Australia has an amazing array of jaw-dropping destinations for self-drive travellers doing the long haul.
Warrumbungle NP, NSW
The awe-inspiring beauty of the Warrumbungles is out of this world.
Dramatic rock spires dominate the skyline as you head out of Coonabarabran and make your way to the spectacular Warrumbungle National Park. The tall, barren structures appeared to come out of nowhere, standing guard over this national Heritage-Listed park, where coastal breezes from the east meet the hot air from the dry western plains. The result is a unique climate and landscape with an extraordinary diversity of plants and animals which thrive in these conditions.
Driving through the steep hills, you pass several 3D planet models attached to billboards – part of the World’s Largest Virtual Solar System Drive. The 10 stops eventually lead to the impressive Siding Spring Observatory, perched high upon Mt Woorut. Siding Spring is the collective name for the research telescopes dotted around the mountains, including Australia’s largest optical telescope, the 3.9m Anglo-Australian Telescope, located here for the dark and often cloudless skies of the area.
The Warrumbungles hosted the seventh bi-annual Rogaine World championship event in 2006.
The park is a bushwalking Mecca with a vast network of trails, differing in length and difficulty. The Grand High Tops walking circuit is the place to get a close-up look of the Breadknife, the park’s iconic feature. The 12.5km return walk to the Breadknife is the most popular and takes four to five hours.
Or you can opt for the shorter hike to Spirey View instead, a 6.2km return walk that eliminates the steep ascent, yet offers magnificent views of the narrow blade of stone that is the Breadknife. The icon is a volcanic dyke, created when volcanic activity caused the rocks to fracture and the crack filled with magma.
Another enjoyable walk is the 2km Burbie Canyon circuit. The cool sandstone canyon provides a home for the pobblebonk, a frog that buries itself in the sand when water is in short supply. Burbie Creek is ephemeral, like most streams in the park, and flows only after large amounts of rain. When moisture seeps into the soil, the frog surfaces to feed and breed, then disappears again when the earth dries out.
We spent four days exploring this dramatic landscape and, as we headed south, a magic sunrise was the perfect end to a magnificent holiday in yet another of Australia’s stunning national parks.
Warrumbungle NP is around 480km north-west of Sydney.
Camping, bushwalking, birdwatching, star-gazing and exploring the World’s Largest Virtual Solar System Drive.
Broken Hill Region, NSW
Explore the heart of the New South Wales outback, with just a twist of Aussie quirkiness along the way.
Some of the most spectacular scenery you’ll ever lay your eyes on is right here in the heart of the New South Wales outback. It’s a haven of history, uniquely Australian wildlife, culture and world-renowned artwork, but it’s the spectacular outback sunsets that make this place so special.
There’s a bucket-load of weird and wonderful things to see and do in the Broken Hill region, but you can’t beat a few nights camping in the sweet serenity of Eldee Station. It’s just a few kilometres past Silverton, which is just a few more kilometres from Broken Hill, and it’s the perfect place to base yourself if you want to mix a bit of outback camping in with the numerous activities the region has to offer.
Although Eldee Station is still a working station, the good folks there are kind enough to allow the keen adventurer access to about 100km worth of 4WD tracks, with a few of the best being rocky mountain climbs that spit you out at some of the best vantage points of the Mundi Mundi Plains and the Barrier Ranges.
A short run into Silverton is well worth the effort – this place is full of tourist attractions to keep you occupied and entertained. The town – and actor Mel Gibson – was put on the map when the original Mad Max movie was filmed there. Check out the Mad Max Museum – it’s full of old relics and props from the movie.
You can also wander around a million and one different art galleries and see some truly authentic Australian artwork for yourself. You see, Silverton supplies the perfect outback setting for emerging new and well-established artists alike to whip up some of the best works in the country. You’ll find the brush strokes of one of Australia’s top-selling artists and local resident John Dynon on display at the Silverton Outback Gallery.
If you duck back into Broken Hill, the famous artists just keep piling up. One of the best in the business being Kevin ‘Pro’ Heart, whose two-storey gallery is full of direct, humorous and down-to-earth pieces. Broken Hill was also the birthplace of the global BHP mining company, born from rich silver deposits.
The sights and sounds of Silverton and Broken Hill are quirky and entertaining indeed. If it’s an authentic Aussie outback getaway you’re after, this region is really hard to beat.
Silverton is 26km west of Broken Hill and 320km north of Mildura, Vic. Eldee Station is 36km north of Silverton.
Explore the 4WD tracks that criss-cross Eldee Station, get your Mad Max fix, see some true outback art at some of the region’s galleries.
Limeburners Creek NP, NSW
Prime beachfront camping and truly spectacular headlands earn this little cracker a place on everyone’s bucket-list.
It’s hard to beat a relaxed surfside retreat. The sound of the ocean waves crashing is enough to lull anyone to sleep at night, and when you add in a fresh early morning dip there’s a better than average chance you’ll want to become a permanent resident.
Limeburners Creek National Park on the mid-north NSW coast has one of the best stretches of surfing coast in the country and is surrounded by pristine wilderness.
Campers are spoilt for choice – unless you plan to camp during school holidays, when the place is at its busiest. The Point Plomer Campground is a big favourite and the location is what makes this spot such a winner. It’s right on the water, the campsites aren’t marked and there’s a walk leading straight out of the grounds up to the main headland.
Not so well known is the 100-site Melaleuca Campground which is usually closed in the off-season, but can be opened up by arrangement. It has no direct water access; however, during winter and spring, it’s a top spot to go whale-watching. These majestic giants of the ocean have a tendency to breach and show off as they pass through on their migration run.
There are a few headlands in the area that offer awesome vantage points if you don’t mind climbing a few stairs; it’s hard to beat the view overlooking the entire coastline from here.
A 9km each-way walk will get you to the centre of Port Macquarie via the Sea Acres National Park; the southern end is one of the few places on the east coast where “the forest meets the foam”.
Alternatively, the 1.4km Big Hill Rainforest Walk offers everything from low heath vegetation and pandanus palms to strangler figs, coastal blackbutt and more species of wildlife and birdlife than you can count. There’s even a chance you’ll spot microbats flying through the treetops as the sun drops in the west; it’s a rare sight but one you won’t forget!
Limeburners Creek NP is 18km north of Port Macquarie.
Swimming, surfing, coastal walks, beach driving (permit required).
Atherton Tablelands, Qld
A fairy tale land of rainforests, waterfalls and crystal clear crater lakes, the Atherton Tablelands is sure to delight.
The journey from Cairns to Innisfail via the Atherton Tablelands is one of Australia’s loveliest road trips, packing an impressive range of landscapes and sights into a very manageable touring itinerary. You’ll encounter chilled-out rainforest towns, drive through outback savannah, drift atop barramundi-packed irrigation lakes, sit on rocks under cascading waterfalls, marvel at giant trees and swim in the crystal clear waters of ancient crater lakes.
From Cairns, Kuranda is an easy half-hour drive up onto the Tablelands. It’s a bustling, alternative town nestled in the rainforest, offering markets, cafes, craft shops and galleries. The Australian Butterfly Sanctuary will delight the kids, and at the right time of year, Barron Falls is impressive. A cable-car one way and scenic railway the other beats walking or driving.
From there, head west towards Mareeba, where the lush green coastal rainforest is replaced by outback savannah. The largest town on the Tablelands, Mareeba is an agricultural hub with a wide range of local produce, from macadamias and coffee to mangoes, pineapples and, of course, the ever-present sugarcane.
Anglers should head to Lake Tinaroo, a man-made reservoir of some 407,000 mega litres – two-thirds the size of Sydney Harbour – and home to some of the country’s largest barramundi.
Passing through the charming historic town of Yungaburra, it’s just a five-minute drive to one of the area’s main attractions – the Curtain Fig Tree. A 50m boardwalk delivers you to a clearing in the rainforest, where the magical tree occupies a privileged space in the sky, bedecked lovingly in moss and staghorn ferns. The light glistens off leaves that rain down gently like flower petals from the basket of a princess living in the eyrie high above. If your imagination isn’t on fire as you behold this wonderful artistry of nature, you may need to check your pulse.
Continue up the Gillies Highway to the almost circular Lake Barrine in the Crater Lakes NP. With verdant tropical rainforest overhanging its shoreline and stunningly clear water, it’s perfect for a swim.
Millaa Millaa is the final stop in this Atherton itinerary – a tiny little town in the southern region of the Tablelands and the gateway to some of its most stunning falls, where you can clamber over boulders and swim in the pools, an idyllic way to end your journey.
Kuranda is 32km north of Cairns and 39km north-east of Mareeba. Lake Tinaroo is 43km south of Mareeba, or 77km from Kuranda. Millaa Millaa is a further 55km south of the lake.
Visit the Australian Butterfly Sanctuary in Kuranda, fish at Lake Tinaroo, marvel at the Curtain Fig Tree near Yungaburra, swim in the pools at Millaa Millaa Falls.
Boodjamulla (Lawn Hill) NP, Qld
Get off the highway in Queensland’s rugged Gulf Country.
Leaving the coast and heading inland can be a surreal experience, especially in the Top End. Watching the landscape start to parch as it goes from lush shades of blues and greens to that enticing earthy red is a real eye-opener.
Gregory Downs is your last chance for fuel for the trip out to Lawn Hill, although fuel is available at Adels Grove Camping Park, one of the accommodation options in the area. The road out slowly turns from a thin black strip of tarmac through the savannah grasslands, to a red bulldust-covered track into the dry plains and red sandstone ranges of Lawn Hill.
Inside Boodjamulla (Lawn Hill) NP, the lush vegetation and clear, green waters of Lawn Hill Creek create the feeling of an oasis. The traditional owners of Boodjamulla – the Waanyi people – believe that Boodjamulla the Rainbow Serpent created the gorge and everything in it, as told in the Dreamtime story. Boodjamulla is said to show himself as the olive python Bububurna – and sure enough, large olive pythons are a common sight in the gorge.
On arrival, getting a kayak into the creek is a good way to explore the gorge.
The striking, bright green water is safe for swimming and the waters are ripe with several species of fish – most commonly archerfish and some rather large catfish – although fishing is a no-no in the park.
There are plenty of walking tracks to explore, taking you to all the best scenic vantage points overlooking the gorge. The tracks range from easy walks that the kids will love, to challenging tracks that will give you a workout.
The national park has its own RV-friendly camping area with basic amenities including toilets and cold showers. Road conditions and weather forecasts should be checked before trying to take a van into the national park, as conditions vary and many of the unsealed roads are only suitable for 4WDs and offroad vans. Road closures can happen.
Adels Grove is located 10km from Lawn Hill Gorge and there are plenty of unpowered campsites available at the campground there. There’s a shop that stocks basic supplies, a mechanical workshop and fuel bowser with diesel and unleaded fuel to keep you going, limited Telstra internet service and a public phone. It’s an incredibly remote part of the country, but there’s enough here to keep you sustained for an extended stay if you choose to take your time to explore the area.
Lawn Hill is around 200km south-west of Normanton.
Kayak in the gorge, explore the multitude of walking tracks, swim in the crystal-clear green waters.
Cape Melville, Qld
Wild and remote, Cape Melville is a spot worth taking time to explore.
Conditions on the Cape Melville Track in Tropical North Queensland vary wildly from narrow, winding and soft to steady and rocky. Depending on the time of year and the previous wet season, it can be a very muddy challenge getting to the coast. Leave the trailer behind for this one – it’s 4WD access only.
North of the Wakooka Outstation, a relatively easy 70km from the Kalpowar Crossing takes you over the Normanby River. All being well, it takes between two and three hours to travel 180km from Wakooka to the beach at Bathurst Bay, which offers ample camping. Although there are a couple of designated camping areas along the beach towards Cape Melville (12km to the north-east), many campers pull up stumps under the shady wongai trees dotting the low sand ridge, back from the beach.
Once you’ve set up, head west a few kilometres to the mouth of the Muck River, which is a good fishing spot and a prime location to see estuarine crocodiles.
Further along the beach, an inland track leads to the Pearlers Monument, established in the aftermath of Cyclone Mahina, which swept through the region in March 1899. During the cyclone, 295 Islander and Aboriginal people and 11 of European descent lost their lives when winds, exceeding 200km/h, carried a tidal wave 10km inland. Standing there on a warm dry-season morning with a faint breeze rustling in the trees, it’s hard to believe such a horrible tragedy could happen here – or that the sea could rush this far inland.
Another few kilometres north of the monument the beach track ends where the large black rocks of the Cape tumble into the sea. Only the keen scramble over these large boulders; in fact, a Queensland Museum expedition uncovered many species previously unknown to science within pockets of rainforest amid the vast stone, including the Cape Melville leaf-tailed gecko, a golden-coloured skink and a boulder-dwelling frog.
The bay and the adjoining scrub and rocky hills also play host to varied birdlife, while inland the swamps provide excellent opportunities for watching nature, although the number of wild horses and even greater number of wild pigs may alarm you.
This area has long been the traditional land of several Aboriginal clans who today collectively identify themselves as ‘Saltwater People’. Their descendants maintain a strong connection to the land and sea and there are many cultural sites on the mainland and on the offshore islands. Please ask before intruding.
Cape Melville is on the Cape York Peninsula, about 475km or 10 hours’ drive north of Cairns.
Awesome 4WD-ing, wildlife-spotting and fishing.