose instead to travel overland back up to Brisbane through northern New South Wales, visiting trendy Byron Bay on the way and the ‘hippie’ community of Nimbin in the hinterland.
This itinerary can be done in reverse during the autumn months so that tropical Queensland becomes the last region to visit as the winter months are starting to bite down south.
Either way, on this itinerary you’ll be the visiting the ‘highlights’ and most interesting parts of Australia, and it will be a three-month sabbatical that will only leave you wanting to return to see more of the country.