No-one needs telling that Australia is an enormous country, or that domestic flights are usually far quicker than travelling overland between two cities. But there are some routes where taking a relatively short plane hop saves a true pig of a drive. Whether through quirks of geography, road conditions or the need to take a ferry, sometimes going by air saves a whole world of hassle.
Adelaide to Port Lincoln
Flight time: 50 minutes. Flight-free time: 6h51m
At the tip of the Eyre Peninsula in South Australia, Port Lincoln is Australia's tuna fishing capital. But it's also base for the only shark cage diving tours in Australia. The problem with getting there is the Spencer Gulf, which digs into South Australia like a dagger. If you're going by land from Adelaide, you have to go all the way round the Gulf, via Port Augusta – a 651 kilometre drive. Taking the short flight across the water with Rex saves a whole load of petrol.
Brisbane to Hamilton Island
Flight time: 90 minutes. Flight-free time: At least 13h20m
Getting to Hamilton Island in the Whitsundays without flying is a lot of needlessly hard work. First of all, you need to drive from Brisbane to Airlie Beach. That's 1100 kilometres, which should take you around 12 hours and 20 minutes. Then you have to take a ferry transfer from Airlie Beach to Hamilton Island with Cruise Whitsundays. That takes an hour. Oh, and the bonus is that Hamilton Island is car-free anyway, so you're going to have to find somewhere to park it in Airlie Beach. See cruisewhitsundays.com
Melbourne to Canberra
Flight time: One hour. Flight-free time: 7h7m
Mount Kosciuszko in the Australian Alps: An impediment to the Canberra-Melbourne road trip. Photo: Andrew Meares
There's no major body of water to avoid on the journey from Melbourne to Canberra, but there are plenty of mountains. The quickest route between the two cities dances around the edge of the Australian Alps, heading up the Hume Highway before dipping back south into Canberra. It's annoyingly indirect when the Qantaslink flights only take an hour.
Cairns to Darwin
Flight time: 2h30m. Flight-free time: 29 hours.
The Gulf of Carpentaria is the obvious obstacle here, but there's also a large stretch of unsealed road on the shortest route along Highway 1. Most rental cars won't be insured for that, and 4WDs are realistically required. So for most, that 2356 kilometre, 25 hour drive requires a significant detour along the sealed Flinders, Barkly and Stuart highways. That's a distance of 2710 kilometres and driving time of around 29 hours. That Jetstar flight sure looks appealing when you put it like that, huh?
Darwin to Nhulunbuy
Flight time: 1h5m. Flight-free time: 10h49m.
Nhulunbuy at the eastern end of Arnhem Land is at roughly the same latitude as Darwin. But getting there from the Northern Territory capital requires an enormous detour south via Katherine to join the Central Arnhem Road. That is, of course, if the Central Arnhem Road is passable. There are plans to seal much of it, but for now it's mostly 4WD track prone to wet season flooding. Should you get your permit to enter Arnhem Land, expect to see lots of miners on the Airnorth flight.
Sydney to Alice Springs
Flight time: Three hours. Flight-free time: 28 hours.
Due to the lack of an even slightly direct road from Sydney to the Red Centre, a massive detour is required. Instead of ploughing through the outback, drivers need to head roughly due west via Wagga Wagga and Mildura, before joining the Stuart Highway at Port Augusta and going north. It's like a giant, pointless, L-shaped knight move in a game of chess. And it's really not worth it when Qantas flies direct.
Perth to Darwin
Flight time: 3h30m. Flight-free time: 40 hours
Grim: National Highway 95 Photo: Phillip Capper/Wikipedia
The drive from Perth to Darwin is another one that suffers from significant dog-legging. Even if you shun the far more pleasant coastal route to bomb up the frankly grim National Highway 95, you have to go a long way north before swinging east across the Kimberley. If you decide to take the drive on, here's hoping you like outback mining towns.
Melbourne to Launceston
Flight time: 65 minutes. Flight-free time: At least 10h10m
There's a surprising amount of competition on the Melbourne to Launceston route. Jetstar, Qantas and Virgin Australia all fly it, with prices often absurdly cheap. The alternative to flying is taking the Spirit of Tasmania from Port Melbourne to Devonport – that'll take at least nine hours – then driving another hour and ten minutes to Launceston. See spiritoftasmania.com.au
Sydney to Hobart
Flight time: 1h55m Flight-free time: About 21 hours
Spirit of Tasmania
If Melbourne to Launceston seems a long schlep, then Sydney to Hobart is even harder work since the Sydney to Devonport ferry service was scrapped. Now, you can either fly direct to Hobart or… deep breath… drive eight hours and 51 minutes to Melbourne, take the nine hour ferry journey across the Bass Strait then drive 287 kilometres to Hobart. That last leg takes around three hours and seven minutes. It's fair to say you're not going to arrive feeling refreshed.
Broome to Sydney
Flight time: Four hours. Flight-free time: 54 hours
The Tanami Track.
One of Australia's longest domestic flights is perhaps the biggest time-saver of all, though. The seasonal Qantas flights from Broome to Sydney go diagonally across the country in four hours. Driving between the two, however, is a mammoth undertaking. Go the quickest route via the Tanami Track, and four wheel drive is highly recommended. That'll take 47 hours, and you need to carry fuel supplies. To go from Broome to Sydney on sealed roads, you need to go north via Katherine, then cut down through Mt Isa and Longreach in Queensland. That's a mere 54 hours without stops.