Going overland between Adelaide and Melbourne, whether by car, bus, or rail, may take longer than the quick 45-minute flight, but has advantages for the traveller. Going this way, you can see a lot more of the country's scenery and check out plenty of small towns you may otherwise overlook.
The Dukes/Western (M8/A8/M1) is a direct route going through many of Victoria's historic goldrush regions. This route is 725 km long, and will take a minimum of 8 hours without stops.
The Princes Highway/Great Ocean Road (A1/B100/B1) is an oceanside scenic route popular with tourists since the 1930s. It is roughly 1000 km, and will take at least 12 hours without stops, but realistically a fair bit longer. An even longer route goes though The Coorong and the Limestone Coast on the way out of Adelaide towards the Victoria border and Great Ocean Road, but passes through some really scenic places on the way; give yourself at least three days if you want to take this route.
Melbourne is one of Australia's true world cities and a nexus of culture, art, food, and entertainment.
Adelaide is "Australia's largest country town", a city of nearly 1.5 million that endeavours to keep a bucolic and close-knit feel even as it expands into a metropolis. Though it isn't on every tourist's itinerary, it's a worthy destination for food, wine, and the "Mad March" festival season.
Both cities are relatively close-together in a country where driving eight hours often just serves to take you eight hours from civilization. Unlike the Outback routes or the Nullarbor, this is a fairly simple road trip with the same sort of considerations as any you might take in a similarly geographically large but more evenly distributed country such as the United States. Fuel and food are easily available at towns on the way, both 500-people dots on the map built primarily around a roadhouse and significant country towns where much of the surrounding region is in their economic orbit.
You wouldn't need much for this trip other than a bottle of water. Parts of the Dukes Highway get to 40˚ in the summertime and you will almost certainly feel dehydrated without water. A spare tyre is advisable but since either routes don't have unpaved trails, you wouldn't really need one.
There are many entries to this route with the most common ones being in either end of Melbourne or Adelaide.
It takes about 7 hours end to end by car via the Western Freeway, the Western Highway, Dukes Highway and the South Eastern Freeway, but it takes 12 hours via the near coastal Princes Highway and Great Ocean Road without stopping. Realistically, it would take a lot longer as you'd want to stop somewhere at either destination whether it's for a drink of water or visiting some of the historic towns/cities.
Two bus providers serve this route, the Victorian state-based V/Line and the independent operator Firefly. The V/Line service is a combined coach and rail service, with trains between Melbourne and Bendigo followed by coach between Bendigo and Adelaide. Buses run both day and night services. Firefly is competitively priced if booked ahead, with $65 or $70 sale fares usually remaining available until quite soon before the departure date -- better than plane or rail.
The Firefly bus, day and night, runs the Dukes/Western route and stops at two roadhouses along the way: Ararat in Victoria and Tintinara in South Australia. Both are meal/rest breaks with about half an hour to get out and stretch your legs, rather than tour excursions. Ararat is a decently sized town with history in its own right, Tintinara more a pit stop built around the roadhouse. Ararat Roadhouse offers sandwiches, lasagna, and biryani night and day; Tintinara has a full-fledged menu for day service and a small selection of the kind of hot foods often prepared by service stations anywhere in the country, such as hot chips and dim sims. Tintinara Roadhouse also has quite a bit of local tourist information for the Limestone Coast plastered on the walls, and a television perpetually playing infomercials that gets outright liminal when you're there at 3AM.
The route taken by Firefly goes through a solid selection of other towns and small cities, particularly on the Victorian side of the border, and you can embark and disembark at a number of places other than Adelaide and Melbourne. The Ballarat station in particular sometimes sees more people getting on or off than the Melbourne one. It's a particularly convenient route if your origin or destination is in Melbourne's western suburbs, due to stops at Melton and Deer Park. In addition, unlike the rail alternative, you enter or leave Adelaide directly from the Central Business District.
This is not a luxury trip, although the free Wi-Fi is nice. In addition, while the bus is rarely crowded, it does see more passengers for its size than the train. It can be a fascinating place to people-watch, and conversations with strangers at the stopover points aren't uncommon.
Interstate passenger rail travel in Australia is monopolised by Journey Beyond (known until 2019 as Great Southern Rail), and your only real option to go between these two cities is The Overland. The Overland aims for a more luxurious form of travel than plane, bus, or car, even in Red (economy) class, while Red Premium (which can be rounded to a flight's business class or the nicer sort of premium economy) is quite the experience -- enough legroom to really stretch, plus tasty free breakfast and lunch (try the buffalo curry). It's a niche service that caters to a mix of retirees, families, and railfans, and carriages are rarely crowded or noisy.
While JB/GSR's other offerings compare unfavourably in price to a flight, The Overland is surprisingly competitive in this respect, perhaps related to the fact it's funded almost entirely by the Victorian government. A Red ticket is comparable in cost to an economy flight on a budget carrier like Jetstar, while Red Premium is a little cheaper than economy on a full-service carrier like Qantas.
The big drawback of this mode of travel is that the trains don't offer Wi-Fi, supposedly a conscious decision to posit themselves as a scenic and meditative form of travel. The status of the route at any given point is also sometimes questionable. Formerly funded by a joint operation of the Victorian and South Australian state governments, the latter pulled their funding in 2018 and left it entirely on Victoria's shoulders. As of 2021, the train is expected to be fully funded by the Victorian government through at least 2023 after a number of serious questions about its future in 2020.
The Overland runs only during the daytime (leaving in the morning and arriving in the evening) and leaves from Southern Cross station in Melbourne's city centre heading west, or Adelaide Parklands Terminal 3 km southwest of the city centre heading east. Note that there are no public transit options between Adelaide Parklands and the Adelaide CBD. It departs from Adelaide Thursdays and Sundays, and from Melbourne Mondays and Fridays.
In addition to Adelaide and Melbourne, the Overland stops at a number of towns in the region. Passengers can embark or disembark at, west to east, Murray Bridge, Bordertown, Nhill, Dimboola, Horsham, Stawell, Ararat, and Geelong.
Melbourne to Ballarat
The road is a fully four lane freeway with grade separate intersections and a 110km/h speed limit.
Ballarat to Ararat
This section is mostly freeway grade with a limit of 100 km/h. This section of the road sees about 6000-6500 vehicles a day, with one-fifth being commercial vehicles (e.g. trucks).
Ararat to Horsham
This section of the road is only single carriageway, but there are plans to duplicate the highway. Regardless, the highway will still have a 100km/h speed limit.
Horsham to Bordertown
Horsham is notorious in the region for its many traffic lights for its size. Travellers are warned that getting in and out of the town will be a greater ordeal than they expect.
Bordertown to Tailem Bend
Once you get to the South Australian side of the border, roads are often less maintained.
Tailem Bend to Adelaide
The road is a fully four-lane freeway with grade separate intersections and a 110 km/h speed limit.
- 1 Melbourne. Australia's second largest city by population and is set to become the first by 2023.
- 2 Ballarat. Australia's former mining capital.
- 3 Beaufort.
- 4 Ararat. Not to be confused with Ballarat, another mining city of Victoria.
- 5 Stawell.
- 6 Horsham. Home to many restaurants.
- 7 Bordertown.
- 8 Keith. Begin or finish your outback journey here.
- 9 Tailem Bend.
- 10 Mount Barker.
- 11 Adelaide. Australia's wine, fashion and space capital as well as the largest country town.
- 12 Melbourne.
- 13 Geelong.
- 14 Torquay. Australia's surf capital.
- 15 Anglesea.
- 16 Lorne.
- 17 Apollo Bay.
- 18 Warrnambool.
- 19 Mount Gambier.
- 20 Tailem Bend.
- 21 Adelaide.
The Coorong/Limestone Coast/Great Ocean Road
- 22 Melbourne.
- 23 Geelong.
- 24 Torquay. Australia's surf capital.
- 25 Anglesea.
- 26 Lorne.
- 27 Apollo Bay.
- 28 Warrnambool. Where the famous movie Oddball was filmed.
- 29 Port Campbell.
- 30 Port Fairy.
- 31 Cape Bridgewater. Famous for blowholes.
- 32 Mount Gambier. South Australia's second largest city.
- 33 Robe.
- 34 Kingston SE. Home to a gigantic lobster statue; one of the 150 big things in Australia.
- 35 The Coorong.
- 36 Wellington.
- 37 Strathalbyn.
- 38 Adelaide.
Two-thirds of the Western/Dukes Highway route is just a two-lane undivided road. Avoid overtaking on the opposite lane.
The Dukes Highway has the highest road death toll in South Australia. It's a very long, mostly straight road with a lot of truck traffic (around 45% of total traffic on this side of the border), and not always in the most maintained condition. On long drives, make sure to make rest stops in towns along the way like Tailem Bend, Keith or Bordertown.
In summertime, temperatures can get very high (above 40°C) on the route, particularly on the South Australian side of the border for the Dukes Highway. If you must make this trip in the summer, consider travelling by train or overnight bus or driving at night where temperatures would be cooler.