Discover Down Under: your guide for backpacking Australia
Australia – the backpacker’s dream destination. With stunningly rugged landscapes, once-in-a-lifetime outdoor activities, bizarre wildlife and a nation of the most down-to-earth hosts you’re ever likely to meet, it’s easy to see why. But hold up. Before you start buying cork hats and practising your best “G’day mate”, keep in mind that Australia is also massive and occasionally very remote. While no one wants to over plan their trip to the land of no worries, our backpacking Australia guide is packed with helpful tips, itineraries and recommendations from travellers who have backpacked around Australia to make your trip down-under as laid-back as possible.
- The Best Time to Visit Australia
- Do I Need a Visa for Australia?
- Travelling around Australia
- Where to Stay in Australia
- Australia Travel Costs
- Best places to visit in Australia
- Australian Food
- Australian Culture and Customs
- Is Australia Dangerous?
- Australia Travel Advice
The best time to visit Australia
Recommended by Emily Kammerlohr
The best time to visit Australia totally depends on what you like. If you visit during the Australian winter, you’ll enjoy milder temperatures in the ‘Outback’ (central Australia) and great whale watching on the east coast. If you visit during the Australian summer, you’ll get to experience a quintessential Bondi Christmas and the amazing New Year’s party in Sydney Harbour. It’s totally up to you.
Visiting Australia in spring/summer
In Australia, spring is from September to November and summer is from December to February. If you’re looking to catch some sun, the Australian summer makes the PERFECT getaway from the freezing temperatures of the northern hemisphere. Why not spend your winter break working on your tan instead of crowding around the fire?
Summer in Australia is like nowhere else. The sun seems to shire eternally and the fun never stops. Temperatures in Sydney hover around 25°-30° Celsius, making it the perfect time to bask in the Bondi sun or catch a few waves in Manly. On the opposite coast, Perth‘s weather is just as amazing – boasting nearly infinite sunny days with temperatures in the high 20’s.
As Australian beach culture is such a big part of the national identity, if you’d like to surf with the locals in Byron Bay, find Nemo on the Great Barrier Reef, or discover koalas on the sandy trails of Magnetic Island, spring and summer is the perfect time for you to visit the great land ‘Down Under’.
Visiting Australia in autumn/winter
In Australia, autumn is from March to May and winter is from June to August. So if you’re from the northern hemisphere, the Australian winter occurs during your summer holidays – at a time when the Australian climate is relatively mild. Australia is such a big country with so much to see, meaning that you’ll need at least a month to six weeks to see everything you’d like to, if not longer. But you don’t need to take a gap year to do this. Even if you’re still in university, the temperature in Australia during the winter makes it the perfect “summer vacation” destination.
Many people think that the Australian climate is too cold during the autumn or winter months, but unless you are south of Sydney, it’s not cold at all. In fact, with average temperatures in the mid 20’s during the winter in northern Queensland, you can sail the Whitsundays, camp on Fraser Island, and explore the Great Barrier Reef – all with only a light jacket.
During the winter, the temperature in Sydney hovers in the mid-teens, but it’s not uncommon for sunny days to reach the low 20’s. Perth’s weather is often very similar, although at night the temperature can reach single digits, so it’s best to bring some warm pyjamas with you.
While you may spend a night or two shivering if you travel the Great Ocean Road near Melbourne during the winter, you will be thankful for the break from the scorching Aussie sun when you make the trek to Uluru.
Backpacker visa for Australia
Recommended by Eline Schreurs
If you want to visit Australia, you’ll need to apply for a specific visa. Thankfully, for every type of traveller, there’s also a type of visa and for most backpackers the following three types of visas a popular.
The most popular visa for Australia from the UK and Europe (plus many other parts of the world) is the Working Holiday visa. This Australian backpacker visa allows you to stay and work in Australia for one year. If you want to apply, you’ll need to meet some entry requirements: you must be aged 18 – 30 years old, have enough money of your own (around AUD $5,000/ EUR €3,000), must not have a criminal convictions and be in good health (if you have travelled for longer than 3 months in a ‘high/medium health risk’ area, you’ll need a hospital to assess you). You’re only allowed to have this visa once in your life with one exception: if you complete 88 days of farm work on your first visa you can apply for a second one. Some other types of work are also allowed for a second-year visa, but farm work is the easiest.
If you’re not planning to stay this long or if you don’t want to work while backpacking Australia, you can also apply for a tourist visa. With this visa, you can stay for up to three months, but there are some restrictions regarding any criminal convictions in your own country. Overall, the requirements for this visa are less strict.
You can also apply for a long-stay tourist visa. This visa enables you to backpack around Australia for up to a year, but you will not be allowed to work during this time. You will also be required to prove that you have enough money to travel around Australia without having to work, as they do not want people working illegally on this visa.
There is also the option of a student visa or job-specific visa, but these are more difficult to obtain and require a lot of extra paperwork. I think the easiest one is the Working Holiday visa as it gives you so much time and the option to work if you run out of money, which is likely in Australia.
Travelling around Australia
Recommended by Eline Schreurs
There are many ways to get around in Australia: you can drive, take the bus and train or even fly from one place to another. Don’t forget when choosing your type of transport that Australia is immense.
1. Driving in Australia
Driving in Australia is fantastic – you have all the freedom you want. You can go from one place to another without having to think about anything else. Driving in Australia with a UK licence is easy as your licence is also valid – and they drive on the left-hand side of the road too. If you’re not from a country where they drive on the left, it’s going to take a bit more time to adjust. But after a while, you get the hang of it – just be careful at the roundabouts (which can be tricky).
When you decide to go on a classic Australian road trip, the most important thing to remember is: take your time. Driving from Sydney to Melbourne does not look that far on the map, but it takes around 10 hours on the most direct route. However, I recommend you take your time and go for the scenic route along the coast, as it’s a bit longer but so beautiful.
You should also avoid driving at night; during the day you can at least see the native wildlife (like kangaroos and koalas) crossing the road but at night it’s much harder to react on time. Not only do you not want to kill one of these cute animals, but you also don’t want to risk your own life – kangaroos are especially big and can cause some serious damage to your car. While you’re driving around Australia, you will already see a lot of native animals lying dead at the side of the road so please drive carefully.
2. Campervan and car hire
There are many options for driving around Australia: you can rent a car and drive between hostels, or you can take a tent and camp at the many campsites. But I think the most relaxed way to drive around Australia is to buy or rent a campervan that you also can sleep in. There are different companies who rent vans like Travellers Autobarn or Wicked Campers.
If you’re in backpacking Australia for a long time, it may be a better idea to buy a van from other backpackers. In every hostel, you will see ads from backpackers selling their vans or cars, but before you agree to a deal with someone, make sure the car gets checked by an independent mechanic. Most of those vans are all pretty old, and you don’t want to break down in the middle of the Outback. Also, don’t forget to buy car insurance – most banks offer some excellent deals for backpackers. The Commonwealth Bank, for example, really helped me out with all my questions about this.
3. Public transport in Australian cities
If you’re visiting one of the bigger cities like Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane, driving is not comfortable. There’s way too much traffic and you will often get stuck in a traffic jam. The best way to get around in a big city is by public transport. They each have buses, train and tram lines inside the city and a lot of various train lines that can take you outside the city. The public transport in Australian cities is fantastic: it’s almost always on time, with an option every 5 minutes and it is not too expensive. Every state uses their own public transport card. For public transport in Melbourne you need to buy a Myki card and top it up, and then you can use on all the different types of public transport. For Sydney public transport the pre-payment option is called the Opal card. You can use this card for everything in Sydney, such as ferries, trams, buses, etc. Also, on Sundays, you only need to pay a certain amount (like AUD $5) for public transport, and when you reach that limit, you can use the rest of the day public transportation for free. This is particularly interesting if you want to go for a day trip to the Blue Mountains or to Manly for example. You can top-up these cards with as much money as you want – but don’t make the mistake of putting too much on it because you cannot get it back.
4. Backpacker buses in Australia
The most popular way to travel around Australia is to take the ‘backpacker’ bus from one place to another. You can choose between two bus companies: Premier and Greyhound. The most significant difference between the two is the price; Premier is cheaper than Greyhound, but they have fewer options than Greyhound – and on Greyhound you also have Wi-Fi and phone charging points. However, both companies stop at the exact same places, so it’s simply a matter or availability and price.
Both these companies offer flexible passes, which means you can buy a pass for the whole East Coast (from Melbourne to Cairns) and ‘hop on hop off’ whenever you want. In the high season, you should reserve your place on the bus well in advance or you’ll risk not having a seat at all. When it’s low season, you’ll still need to reserve your seat, but you can often leave it to the last minute.
You can also buy different passes, such as from Sydney to Cairns or Brisbane. So, it really depends where you are, where you want to go to and how much time you have. Most of the backpackers start in Sydney and end up in Cairns (making the same stops in between like Fraser Island and the Whitsundays), but there’s much more to see, so do your research before you buy a pass. You may even realise that buying a car is the better option for you. But if you don’t want the hassle of a car and insurance then the backpacker bus is the better way for you to see Australia.
5. Budget airlines and trains in Australia
If you’re in a hurry to get between destinations, then it’s probably better to fly or catch the train. For example, there’s a sleeper train from Sydney to Brisbane that covers the 14-hour journey overnight. Be warned though, the cheapest ticket is for a seat not a bed and it’s a pretty uncomfortable way to sleep. However, Australian trains are of a very high standard, especially the interstate XPT trains that run from Sydney.
If the idea of a long car ride (like the whopping 19-hour Brisbane to Cairns drive) really isn’t for you then flying is probably your best option. Australia has multiple budget airlines, such as Jetstar, Tigerair and Virgin Australia. If you book far enough in advance, you can often get a good price. Alternatively, if you know which domestic flights you will need before booking your international ones, why not pop them on the same ticket? Qantas do a Walkabout Pass which means you can fly with them everywhere in Australia for a fraction of the price.
Where to stay in Australia
Australia is an awesome backpacking hub and so naturally enjoys a plethora of amazing hostels. Check out the best hostels in Australia here.
Australia travel costs
Recommended by Emily Kammerlohr
Australia is expensive – but backpacking Australia on a budget is still possible. You don’t need to sacrifice safety or comfort in the land ‘Down Under’ to have a magnificent adventure. It’s typical of backpackers in Australia to compare budgets and frustrations about the high cost of living in this Oceanic paradise, but if you’re careful it’s possible to leave Australia with money left over.
1. Currency in Australia
The currency in Australia is the Australian Dollar. It’s denoted by the dollar sign “$” same as the American and Canadian Dollar. While exchange rates can vary daily, as of August 2018, the average conversions are as follows:
American Dollar vs. Australian Dollar:
$1.37 / $1
Euro vs. Australian Dollar:
€1.56 / $1
British Pound Sterling vs. Australian Dollar:
£1.74 / $1
Canadian Dollar vs. Australian Dollar:
$1.05 / $1
2. Cost of flights to Australia
The costs of flights to Australia can vary greatly, but a backpacker on a budget should always keep their eyes open for sales and deals. For example, certain airlines often have “end of year” sales or major sales around holidays.
Another way to secure cheap airfare to Australia is by waiting for error fares. An error fare is when an airline mistakenly publishes a fare that is well below market price – sometimes as low as 90% off. The only downside is that error fares are not always honoured and typically have restricted dates.
From the UK, you should expect to pay an average of AUD $900 to AUD $1,200 for a flight out of London without any special deals. From Germany, flights tend to run about AUD $1,400, no matter the airport or season. From Canada, flights can vary depending on the season and city of departure. For example, flying from Toronto in September can cost roughly AUD $1,500, while flying from Vancouver in May can be AUD $1,300.
From the USA, flight availability and prices vary greatly as the market becomes more competitive, with non-stop flights from San Francisco, Dallas, Houston, and Los Angeles consistently priced under AUD $1,000.
3. Backpacking Australia: daily budget
Before setting off to backpack Australia, you should think about what experiences you would like to splurge on. This is because while the day-to-day costs while travelling Australia on a budget can be kept relatively low, experiences such as camping under the stars at Uluru or sailing the Whitsunday Islands can be expensive, depending on how you choose to experience them.
If you already know which bucket list items you are willing to spend more money on, you can factor the costs into your original budget and not worry about blowing through all your cash when it is time to experience them.
4. Australian hostel costs
In larger cities like Sydney and Melbourne, a bed in an 8-person dorm typically goes for roughly AUD $20–$35 a night, while in smaller cities like Cairns or Byron Bay, you can stay cheaper, typically for under AUD $20–$25 a night.
Your daily costs can be reduced significantly by staying a hostel that includes breakfast and has free Wi-Fi, as even if the fee to access these amenities is small (often less than AUD $5), if purchased every day, they can add up quickly.
5. Eating and drinking
Alcohol is expensive in Australia due to import costs and taxation, so do not be surprised to see the average city cocktail come in around AUD $25 or more. Buying your alcohol at the local bottle shop (called a “bottle-o” to Aussies) is always cheaper than going out. A staple of the Australian backpacking experience is “goon”, which is a very inexpensive bagged wine.
A sit-down meal at your average restaurant can cost anywhere from AUD $25 -$40 (even for a burger and chips), which is why many backpackers choose to purchase groceries at supermarkets like Woolworths or Coles and cook a meal in their hostel instead.
When you’re on an extreme budget (and want to experience an authentic Aussie treat) stop by the hardware store Bunnings Warehouse for their $1 sausage sizzle every Sunday.
The great thing about Australia is that there are so many wonderful things to see and do that are completely free. For example, whilst climbing the Harbour Bridge in Sydney is well over AUD $200, you are welcome to walk across it for free. Many museums in Sydney and Melbourne are also completely free and you can take in the overwhelming nature of Northern Queensland and the Outback without paying a cent through your own hikes and scenic drives. See our recommendations for things to do in Australia below.
Best places to visit in Australia
Recommended by Eline Schreurs
Australia is one of the most amazing countries in the world. Even if you live here for a year, you’ll still struggle to visit all the places that are on your bucket list.
1. Uluru and the Outback
The most famous landmark in Australia is Uluru. This sacred rock is in the middle of the Outback, as Australia’s vast desert interior is called. It takes a couple of days to get there by car and is expensive, but anyone you speak to who has visited it says it is worth it. Most backpackers are drawn to the Outback because of the promise of adventure: you’ll drive for days without encountering anybody else, sleep under the most beautiful starry sky you’ll ever see and feel at one with nature the whole time.
2. Melbourne and the Great Ocean Road
If you’re starting your trip on Australia’s east coast, then your first stop should be Melbourne. Known for its chilled-out vibes and numerous hipster bars, there’s so much more to this city than places to drink. Your Melbourne backpacker itinerary should include Hosier Lane, with the most beautiful graffiti you’ll ever see, and architecture and book fans shouldn’t miss the amazing State Library of Victoria. If the weather is lovely, take a walk next to the Yarra River and make your way through the Kings Domain to the impressive Shrine of Remembrance war memorial. You also need to visit Queen Victoria Market, especially on a Sunday when there’s also a lot of street musicians and food stands around. Your hostel can help you arrange a backpacker tour around Melbourne if you’re interested in a guided experience of the city.
Heading out of Melbourne, you shouldn’t miss the iconic road trip along the Great Ocean Road. This two or three-day trip includes many stunning beaches and rock formations; the most famous one is the Twelve Apostles, which are slowly disappearing due to erosion, so you better hurry up if you want to see them.
3. Melbourne to Cairns: backpacking east coast Australia
Most of the backpackers opt for the classic east coast itinerary when visiting Australia for the first time, taking in most key destinations from Melbourne to Cairns. You can squeeze this whole route in if you’re only backpacking Australia for 3 weeks – or take time and stretch it out across 3 months. Listed below are some of the key landmarks and attractions you should include when doing this classic Australian backpacking route.
4. Sydney and the Blue Mountains
If you’re planning on backpacking the east coast of Australia, you will definitely stop in Sydney for a few days. This lively and vibrant city has an incredible range of beaches – and, of course, you must take a selfie with the Opera House and spend an afternoon chilling in Hyde Park. You can climb the iconic Sydney Harbour Bridge if you’re looking for a high-adrenaline adventure, but you also shouldn’t miss other landmarks like Taronga Zoo, Luna Park, Circular Quay and the Rocks and many more.
If you’re more into beaches, then you’ll discover the city has a wide range of options. Take the ferry (which I highly recommend, especially at night) and visit Manly and Shelly beach. Both beaches are amazing and the surfy suburb of Manly is also worth a visit. Of course, you should visit Sydney’s most famous beaches: Bondi Beach (as seen on the reality TV series Bondi Rescue) and Palm Beach (the setting for TV soap opera, Home and Away). The easiest way to make new friends in Sydney is to go to a backpacker bar, such as Scary Canary near Darling Harbour, and start talking to other people. Most of these bars are entwined with hostels, like the awesome Wake Up! hostel bar – so choose the right one and you will have a bunch of friends in no time.
If you fancy a day trip from Sydney, then you shouldn’t miss the Blue Mountains National Park. You can visit the breathtaking Three Sisters rock formation and enjoy a long walk in the park, to absorb all the natural beauty. Book a hostel and stay overnight – or even for a couple of days – as you will find so many new and amazing things to do here.
5. Byron Bay
If you’re travelling by bus from Sydney, then your next stop will probably be Byron Bay. Known to be a little hippie stoner town, its reputation has grown so much that people say the moment you drive into the city you become high. Maybe it was like this years ago but now it’s much more of a tourist-friendly destination. It’s still wonderful and has serious hippy vibes, but it’s also more commercial. Make sure to visit the lighthouse at the top, it will give you a fantastic view.
6. Gold Coast
The next stop is something entirely different: Surfers Paradise. The main reason backpackers stop here is to party: join a pub crawl your hostel and you’ll probably end up in Sin City, the club where the bartenders work in their underwear. But there is so much more to the Gold Coast than partying. Immerse yourself in the natural wonders of the regions, such as the very Instagramable sunflower fields in Allora or lush waterfalls at Tallebudgera Valley.
Close to the Gold Coast is the Queensland state capital, Brisbane. Some people are surprised at how different it is to Sydney and Melbourne, with its own unique vibe. Brisbane has the most beautiful botanic gardens, where you can wander around in for hours. Head to the South Bank to visit the beautiful Gallery of Modern Art and the National Library, then chill by the river in the sunshine or grab a drink and enjoy the sunset.
When you’re in Brisbane, you must not forget to go shopping. This city has a beautiful and historical centre, with many cool places and shops. Find yourself a new outfit and go dancing, because there are a lot of great places to party. Brisbane is a vibrant city with an interesting history.
After all this partying, it is time to relax a bit again – and there’s no place better than Noosa. This little town has the most stunning beaches. Please stop and stay here for a couple of days, enjoy the coastal walk, take a sunset boat tour, and go kayaking on the Everglades. Whatever you do here, it’s going to be marvellous.
9. Fraser Island and the Whitsundays
Next up on your backpacking route for Australia’s east coast is one of the most amazing places in the whole world. Head to the coastal town of Rainbow Beach to catch the barge to Fraser Island. Not only is it the world’s largest sand island, is also is the home to the beautiful Lake McKenzie and the sparkling Champagne Pools. It also a great place for spotting whales and other sea life (along with the occasional dingo). Fraser Island is indeed a magical place; when the sun goes down, head to the beach with your towel, lay back and watch the stars. It’s the most impressive thing you will ever see.
Your next stop is further along the coast. The little town of Airlie Beach is another starting point for an iconic Australian attraction: the Whitsunday Islands. Book a tour with a boat (there are many options) and you’ll find yourself transported to the most picturesque and natural white beaches and blue ocean. It will feel like you’ve ended up on a postcard. Go snorkelling, hire a paddle board or simply relax.
10. Magnetic Island and Cairns
After the Whitsundays, it’s time for Magnetic Island. To get here, you first have to travel to Townsville; this city has a range of great hostels, so you can either stop here for a night or head straight to the island to stay at one of the hostels here. While you’re here, don’t miss the chance to hire one of the island’s iconic pink hire cars (for some Barbie realness). Drive down to Bungalow Bay Koala Village and pet these cute animals at this beautiful sanctuary. After this head, to the beach for a relaxing afternoon and enjoy the sunset with a box of ‘goon’ and your friends.
By now you’ll almost be in Cairns, but if you want you can make one more to stop when backpacking the east coast of Australia: Mission Beach. This is the place try skydiving if you’re keen – if not, proceed directly to Cairns and its famous Gilligan’s Backpacker Hotel & Resort. This hostel is renowned for its legendary party nights – but don’t miss the amazing day trips you can try from here: the Great Barrier Reef, Daintree Rainforest, Cape Tribulation plus exploring the beautiful waterfalls around Cairns.
11. Northern and Western Australia backpacking route
Most of the backpackers only travel the east coast on their first trip, but there’s another side to this incredible country. If you want to see the real Australia, you must go to the west coast. It’s rougher with no big cities but it’s different and (in my opinion) more authentic experience of Australia. If you want to drive yourself around the west coast, then I recommend that you rent a 4WD sized car. This is the only way to go to all the cool places – as the west coast has some places that are seriously off-the-beaten-track.
If you want to go from the ‘Top End’ of Australia and head down the west coast, then Darwin is your first stop. It’s one of the biggest cities you’ll experience on this itinerary – and it is boiling there. You’ll find most backpackers in the hostel pool because the sea is full of deadly box jellyfish… and crocodiles. Yup, that’s right, crocodiles. If you happen to like crocodiles, don’t go looking for them on the beach but head to Crocosaurus Cove, an aquarium where you’ll have the opportunity to get up close and feed them.
13. Lake Argyle and National Parks
Once you head across the border into Western Australia, you’ll reach Lake Argyle, which has the most beautiful sunsets. Take a boat trip around the lake and swim with non-dangerous crocodiles. After Lake Argyle, you can drive to Purnululu National Park, which has fantastic rock formations; it’s worth reading up on Indigenous history in this area. After this, drive to King Leopold Range National Park and try one of the walks here or just relax and enjoy the nature.
By now you will arrive in the third biggest town on this backpacker itinerary, Broome. There’s not a lot to see in Broome (it has roughly four streets to the town) but it’s worth stopping for Cable Beach, which has some amazing sunsets. You can even ride a camel on the beach.
15. Karijini National Park
The west coast of Australia has some of the most beautiful national parks, including Karijini National Park. The best thing to do here is walk through the big red rock formations – it’s so amazing, you feel like you’re in a movie.
16. Shark Bay
If you like sea animals, then you need to stop at Shark Bay (also known as Monkey Mia). There’s a show with wild dolphins, where you can learn a lot about their habits and some lucky people can feed the dolphins. There’s also the option of taking a boat tour so you can experience more of the local sea life.
17. Kalbarri National Park
The next national park is also the most famous one on the west coast: Kalbarri National Park. Here you’ll find lots of beautiful walks, but make sure you try one that ends at Nature’s Window – you will never find a better place to capture the sunset for your Instagram. Don’t get scared when I tell you this, but it also featured in the film Wolf Creek.
18. Perth and Freemantle
After all this travelling, you’ll finally arrive in Perth. This is the biggest city on the west coast and the most famous attraction here is Kings Park. You also need to visit Freemantle where there is a charming market – or just stroll around in Perth, go to a nice pub and start chatting with the locals, who are very friendly. You can also do a day trip to the Pinnacles Desert, which is filled with incredible (and funny) rock formations.
Recommended by Zuleika Conte
If you think of Australian food, the first thing that probably comes to mind is ‘throwing a shrimp on the barbie’, along with some sausages and an extremely well-done steak – then washing it down with a couple (dozen) Fosters. This is not an entirely unfair representation of traditional Australian food, but it’s not entirely fair either. Firstly, Australians call them prawns not shrimp and, while steak may once have been preferred at a charcoal-like consistency, the ones I came across on my travels were all beautifully cooked. That Aussies love their beer is undeniably true, but the variety most definitely extends beyond Fosters – especially in the increasingly popular craft beer scene.
The irony is that even though a dozen stereotypes come to mind when imagining Australian cuisine, it’s the exact opposite of being limited to a few culinary clichés. Australian food reflects, unsurprisingly, the incredibly diverse mix of cultures that have at some point made Australia their home – from Indigenous to Asian and Mediterranean, amongst others. Mod Oz – or modern Australian cuisine – is the attempt to fuse all these eclectic influences into something uniquely Australian.
Chefs are increasingly starting to add ‘bush tucker‘ (food that’s native to the country and traditionally associated with the Indigenous Australian diet) to their dishes. Wattleseed, an Indigenous plant that is usually ground and roasted, is popping up in restaurants nationwide and can be found in all sorts of dishes. You can give it a go at Melbourne’s acclaimed Attica restaurant, where it’s served with wallaby (the kangaroo’s smaller cousin) and native currants. It’s not uncommon to see wattleseed, belly pork, kofte and pasta all in one Mod Oz menu, reflecting all the cultural influences that make up Australia’s culinary identity.
But Mod Oz is still mostly limited to the larger cities and – even then – to trendier restaurants. Equally Australian and culturally-influenced is the suburban food scene of service station meat pies and pub food. Classics like meat pies and fish and chips trace a British heritage whilst dishes like “chicken parm” – a staple Aussie pub menu item – to Italian immigrants that arrived in the 1950s. Burger joints and steadily-disappearing chicken shops, of course, reflect the ubiquitous influence of the USA.
But even though these foods derive from other countries, the Australians have added their own unique take. Chicken shops would not be the same without the inimitable chicken salt – a uniquely Australian spice mix made up of garlic, onion, paprika and turmeric. Despite the name, it’s traditionally used not on chicken but on deliciously fresh, chunky-cut chips. Another Aussie staple is the “works” burger – a burger that comes with, unsurprisingly, all the works: egg, tomato, lettuce, cheese, the occasional pineapple slice and the one ingredient I’ve only ever seen in an Australian burger, the beloved beetroot.
Some of Australia’s most iconic food consists not of traditional dishes but of beloved ‘made-in-Australia’ brands. Perhaps the reason for this nostalgic – almost patriotic – attachment to brands like Vegemite or Tim-Tams is that, unlike other dishes originating elsewhere, they can’t be claimed by any other nation. Of course, another reason for the attachment is because they’re good – really, really good.
Like Marmite, you either love or hate Vegemite – a dark-brown, gooey yeast extract with various vegetable and spice additives; I adore the stuff. It’s said that it takes tourists some getting used to (and that may be true), but it’s also true that it has to be applied exactly right: white, sliced bread – perfectly toasted until it’s just golden-brown and very slightly soft in the middle; a generous scrape of the best butter you can find; and finally a thin layer (as they say – a little goes a long way) of the good stuff. Consume with a hot cup of tea and I challenge anyone not to love it.
The criticality of correct consumption goes for other brand-foods too. Take Tim-Tams: the best way to eat them is said to be to diagonally bite off each end, place one bitten end in your mouth, dip the other in a hot drink and then suck, using the Tim Tam as a straw. As the liquid is pulled through, the biscuit will start to disintegrate into a gooey, chocolatey mess. This is the point at which you want to pop the whole thing into your mouth before it melts completely. Timing is everything.
The only way to experience Australian cuisine is to experience it all in its right context: refuel with flat whites and sourdough toast with smashed avocado at a ubiquitous hipster café in the morning, lunch at an Asian-fusion restaurant, and finish up with a guilty meat pie and ketchup from the service station after a night out sinking schooners at the pub.
Australian culture and customs
Recommended by Zuleika Conte
1. Australian people
If you’ve seen Crocodile Dundee, you’ll know all Australians are tanned and blonde, shave with knives and wrestle crocodiles in their spare time. Alright, so you know this is all nonsense (I hope) but the movie gets it right when it comes to how laid-back, friendly and unpretentious Aussies are. If there’s anything Australians dislike (and they’re generally pretty tolerant), it’s being too big for your boots. Don’t be surprised if your new mate tells you they like your new haircut and then follows it up with “did you get run over by a lawnmower?”. It probably means they really like you and, besides, they make fun of themselves too.
A better starting point for insight into Aussie culture is the cult movie The Castle: the story of a family’s fight to save their home – even though it stands on a toxic landfill next to an airport runway because it’s a ‘home, not a house’. Using the ‘bloody law of common sense’ they fight for their castle with everything they’ve got – which is a lot of love and good humour. Based on my time living in Australia with what I now consider my second family, this is the perfect reflection of Australian priorities, where relationships come before everything else. There’s even an Aussie word for it – mateship.
2. Australian greetings
Meeting an Aussie is usually pretty casual. A handshake and a smile are enough. While ‘G’day’ might not be quite as overused as people imagine, a ‘how ya doing’, or ‘how ya going, mate?’ is by no means rare. Ex-cricketer Dennis Lillee is famous for having greeted the Queen with a cheerful, ‘G’day, how ya going?’. Aussies generally prefer to call people by their first names, sometimes even at formal or business events. Really, other than being friendly and down-to-earth, there aren’t many strict rules when it comes to Aussie etiquette.
3. Australian lifestyle
95% of Australians live on the coast and are never very far from the nearest the beach, even in the cities. This combined with the generally glorious weather means that the Aussie beach lifestyle is very much real. While people’s busy schedules might prevent them from hanging out at the beach in their togs (swimsuits) quite as often as soap operas like Home and Away would have you believe, there’s definitely a shared love of the outdoors. This translates to a pretty active lifestyle. Swimming, surfing, cricket and football are hugely popular past-times. And when people aren’t taking part in sports, they’re following them on TV. Football finals are eagerly awaited for weeks, while long summer days are devoted to the cricket.
When they’re not having a ‘barbie’ (BBQ) at the beach, you might find people at the local pub. In Oz, the pub isn’t just a place to go drinking, but a place to hang out with family and friends, listen to music, play the pokies (poker machines) or take part in the daily raffle.
Slightly more of a newcomer is the thriving Australian café culture, which extends not just to delicious lattes and flat whites but to the wider ritual of brunch – usually featuring sourdough toast, organic eggs and avocados in one of many forms. Coffee in Australia is not about refuelling with a quick espresso, it’s part of a laid-back lifestyle – that’s taken very seriously. In Bondi, I was asked whether I wanted my coffee in ‘paper or ceramic?’ My confusion must have been as plain as the marble decor – ‘to have in or take away?’ Ten minutes later I had my Ethiopian-bean coffee, brewed in a contraption that looked like it had come off the set of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. It turns out Ethiopian bean tastes quite bitter – when I asked, “Could I get some sugar, please?”, I was informed: “We don’t serve sugar in this establishment”. The Oompa-Loompas would be horrified.
4. Australian traditions, holidays and festivals
Aside from the major religious holidays at Christmas and Easter, Australia has tons of holidays and festivals they celebrate throughout the year that reflect different aspects of its diverse cultural heritage.
Australia Day (26th January) is the official national holiday of Australia. Traditionally celebrated with a ‘barbie’, cricket-watching, and of course plenty of cold beer. It is also quite a controversial day and in most major cities you will come across protests against ‘Invasion Day’, drawing attention to the impact that white settlement has had on the Indigenous population of Australia since 1788.
Yabun Festival (also on 26th January) is one of Australia’s largest indigenous Australian festivals held annually in Sydney. The event features traditional Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural performances, live music, panel discussions, and market stalls featuring traditional crafts.
Sydney Festival (3 weeks during January) is a major arts festival held in Sydney that attracts about 500,000 people each year. It features hundreds of events from local and international artists and includes theatre, contemporary and classical music, dance, circus, and the visual arts.
Mardi Gras (late Feb/early March) is one of the largest LGBT pride parades in the world and is held annually in Sydney.
Anzac Day (25th April) commemorates Australian and New Zealand servicemen and women. Commemorative services are held nationwide at dawn and marches are held throughout the country’s towns and cities.
Melbourne Cup (first Tuesday of November) is an annual horse race and one of Australia’s most popular social events. For the main race, people dress up in their fanciest clothes and many offices close throughout the country. The event is so popular that the day is an official public holiday in the state of Victoria.
Is Australia dangerous?
Recommended by Emily Kammerlohr
It’s not! Well, mostly.
I was SO fearful of coming to Australia because of the snakes – and my phobia of them. I pictured pythons slithering out of my toilet in the night and Australian spiders hiding in my shoes – just lying in wait to attack me. Yet the Aussies I talked to physically rolled their eyes at me when I said this.
While there are many, many deadly animals on the continent of Australia, the cities here are just as safe as any other major city. However, when you’re in the bush or other more regional areas, using common sense will keep you safe.
Aussies are big jokers – they like to play up the craziness of dangerous Australian animals for the sake of a good chuckle at the expense of tourists. A prime example of this: “Drop Bears”. Are koalas dangerous? Absolutely not, but you might have heard of their demented cousins – Drop Bears. Rabid creatures that hide in trees and “drop” down on to their victims to attack them. Don’t worry, they’re totally a myth, but be sure to play along if an Aussie brings them up for a good laugh.
Remember: the many dangerous Australian animals can be deadly. Keep your wits about you in rural areas, always follow the instructions of your guide, and never provoke an animal. Most injuries, like snakebites or kangaroo scratches, occur when we get a little bit too close to the wildlife.
Australia travel advice
Recommended by Zuleika Conte
1. Be prepared for long journeys
Australia. Is. Huge. I mean, seriously vast. The bus journey time for the most popular backpacker route from Sydney to Cairns clocks in at just under 50 hours. That’s a long time to play I-Spy. Most buses have power sockets, so make sure to download your favourite tunes or shows. If you get car-sick, stock up on anti-nausea meds. Noise-cancelling headphones and a neck pillow are also your friends.
2. Backpacking Australia alone
Solo travelling is a daunting prospect but, if you’re going to do it anywhere, Australia is the place. As one of the world’s most popular backpacking destinations, everything is geared towards having fun and making it super-easy to meet new people. Most hostels have nightly social events and some buses like the Oz Experience organise a ton of activities like hiking and sightseeing at stops along your route.
3. Watch the weather
Australia means gloriously relentless sunshine, right? Not quite – a lot of people aren’t aware that the Northern Territory (including Darwin and Kakadu) has an intense rainy season from November to April, while Melbourne is renowned for having ‘four seasons in one day’ (moving from baking heat to bitter winds in the space of a few hours). If you’re travelling to Uluru in the spring, the inescapable Tundra midges are another seasonal quirk to be aware of. The good news is you’ll have an excuse to wear that cork hat and pretend you’re Mick Dundee (or buy a netting hat at the local store).
4. What to pack for Australia
While your inner thermostat may be set to very hot most days, be aware that (depending on the time of year and location) it may get quite cool – especially at night. In the winter, desert temperatures can drop below zero. If you’re travelling south during winter, make sure to pack warm clothes. Otherwise, bring whatever you find most comfortable plus a couple of smarter items. Nightclubs in the cities won’t let you get away with flipflops (called ‘thongs’) – and I probably don’t need to tell you this, but… bring sunscreen. Lots of it. As the locals say – ‘slip,slap,slop’. Other than that, it’s the classic essentials – sunglasses, flashlight (if you don’t have one on your phone), water bottle, basic meds (especially anti-allergens) and, if you can, a battery pack or solar charger.
5. Learn the lingo
OK, this one’s easy. Lesson one – abbreviate everything. Fancy a biscuit? Request a biccy. Got a McDonald’s craving? Ask for the nearest Macca’s. You can do it for almost anything. Afternoon = Arvo. Service station = Servo. Ambulance = Ambo. And so on.
Ordering a beer will probably be your first step over the language barrier, so here goes:
Got it? Have another stubby (a small bottle beer) and you’ll figure it out. Unless you’re in Victoria or Queensland.
6. Vaccinations for Australia
There are no mandatory vaccinations to travel to Australia but where there are mozzies there is a risk. The WHO recommends vaccines for hepatitis A, hepatitis B, rabies, Japanese encephalitis, and influenza.
7. Plan a rough itinerary
Don’t checklist travel. When hanging out with other backpackers telling stories of all the incredible places they’ve visited, it can be tempting to give into FOMO and try to pack too much in. Equally, you might find a group you really click with and spend more time than you intended in one place. While of course it’s good to stay flexible and open-minded, try to plan at least a rough itinerary of places you really want to prioritise – unless you have all the time in the world. You’ll be upset if you missed out on wild-camping and driving 4x4s on the beach in Fraser Island for one more late night in Brisbane.
8. Work to live
If you’re looking to work while you travel, you can check out the usual places (Gumtree, Indeed, Seek) and some specific to backpackers (like the Backpacker Job Board). For casual labour, there are plenty of opportunities for accommodation and food in exchange for 4-6 hours work, perhaps even in the hostel you’re staying at. The most popular experience is WWOOFing (willing workers on organic farms) but Workaway and HelpX offers similar opportunities. For either type of work, you’ll need a working holiday visa, which is valid for 12 months and allows you to work for each employer for a maximum of 6 months. Make sure that if you get a work visa that you also apply for a TFN, otherwise 45% of your income will be automatically deducted for tax! You can do this online provided you have ID and can provide an Australian address.
9. Australian tax for backpackers
If you apply for the working visa, be aware that Australia recently introduced a tax on working holidaymakers (backpackers) of 15% on the first AUD $37,000 of earnings. Cheer up, at least they reduced the visa application fee by AUD $50! More good news – once you’ve been in Australia for 6 months you can claim tax back on overpaid tax. This happens for several reasons but you’re probably more interested in the fact that the average amount received back is AUD $2,600. To claim, you’ll need ID, your Tax File Number, and your payslips from each employer. Filing a return is obligatory and must be done before the end of the tax year on June 30th.
Once you’ve left Australia, you can also apply to get your super payment back if you earned over AUD $450 a month. These don’t come out of your wages but are payments paid by your employer towards your pension, and since you’re obviously not retiring in Australia, you can claim these back! If you can’t find your documents or find the process too confusing, you can use an authorised agent like Taxback.com to file your return – they have an awesome website and make the whole process super-easy.
10. Australian sim card
The cheapest option for calls, texts and data in Australia is to bring your own unlocked phone from home and buy a SIM-only pre-paid plan. This way you won’t be locked into a contract and the plans are simple, cheap and convenient. If you don’t have an unlocked phone, you can buy a new one and a SIM card, but this is more expensive. Stick to pay as you go, and you can keep track of your spending.
Most phone shops can sell you a SIM and register and activate it for you provided you have photo ID. Then just top-up online or at the supermarket, post office or most gas stations. You may have to look for specific retailers for the smaller phone companies.
Of course, before you choose which plan to buy, you’ll have to choose your network. There are three mobile networks in Australia: Telstra, Optus and Vodafone. While these tend to be the most expensive, there are smaller, alternative carriers called MVNO’s which buy network connectivity from them at wholesale rates. This means they can offer you a much better deal.
Currently, Telstra has the best reputation for service and connectivity, especially when travelling to rural areas. The most popular MVNO connected to Telstra is Boost – which for backpackers seems to offer the best compromise between price and connectivity. If that’s not your priority, and you’re more interested in data or international calls, for example, ask at the phone store about the best options for you.
All images by Emma Shaw (unless stated otherwise)
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