In Australia, as well as neighbor, New Zealand (see later entry), the emphasis is on natural beauty and wildlife. Australia, especially, has some of the most unusual animals in the world, due to its isolation from the other land masses of the earth early in the period of continental drift as Pangaea (the Supercontinent) split apart. Evolution has taken care of the rest. Join me for a virtual tour of this fascinating continent and stay tuned for the photo album which is soon to follow.
1. Great Barrier Reef, Queensland
The Great Barrier Reef, which lies off the northeast coast of Australia, is certainly one of the most incredible natural wonders on the planet. It extends almost 2,000 kilometers (1,200 miles), roughly mirroring the coastline of Queensland. To think that this huge, elaborate construction is the result of the activity of creatures less than an inch long is truly amazing. Coral animals are small relatives of jellyfish which secrete a shell to protect themselves. When the tiny creatures die, their shells remain and become the reef. New corals attach themselves to the old shells and the reef gets larger and larger.
The reef is not only large, but, because of its many nooks and crannies, it attracts a tremendous variety of animals which come to feed and to make their homes. The reef becomes, over time, a living ecosystem which is largely self-supporting (assisted by incoming tides) and which sustains entire food chains.
The astonishing variety of species which can be found along the reef system is eclipsed only by the incredible colors of the marine life. Some of the reefs are parallel to the shoreline (called fringing reefs). These can only be accessed by boat or seaplane. North of Port Douglas, at Cape Tribulation, however, the reefs are just offshore and can be accessed from the beaches.
The outer reefs, especially, can also be dangerous places. Jellyfish, Stingrays, Lionfish, Octopus, and other creatures can make a vacation turn into a hospital stay or worse.
Arguably the best base of operations for an exploration of the Great Barrier Reef is the city of Cairns, located in the northern part of tropical Queensland. From here, boats of all types depart for some of Australia’s offshore islands and also the outer reef. Also easily accessible from the city is the Wet Tropics Rainforest, another World Heritage Site and, obviously, markedly different from the reef.
The Daintree Rainforest, just north of Cairns, offers another spectacular ecosystem to explore, one with almost as much variety as the reef. There are bus tours available, or the tableland area can be accessed via rental car.
Cairns is located almost 3,000 kilometers (2,000 miles) from Sydney, but it has an airport with flights each day from major Australian cities. Because it has become the gateway to this area of Australia, there is an abundance of accommodations and other tourist services.
Take the Orchard Tour at Cape Tribulation (about 70 miles north of Cairns) to sample a variety of different and unusual fruits which grow in rain forests around the world.
2. Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, Northern Territory
Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, Australia, is justly famous as the site of the world’s largest stone monolith, Ayers Rock, whose image conjures up visions of Australia’s outback and its native aborigines. The area is extremely remote, very near the exact center of the continent, and far from the coastline where the large cities are located. However, its popularity has dictated that it be accessible and it has become so. The typical visitor arrives in the area at the town of Alice Springs which has grown as a result of this attention. However, the town is almost 300 miles (450 kilometers) away, a five hour drive by car, so the Ayers Rock Resort (Yulara) has blossomed, only 22 kilometers (13 miles) away, and provides lodging as well as other visitor services.
The rock itself is striking, dramatically rising from the arid landscape to a height of almost 350 meters (1,100 feet). And it is truly huge, with a circumference of approximately 9 kilometers (5 miles). One of the most popular activities is to walk around the monolith. The rock is sacred to the native peoples so visitors are asked not to climb or walk on the rock, since that is an insult to their culture.
Also explore Kata Tjuta (otherwise known as the Olgas), numerous domes of rock which hide gorges and other interesting rock formations. They are also an area sacred to the Aboriginals.
Ayers Rock must be seen at sunrise or sunset because the sandstone changes colors depending on sky conditions. This makes it almost necessary to stay overnight in the near vicinity.
3. Sydney, New South Wales
Sydney, Australia, the “Emerald City,” is certainly one of the most photographed cities in the world. Its harbor area, with the famous Sydney Opera House and the Harbour Bridge, is breathtaking, especially at sunset. Probably the best way to get the perfect picture is to take a harbor cruise or any of the ferries that ply the harbor. Another great photo opportunity is available to the brave, hardy souls who scale the Harbour Bridge. The Sydney Harbour Bridgeclimb takes groups of people to the top of the 440 foot (110 meter) span for a glorious view of the harbor below. It is a strenuous but safe (participants are tethered) experience.
The Sydney Opera House, which opened in 1973, is certainly the most recognized symbol of the city and is extremely unusual and distinctive with its shell-like appearance. The roofs of the “shells” are covered with over a million tiles. It is the home of the Sydney Opera, the Sydney Theater Company, and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. Try to take in a performance while in the city.
The Sydney Tower, the tallest building in the city, has an 820 foot (270 meter) high observation deck and also provides wonderful views. Admission includes an audiovisual presentation about Australia.
The Royal Botanic Gardens offer solitude and beauty, just outside the downtown area. They contain fountains, ponds, and a number of unusual bird species besides the typical flowers and trees. From the gardens, a visitor can wander around Farm Cove to Mrs Macquaries Point. Here, the famous Mrs Macquaries Chair offers spectacular views of the Opera House and harbor.
For another uniquely Sydney experience, drive or take a bus south of the city to Bondi Beach, world famous for beach volleyball and other seashore activities. People-watching is fantastic here. Another excellent beach can be found about 7 miles (16 kilometers) north of the city in the town of Manly. The adventuresome can even walk from the harbor to the town via the Manly Scenic Walkway.
4. Blue Mountains, New South Wales
The Blue Mountains, located in New South Wales, Australia, just a 90 minute drive by car from Sydney, is a huge area that encompasses seven of Australia’s National Parks and is home to a wide variety of Australian wildlife. The region was listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in the year 2000. Fortunately, there are several towns which can suitably serve as a base of operations for visitors to the area.
The town of Katoomba is the largest of these entry points. The area around the town is noted for its breathtaking scenery, so be sure to head south to Echo Point to view the Three Sisters, a beautiful rock formation. Australia’s version of an IMAX theater presents “The Edge” at various times during the day. To get thrilling up-close-and-personal access to the area, spend some time at the Scenic World Complex, which offers a Scenic Railway, a Senescender (cable car), and a Skyway.
Another possible tourist base is found at Leura, a more upscale town which is very near the Everglades Gardens, a popular area for strolling, and Sublime Point, which, as its name suggests, provides heavenly views of the valley.
The third town is Blackheath, useful for gaining access to a different part of this scenic wilderness. Check out Govetts Leap which has great views of waterfalls and cliffs above a beautiful valley, and Evans Lookout, which also has wonderful vistas. Nearby, for the adventuresome, there is access to the Grand Canyon, a considerable trek away.
Other locations of note within the Blue Mountain region include Wentworth Falls, the Cathedral of Ferns, Mermaids Cave, and the Blue Gum Forest.
5. Great Ocean Road, Victoria
Great Ocean Road, in the province of Victoria, Australia, is one of the world’s great scenic drives. The drive extends from Torquay, just west of Melbourne to Portland, a distance of around 400 kilometers (240 miles). The road snakes along the coast, linking interesting and quaint villages and providing views of the dramatic coastline. (For trekkers, the Great Ocean Walk traverses a portion of the same coastline for a distance of about 90 kilometers or 50 miles, with many opportunities to stop, spend the night, camp, etc.)
One of the most famous and scenic portions of the road is the section within Port Campbell National Park, called The Twelve Apostles, referring to a dozen rock sentinels which lie just offshore. The Viewing Platform has a great vantage point and penguins can sometimes be seen frolicking below.
There are several great beaches which can be accessed via the Great Ocean Road. Swimming beaches include Anglesea, Apollo Bay, Bridgewater Bay, Eastern Beach, Ocean Grove, Point Lonsdale, and Wye River. Some of the surfing beaches along the route are world-famous. A few notable ones include 13th Beach, Bells Beach, Johanna, and Logan’s Beach.
Historic towns such as Port Fairy and Portland dot the route and offer an alternative type of attraction.
Around Apollo Bay, visitors have opportunities to leave the coastal road and travel inland into the Otways, a region of rain forest with several scenic drives of its own. A couple of these side trips are Waterfalls and Rain Forest Drive and Skenes Creek Road.
There are also a number of shipwrecks which have occurred offshore. Maps of the road will locate where these unfortunate incidents happened and tourist information centers can provide historical information about the wrecks.
In addition, several waterfalls can be easily accessed from the road. Some are only a short walk inland, while others are much more strenuous and require considerably more time. A few possibilities include Phantom Falls, Triplet Falls, Erskine Falls, and Beauchamp Falls.
Lighthouses are another popular feature of this drive. There are quite a few which can be seen en route. A few notables include Black Lighthouse and White Lighthouse at Queenscliff, Cape Otway Light, and Port Fairy Light.
This scenic drive should not be considered a day trip, but should be savored over the course of several days, perhaps in combination with a visit to Melbourne (below).
6. The Kimberley, Western Australia
The Kimberley is a vast region in Western Australia which is characterized by stark natural beauty, in the form of gorges, mountain ranges, rivers, waterfalls and inviting pools.
The town of Kununurra, near the border between Western Australia and the Northern Territory, is a potential base of operations, especially if access to the western part of the continent has been through the city of Darwin. Keep in mind that distances, especially in this part of Australia, are sizeable. For instance, the road from Darwin to Alice Springs, entryway to Ayers Rocks (see #2 above) and a center for Aboriginal Art, is 1,525 kilometers (about 900 miles), and the distance to Broome, the major gateway to The Kimberley, on the western edge of the region, is 2,795 kilometers (about 1,500 miles). Flights are also available which connect these areas for those who shun driving or have limited time.
Also keep in mind that traversing this area, from Darwin to Broome provides access to a number of National Parks, such as Kakadu National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site known for its abundant wetlands and wildlife (July and August are the best months) as well as several excellent examples of Aboriginal Rock Art, Nitmiluk National Park, highlighted by the Katherine River Gorge, and Purnululu National Park (the Bungle Bungles), noted for its beehive-like mounds with orange and black striations.
Another park which should be experienced is Watarrka National Park which provides access to picturesque King’s Canyon.
The town of Broome (almost 5,000 kilometers or 3,000 miles from Sydney), on the northwest coast of Australia, is the major gateway into the Kimberley. Broome is noted for its beaches. In particular, Cable Beach, just out of the town center, is 13 miles (30 kilometers) long and often recognized as one of the finest in the world. Also in the vicinity is Riddell Beach, with its vermillion cliffs. The town also has a lively Chinatown and a waterfront area which showcases the Pearling industry.
7. Gold Coast, Queensland
The Gold Coast is a long strip of beaches and coastal communities, about 75 kilometers (40 miles) south of Brisbane, the capital of Queensland, Australia. This area is probably the most well-developed shoreline area in the country and is extremely popular as a vacation spot with Australians. It is also becoming more and more significant as a tourist destination for visitors to the country. The region can be conveniently divided into three geographical sections.
The southern region is dotted with numerous resorts which offer a variety of activities, both aquatic and land-based.
The central region is centered around the community of Burleigh Heads, and, besides surfing and swimming, offers mega-shopping and Vegas-style Casinos. This area is also very convenient to the inland area known as the Hinterland, which contains rain forests and other natural areas and is also home to several national parks, specifically Lamington National Park and Springbrook National Park.
The northern region sports several extremely popular theme parks. These include Dreamworld, which boasts live shows and numerous thrill rides, Warner Brothers Movie World, a theme park based primarily on Looney Tunes characters, Wet ’n’ Wild a garden variety water park, and Sea World which focuses on marine life and is similar to other venues around the world with the same name.
A great excursion from the area around Brisbane is to Fraser Island. Travel north from Brisbane to the resort town of Hervey Bay. From here there are ferries or barges which can bring the visitor to the island. Fraser Island is the world’s largest sand island, and, because of its uniqueness, it has been recognized as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. This excursion is especially popular with Eco-tourists who marvel at the many freshwater lakes, beaches, rain forests, and wildlife.
Tasmania is an island located about 240 kilometers (130 miles) off the southeastern coast of Australia. Access to the island is available by boat (ferry service is regular, with one nightly crossing and one daily crossing) or plane. The capital and main source of tourist services is the town of Hobart, in the southeastern part of the island. Much of the island has been set aside as National Parks, and several of these are included and recognized as World Heritage Sites.
Any visit to the island should include visits to many of the following attractions. Cradle Mountain-Lake St Clair National Park is part of the world heritage area and is a must-see for visitors because of its wilderness and the potential to see some of the island’s unique wildlife. Visitors should keep in mind that many of Tasmania’s creatures are nocturnal, so that the best time to see them is in the evening, just after sunset.
Dismal Swamp, in the northwest corner of the island, is another fascinating area to explore. It is a giant sinkhole which has been repopulated, and visitors are allowed access via wooden walkways.
Hastings Caves provide access to the beautiful and haunting underground world of a dolomite cave system. Park Service employees conduct daily tours which last approximately 45 minutes. The caves are well-lit, but involve considerable walking and over 200 stairs, although in small increments.
The Tahune Airwalk is a bit closer to Hobart and can be accessed via a popular scenic drive called the Huon Trail. The air walk is a short (about one-half kilometer or one-quarter mile) walk along an elevated walkway, suspended above the native forest.
The port town of Hobart is also interesting to explore. The waterfront area, known as Sullivan’s Cove is a delight, with its Georgian warehouses converted to shops and restaurants. Salamanca Square is great for people-watching or having a beverage. Also in Hobart is the Cadbury-Schweppes Chocolate Factory which offers a guided tour (1 ½ hours) with sampling along the way.
On Saturdays in Sullivan’s Cove, the Salamanca Place Market provides an exceptional opportunity to browse an outdoor marketplace for bargains, food, or that special Tasmanian craft or souvenir.
Several other options while on the island include a drive to Port Arthur where the original Penal Colony on the island was located, and/or a visit to Freycinet National Park, on the east coast, for a hike to gorgeous Wineglass Bay.
In the western part of the island, the seaside village of Strahan is peaceful and lovely in its setting between the forests and the ocean.
9. Kangaroo Island, South Australia
Kangaroo Island is Australia’s third largest island, and is located about 115 kilometers (65 miles) southwest of the city of Adelaide, which is located in the province of South Australia. Much of the island has been preserved in the form of various national parks and wildlife sanctuaries. There are daily ferries from the mainland as well as air shuttle service. The boat trip takes approximately 7.5 hours.
The island is, of course, famous for its wildlife, as well as its pristine and secluded beaches. Kingscote is the island’s largest town and the typical base for tourist activities.
10. Melbourne, Victoria
Melbourne, Australia, is a pleasant city (one of the world’s most livable) which is extremely European and a joy to visit. The city lies along the Yarra River, a short distance from the southern coast of Australia.
One of the best ways to get oriented to what the city has to offer is to take the free City Circle Tram. It is available at several specially marked stops and travels by most of the city’s attractions in its 40 minute trip.
The most popular walk in the city traverses the area known as the Golden Mile, which passes by numerous historically and architecturally significant buildings. Many buildings are classic nineteenth century structures. Self-guiding maps are available at Tourist Information Centers. The entire city center is walker-friendly, with narrow, cobblestone streets and alleyways.
Another must-see attraction is the King’s Domain. This sight includes the Royal Botanic Gardens, which the visitor can either explore on his/her own or participate in free guided walks which are offered daily. The domain also includes numerous monuments and smaller gardens.
Like most major cities, Melbourne is a collection of ethnic neighborhoods which should be experienced by any visitor. Chinatown and the Greek Precinct are two of the favorites.
The Fitzroy Gardens also include Cook’s Cottage, the childhood home of Captain Cook, which was disassembled and transported to Melbourne in 1934 from its original location in England. Displays center around Captain Cook’s accomplishments and legacy.
Melbourne is also fairly convenient to the Great Ocean Road.