Australia’s outback is a welcoming place – home to the world’s oldest continuous culture and a mysterious ecosystem of creatures that would be difficult to dream up. Here in the nation’s backyard, the dirt glows a magical red until the rains carpet it with wildflowers. And sure, it’s a vast place, but there’s no need to feel overwhelmed. Getting to “the outback” is actually pretty easy, and usually just a short flight away from most capital cities.
It’s difficult to explain Birdsville’s significance to first-time visitors. Giving equal credit to the journey and the destination, this remote town – almost 1000 miles inland from the city of Brisbane – is a physical embodiment of the Aussie bush spirit. At its heart stands Australia’s most famous outback pub, Birdsville Hotel, a veranda-skirted, weathered sandstone building which has been welcoming explorers for 130 years. Spend a night or two here, chatting with the locals and marveling at the ‘Australiana’ that binds its interior together – including a ceiling strewn with well-worn Akubra (Dundee-style) hats.
Each year, 6000 pilgrims gather for the Birdsville Races, which is like an unfettered outback Kentucky Derby, and thousands flock in for the world’s most remote rock concert, the Big Red Bash in July, set below the Simpson Desert’s largest sand dune. Whether you fly in directly from Brisbane, or tour the whole Diamantina and Corner Country region, Birdsville will open your eyes and heart to the outback.
The unearthly landscape of World Heritage-listed Mungo National Park is often compared to something from another planet, but its history is just as interesting. The remains of Mungo Lady and Mungo Man, the oldest Homo Sapiens remains ever found on the Australian continent, were uncovered here, establishing the Aboriginal culture as one of the oldest on Earth.
Despite its otherworldly persona, Mungo is easily accessed via a short 3.5-hour flight from Sydney to the city of Mildura. From here you can join an organized tour, self-drive or take a scenic flight over the spectacular fossilised lake which deposits you at Mungo Lodge’s red-dirt runway. Mungo’s centerpiece, the Walls Of China, is another natural treasure worth exploring.
Take an Aboriginal Discovery Tour from the visitor center to see the astonishing surprises that have come from these fragile sand and clay formations – from ancient fireplaces to the bones of long extinct “megafauna”. Back at eco-friendly Mungo Lodge, browse Indigenous artworks and enjoy a generous meal, before stargazing by campfire light.
A leisurely trip around the Flinders Ranges’ half-billion-year-old rocky peaks is the perfect maiden voyage for outback tenderfoots. Marvel at Wilpena Pound, which looks like a meteor crater but is actually the remnants of a mountain range that once eclipsed the Himalayas.
To fully comprehend the 62-mile-wide formation, take a scenic flight over it or hike through it on the four-day Arkaba Walk, spending the small hours cozying up in your very own “star bed” (bed under the stars). “The Flinders”, as it’s known, is full of quirky stays. Go glamping in a safari tent at Ikara or bed down in an eco-villa at Rawnsley Park Station.
Sample bush food with a twist at classic pub-turned-gourmet-oasis Prairie Hotel, where adventurous carnivores can try the Feral Mixed Grill (kangaroo, emu and camel) and sweet-tooths the quandong pie, a tangy-tasting native peach.
A three-day tour departing from Adelaide will give you a good introduction to The Flinders, but a weeklong tour will leave you more time to explore vast Lake Eyre and the striking sandstone tablelands at The Breakaways near Coober Pedy.
The Kimberley region in Australia’s far northwest is a barely imaginable, insanely colorful wilderness full to the brim with magnificent contrasts and contradictions. The short flight from Perth (or Sydney and Melbourne in the ‘dry’ season) lands you in the laidback, frangipani-treed nirvana of Broome. Wander alongside aqua waters (and boutiques) full of pinctada maxima “mother of pearls” and become part of the sunset on an organized camel ride along 13-mile Cable Beach.
From Broome, it’s easy to explore the culture of the region’s First Nations owners, the Bardi Jawi people, on a tour of the Dampier Peninsula and Cape Leveque, where red dirt and the azure Indian Ocean are separated only by a strip of striking white beach. On Lullumb Tours’ Southern Cross Cultural Walk you will learn about hunting and gathering techniques and forage for a coastal feast. Inland, the dramatic landscape constantly gives up its secrets: grand gorges, clear freshwater swimming holes and Horizontal Falls. Yet there’s no reason to “rough it”; secluded Berkeley River Lodge’s stunning dune-top luxury coastal villas with open-air bathrooms are accessible by seaplane or helicopter.
Kimberley Coastal Camp and Faraway Bay are other great sea-facing stays. In East Kimberley, at the homestead on El Questro’s almost 700,000-acre cattle station, you can ease into your outdoor bathtub and watch Chamberlain River flow by, as Hollywood A-listers regularly do.
Give yourself at least one week here – preferably two – because many more Kimberley experiences beckon: from luxury coastal cruises to one of Australia’s most epic 4WD adventures, the Gibb River Road.
Kakadu is more than twice the size of Yellowstone National Park, but its delights lie in the small details of this culturally rich and biodiverse national park. It’s all about getting out there, amongst its spectacular escarpments and lotus-lillied wetlands, just like Paul Hogan did in the classic Aussie movie Crocodile Dundee, which was filmed here.
Take a dip in the natural infinity pools of Gunlom Falls or hike up to the cascading waterfalls of Jim Jim Falls. Cruise the tranquil Yellow Water Billabong amongst millions of migratory birds, including the dancing jabiru (stork), and keep your eyes peeled for lurking saltwater crocodiles.
Kakadu is best appreciated through the eyes of its Traditional Owners, the Bininj/Mungguy people, with the highlight for many visitors being the Indigenous-led tour of the millennia-old rock art ‘galleries’ at UBIRR and other cultural sites.
Kakadu is a three-hour drive from Darwin. Day trips and longer guided tours are available from the city, some with stops at Litchfield National Park and Arnhem Land. For an above-ground perspective, take a scenic helicopter over the park’s wild landscapes.