#1 – Explore Kakadu’s Little Brother
Why should Kakadu get all the glory? Especially when Litchfield National Park, a mere slip of a thing only covering about 1500km2, compared with Kakadu’s immense 20,000km2, lies a far more friendly two-hour drive down the road from Darwin? Kakadu has always held the crown as the Top End’s premier natural attraction, but we submit that this may change in the near future.
Kakadu’s trump cards are its four mighty waterfalls, three of which require 4WD, and the most famous of which – Jim Jim falls – is wet in the wet season (when you can’t reach it) and dries up in the dry.
Litchfield’s four waterfalls are lustily full year-round, and are gathered tightly on the Tabletop Range. Three of these (Florence, Tjaynera and Wangi) are open to swimming in wonderful pools, while the fourth, Tolmer, is protected because of a rare species of bat.
“SPECTACULAR, VARIED AND EASILY ACCESSIBLE FALLS MEANS THAT LITCHFIELD WON’T BE ON THIS LIST FOR MUCH LONGER.” – Richard I’Anson
Access is simple, and sealed roads are improving. And another big plus: there aren’t too many spots in Kakadu where you can feel completely safe swimming, but in Litchfield – no estuarine crocs.
Magnetic termite mounds abound in Litchfield, their perfect orientation along north-south poles a wondrous nod to modern architecture. The Lost City with its bizarre sandstone towers, monitor lizards darting to and fro, endless pools, paperbark swamps and picnic spots . . . the people of Darwin, and farther flung, are rightly flocking to Litchfield for their perfect Top End experience.
100km southwest of Darwin, near Batchelor. Generally accessible year-round via Batchelor. In the dry season it’s also accessible via the unsealed Cox Peninsula Road.
Did you know?
Kakadu attracts around 240,000 visitors each year. However, due to the relatively “instant” nature of its attractions, Litchfield is very quickly catching up, posting figures of 220,000 and gaining.
#2 – Be cast for eternity onto a salt lake
Under a blazing Western Australian sun in December 2002, British installation artist Antony Gormley gazed out upon the brilliant white expanse of Lake Ballard, an ancient salt lake 55km west of the small outback town of Menzies. The celebrated sculptor had hit upon of a very curious plan.
North of Kalgoorlie, Menzies was part of the frenetic gold rush of the late 1890s and is now a virtual ghost town. When Gormley arrived, he had an ambitious sculpture project in mind to mark the 50th anniversary of the Perth International Arts Festival.
First he sought permission from local Aboriginal people for the use of almost 10km2 of the barren salt lake. Then he approached the citizens of Menzies and, after some persuading, spent the next six months capturing digital scans of 51 of them – completely naked.
These scans were then reduced in size by two thirds, cast into moulds, and transformed into 51 bizarre stainless steel sculptures that somehow contrived to represent their subjects’ innards. The strangely extraterrestrial figures were then placed at intervals across the blank canvas of the million-year-old salt lake, making for an extremely eerie and effective installation, especially at dawn and dusk.
A book of the entire painstaking process has since been published, called Antony Gormley: Inside Australia.
WHERE // Menzies is 726km east of Perth and 132km north of Kalgoorlie. Lake Ballard itself is 55km west of Menzies. Call the Menzies Shire on (08) 9024 2041 or check out www.menzies.wa.gov.au for more info.
DID YOU KNOW? // The installation was originally to be 100 figures, but the project ran over budget. It was also supposed to be removed in 2003, but proved so successful that it remains to this day as a drawcard for local and international visitors.
#3 – Swim with wild seals in Baird Bay
There are a multitude of in-water animal encounters to be had in Australia, of varying quality – some take place in aquariums, some in cages (that’s sharks), others in knee-deep water just offshore and usually with dolphins. But there’s nothing quite like meeting a wild and curious creature, especially one as playful as a sea lion, on its own terms.
Completely non-manipulated, the experience of paddling around with a frolicking sea lion in Baird Bay on the west coast of SA’s Eyre Peninsula is one of the few places in the world where it’s just you and them in shallow, sheltered waters. The sea lions here, and around the small collection of islands nearby, are totally unfed, untrained and in naturally wild conditions.
“THIS IS NO THEME PARK SPLASH-ABOUT WITH HIGHLY TRAINED, ANIMALS. IT REALLY IS ONE OF THOSE EXPERIENCES WITH ANIMALS THAT WILL CHANGE YOUR LIFE!” – Lee Atkinson
For that reason, it’s entirely up to them as to the level of interaction they choose to bestow on you. And it really feels like that: as though they’re bestowing on you the gift of their lively interest, then gradually welcoming you as one of their own.
If they’re in a playful mood, they’ll frolic with you, swim loop-de-loops around you, mimic your movements – try cocking your head to one side and seeing the action shyly mirrored – and play idle games of tag or hide and seek.
A truly awesome experience for anyone wanting more than just a giggle from a well-trained dolphin, or the practice of simply spotting fins from the deck of an observer launch.
WHERE // Baird Bay is about 40km southeast of the main town of Streaky Bay, which is 727km northwest of Adelaide. (08) 8626 5017 and www.bairdbay.com for more info.
DID YOU KNOW? // Sea lions have truly excellent lungs. An Australian male adult was once recorded as achieving a depth of 245m, and in fact California Seals have been trained to help recover lost objects and even detain divers by attaching a cuff linked to a long rope.
#4 – Go on holiday and save 100 lives
If everyone wants to holiday on a beautiful, quiet tropical beach and return feeling not just good but great, nothing in the world beats Camp Chivaree in the very, very far north of Queensland.
It’s an incredibly special place and very special holiday work: saving the sea turtles threatened with extinction in the next 25 years. They’re being slaughtered by ghost nets in the water and feral pigs on land, and volunteers get to help save them in this idyllic setting.
Working with the Aboriginal community members of Mapoon, local rangers and scientists, you can end up carrying small bundles of wriggling, hard-topped joy to the sea in the hope that your turtle will be that one-in-a-thousand that makes it through the next 30 years to breed.
“A GOOD CAUSE AND A GREAT EXPERIENCE YOU’LL NEVER FORGET.” – Michelle Hespe
You can also help install feral pig exclusion devices over turtles’ nests and, when you get a moment, remove the deadly ghost nets that are washed up on shore before the tides take them out to sea to kill again.
The guest book is chock-full of emotion about just how uplifting and rewarding Camp Chivaree can be. Volunteers arrive in June and the last camp is held in October. Housing consists of permanent tents for two and all necessary items are included – you just need to get there.
WHERE // 200km south of the tip of Australia on the gulf side, 80km north of Weipa at the Aboriginal community of Mapoon. Visit www.capeyorkturtlerescue.com for more info.
DID YOU KNOW? // Australia is breeding home to six of the seven sea turtle species in the world, and the Flatback Turtle is found only in Australia. Sea turtles predate the dinosaurs; fossil records show they’ve been around for more than 120 million years – and could be wiped out before humans can say boo.
#5 – Reach the oasis of Ormiston Gorge
Ormiston Gorge is an oasis in the middle of the West MacDonnell Ranges. It’s also one of the most underrated places in Australia to visit.
The landscape of the Northern Territory simply does not let up. It’s so overwhelmingly harsh at times it’s near impossible to believe that anything out there could survive for any length of time. But of course it doesn’t take long, moving through the vastly changing regions, to see that people, animals, plants and a deep culture has survived, and done so for countless millennia.
“IF YOU CAN ONLY GET TO ONE OF THE SPECTACULAR GORGES IN THE WESTERN MACDONNELLS, THIS IS THE ONE TO HEAD FOR.” – Richard I’Anson
Depending on when you visit the Red Centre, there are many occasions – especially in the wake of rare rains – where young, green shoots can be found making their way up through rocks too hot to touch. That surely encapsulates perfectly what the Northern Territory is all about. Life out there finds a way.
There’s no better expression of this than stumbling suddenly upon Ormiston Gorge. After winding your way there from Alice Springs along the Mereenie Loop Road, taking in the various shimmering horizons, deep craters, desiccated riverbeds and dusty red trails along the way, to arrive abruptly at this oasis is nothing short of remarkable.
Ormiston Gorge, nestled in the West MacDonnell National Park at around the halfway point of the fantastic and world-famous Larapinta Trail, is well and truly a part of Albert Namatjira country.
With a near permanent waterhole at the southern end that plunges to 14m, ubiquitous river red gums and blood red walls rising to 300m, you can catch a break from the heat and the flies for an undisturbed swim here – an incredible treat in year-round average temperatures pushing the high 30s.
Ormiston Gorge is 135km west of Alice Springs, just past Glen Helen at the end of the sealed road section of Namatjira Drive.
Did you know?
Ormiston Gorge is fed by Ormiston Creek, a tributary of the nearby Finke River. It’s said that the mighty Finke only ever has all of its 1000km of interconnected branches and tributaries running perhaps twice a century.
#6 – Visit the OTHER remarkable rock
The world’s largest rock is in Western Australia – Mount Augustus.
This is one Great Thing To Do in Australia you may actually have heard of, since it’s so fricking big. Although Uluru garners all the attention here and overseas, splendid Mount Augustus, in the Shire of Upper Gascoyne 850km north of Perth, is more than twice the size of its ancient cousin to the east.
Officially the world’s largest monolith (a single massive stone) and anticline (an arch of stratified rock with layers that bend down in opposite directions from the crest), mighty Augustus thrusts 717m above the arid scrubland and is visible from the air for more than 160km.
Known to the local Wadjari people as Burringurrah, it’s about 8km long and covers an area of around 47km2. (For those of you playing at home, Uluru is 346m high and covers just over 3km2.)
“A ROCK TWICE THE SIZE OF ULURU JUST HAS TO BE SEEN. BUT DO I HAVE TO CLIMB IT?” – Sandra Sully
Compared to Augustus, Uluru has a far more bare rock structure; its hard outer coating means there’s little or no scree or vegetation at its base, whereas the scree slope of Augustus is quite densely vegetated. This is what gives Uluru such a clearly defined shape. Like Uluru, Augustus undergoes rich, vibrant changes in colour from sunrise to sunset.
But unlike Uluru, which these days discourages vertical exploration, Augustus is an amateur climbers’ paradise, with several different walks and climbs of varying difficulty. The summit climb is the Mount’s most difficult at Class 5 (high level of fitness required).
And while at first glance the surrounding country appears empty, on closer inspection you’ll notice a multitude of life: groves of white-barked river gums and wattle trees house feeding honeyeaters, galahs and other bird and animal life.
Nearby Goolinee (Cattle Pool) on the Lyons River attracts flocks of waterbirds. An especially wonderful time to visit is during wildflower season (beginning mid-winter), when the entire area vibrates with fresh colour and new life.
WHERE // 430km east of Carnarvon via Gascoyne Junction in mid-west WA. More info at the Carnarvon Visitor Centre on (08) 9941 1146.
DID YOU KNOW? // Mount Augustus’ Dreamtime Creation stories focus around the young boy Burringurrah, who ran away in fear of the trials of initiation. It’s said the shape of the mountain is that of a body with a spear stump protruding from its leg – a traditional tribal punishment. The stump is Edney’s Lookout at the east end of Augustus.
#7 – Open a prehistoric treasure chest
Naracoorte in South Australia is a treasure chest of prehistoric megafauna.
Did you know Australia once had its own lions? The 120kg Thylacoleo carnifex roamed our country from around 25 million years ago, then became extinct – along with (ahem) the lion’s share of our Megafauna – some 50,000 years ago. Part of the key to understanding what went on during that era of mass extinction lies in fossil graves such as those at Naracoorte Caves NP in southeast SA.
Of the dozens of caves in the area, four main ones are open to visitors: Alexandra, Blanche, Bat and Victoria Fossil Caves. Alexandra is known for its limestone formations, Blanche for a calcified Aboriginal body discovered there, Bat Cave as a crucial breeding site for bent-wing bats, and finally Victoria Fossil cave: the absolute mother lode.
It’s acted as the classic pitfall trap for more than 500,000 years, during which time literally hundreds of animals that roamed the area during the Pleistocene Epoch (spanning from 10,000 to 1.8 million years ago) have dropped in, perished and been preserved.
Giant wombats, carnivorous kangaroos, the 2.5-tonne Diprotodon australis – the largest marsupial ever to have lived – all these and more (93 species in all) have found their way to what many describe as the “Rosetta Stone” of Australian palaeontology.
So, to see the intense study of ancient pre-history in action, SA’s only World Heritage site is a must-visit for the curious. Besides, this could be the only place in Australia where you can take your family and legitimately say: “Quick, kids – to the Bat Cave!”
WHERE // Naracoorte is 330km southeast of Adelaide near the Victorian border. The National Park lies on the eastern outskirts of Naracoorte, 11km down Caves Rd.
DID YOU KNOW? // Blanche Cave shows some small signs of damage and wear, since it was commonly used for parties in around the 1860s. It was finally protected and preserved from the late 1880s.
#8 – Visit One of the World’s Oldest Art Galleries
Do you remember being traipsed around art galleries as a child? Well, how about one you have to traipse just to get to? Hiking along a 5.4km track through magnificent flora and fauna in order to reach the ancient art galleries of Carnarvon Gorge is half the fun, especially since it offers a geographical sensation as well as spectacular collections of Aboriginal relics.
Be prepared to be fascinated and puzzled by exhibits of Aboriginal artwork that have been on show for century upon century. Witness the hundreds of handprints both large and small, and marvel at the plenitude of ochre and ash stencils and engravings that depict aspects of the Indigenous lifestyle.
“The stunning art is complimented by a stunning location.” – Richard I’Anson
WHERE // Carnarvon National Park is 593km northwest of Brisbane (about a 9.5hr drive) and the gorge itself, on the eastern edge, is the most accessible and popular portion of the park.
DID YOU KNOW? // Because of vandalism, Carnarvon Gorge was one of the first Aboriginal sites to have a gallery successfully “salvaged” by deleting its presence from brochures and maps and camouflaging access tracks.
#9 – Go swimming with… TUNA?!
You can swim in the pens of Tuna being farmed off Port Linoln in South Australia.
On the way back from long-haul fishing trips, Matt Waller used to jump into his boat’s tow-cage and float about with the tuna. He remembers thinking what an amazingly different experience that was. Now he’s a partner in an extraordinary venture that brings that experience to the public.
Thousands of people have hopped aboard Calypso Star Charters in Port Lincoln SA for a unique Sea Farm Tour and the chance to swim with schools of Southern Bluefin Tuna – some weighing 23kg and measuring 89cm from nose to tail.
“BRILLIANT! THESE BOYS (THE SAILORS, THAT IS) SHOULD BE STARRING IN THEIR OWN SPIELBERG THRILLER. MAKE SURE THEY TELL YOU THEIR GREAT WHITE STORIES.” – Catriona Rowntree
Each two-hour tour to the 40m commercial-sized floating ring brings you into direct snorkelling contact with hundreds of tuna, as they swarm and flash past you. “They’re so fast and graceful,” says Matt. “They’ll come straight at you, then flick away at the last second, missing you by millimetres, until you begin to feel like a part of the school itself.”
Plans are in place to add smaller populations of King Fish and Australian Salmon, which you’ll be able to catch and release, or keep for a fee. “The most romantic part of tuna fishing was definitely the old poling days,” says Matt. “No reels; just a pole, a line and a hook. That’s the feeling we’re trying to recreate.”
WHERE // Tours depart daily from the Marina Hotel in Port Lincoln, SA. Cost $45 adult, $35 conc, $25 student, $120 family of 4, under threes free. Check out www.calypsostarcharter.com.au or call 0418 817 404.
DID YOU KNOW? // Almost all of the Australian farmed Southern Bluefin Tuna is exported to Japan, and fetches the highest price of any tuna on the Sashimi market. “So if you’ve got $600,” says Matt, “you’re welcome to pole-fish one of ours if you like . . .”
#10 – Hear a great set of outback pipes
Opera comes to the Queensland outback at Undara every October.
If the soundtrack to Priscilla wasn’t your thing but the landscape was, you may want to book out the third weekend in October – that’s when Undara Experience hosts the Opera in the Outback, adjacent to the fascinating Undara Lava Tubes.
“A PREHISTORIC WONDER PAIRED WITH PERFECT PIPES? HOW LOVELY . . .” – Catriona Rowntree
Sitting out under the stars in the amphitheatre for two one-hour sets while the sun sets, you’re mesmerised by five professional opera singers in this unexpected setting. Food and wine tasting are to opera what bees are to honey, so local providores are on hand for some nibbling at cheeses and other condiments, with a winery offering tastings and bottle sales.
There are two performances over consecutive nights with a different theme for each, so most people stay for two nights. It’s the most pleasant way to spend a weekend in the savannah country of Queensland.
WHERE // Undara Experience is 275km west of Cairns, the last three kilometres of which are on a well-kept gravel road. Friday night performance is $85, Saturday night $110 (www.undara.com.au).
DID YOU KNOW? // A section of the Undara Lava Tubes (the main attraction in the area) known as “The Wall” is the closest geological example on Earth of basaltic ridges on the Moon, which were also formed by lava flows.