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A Visitor's Guide to the Real Australia - part 2

Contrary to popular misconceptions, roos aren't often seen bounding down Australian streets; and we don't all have corks dangling from our Akubras to keep the flies off. There are usually plenty of those around, flies that is - the nuisance variety, bush flies, March flies, dunny-budgies, etc - so visitors need to perfect the Australian wave, a frequent flap of the hand in front of the face during warmer weather; or a sprig of gum leaves will do a similar job. It's fairly hot much of the time, but although what you may have heard about the climate is probably true, it should be remembered that this is a big country encompassing the cooler regions down south to the tropics of the north. A single day's drive can take travellers from the misery of cold and wet to clear blue skies and sunshine. If you're in Melbourne, you may only need to stay a while, it having the dubious reputation of presenting four seasons in one day. Those intending to do The Lap can even follow the good stuff around the country and not see a skerrick of rain for their entire trip; and anyone prepared to seek them out will discover plenty of sights and places that dreams are made of.

There's a raft of companies offering the usual bus tours, and these are fine for limited stays when local knowledge can jam a lot into a little; but to really get the most out of Oz, you need to squizz the brochures just for ideas, then drive yourself. Hire cars are always available and they are undoubtedly the safe option, but they aren't cheap and it pays to read the fine print of the terms and conditions, especially before leaving the road for a bit of bush-bashing. Even four-wheel drives aren't necessarily covered for accidents and breakdowns once off the bitumen; and if you do get bogged, the cocky who drags you out with his tractor will be more concerned about his fee than any damage his chains might do to the vehicle. Once back on the highway, of course, it's left side of the road and clockwise on roundabouts; but there's a bit more to it than that. Although the basic road rules are the same wherever you go, there can be certain small differences between States. So get yourself a rule book for each of the States or Territories you intend driving in.

Those of a more adventurous nature might fancy taking a punt like the backpackers who actually buy a car. I have heard that there are carparks in the bigger cities, Sydney in particular, where real bargains can be purchased from visitors who have completed their stay. Just bear in mind that they probably bought the car at that very place a fair few months ago from someone else who'd done the same. Many of these old bombs aren't worth a brass razoo and have been on the go so long that they could find their own way round the country if they had a mind to. Being already totally shot, however, they would happily fall to bits where they stood rather than risk carking it on some deserted highway in the middle of nowhere. Should this happen, there's no come-back for the current owner because the raw prawn who sold it to them will have already shot through and gone home.

Before heading off, there are a few things to consider. Obviously you'll need a map, but don't make the mistake of assuming every named dot along the road is a town where you can take a break and pick up supplies. Many do have some facilities, though, and you could be lucky enough to score a servo and a general store. The odd one is a sight to behold, seemingly stuck in the dark ages selling frozen bread and milk, clothing your grandparents used to wear, even sheep dip, cattle drench and horseshoes. There are, however, those marked locations which are a bit of a mystery. You'll see the sign declaring which place you are approaching ; then, while you're looking around for a semblance of civilisation and finding none, a few metres along you'll notice the back of another sign facing the opposite direction; and if you glimpse it in passing, it will tell you where you've just left, not a postcard or T shirt in sight, and you've got Buckley's if you're desperate for fuel.

Distances in Australia are measured the same as anywhere, but locals and visitors alike tend to regard driving time as a better guide, especially when it comes to fuel and comfort breaks. You'll find most roadhouses on major highways marked on the map and it pays to work out the fuel consumption of your vehicle before giving a servo the flick because the prices seem too high - the next one could be another 200 K's further on and might be even more expensive. Costs in remote areas are generally high reflecting supply difficulties; some retailers, unfortunately, take advantage of this and charge like wounded bulls. Unless you have a huge fuel tank, there's not much you can do but cop it sweet. Hire vehicles are usually reliable and come with roadside-assist insurance, which is fine around town; but if you break down on a country road, be prepared to wait a while for the RAC-man. Some roadhouses and small-town servos often have workshops and may condescend to do the odd repair, but don't bank on it.

Water, particularly the drinking kind, won't always be available, so it is essential to carry some, whether driving or walking. It is also a good idea to tell someone where you are going and what time you estimate either returning, or hope to arrive at another destination. Some National Parks have a visitor's book for recording such information. Failing that, there could be a Ranger station nearby, or a cop-shop in town, assuming there is a town. This really does matter when going bush, definitely on walkabout. Even the most experienced fall foul of their own self-confidence sometimes. It's so easy to become disorientated in places where there are no visible landmarks and everything looks the same. If your vehicle does become stranded, stay close - it will provide shelter and is easier for rescue teams to spot than a person on foot. If you thought to buy an EPIRB before setting out, you'll get picked up a lot quicker.

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