Planning a memorable trip to Australia

May 5, 2004
Outside Magazine
Week of July 9-15, 1998
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Planning a memorable trip to Australia
Question: I will be traveling around Australia for two weeks at the end of September. What are a couple of things that I can do to make it the most memorable trip ever?

Christopher Maher
Boston, Massachusetts

Ayers Rock towers high above the surrounding desert landscape
Adventure Adviser: As they say Down Under, have no worries about making a trip to Australia memorable. The country prides itself on superlatives, and no matter how you spend your two weeks, you won’t be disappointed. What to include in such a short visit to a country so vast? Given Australia’s grand scale, it’s easy to spend loads of time simply traversing the land. I’d definitely plan out your full itinerary pre-departure and book the necessary internal flights. To maximize your two weeks and minimize flight time, consider flying into Sydney and out of Cairns. Otherwise, plan a loop itinerary from your arrival city.

Whether landing in Sydney or not, spend a day or two adjusting to the new time and soaking up this sophisticated beauty. Take a boat ride out to pretty Manly, a good place to stretch your legs. No need to rent a car here, unless you want to make the 90-minute drive to the nearby Blue Mountains National Park near Blackheath, where you’ll be treated to spectacular mountain scenery and some good bushwalking, particularly around Grose Valley. Or, for a pristine beach experience, you could take a quick charter flight from Sydney to Lord Howe Island, where you can tackle your jet lag lying on white sand beaches and swimming in tranquil bays.

From Sydney, I’d jet to Melbourne, a funky city full of cafes and Aussie charm. I’d definitely suggest renting a car here and, after getting your urban fill, head to the coast. Drive southwest toward Port Campbell National Park, with its golden sandstone cliffs, eerie grottoes and striking arches. Along with Ayers Rock, the Twelve Apostles are considered one of Australia’s most unique natural features. Or, head southeast to the very popular Wilson’s Promontory National Park. Wilson’s is revered for its wildlife menagerie, which includes bright-colored lorikeets and koalas. On the southernmost tip of the mainland, you’ll also find rainforests, coastal marshes, eucalyptus groves, beaches, mountains, and wildflower-covered heaths. Great walks abound, including the six-mile trek to Sealer’s Cove. Or how about an overnight, such as the route out to Five-Mile Beach?

Once back in Melbourne, fly into the vast Northern Territory. Depending on how much time you want to spend in the interior, you may want to choose between seeing the touristed-but-spectacular Ayers Rock or flying directly to Darwin and heading to Kakadu and Katherine Gorge National Parks. Both will give you a close look at the rich Aboriginal history. The umber red Ayers Rock in Uluru National Park is roughly a five-hour drive from Alice Springs. So striking and odd is the world’s largest isolated rock that it rarely disappoints, but you may be put off by the crowds. Don’t miss the stunning Olgas and their 36 domes, a mere 20 miles from Ayers Rock.

In Kakadu — an official World Heritage Site — you’ll find lots of examples of the x-ray style of Aboriginal art. The park is a premier bird sanctuary, and home to many a crocodile. Although there are numerous hikes through both Kakadu and Katherine Gorge, you can also explore both by boat to some extent.

Unless you’re aquaphobic, it would be a shame to miss Queensland and the Great Barrier Reef. The world’s largest living organism encompasses 2,600 coral reefs and more than 300 coral islands. Fly into Cairns, but skip over this crowded hub and instead head north to ambling, palm-shaded Port Douglas. From here, you can take diving and snorkeling trips out to the Reef and explore nearby Daintree National Park (and Mossman, the park’s breezy gateway town). Further south, the more upscale Whitsunday Islands offer great snorkeling, sailing and fishing.

En route to or from Cairns, head inland to Atherton Tableland, a remarkably unvisited treasure. This area has loads of national parks, of which Bellenden Ker and Palmerston are the largest. Scenery includes untouched upland tropical rainforest, fields of sugarcane and rich, rolling countryside. There are many waterfall-filled hikes and peaceful bike rides to choose from, and you can watch endearing Platypuses swim in Palmerston’s creeks.

A couple more suggestions. If you’re a real outdoor enthusiast, you may want to consider a sidetrip to Tasmania (about an hour’s flight from Melbourne), where there are stellar hikes and national parks, including Cradle Mountain-Lake St. Clair and Freycinet, with its glistening Wine Glass Bay. Tasmania is almost like a mini-New Zealand, with a full range of ecosystems and vast array of hikeable terrain, but it’s got Australia’s wonderful wildlife — kangaroos, wombats, echidnas, wallabies, Tasmanian devils and other famed Aussie beasts make their home here — and some great vineyards for wine tasting. You’d really need a minimum of five days to do the island justice. If you want to include Adelaide on your trip, then also make the three-hour trek (including ferry ride) to Kangaroo Island and Flinders Chase National Park. This wooded island — Australia’s second largest after Tasmania — has great beaches, caves, limestone cliffs and unbeatable wildlife, including emus, sea lions and, of course, plenty of the island’s namesake.

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