Australia is called “the lucky country” for its abundance of raw materials, sunshine, and natural wonders. Although too young to offer major historical treasures, it has begun to celebrate the Aboriginal culture, including its rock art, while still clinging to its image as a country of settlers. The Wide horizons of the interior rival the vistas at the coasts and the Great Barrier Reef.
The destination that is foremost on many visitors’ minds is the outback, the wide-open spaces of the interior of semiarid brushland and red earth, rocks, and dry trees. This is where many Aborigines live, where huge sheep stations spread out, where seemingly endless trucks—the so called road trains—roll by, where kangaroos jump and wild dromedaries graze.
From this middle ground spreads the Simpson Desert, known as the Red Center for its long red dunes sprinkled with brush. The walls of Kings Canyon and the desert city of Alice Springs rise alone above the plain. Uluru (Ayers Rock), a sandstone monolith nearly six miles in circumference, is the sacred mountain of the Aborigines, who have decorated its rock caves with paintings and engravings. You can scale the 1,142-foot-high rock (though the Aborigines would prefer you didn’t) or walk around it (a three-hour hike). Or simply stay to watch the sunset, when the light seems to change the rock from red to orange; a similar display can be seen on the 36 domes of Kata Tjuta (Mount Olga) 12 miles farther west.
On the way south to Adelaide, you come to Lake Eyre, a mixture of salt, mud, and brackish water, until you find yourself in the Flinders Ranges and a greener landscape around Wilpena Pound that is great for hiking. Not far from there, you come to the town of Coober Pedy, the “opal capital” of the world, with its elaborate underground homes, shops, and opal mines.
Not far from Sydney you’ll find the Blue Mountains, where eucalyptus forests cover the slopes and sandstone forms vertical canyon walls (Grose, Gowett, Cox) dotted with waterfalls (Katoomba and especially Govett’s Leap) and limestone caves (Jenolan). Highlights are Aboriginal rock art sites and Featherdale Wildlife Park, where koalas seem to be waiting for the tourists.
North of Sydney, Hunter Valley invites wine connoisseurs. From here, a vast tropical forest spreads north toward Cairns.
The “Top End,” Arnhem Land, is bordered by the Katherine River Gorge and the large Kakadu National Park, where the movie Crocodile Dundee was filmed. You can explore Aboriginal art at Ubirr and Nourlangie Rock (thousandyear-old cave paintings).
In the northwest, the Kimberley region sheltered the first Aborigines some 40,000 years ago. The gorges and rock towers of the Bungle Bungle region, as well as the Tanami Desert with its huge Wolfe Creek Crater, also merit a visit.
The northeast, at the Cape York Peninsula, the tip of Queensland, is a large, unspoiled wilderness area of tropical rain forests that includes Iron Range National Park.
Leaving Exmouth and traveling toward the interior, you cross the Karijini National Park with its red-tinted gorges, waterfalls, and natural pools.
In the southwest, the town of Kalgoorlie-Boulder, between Perth and Adelaide, lies at the heart of a region that had its gold rush at the end of the 19th century. The Museum of Goldfields and the Hannans North mine remain as principal reminders.
The island of Tasmania has many national parks, forests, lakes, and waterfalls. The area in the southwest attracts hikers (Mount Field Park), and the island’s west, where the 50 miles of the Overland Track across Cradle Mountain-Lake St. Clair National Park constitute the most famous bush walk, is enlivened by tree ferns, fog, marsupials, and wallabies. Some 60 miles away in the town of Hobart thrill seekers can visit the former penal station of Port Arthur during a short sea crossing to the Island of the Dead.
The eighth wonder of the world, according to Australians, is the Great Barrier Reef—about 1,600 miles long, comprising 2,900 individual reefs, 900 islands, and 350 different kinds of coral (tourists are implored not to take or damage them)—which alone justifies a trip to Australia. It’s on this reef that a dream vacation becomes reality. Dunk Island, for example, east of Cairns, has ideal beaches and access to the reef. Heron, Lizard, and Fraser Islands offer water sports, wildlife-watching, and plenty of coral to see from glass-bottom boats or while snorkeling.
Tourism here is sparse, so you can enjoy Melville Island (where you will encounter Aboriginal people, the Tiwi) and Bathurst Island almost by yourself.
The western beaches are seldom visited by international tourists, but include Broome (with its long, white Cable Beach) and Perth, ideal for surfers. The Australian coasts are famous for having some of the best waves and surfers in the world. (Surfers frolic not only around Perth but also on the southern and eastern coasts between Brisbane and Melbourne.)
Traveling far to the southeast, you will reach Byron Bay, where vacationers flee the large crowds. Close to Sydney, beach resorts are sprinkled all around. The most renowned is Bondi Beach, where people indulge in “beach culture,” displaying their perfect tans and surfing skills.
The beaches of the south coast around Adelaide, the Murray River, the Great Ocean Road, and the highlights of the state of Victoria (Wilsons Promontory and Port Campbell National Parks; Otway National Park, with one of the last temperate rain forests in the world; the salt lakes of the Desert Wilderness) all make a trip to southern Australia worthwhile. Southern right whales can be watched off the coast between Warrnambool and Cape Otway from June to September, and platypuses gambol off the beaches of Lorne. The nearby township of Torquay is one of the surfing capitals of the world.
The coast of Tasmania is rather cool but beautiful, especially Wineglass Bay east of the Freycinet Peninsula.
Isolated Norfolk Island, between Australia and New Zealand, is inhabited by descendants of the H.M.S. Bounty mutineers.
Australia has several unique marsupials, including the wombat, the koala (which lives mostly in the forests of Queensland), and of course, the kangaroo, which can be found around Adelaide as well as in the parks of Kakadu and the. Blue Mountains. Kangaroo Island also gives shelter to koalas, opossums, and whales. Other unusual species are the platypus with its webbed feet, which frequents the rivers and lakes; the emu; and some 60 species of parakeets.
Tasmania, where the fauna and flora (rain forests of eucalyptus and redwoods) have been able to survive more easily than on the mainland, teems with many more species.
Western Australia delights divers with its plentiful marine wildlife: dolphins in Shark Bay and large groups of hammerhead sharks around Ningaloo Reef near Exmouth from April to June.
Besides viewing the Aboriginal cave paintings in Kakadu, visitors can also go on photo safaris to see giant crocodiles and termite mounds.
Along the Great Barrier Reef, sea turtles lay their eggs between September and March and a great variety of birds hang out near manta rays and multicolored fish.
Sydney is special, and not only because of the modern architecture of the Opera House. Indeed, since the harbor has been modernized and its cargo and wooden docks have been replaced little by little by entertainment complexes (theaters, restaurants, boutiques, and the aquarium of Darling Harbour) the city has become a great tourist magnet. The city’s green spaces (Royal Botanic Garden, Hyde Park), “old” quarter (The Rocks), and port (Sydney Harbour Bridge), along with its outrageousness (Gay Mardi Gras) and cultural attractions (Aboriginal and Asian heritage at the Art Gallery of New South Wales), complete its renown as the most interesting city of the country.
Alice Springs (for its location in the heart of the desert), Melbourne (for its urbanism and botanic gardens), Adelaide (for Tandanya National Aboriginal Cultural Institute and its location at the foot of Mount Lofty), and Perth (for its splendid isolation, its marina, its maritime museum, and Fremantle port) are all worth a visit.