Australia, Naturally

Kangaroos are nothin' in this land of unique, sometimes-bizarre creatures and landscapes.
By Luba Vangelova
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You've seen the Sydney opera house and the soaring bridge enough—natural Australia trumps them both. It may lack the other continents' soaring peaks or epic rivers, but Australia easily holds its own in the natural wonders category. From teeming rainforests to underwater coral gardens, 70-mile-long beaches, and sweeping deserts — and yes, even snow-covered mountains in winter—this island continent is the true land of extremes (travel brochure hyperbole aside). With a land mass roughly equal to the continental U.S., yet only about six percent of the population, Australia boasts a vast interior for travelers to explore and (sometimes literally) get lost in. (Most residents cling, understandably, to the coast.) It's still relatively easy to get away from it all in Australia. With varying degrees of remoteness, here's a sampling of natural highlights.

Outer Islands, Great Barrier Reef, Queensland
This is where the boulder-size giant clams live, those with iridescent linings. And reef sharks, and more aquatic wildlife along some 1,250 miles. Actually comprising a maze of 2,500 smaller reefs, the GBR is the granddaddy of them all, but the way to see it is to visit the few resort islands that lie on the Great Barrier Reef itself. The two standouts are Heron in the south and Lizard in the north. The former is renowned for its tropical scenery and bird life; the latter for its exclusivity, and its proximity to top dive sites such as the Cod Hole, populated by large potato cod. But for the ultimate diving adventure, head further out to sea—more specifically, the Coral Sea. Multi-day, live-aboard dive cruises visit the area's uninhabited atolls and teeming, pristine waters (which can offer an incredible 150 to 300 feet of visibility).
The Kimberley, Western Australia
This rugged land is remote even by Australian standards. It's a last frontier, a region of deserts, cattle stations, Aboriginal communities, gorges, chasms, and the eccentric beehive-shaped (and tiger-striped) Bungle Bungle Ranges. The Bungle Bungles are the stars of the 514,000-acre Purnululu National Park, best known for its rugged geology. But the fan palms and eucalyptus stand along with the freshwater crocodiles, wallabies, dingoes, echidnas, goannas, and indigenous fauna to make this a great nature destination. A 4WD is useful (and sometimes essential) in many parts of the Kimberley, but you can still appreciate much of the region without one. To avoid being stranded by flooded roads, visit during the dry season, from April to September, but be prepared for the cold nights.

Cape York Peninsula, Queensland
Two of Australia's world-class natural wonders, the rainforest and the reef, "meet" at the edge of this large peninsula north of Cairns. Here the Great Barrier Reef lies within a short jaunt of the lush coast. The peninsula's northern half is wild 4WD territory that requires time, money, and not a small amount of adventure. Organized overland tours take a week to travel from Cairns to the tip of Cape York. On the other hand, the bottom of the peninsula—including the stunning Cape Tribulation, where James Cook nearly wrecked his ship—is reachable on day trips from Cairns. If you have the time, consider spending a few days at one of the Daintree or Cape Tribulation area's secluded rainforest lodges. From these you can venture out in search of possums, Boyd's tree dragons, startlingly blue butterflies, and other wildlife that lurk amid the strangler figs, palms, and rainforest canopy.

Published: 28 Sep 2000 | Last Updated: 14 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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