Australia has an amazing array of jaw-dropping destinations for self-drive travellers doing the long haul.
As anyone planning a round-Oz tour will know, when it comes to making all-important decisions about where to go, there’s countless diverse and interesting places you could include on your itinerary.
By no means could we possibly list all the amazing places ripe for exploration around this country of ours, but we’ve pulled together a list of some of our favourites to help with planning your next big trip and to provide a little inspiration for the road ahead.
Some are great Aussie icons, while others could easily fly under the radar but regardless, all have something unique to offer intrepid travellers.
Francois Peron NP, WA
Francois Peron NP is a pristine wilderness area where red earth crumbles into turquoise water.
The stark contrast between the outback countryside and the brilliant blue sea leaves you in awe as you head along the Monkey Mia Road from Denham, WA, towards Francois Peron National Park (NP). It is but a preview of the beauty that awaits you inside the national park, so named in honour of the French naturalist who documented much of the region’s flora and fauna between 1801 and 1803.
Have a quick poke around the old Peron Homestead at the park's entrance, where you can take a self-guided tour through the shearers’ quarters and woolsheds and bathe in the 40-degree artesian hot tub. Then it's time to put down the tyres and start exploring the park itself.
Make the tip of the cape your destination, where red rock rolls into still blue water like a crimson tidal wave frozen in time. But take your time and enjoy a couple of detours along the way.You will spend a good half-hour bouncing along the blood-red sandy track whose long straights and gentle rises are broken up intermittently by large, flat gypsum claypans. Over time, several of the outer clay pans have been flooded with sea water, forming huge circular lagoons that are surely nature’s best attempt at resort-style swimming pools. Turn left to visit the biggest of the pools, the rather aptly named Big Lagoon. If driving on sand is your bag, you’ll get a serious kick out of the track to the lagoon.
The cape looks out over Shark Bay, and the crimson red rocks that Francois Peron NP is famous for. Shark Bay earns its World Heritage status in a number of ways, but one is its flourishing sea grass banks which sustain one of the world’s largest concentrations of dugongs. Keep an eye out and you might see them breach lazily in the background as you take your happy snaps of the cape.
From the cape, head to Gregories Campground on the western side of the peninsula to make the most of the stunning WA sunset. We found a completely empty campsite by the water’s edge with large, flat grassy sites. Campfires are prohibited in the park, so we cooked up satay prawns on the stove, cracked a Corona and watched the sunset give way to the rising full moon – the perfect end to a fantastic day in one of Australia’s unique destinations.
Francois Peron NP is located 830km north of Perth.
4WDing, beachfront camping, snorkelling, wildlife viewing, soaking in the artesian hot tub.
Purnululu NP, WA
The remote and iconic Bungle Bungle Range is a wonder to behold.
Lying deep in the East Kimberley region, Purnululu National Park protects one of the world’s most remarkable natural wonders – the tiger-striped, beehive-shaped rock domes of the Bungle Bungle Range. Though just 300km south of Kununurra and barely 50km from the Great Northern Highway, this dramatic geological formation remained virtually unknown to all but the local Aboriginal people and a handful of pastoralists until it was revealed in a 1983 television documentary, filmed mainly from the air. Since then it has become an icon of the Australian outback, hailed internationally for its unrivalled splendour, attracting nearly 50,000 visitors annually.
For sightseeing purposes, Purnululu NP can be divided into a northern and a southern section, each featuring several walks and a lookout that are quite different in character.
In the north, start with Mini Palms Gorge, a moderately challenging 5km walk, which sets out along a stony creek bed before entering a narrow defile bounded by sheer cliffs. Echidna Chasm lies 10km further north and is one of the real highlights of the park. This 2km walk traces a sinuous path through a narrow cleft bounded by 200m-high cliffs that block out the sun, except for a brief window in the middle of the day.
On the other side of the valley, an easy 10-minute walk leads to the Walanginjdji Sunset Lookout with a 360-degree view of the western escarpment of the Bungle Bungle Massif.
The Piccaninny Creek carpark is the starting point for a number of walks into the southern section of the park. The first of these is the Domes Walk, an easy 1km circuit among the famous tiger-striped ‘beehive’ domes.
At the end of the loop, the Piccaninny Creek Walk branches northward on one of the most beautiful and rewarding excursions in the park, along a dry sandstone watercourse that has been scoured bare and deeply rutted by millennia of wet season torrents.
Next to the domes, The Cathedral is arguably the most impressive of all the park’s natural marvels, and one of the easiest to reach. About 3km from the carpark, follow the sandy creek bed into Cathedral Gorge, a sinuous canyon between shadowy cliffs that loom higher and steeper to a terminus in a spectacular 100m-high cavern.
Purnululu NP is about 200km south of Kununurra. The access road turnsoff the Great Northern Highway 55km south of Warmun.
Camping in the East Kimberley savannah, sightseeing around spectacular geological formations, remote bushwalking.
Lake Ballard, WA
An intriguing art installation adds to the striking beauty of this isolated part of WA’s Goldfields region.
Crunching across shimmering salt flats, over gypsum dunes and up isolated ironstone ridges, a series of surprising outback vistas tempts us into a remarkable region on the Goldfields’ northern fringe. This little-travelled route, which links adventurers with Uluru across the Great Victoria Desert, provides passage to an unusual collection of outback wonders around the tiny town of Menzies.
At one of these, campers can experience a sunset like no other, gazing across a seascape of solitary, spirit-like figures stationed across Lake Ballard.
It’s the pairing of intriguing artwork and a strikingly beautiful landscape that lures travellers 51km west of Menzies to the site of artist Antony Gormley’s world-famous installation ‘Inside Australia’. Lake Ballard’s vast saltpan provides an inspiring outback canvas for Gormley’s 51 life-size figures that stand sentry over a massive 10sq km portion of Lake Ballard and beckon walkers onto the flats to crunch along salt-crusted trails.
You can spend hours exploring the installation, crisscrossing the lake from one figure to the next. Above, windswept islands of rocky ironstone provide stellar views and it takes only minutes to climb the closest knoll to count the figures within view.
Gormley’s mysterious figures are based on real-life Menzies locals who were laser scanned for the project. The figures were then cast from a stainless steel alloy that resembles volcanic rock and contains iron, chromium, nickel and trace elements of titanium oxide and vanadium taken from Lake Ballard itself.
Stretched along the lake’s gypsum dune and shaded by mulga woodland, a free bush camp provides travellers with excellent facilities for such a remote spot. At a shelter in a camping area 300m from the lake’s entrance, interpretive signs explain what makes this place fascinating.
Wildflowers bloom around Lake Ballard after seasonal rains and you might spot large goannas on the dunes, emus and dingoes around camp and, overhead, rainbow bee-eaters and kites gliding on the updraft. This camp has gained notoriety for its unusual outdoor art, but it pays to remember that it exists in an unusually fragile environment. If you plan a campfire, gather wood before arriving at the sparsely vegetated lake. Nearby Menzies is a good spot for topping up with fuel and supplies.
Menzies is located 190km north of Kalgoorlie. You’ll find Lake Ballard signposted 51km north-west of town.
Wander among the 51 spirit-like sculptures on Lake Ballard’s saltpans, watch the landscape transform at sunset.
You’ll never never find anywhere else like Mataranka.
One of the things we love most about the Territory is its complete uniqueness and ability to surprise us with something different at every turn – not that you’ll even remember what a turn looks like once you hit the Stuart Highway! The quaint little village of Mataranka and Mataranka Homestead are no exception and provide a welcome break from the long, impressively straight stretches of tarmac through the red-painted landscape.
Mataranka, with a population of just a few hundred people, is but a dot on the map in terms of size. However, this little place has more character than most, offering something very individual as a travel destination.
Mataranka Homestead is just a few kilometres off the highway heading east and borders the Elsey National Park. The homestead is part of the former Elsey Station, which was established in the late 1800s, across 5334sq km. Aeneas and Jeannie Gunn took over the station in 1902 but Aeneas died the next year; Jeannie returned to Melbourne and wrote about her experiences and the characters she met in her book We of the Never Never, filmed under the same title in the 1980s.
A replica of the original homestead was constructed for the film and is on display at Mataranka Homestead. Statues of the characters from the film are scattered throughout the town’s park – a lasting tribute of the town’s claim to fame.
The area also has plenty of World War II history to explore and it was after the war that the homestead started to take on a new lease of life as a tourist destination. Today, it’s a fantastically set up tourist resort offering a range of accommodation.
It really has that Top End feel, complete with red dirt sites, lined with amazing tropical rainforest foliage, barra-filled rivers and the centrepiece of the entire homestead – the Rainbow Springs Thermal Pools. The swimming doesn’t get much better than taking a dip in the thermal springs and the constructed pools filled by the natural thermal springs provide easy access in and out of the warm waters.
There’s also camping available in Elsey NP at the 12 Mile Yards camping ground where there is also a canoe launching point. Bitter Springs provides another great swimming opportunity within the park.
Mataranka is 420km south-east of Darwin on the Stuart Highway.
Swimming in the thermal springs, fishing for barramundi, exploring Elsey NP.
Nitmiluk NP, NT
Nitmiluk’s true power and beauty has to be seen to be believed.
Katherine is often referred to as the ‘Crossroads of the Outback’ due to its location 320km south of Darwin and its proximity, relatively speaking, to the Gulf Country to the east, the Kimberley to the west and the Tanami to the south.
Not only a geographic intersection, Katherine also stands at the convergence of three major Aboriginal groups, the Wardaman, the Dagoman and the Jawoyn people. The 2928sq km Nitmiluk (Katherine Gorge) National Park is owned by the Jawoyn people and jointly managed under a 99-year lease with the Parks and Wildlife of the Northern Territory Commission.
The Katherine River flows 328km from its headwaters in Kakadu NP, joining the Daly River on its way to the Timor Sea. Fed by monsoonal rains for more than 20 million years, its passage across the ancient sandstone plateau has carved a series of 13 spectacular gorges extending 12km between towering 70m cliffs.
During the dry (May-September), the river is placid and its level falls to reveal rocky shoals and rapids that separate the gorges, enabling Nitmiluk to be explored in many ways.
A popular way to see at least part of the gorge system is by flat-bottomed boat on one of the numerous cruises operated by Nitmiluk Tours. The company also hires out single or double canoes and paddling beneath the towering sandstone is an unforgettable experience and one of the most enjoyable ways to see this amazing landscape.
The park has an excellent network of walking trails, extending for about 120km through a diverse range of landscapes. The walks are divided into the Southern Walks and the Jatbula Trail on the northern side of the gorge. These are serious hikes that require sturdy shoes, a hat, sunscreen and plenty of drinking water.
Nitmiluk Caravan Park at the gorge and a campground at Leliyn (Edith Falls) – a must on your itinerary for a cooling dip – both offer RV travellers grassy sites, plenty of shade and full amenities. Elsewhere in the park, designated bush camping areas have been established for overnight walkers and canoeists, with toilets at some locations and a source of water almost always available nearby.
Katherine is about 300km south of Darwin along the Stuart Highway. Nitmiluk NP is 30km north-east of Katherine.
Boat tours in the gorge system, canoeing (including overnight explorations up to the Ninth Gorge), helicopter sightseeing, day walks or multi-day treks.
Uluru-Kata Tjuta NP, NT
Experience the sheer magnitude of one of the world’s Seven Natural Wonders.
One of the world’s Seven Natural Wonders rises up abruptly in the heart of the Australian desert, captivating millions of visitors from all over the globe every year. Uluru is one of our country’s icons and rightly so – to stand in front of this giant monolith is to come face to face with nature’s power and majesty.
At 348m high, Uluru is an imposing sandstone rock situated on the western side of the Simpson Desert. Called Ayers Rock by William Gosse in 1873 after Sir Henry Ayers, its name was changed to Uluru after the land was handed back to the Anangu people, the traditional owners, in 1985.
A lot has changed since tourists first flocked to this famous rock, eager to camp next to it and climb to the top. As Uluru is now recognised as a sacred Aboriginal site, climbing the rock is discouraged and all tourist accommodation has been moved to the township of Yulara, 15km away. Here, you’ll find everything you could possibly need for a stay, long or short.
The Anangu people manage the park together with Parks Australia. They have chosen to share some of their Tjukurpa, or Dreamtime, stories through the Cultural Centre to give visitors greater insight into their traditional law and culture.
The best way to enjoy and experience Uluru is to hike around the base, which is a 10km walk that takes about 3.5 hours. If you prefer shorter walks, there’s a choice of the 2km return Mala Walk, the 1km return Kuniya Walk and the 4km return Liru Walk, all offering insight into the beliefs and stories of the local people.
A visit to the national park is not complete without spending a full day at Kata Tjuta, meaning ‘many heads’. The Valley of the Winds Walk is a challenging hike, taking you right into the heart of this magnificent landscape and rewarding you with spectacular views. The walk can be done as a circuit or you can choose to head back from the Karu or Karingana Lookouts, depending on your fitness.
Whether you head to Uluru-Kata Tjuta NP for a whirlwind tour or a longer stay, this natural wonder is sure to mesmerise you with its dramatic landscapes and cultural significance.
Uluru-Kata Tjuta NP is situated 440km south-west of Alice Springs along sealed roads.
Walk or cycle around Uluru, walk the Valley of the Winds track, visit the Cultural Centre, experience a desert camel ride.
Innes NP, SA
The tip of South Australia’s ‘boot’ rewards travellers with relaxed coastal camping.
For a couple of Victorians, the dry, arid heat of a South Australian summer was enough to knock our socks off and a few blisteringly-hot February days in the Flinders Ranges was all the impetus we needed to hit the road south. With the flip of a coin, we headed to Innes NP on the very southern tip of the Yorke Peninsula, by chance happening upon a true South Aussie gem.
This relatively small national park packs a punch, offering excellent camping, fishing, surfing, swimming and bushwalking, all easily accessible by 2WD. Long, sweeping beaches where you can fish for Australian salmon and shady campsites with walking access to the beach add to the appeal.
We set up camp at the Casuarina campground, one of eight campsites in the park, and enjoyed the luxury of having it all to ourselves. Facilities are limited to drop toilets at most of the camping areas and only two – Stenhouse Bay and the Pondalowie Caravans and Trailers campgrounds – are suitable for vans or camper trailers.
Exploring the park’s rocky coastline takes you on a journey through this rough coast’s past, with around 40 shipwrecks lying off the Yorke Peninsula. You can pay a visit to the remains of the park’s most famous wreck, the Ethel, although it’s not always visible, at times hidden beneath the shifting sands. As you continue your coastal journey, stop off at the Cape Spencer and West Cape lighthouses for sweeping ocean views from the cliff tops.
Away from the coastline, stroll through the historic village of Inneston and explore the ruins of this abandoned gypsum-mining town. Take the one-hour loop trail to truly step back in time.
Other walks in the park take in the rugged cliff tops and endless coastal dunes, with spectacular scenery along the way, and the opportunity to sight rare Tammar wallabies that are part of a growing population in the park.
But for me, sitting on the quiet stretch of beach near our camp as the sun was setting and watching a pod of dolphins frolic near a small group of surfers, all enjoying cruisy waves on the reef break at Pondalowie, was a highlight, and one that totally nails this national park – relaxed and peaceful yet wild, rugged and totally freeing.
Innes NP is just under 300km south-west of Adelaide via Port Wakefield.
Explore the national park by car and on foot, fish straight off the beach or from the Stenhouse Bay Jetty, surf at Pondalowie Bay.