The Wonders of Oz

Further Afield: The Red Center, the Top End, and the Great Barrier Reef
  |  Gorp.com
Daintree Australia
The dense rainforests of Queenslands' Daintree (PhotoDisc)

Sydney will likely be where you start your Aussie adventure, and it’ll likely be where you end it as well. Deciding what to do in-between times, however, is a difficult question to answer exactly. The knee-jerk response is (of course) EVERYTHING. But the vast acreage of the country precludes a comprehensive plan of attack unless you’ve got four to six months. So if you’ve got the vacation time of mere mortals, it’s best to choose one or two destinations (or three, if you’re a speed-traveler) and plan accordingly. But we advise that you don’t take a checklist approach. You could see Uluru, the Great Barrier Reef, the rainforest, Perth, the Harbour Bridge, and Jim Jim Waterfall all within two weeks, but it’s likely you won’t enjoy it as much as you would if you concentrate on a few choice spots and spend three to four days at each. After all, with the inexpensive airfare available during the Aussie winter, you can (and likely will) come back.

Listed below are some logistical details (reliable outfitters, ways to tackle the seemingly insurmountable list of each region's attractions, advice on weather in the country's different states), but by no means is this list definitive. Australia is a massive land with a wide variety of attractions. If you feel overwhelmed, check out Tourism Australia (www.australia.com) or browse through the different Lonely Planet books that cover the country—the guidebook company is based in Melbourne and is the definitive source for guidebooks on Oz.

Alice Springs, Uluru, the Olgas, and Kings Canyon
Alice Springs got its start as the central telegraph station in the Outback. Since then, it’s evolved into the main destination in Australia’s famed Red Center and the main gateway to Kings Canyon and Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park—home of the Olgas and that ubiquitous chunk of rock you’ve seen in every Aussie travel brochure. Though these attractions are several hours away, most of the outfitters are based in Alice Springs. You could arrange for a car rental and do the loop yourself—each site has a wide range of accommodations available, from the luxury of the Voyages properties (www.voyages.com.au) to rustic campgrounds, and all the routes are well marked. But guided trips come heartily recommended, especially when it comes to navigating the crowds that swarm to the desert this time of year. As with most package-style trips, group size is everything. Wayoutback Desert Safaris (www.wayoutback.com.au/) offers three- and five-day tours of the region in 4x4 trucks and trailers with groups that never exceed nine. You cook by campfire, camp under the stars, and see the unseen—a rarity in a realm where fleets of tour buses are de rigueur. Alice Springs also has a variety of attractions, from the Desert Museum to the Aboriginal Arts Center, and the town is positioned between the foothills of the Western MacDonnell Ranges, which has loads of remote bushwalking trails.

Darwin and Kakadu National Park
Darwin is the capital city of Northern Territory and the gateway to all of Southeast Asia—consequently it’s a massive backpacker’s hang out. It’s also the main gateway to two of Australia’s most impressive national parks: Litchfield and Kakadu. Of the two, Kakadu, the country’s largest park, clearly rises to the top of the Top End. The park is massive—over 1,200 square miles—and is the only World Heritage Site that qualifies for both cultural and natural listings. It has 5,000 aboriginal art sites, an exhaustive amount of plants and animals (including a startling number of birds and fresh and saltwater crocodiles), waterfalls, swimming holes, wooden boardwalks along massive billabongs, and loads more. With such a wealth of attractions, guided trips are essential (you could brave the park yourself, but you’ll likely spend most of your time hunting for what you want to see, rather than seeing it). Wilderness 4WD Adventures (www.wildernessadventures.com.au) offers three- and five-day 4x4 tours through Kakadu, hitting all the signature Kakadu sites in tour groups that never exceed nine. The region basically experiences two seasons: the Wet and the Dry—if you take advantage of cheap L.A.-to-Sydney winter airfare, that’ll put you at the Top End during the dry season. The famed waterfalls of Kakadu will be little more than a trickle at this point, especially as you get into the late dry season. However, the lack of water means you can penetrate sections you just can’t reach during the Wet, and the temperatures make plunges into the freshwater pools a refreshing indulgence after half a day of bushwalking.

Cairns, the Daintree, and the Great Barrier Reef
Cairns’ proximity to the world’s largest barrier reef has transformed this mud flat oceanfront town into the central tourist hub for the snorkeling and scuba-diving set. The best low-cost solution for a quick reef visit is a 45-minute ride out to Fitzory Island (www.fitzroyisland.com.au), where you can snorkel, hike, sea kayak, or just lounge on the beach. Cairns does have its charms, but keep in mind that the barrier reef is massive, and if you head north or south out of town it may be easier to land a trip to the reef where fellow boat passengers number in the 20s rather than the 100s. Port Douglas, about an hour north, is a quaint upper-class resort town with a beautiful four-mile beach, a downtown shopping district, and several dive outfitters. But to truly experience the unique character of Queensland, head another hour or so to the Daintree, a swath of dense rainforest 16 times older than the Amazon. The drive from Cairns—along the winding coastline, into vast fields of sugarcane and bananas, then on a serpentine road that winds through the rainforest—may rank as one of the country’s best. Continue along the York Peninsula to Cape Tribulation, host to the high-end Coconut Beach Rainforest Lodge and the luxe backpacker’s joint, PK’s Jungle Village (www.pksjunglevillage.com.au/capetrib.html). This region is the only location in the world where two World Heritage sites meet—mangrove rainforest trees actually grow out of the Great Barrier Reef off Tribulation Beach.

For the best Great Barrier Reef experience off Cape Tribulation, however, sign up with Odyssey H20 (www.voyages.com.au/destinations/capetribulation/experiences/odysseyh20.asp) for a full-day trip to Mackay Reef. You’re shuttled from Tribulation Beach to a boat with no more than 30 passengers, travel 12 nautical miles in 45 minutes, and spend the day snorkeling or diving. Experienced divers can arrange for a guided tour, while novices can take a quick intro lesson and then execute two 30-minute dives. As with the Top End, seasons on Cape Tribulation are basically divided into the Wet and the Dry. Travel during Sydney’s winter and you luck out: the dry season will still bring you the occasional showers (and yes, downpours—but it is a rainforest), but the lethal box jellyfish that bob in the waters off Coconut and Tribulation Beach have moved on. The sun is warm, the water cool, refreshing, and clear. You can get cheaper trips to the reef during the summer, but the ocean at that time of year will typically be the same temperature as the air—hardly the respite you need under the hot southern-hemisphere sun.


Nathan Borchelt is the lead editor for Away.com

Published: 10 Aug 2004 | Last Updated: 6 Nov 2012
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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