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Electric dreams: on the road, together

Dr Ruth Armstrong, an award-winning writer and a Croakey editor, reports below on a recent road trip with her sister Helen.

As well as sharing amazing views of stunning Country and tunes to get you dancing, she offers plenty of practical tips for taking an electric vehicle on a long-distance drive, including how to deal with “range anxiety”, negotiate a new type of “village green”, and deal with “pargers”.


Ruth Armstrong writes:

We’re browsing an op shop on the main street of Childers, Qld, when the song comes on.

The 1984 hit Together in Electric Dreams” by Philip Oakey and Giorgio Moroder. My sister Helen and I both remember it well from the hours of airplay it got on 2SM in the day, but we haven’t heard it on the radio for years. We dance the full length of the shop and the sales assistant, bless her, joins in.

Helen and I are on our very own electric dream – driving my recently acquired electric vehicle (EV) from Sydney to Magnetic Island, off the coast of Townsville QLD. It’s an all singing, all dancing kind of road trip with the need for regular access to a power point and a boot full of tangled cables providing extra frisson.

We’ve set off a few days earlier – me with a phone full of apps and elaborate plans, Helen with the blind faith that comes with having done absolutely no research.

We’re by no means the first to have tackled the Australian highways and byways under battery power but, with the use of EVs set to rise, now seems like a good time to share a few lessons and tips from that maiden voyage with Croakey readers.

The dream begins

This post is not about specs and brand comparisons (see box beneath this article for the essentials on my car), and I acknowledge that the electric dream is currently not available to all. Prices in Australia remain high, and waiting lists are long. I also recognise that the switch to batteries is not an environmental panacea and carries sustainability challenges of its own.

These things said, as a (mostly) city driver with space at home to recharge, when my car needed replacing last year I decided to invest in a fully electric vehicle. Based on price, and a previous positive experience with the manufacturer, I headed to a local dealer, who looked disconcertingly sceptical about my choice but took the order.

An annoying seven-month wait later, I found myself gliding up the freeway towards Newcastle and my first ever rapid charging station in the outer suburb of Wallsend. It was the second time I’d ever driven the car. 

EVs don’t have a power or speed problem. My car can take off quickly from traffic lights, glide down the freeway on cruise control and accelerate past all the trucks on the steepest hill, but I quickly realised that my road trips were going to be slower and my pit stops longer than in my previous life.

This is not a terrible thing. Travelling in hops of less than 400km/day gave Helen and I time to appreciate the journey.

Day 1: Newcastle-Nambucca heads (345 km)

On our very first day as we drove up the NSW coast, we learned a valuable lesson in patience and planning.

At our planned first stop – a single NRMA free fast charger at Nabiac – there were two cars waiting to charge, so we kept going to a service centre at South Taree where we discovered that the available charger was not compatible with our vehicle!

This made for a nerve-wracking trip to Port Macquarie where, on arrival, the car displayed an onward battery range of just 20km! We had a nice long wait over a greasy mall meal to contemplate how we might’ve managed the day better.

A few hours later, as we drove into Nambucca Heads via the old Pacific Highway, we could see the beams of a full moon reflected on the river and a massive high tide in the lagoon. This was beautiful Gumbaynggirr Country, where we learnt to swim on family holidays as kids.

The manager of our roadside motel had left an extension cord out for us to plug into slow “trickle power” from her regular laundry powerpoint – a gesture that was repeated in several places along the way and would give us a nice boost in range overnight.

I woke before dawn and watched the flying foxes screech their way into the coastal rainforest, at first one by one and then in ear piercing unison. In the growing light a big flock of ibis joined them and we gave up on sleep, instead walking down to the breakwater where the stillness of the estuary gave way to the turmoil of Nambucca’s notoriously dangerous bar.

First light, Nambucca River views

Back at the motel, we discovered that the manager’s generosity had topped us up to 94 percent charged (from about 60 percent on our arrival the night before), enough to get us to Grafton and the NRMA’s down-town free fast charger for breakfast.

Day 2: Nambucca Heads-Gold Coast (342 km)

With just the one recharge in Grafton, we made good time up the motorway to the lower Gold Coast, where we stayed overnight with my niece, her partner and, importantly, their baby, Helen’s youngest granddaughter.

On arrival I immediately disgraced myself by plugging in the car and blowing the fuse for all their kitchen appliances (this hasn’t happened anywhere since, so I gather it’s not a common problem).

There was no further mention of charging until the following morning when we followed them to Coolangatta and I availed myself of a fast charger and the only vacant parking spot on The Strand.

This was my first encounter with the Queensland Electric Super Highway (QuESH) which, despite the NRMA’s valiant efforts to provide free charging in NSW, outclasses the charging facilites for EVs I have experienced in my home state.

Essentially, the Queensland Government has partnered with private providers to install and service charging stations all up the coast, with plans to also service inland Queensland. There is generally a fee for use, but the chargers are well situated at realistic intervals, and well maintained.

The charger on the Coolangatta Strand was in a great location to enjoy surfside vibe, but we went to lunch, where I could monitor the car’s progress on an app and make sure I returned as soon as it was sufficiently charged. I would use this app with good effect all the way up the coast.

Discovering the QuESH at Coolangatta

Day 3: Gold Coast-Hervey Bay (380 km)

Our reluctant parting from the family made for a late getaway and a long afternoon and evening.

The traffic was terrible and, as always, I was struck by the thought that the Gold Coast is at its worst on its roads. Where my niece lives is a charming beach neighbourhood but from the motorway the Gold Coast looks like one giant strip mall. We battled the afternoon rush and roadworks up the Sunshine Motorway and further north, reaching the next QuESH charging station in Gympie just before sunset.

Gympie is on Gubbi Gubbi Country, straddling Bruce Highway and the Mary River. It was a gold rush town in the 1860s and from our elevated perch behind the municipal library, we could see some of the town’s many church spires and historic buildings.

Helen takes in Gympie

Down on the deserted main street we found a pub and nursed a lemon, lime and bitters each while the light faded and the birds made a rowdy return to the trees around us. I kept an eye on charging via the app and, when it reached 90 percent, we walked back up the hill to the car.

The Bruce Highway showed its true colours after Gympie: single lane, trucks thundering, pockmarked roads, poor lighting, night roadworks, and impatient locals trying to overtake.

After a long 120 kilometres, we finally pulled up at Hervey Bay in time for a late dinner, and discovered we were able to plug the car into a power point in our motel room. It wasn’t long before the sound of the ocean through the open door lulled us to sleep.

Day 4: Hervey Bay-Rockhampton (382 km)

We were determined to do the day’s drive in daylight but we did manage a long walk in Hervey Bay – from Shelly Beach to the end of the Urangan Pier and back – before a late breakfast.

Shelly Beach was well named, the low tide sand firmly packed with grooved half cockle shells. We needed our shoes! The water in the bay was mirror flat and out on the pier a local lady on a walking frame pointed out K’Gari (Fraser Island) in the distance.

Good morning, Hervey Bay!

Joining the slow march of trucks and utes up the Bruce Highway we made our first stop and in the quaint but crowded town of Childers. We found the charging station in an RV parking area behind the tourist information centre, plugged in, checked out the shopping scene and enjoyed a bowl of a very good Maleny ice cream each at a café.

Returning to the charging station we found the car on 96 percent, but two Teslas had arrived in our absence and one of the drivers was not happy he’d had to wait so long for the charger.

This was our first taste of the fine art of charging etiquette – who needs the charge first and most and, importantly, how much charge is enough for the day’s needs. Charging generally slows down after the car reaches 80 percent and it is worth monitoring if anyone is being inconvenienced by the quest for a few extra kilometers of range.

Heading north on the brutal Bruce

Chastened, we returned to the Bruce’s brutal conditions of long lines of speeding traffic, too few overtaking lanes and an improbable amount of roadwork.

We were relieved to make another quick top-up stop at Miriam Vale at around three, with a small park, public toilets and a few shops for entertainment.

The fractious traffic continued as the afternoon wore on and we crossed the ranges towards Rockhampton, dodging roadkill and watching the birds of prey swooping down to investigate.

We pulled into town with the glow of the sunset still over the city and settled into our digs by Tunuba (the Fitzroy river).

After dinner we were strolled down semi-pedestrianised Quay Street, Queensland’s longest National Trust heritage-listed strip with its stately 19th century buildings including Customs House, and several huge warehouses illuminated by coloured lights.

Tunuba by night

Day 5: Rockhampton-Sarina Beach (309 km)

I watched the sun rise over Tunuba, wondering why it had taken me so long to come and see for myself what beautiful Country this was, then piled Helen into the car for a trip to the QuESH charger, which was very nearby in the carpark of the expansive Rockhampton Regional Council headquarters.

As in other Queensland towns, the charger was well situated, with a choice of breakfast venues in easy walking distance. We sat outside one in our puffy jackets, watching the app and checking out more of the repurposed historic buildings around us as we ate.

Exploring Tunuba and Rockhampton’s historic Quay Street

After a brief but enjoyable visit to the Regional Art Gallery back on Quay Street we reluctantly left town, aware that the day’s drive involved a notoriously boring and dangerous part of the highway.

Despite the traffic (increasingly consisting of trucks, campervans and giant utes) and the ever-present roadworks, the thoughtfulness of the QuESH charger placement made for an easy day. The first stop, at a roadhouse on a lonely stretch of the highway at Marlborough South, was a good place for a picnic lunch looking out across the plains to the low ranges beyond.

At the second charger, between the cane fields in the tiny town of Carmila, we used the pause to enjoy the quietness and the big skies, and saluted the grey nomads sitting in their camp chairs outside the small caravan park on the other side of the road.

Recharging at Maryborough (L), and Carmila and the Connors Range

The decision to stop just short of Mackay and detour out to Sarina Beach for the night was a good one. Immediately to the north of this tiny coastal town is the massive coal loading facility at Hay Point but it was all tranquility at Sarina, as we ended the day with a walk on the palm-fringed beach.

Day 6: Sarina Beach-Airlie Beach (183 km)

After another long beach walk, the need to charge took us into the library carpark in central Mackay, via a breakfast stop at the town’s beautiful and long-established Botanic Gardens.

Serene morning at Sarina (L), and warm welcome to Mackay Botanic Gardens

Back on the road we continued north to Proserpine, a pleasant and hospitable service town on the Bruce Highway that serves as a gateway to the Whitsundays.

We needed to top up there because the hotelier at Airlie Beach had informed me there were no charging options at his facility or in the town. The charging station was in a carpark behind a small shopping strip and, as often happened during our stops, a local man in a ute hung out with us for a while to talk EVs and wonder aloud what the world was coming to.

From Proserpine, it was an easy 40-minute drive down Shute Harbour Road to the party town of Airlie Beach. As the lush, hilly farming country gave way to brilliant blues of the Whitsunday coastline on Ngaro Country, we were relieved we’d built one easy day into the trip.

We spent the afternoon and evening exploring the town and retired early to enjoy several hours of our favourite 1980’s pub rock emanating from the bar below our room.

Airlie bird

Day 7: Airlie Beach-Townsville/Yunbenun (272 km)

Another day called for another dawn walk, this time in light rain along the coastal Bicentennial Boardwalk from the Airlie Beach lagoon towards Cannonvale.

It turned out to be a popular route, especially around the tourist boat hub of Shute Harbour, with the grey skies providing a muted backdrop to the azure-blue Whitsunday waters.

Morning walk at Airlie

We took a local road out of town, delaying our return to the Bruce for as long as possible and stopping at a farm stall for local eggs and limes. Before we knew it, we were passing the big mango and taking the turnoff to Bowen, our first charging stop of the day.

The waterfront charger at Bowen has to be the best situated one in the country but before we plugged in, we drove up Flagstaff Hill to take in the panoramic Whitsunday views.

Whitsunday views from Flagstaff Hill (L), and views from Bowen’s rapid charging station

From Bowen we made good time despite long and surprisingly restful waits at one-way roadwork stops.

The canefields gave way to the twin towns of Home Hill and Ayr with the bridge across the wide sandy bed of the Burdekin river between them, and we continued north in a light rain, reaching Townsville a good hour before our car ferry to Magnetic Island (Yunbenun) was due to leave.

Crossing the mighty Burdekin in the rain

This final stop delivered another rare but annoying EV experience – parging – whereby some civic minded person leaves their car on charge all day to avoid parking restrictions and fees. Thanks to the anonymous parger we boarded the car ferry to Magnetic Island with only 20 percent charge.

Once on the island, of course, nothing mattered. The caretaker at our accommodation showed us a place to plug in to mains power for a slow charge and left us to it.

A few take homes

1. Charge early and often

Range anxiety is a thing. And the fast charging infrastructure, while improving all the time, could do with a little more redundancy. We quickly adopted the approach of topping up earlier than was strictly necessary in the expectation that the next charger could be out of service or in use. If you run out of charge on the road, the only option might be to be towed to a power outlet. Not an outcome you want!

In terms of cables for travel (see also the box below), you need one that plugs into a normal socket (this will likely be supplied with the car) and it’s also useful to have a “type 2 charger” in the boot for when you can’t get access to a fast charger. I also travel with a good quality extension cord. The fast chargers on the road come with their own bowser style cables.

On a multi-day trip, asking the question about slow charging at your accommodation is useful. Responses vary from total disinterest to extreme helpfulness and, in my experience, are not at all correlated with the price of the accommodation.

2. Leave extra time

As outlined above, we allowed a lot of extra time on our trip, both overall and within any given day. I have since tried a “fast trip,” proving this point in reverse.

On a one-day drive home to Sydney from Melbourne with my husband, high speeds and cold weather conspired to make the battery quick to run down and slow to charge, necessitating five recharging stops along the way.

Fifteen hours into the trip, huddled under our puffy coats behind a service centre at Sutton Forest we decided that 900km in one day was a thing of the past. We’d had fun along the way including a detour to Yakandandah for ice cream, fireside drinks at the Tarcutta Pub and an impromptu walking tour of Yass after dark, but it wasn’t something we were keen to repeat.

3. Surf the apps

There are apps just to show you where charging stations exist (you can input the specs of your car so it only shows appropriate ones) and help you navigate to them. I use PlugShare which also has a facility for reporting on the outcome of the charge and leaving a message for other drivers.

You’ll also need to download the apps associated with any pay-per-charge chargers you use. There are generally very intuitive and helpful, and can be downloaded before you travel or at the “bowser.”

Other drivers have recommended an app called A better route planner to help plan trips, but I haven’t needed to use it as I generally have my own ideas about what constitutes a good travel day.

4. Go places, meet people

The need to charge will often take you off the main road into a bypassed town, or into a part of town that makes little sense if you’re in hurry. My advice is to go with it. You can even plan ahead for these detours. Some drivers stay with their cars and snooze or work, others retire to a local café or go for a walk.

And here’s one for the extroverts: the charging stations are village green for EV people.

Just hanging around your car can be very entertaining. I’ve met farmers, survivalists, people who have converted their own cars to EVs, Tesla buffs, Tesla haters, and even a few other middle-aged women looking pleased with themselves for driving a car called a Leaf. What could go wrong?

Road trippers: Dr Ruth Armstrong (R), with sister Helen

The boring stuff

The car: Nissan Leaf e+

The range: 385km (varies with road conditions)

Fast DC charging: CHAdeMO (What? EV manufacturers have outfitted their cars with different plugs? Of course they have). Rapid chargers can deliver 50kW, and there are ultra-rapid chargers with up to 350kW capacity but not all cars, including mine, can accept ultra-rapid charging. In practice, it takes about 45 minutes to get from 20% to 80% charged.

AC “trickle” charging: Straight into any 240V powerpoint, delivers 2kW and takes about 14h from zero to fully charged. This is what I use at home for regular driving around Sydney

Type II AC charging: Via a home or one of the many publicly available boxes, delivers 4-7kW depending on the individual box and the car. You need a Type II cable.

Note: The available EV charging advice is very confusing and there are many competing commercial players. This NRMA site is a reasonable primer but my main advice is not to worry. You’ll work it out.


Dance along


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Comments 1

  1. Andy Redmond says:

    Thanks for this article. It was entertainingly written and enticing for the EV-curious!

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