Winter Travel Guide 1996
The Blue Mountains
In the park are a string of sedate, 1920s-era hamlets geared toward romantic weekend getaways for Sydneysiders. Katoomba is the most popular, and Lilianfels its most genteel hotel (doubles, $200; 011-61-47-801-200). But for a more dramatic taste of "the Blueys," pack a tent and hike into the campground at Acacia Flats. To get there, drive via the village of Blackheath to the trailhead at Victoria Falls Lookout, then follow the six-hour zigzag track past the maze of thin, ghostly eucalypts known as the Blue Gum Forest (no permit or reservations are required for camping). The next day, follow the 12-mile loop to Govetts Leap through more bird-filled, creek-riddled ravines. On the third day, hike back on the steep trail via Evans Lookout and catch a taxi back to your car. (For park information, call 47-87-8877.)
For the most intense burst of local color, take a guided day trip to Claustral Canyon near Mount Tomah, about ten miles farther north: You can rappel down the chasm's three underground waterfalls, a cascade of icy water pounding you in the face all the while; later, you'll have to swim through various pitch-dark tunnels to emerge at the canyon's other end. For rock climbers there's the sheer 600-foot middle finger of the famous local landmark, the Three Sisters; if you make it to the top, you can wave at the hundreds of tourists snapping your photo over at Echo Point. Blue Mountains Adventure Company (47-821-271) arranges these and other trips: One-day trips cost $67-$80; a five-day sampler of canyoning, rappelling, mountain biking, spelunking, and climbing will run you about $415.
The premier bushwalk is the Overland Track in the northwest of the central highlands. Running through Cradle Mountain-Lake St. Clair National Park, this tough, muddy trail crosses 54 miles of exposed, windswept moorland, its mountain panoramas interspersed with lakes and gnarled, twisted forests--all inhabited by wallabies, wombats, and Tasmanian Devils (unlike the Bugs Bunny version, they're like big-headed rodents, but the surprisingly loud roar is accurate). The track can be covered in five days, but most people prefer to take at least eight to explore the side trails. No permits are needed for camping, but all hikers must register on departure (for park information, call 04-92-1133). The Australian outfitter Peregrine (in the U.S.: 800-889-1464) runs guided seven-day camping treks for $780 per person, including all equipment and transfers from Hobart. Cradle Mountain Huts (03-312-006) offers a cushier six-day trek on the Overland Track, with overnight stays in comfortable, heated cabins ($1,138 per person). And there's no shame in staying at the sprawling chalet-style Cradle Mountain Lodge (cabins with kitchenettes, $125; 800-225-9849) at the entrance to the national park. The place is almost the size of a small village, but it's a good base for day hikes. Your best bet: Take the six-hour loop around Dove Lake via the Twisted Lakes.
For fly fishermen, the thousands of lakes and pristine streams riddling the central highlands are hopping with brown trout; stay at the eccentric Bronte Park Highland Village (doubles, $50-$63; 02-89-1126), a converted hydroelectric camp from the 1950s, each of its cottages named after a different foreign country. Meals are extra, served in a family-style dining room.
Beyond Cradle Mountain-Lake St. Clair, the whole southwest of Tasmania is a network of World Heritage-listed national parks, a barely mapped expanse of mountains and temperate rainforest where many are convinced the Tasmanian Tiger, or thylacine, still lurks. At the area's northern fringe lies the Franklin-Gordon Wild Rivers National Park, which enjoys talismanic status among Aussie environmentalists: In the early 1980s, hundreds of Tasmanian "greenies" threw themselves in front of bulldozers to save the Franklin's raging rapids from a dam. Whitewater rafters can only give thanks: As you weave through some of the world's most inaccessible country, overhung by greenery and 170-million-year-old sheer quartzite gorge walls, the Franklin seems like a crevice in geological time. Class IV rapids follow in quick succession, with portages required in several sections. Peregrine runs rafting expeditions, from the more moderate five-day trip along the Upper Franklin ($860 per person) to a 13-day wilderness extravaganza along the entire river ($1,490 per person) climaxing with 600 yards of the Class IV Newland Cascades and including a day climbing Frenchmans Cap, the tallest peak in the park.
For coastal drama, head for the South Coast Track, a six-day journey along uninhabited beaches flanked by huge headlands; it's like a larger-scale Big Sur (next stop south: Antarctica). To tackle this sodden, mist-shrouded, leech-filled trail alone, take a light plane from Strahan into the airstrip at Melaleuca--a camp almost lost in the middle of the wilderness--then hike about 45 miles out to Cockle Creek, where daily buses operate (no permits are needed, but hikers should be experienced; for park information, call 011-61-02-88-1283; flights cost $463 with Wilderness Air, 04-71-7280). Down Under Answers (in the U.S.: 800-788-6685) operates nine-day guided camping trips for $870 per person, including equipment and transfers from Hobart.
On the east coast of the island, the Freycinet Lodge (cabins, $110; 02-57-0101) is a new, minimally designed wilderness hotel at the gateway to the sand-fringed Freycinet Peninsula National Park. You can take day hikes over the pink granite mountains into clear, green Wineglass Bay. Peregrine offers a three-day sea-kayak trip for $390 per person (including gear, meals, and transfers from Hobart). You'll paddle three and a half hours south of the lodge to a remote beach camp on the western shore of the peninsula where you can kayak, hike, snorkel, and fish.
At the southern tip of the coral expanse lies Heron Island, regarded as one of the world's top ten diving spots. Seen from the air, Heron is a green dot at the tip of an immense triangle of coral. Swim out a short way with your snorkel and you'll be surrounded by a fluorescent parade of 800 species of fish, and more white-tip reef sharks than you can poke a fin at (luckily, they're too well fed to bother with swimmers). For experienced divers, a dozen major sites are within 15 minutes, and as a Christmas bonus, December and January are hatching months for green turtles.
Heron is reached by helicopter or catamaran from Gladstone. Room rates start with the budget Turtle Cabins ($125 per person, including all meals) to $230 per person for a deluxe Beach House, but the best deal is the Heron Suites ($185 per person, all-inclusive), from which you stroll straight out onto the white sands and into the water. For all three, book through P&O Resort Holidays (in the U.S.: 800-255-9849).
A dozen or so boat-hire companies operate out of Airlie Beach and Shute Harbour, just beyond Proserpine, but a good start is Rent-A-Yacht (in the U.S.: 800-788-6685). Rates start at $200 a day, with a five-night minimum. Catamarans and motor cruisers are also available (the latter, an obvious choice for more lubberly skippers, start at $250 a day).
If that's all too pricey, hop a ferry to one of the 20 or so campgrounds on the islands. For $40, take the regular service out to large, lush Whitsunday Island and camp at the southern end of blindingly pure Whitehaven beach, one of Australia's finest; alternatively, the privately run campground on Hook Island has excellent hiking and snorkeling. (You can book all of these services via the travel agency Destination Whitsundays, 79-466-848.)
On the west coast, the wilderness lodge Kingfisher Bay (doubles, $185; 71-203-333) is a study in eco-chic. Almost hidden by the surrounding bush, its glass-walled lobby is a postmodern cathedral. Kingfisher makes a fine base for the first few days, but to get the most out of Fraser, head "out bush" with your own tent and four-wheel-drive vehicle. It's easiest to rent a car in Brisbane and drive the three and a half hours to meet the barge from River Heads, just south of Hervey Bay; the fare is about $50, and reservations must be made with Kingfisher Bay. A four-wheel-drive permit is also required: It costs about $12 from the general store at River Heads. Free-range camping is permitted up and down the east coast of Fraser, but Dundubara campsite, with showers and barbecue grills, is just back from the beach in the northeast; it's the shadiest spot to pitch a tent. (Camping permits cost $6-$10 a night; obtain them on the island at the Eurong information center, 71-27-9128.) Pick up supplies and beer from the tiny island community at Happy Valley, fish straight off the beach, and presto--you're an honorary local.
By Tony Perrottet
Queen Charlotte Walkway
You'll start from Ship Cove at the north of the sounds (where the explorer Captain Cook stopped four times between 1770 and 1777) and hike through rainforest with intermittent views of the islands of Queen Charlotte Sound. After four hours you'll come to the very English Furneaux Lodge--some people stop here and never leave. The determined hiker will push on, paralleling the water's edge, for another four hours to Punga Cove; here you'll have the choice of camping or resort accommodations. (If you camp, be sure to sneak from your tent site to the resort's fine restaurant to sample scallops, oysters, the delectable green-lipped mussel, and Mac's beer.)
The next day is a bit of a grind, about eight hours, but the views down into the sounds (Kenepuru and Queen Charlotte) compensate for the trudge through regenerating scrub. Drop down from Torea Saddle (across which Maori warriors once dragged their war canoes) and stop overnight at The Portage--the camping here is better than the hotels. The last day you'll pass through magnificent primeval beech forest before reaching Anakiwa.
To get to Ship Cove, take a water taxi (about $20 one-way; Couger Line, 011-64-3-573-7925) from Picton, terminus for the Cook Strait ferry. You'll also need transport from Anakiwa back to Picton (contact Barry's Bus, 3-577-9696). You can arrange to sea kayak a section of the walk; call Marlborough Sounds Adventure Company, 3-573-6078, to arrange rentals. Accommodations en route range from $52 to $85. For more information call The Villa (3-573-6598), a popular backpackers' place in Picton, or the Department of Conservation office (3-573-7582).
Fishing the Nelson Lakes
Mount Cook National Park
The 6,986-foot Ball Pass crossing is one way to get up there without any mountaineering experience, allowing you views of Cook that most tourists only see through the windows of a light aircraft. The first day is a tough six-hour, 2,788-foot climb out of the glaciated Tasman Valley to the private Caroline Hut, a comfortable aerie that looks straight across to Cook's dramatic Caroline Face. Climb a nearby peak the next day and rest up for Day 3, a demanding nine-hour trek across the pass and down through tricky gorges and bluffs into the East Hooker Valley. If necessary you'll use crampons and an ice ax and the guide will belay you. Alpine Recreation (3-680-6736) offers this three-day hike for $463. The National Park Visitor Center (3-435-1818; fax 435-1895) in Mount Cook Village can provide advice on weather and other hiking choices.
Mount Aspiring National Park
The two-day trip into Doubtful Sound is a good place to start. It begins in Te Anau with a drive to Lake Manapouri, a 20-mile boat trip across the lake, and then a 13-mile trek in a four-wheel-drive vehicle over Wilmot Pass to Deep Cove. The paddle down Doubtful Sound passes Rolla Island, where you might spot the Fiordland crested penguin, detours up deathly silent Hall Arm, and continues down the sound to Elizabeth Island, home to fur seals, bottlenose dolphins, and little blue penguins. From there, put your sails up and, wind willing, get blown back to Deep Cove. Fiordland Wilderness Experiences (3-249-7700) will set it all up for $163 per person. They also rent kayaks and gear to those wishing to do their own trips. If you only have one day, consider paddling Milford Sound with Rosco's Milford Sound Sea Kayaks. Try the Sunriser Wildlife and Waterfall Trip ($51 per person; 3-249-8840), a six-hour trip running every morning. For more information, call the Fiordland National Park visitors center (03-249-7921).
By Jeff Williams