This article originally appeared in the April 2015 issue of Flight Centre UK’s tri-annual magazine: The Experts.
It can be easy with a country of such vastness – writes Chris Leadbeater – to reduce Australia to a series of iconic landmarks.You know the ones: the Sydney Opera House and its arching companion the Harbour Bridge; the coral glory of the Great Barrier Reef; that noble Outback rock Uluru. All wonders of the world, true. But to consider them the sum total of Australia’s appeal is to ignore much of what makes this sun-kissed destination so special. Not least its wildlife. Here, after all, is a place where beasts of all sizes – some wholly cute, some elusive, some thrillingly deadly – swim, fly and leap, whether you head north, south, east or west…
The Great Barrier Reef will always be Queensland’s A-list star, but there is a good deal more to Australia’s easternmost state beyond its headline attraction.
Moreton Island – a 35-mile north-easterly flight from the local capital Brisbane – is a case in point. This giant sand outcrop is largely protected as a national park because of its thriving population of bottlenose dolphins, so sightings are highly likely. Guests at Tangalooma Island Resort, on the west coast, can even feed them – a group of these mammals approach the shore each night at dusk to interact with visitors.
Fraser Island, 120 miles north of Brisbane, is just as alluring, with rainforest and dunes where the Australian dingo roams. Similarly, Magnetic Island, just a boat ride from Townsville, is home to yet another Queensland national park where koalas can often be spotted dozing in the trees.
New South Wales and Victoria are states that form the core of many Australian itineraries and, for all the cosmopolitan charms of Sydney and Melbourne, this can also be the case when it comes to wildlife.
Sydney, for example, is an obvious gateway for a journey to the northeast corner of New South Wales, where Byron Bay is a fine location for whale watching. Majestic humpbacks make regular appearances in the waters off this chic beach town between June and November. Melbourne sits just 85 miles from one of Victoria’s most popular destinations, Phillip Island. This ocean-cradled outpost is famous for its year-round ‘penguin parade’ – a lovely spectacle, framed by Phillip Island Nature Park, that sees a team of little penguins waddle ashore to their burrows every evening at dusk.
Melbourne is also a starting point for a flight to Tasmania. Australia’s island state is the key habitat for that feisty marsupial, the Tasmanian devil. Though sadly endangered, it can be seen in the wild or at Bonorong Wildlife Sanctuary, a nature hotspot near to the capital Hobart, which also plays host to possums and wombats.
Many travellers visit Australia’s biggest state for the sophistication of Perth, but it should be no surprise that this region of almost unfathomable breadth delivers much outside its capital.
The North West Cape – a peninsula that juts out 750 miles north of Perth – is certainly worth discovering, maybe via a road trip. Here, the Ningaloo Reef is a spectacular rival to its Queensland cousin, a 160-mile stretch of coral where you can swim (safely) with whale sharks, the largest fish in the ocean. Get up close and personal on a tour that drops you into the water with these gentle plankton eaters. The pattern is repeated at Coral Bay, on the west flank of the peninsula. Here, you can splash alongside equally unthreatening manta rays on a snorkelling cruise.
Home to one of the country’s most underrated cities – its coastal capital Adelaide – South Australia can be seen as something of a hidden Antipodean gem.
But anyone planning a sleepy week on the beach will be shaken from their reverie by the wildlife encounter that is possible on the state’s Eyre Peninsula, which is 150 miles west of Adelaide. Port Lincoln has earned a reputation as a place for cage diving with sharks. Those brave enough for such a confrontation can arrange their sub-aqua dates with toothsome great whites. For those who value their blood pressure, meetings with sea lions and tuna are also available.
Kangaroo Island is rather less extreme. A simple 70-mile trip from Adelaide (by ferry or plane), this sea-lapped outpost is aptly named as western grey kangaroos bounce across its rural landscape. Kangaroo Island Wildlife Park does photogenic moments with these hop-happy animals (as well as koalas), while Seal Bay Conservation Park keeps a set of local sea lions in focus.
Australia’s most mysterious region spreads out across the heart of the country, with Uluru (Ayers Rock) rearing from the dust as – by far – its most fabled site. Yet head to the ‘top end’ of this ‘lost world’, and you come across this rugged country at its most exhilarating.
Darwin, the Northern Territory’s northerly capital, looks tranquil in its pretty spot on the Timor Sea. But there is nothing calm about Crocosaurus Cove, where 200 of the area’s fearsome salt water crocodiles open their wide jaws. Visitors can gaze at these ancient reptiles as they swirl in their aquarium, or slip under the surface for a nerve jangling close-up via the ‘Cage of Death’. Some 100 miles south-east of Darwin, Kakadu National Park is another of the Northern Territory’s treasures, a huge pocket of wetlands and rivers where crocodiles idle on the banks.
FLIGHT CENTRE RECOMMENDS:
Jumping crocodiles cruise
This exhilarating and fascinating river cruise in the Northern Territory will give you a close-up look at one of Australia’s most iconic and dangerous native species, the salt water crocodile, in its natural habitat along the Adelaide River. From £65pp.
Ningaloo Reef diving
The country’s largest fringing coral reef, Ningaloo Reef is the best place in Western Australia for a dive excursion. You are sure to have an unforgettable time exploring the wonders of the reef on this full-day tour, with all equipment provided. From £123pp.
Private Penguin parade ultimate experience
This unique day tour in Victoria combines wildlife, wine, local produce, a magical penguin experience and a visit to the acclaimed Koala Conservation Centre, making it the perfect experience for all the family. From £129pp
3 days/2 nights – Highlights of Kangaroo Island tour with Kangaroo Island Odysseys
A small-group, personalised 4×4 nature experience leaving from Adelaide. Includes return ferry crossing, twin shared accommodation in standard hotel with continental breakfast. From £739pp.