Oz rocks

Oz rocks

From beautiful reefs to cosmopolitan cities and all the desert in between,
Keith Bain maps out the best of Australia

Outer space

Just mention Australia, and thoughts turn to koalas and kangaroos, rainforests and epic reef diving, strapping Bondi lifeguards and the curvaceous architecture of the Sydney Opera House. What should really leap to mind is vast expansive nothingness. It’s the planet’s driest continent, covered by desert, and some of its most interesting bits are surrounded by glorious, mind-altering emptiness. One example is the astonishing natural wonder of Uluru – a humongous mound of 700-million-year-old sandstone, better known to the world as Ayers Rock.

Set in quintessential Outback territory known as the Red Centre, Uluru is a popular tourist spot and a sacred location for the Aboriginal people who have lived in the region for tens of thousands of years. It forms part of the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park and is 462 km from Alice Springs, the nearest large town. The Aboriginal owners make earnest requests to visitors not to hike up the rock (which thousands tend to do nonetheless) – more respectful is to hike around the base (its circumference is less than 10 km).

The lesser known Olgas, 50 km away, is a series of 36 red rock domes said to be even more spiritually significant and quite arguably more picturesque, while another must-see in the ‘vicinity’ is Kings Canyon, flaunting dramatic views from the rim of red sandstone walls that plunge to rock pools, 100m below.

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Urban buzz

Sydney is large and lovely, with plenty of iconic sights and a breathtaking harbour setting, but buzzing Melbourne has a rich multicultural cosmopolitanism and energy that sets it apart from any other place in Australia. Starting with the volunteer guides who show you the ins and outs of life here, you’ll discover a vibrant cafe scene and markets bulging with stalls of all sorts that gather individuals from every corner of the globe. Many Melburnians are immigrants or of recent foreign descent (it has the largest Greek population of any city outside of Athens), bestowing tremendous character.

Unlike Sydney, which started as a penal colony, Melbourne started as a gold rush town in the 1850s, and some of that early exuberance still lives on today. Celebrated as one the most liveable cities on Earth, it has a lively combination of smart and boho neighbourhoods, large public gardens, and the broad Yarra River that cuts through the city where trams still ply the streets.

It has an active arts and culture scene and the nation’s most fervent sports fans – try to catch an Aussie rules football match at Melbourne Cricket Ground. Plus, there’s wine in the nearby Yarra Valley, ferries to Tasmania, and the start of some incredible coastal drives. A visit to Melbourne brings out the variety Australia has to offer.

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Mystical mountains

Taking their name from the eucalyptus oil that hangs in the air like a cerulean shroud, the gorgeous Blue Mountains are actually a series of hills just an hour and a half inland from Sydney. Counted among Australia’s innumerable natural treasures, their sheer cliffs are covered by bush and ancient fern trees, and cut through by canyons, gullies, waterfalls and underground rivers. The area offers scenic hikes and lookouts with views of wonders such as the iconic knockout rock formations Three Sisters. Sydneysiders go to ogle at the majesty of the outdoors, savour the fresh air and escape summer’s intense humidity.

The vast terrain also offers all kinds of adventure – from abseiling to mountain biking, bushwalking, canoeing and caving. The Scenic Railway here is ranked as the world’s steepest – a short journey in a rail carriage originally used for coal and shale lowers you 415m into the Jamison Valley. And, for a completely different perspective, there’s a six-minute Skyway cable car trip providing bird’s-eye views of the Valley.

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Underwater psychedelia

Every diver dreams of tackling the Great Barrier Reef, a 2 000 km-long underwater coral wonderland off the Queensland coast. The only living thing visible from the moon, it’s a World Heritage Site comprised of electric hues, dizzying aquatic life and giant clams – plus year-long sunshine and warm water. An hour’s flight south of Cairns, within the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, the Whitsundays is a stunning collection of 74 handsome islands covered by dense subtropical rainforest home to wallabies and butterflies. Resorts on a dozen of these islands offer plenty of access to the reefs.

Australia has another impressive barrier reef – Ningaloo – off the western coast. Although relatively small – just 260 km long – the coral is found immediately offshore. Given that it’s the lesser known beauty, you can snorkel in relative peace with 18m-long whale sharks between March and June, and there are also turtles, angelfish, manta rays, sharks, eels and many more marine creatures to spy on while you’re there.

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Paradisiacal beaches

Sydney’s legendary Bondi and Manly beaches are excellent for people-watching, and epic stretches of shoreline such as Surfers Paradise, south of Brisbane on the Queensland coast, will probably never go out of fashion. But when you set eyes on the blinding-white sand and perfect contour of Wineglass Bay, you’ll know you’ve discovered paradise. Set within Tasmania’s magnificent Freycinet National Park, and washed by icy, Antarctic waters, the beach is backed by pink granite outcrops, reached by a strenuous hike over the mottled, densely vegetated hill, and frequented by lolloping wallabies.

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Once-in-a-lifetime trek

About one-fifth of Tasmania is World Heritage-listed, and about a third is protected. Much of it is startlingly beautiful and seemingly lost in time, but one look at Cradle Mountain-Lake St Clair National Park, with its 1 545m-high mountain and long, deep lake, will take your breath away. Linking these two beauties is Australia’s finest hiking trail, The Overland Track, which covers 80 km and can be finished in five days, or savoured over 10.

Aeons of isolation have allowed the area to spawn arrays of lush flora – lemon-scented boronia scrub; vast button grass plains dusted with coral-like cushion plants and incredible wild flowers; knotted rainforests older than humanity itself; plus moss-covered streams, wild rivers and waterfalls tumbling off rugged mountains reflected in the glassy surfaces of glacial lakes and tarns. Even if you only spend half a day – or just an hour – somewhere within this primordial wilderness, you are bound to get the feeling of being blissfully transported.

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Photography: Michael Boniwell, Gallo/GettyImages, Greatstock/Corbis, Annie Griffiths/National Geographic Creative, Tourism Australia Copyright, Tasmanian Walking Company/Great Walks of Australia
December 2015/January 2016

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