The Lesser-Known Highlights of Oz
Ever heard of Sydney Opera House? Bondi Beach? The Great Barrier Reef?
Yup, thought so. You and every other person on this planet. The iconic sights of Australia are inescapable, even for those who have never been. Deservedly so, of course: they really are magnificent, and no gap year in Australia would be complete without seeing them.
But don’t make the mistake of thinking the Land Down Under has nothing else to offer. If you know where to look, you’ll find other, quieter places which prompt your jaw to unhinge of its own accord. And the only feet you’ll be drooling on will be your own, because everyone else will be posing for selfies in front of Sydney Harbour Bridge.
Porcupine Gorge, Queensland
Affectionately known as Australia’s little Grand Canyon to the few people who are aware of it, Porcupine Gorge is a bemusing chasm in an otherwise featureless portion of the Queensland Outback. It’s reached by a bone-rattling track that twists and turns for 40 miles beyond the nearest settlement (Hughenden), and is navigable in a standard campervan, as proven by the arthritic author of this piece.
The reward is utter tranquillity against a backdrop of humbling scenery. The sheer cliffs plunge down 120 metres to the gorge floor, where a sliver of a river has been diligently carving out its course for the last 500 million years.
There is a small campsite with absolutely no facilities, and you pay for your pitch by being an honest camper and putting the charge – about $3AUD – into a designated metal box. There may be another campervan there – two at most – but don’t be surprised to find the place completely empty.
Devil's Marbles, Northern Territory
The Devil’s Marbles is a boulder field in the Northern Territory which forms one of the most remote and spectacular sights in Australia. The enormous stones are strewn across the ruddy landscape and balanced upon one another in the most mind-boggling manner, seemingly ignorant of basic laws of physics, one of which being gravity. They appear to be additions to the landscape but are actually just remnants of an older one.
To reach them you have to drive for approximately three years on the Stuart Highway, the 1750 mile road which links the top and bottom of Australia (okay, maybe three days, but it feels like years), from either Darwin, in the north, or Alice Springs, in the centre.
There is a campsite next to the Marbles with very basic facilities, and the nearest town is Tennant Creek, about 60 miles to the north, where you can stock up on supplies.
Undara Lava Tubes, Queensland
To the untrained eye, Undara is a pathetic excuse for a volcano. A mere pimple on the Queensland landscape. Yet this is just a ploy, for beneath the surface, you will find a story of hellfire and apocalyptic force.
When Undara Volcano disgorged itself 190,000 years ago, it produced enough lava to fill three Sydney Harbours. As the lava flowed across the land, it followed natural crevasses, creating lava rivers. Over time, the surfaces of these rivers hardened, and the molten rock below drained away, and this created enormous tunnels, which for a modest fee you can explore.
At first glance, the lava tubes of Undara appear to be rather impressive caves – which technically they are. But take a moment to study the charred walls and ceilings of jagged orange rock, and you’ll begin to comprehend the almost imponderable forces which created them.
Melbourne graffiti alleys, Victoria
Melbourne is not a city of attractions, it is a city of atmosphere. As Brighton is to London, Melbourne is to Sydney. There are, of course, things you can go and photograph: the Eureka Tower, the Botanical Gardens, the Shrine of Remembrance.
But you’ll quickly discover that the most rewarding way to experience Melbourne is to wander aimlessly, to disappear into its web of alleyways. This is how you’ll find the real soul of the place, and this is how you’ll find some of the most impressive street art in the world.
The graffiti of this city is simply spectacular: an explosion of colour and rebellious talent that while not exactly condoned by the city’s authorities, is at the same time afforded a level of respect and not cleaned up quite as quickly as you would see in other cities. In other parts of the world graffiti-covered side streets are often places to avoid, but in Melbourne you just get the sense you are walking through an open air gallery. Don’t miss it.
Great Keppel Island, Queensland
The islands dotted around Australia’s shores are legendary. Whitsunday Island: paradise. Fraser Island: thrilling. Kangaroo Island: kangaroos (presumably – haven’t been). And then there’s Great Keppel Island, which no one has heard of and no one goes to. Seeking off the beaten track? You may have just found your Shangri-La.
Things weren’t always this way: Great Keppel Island used to be the Ibiza of the Capricorn Coast: hoards of sun seekers in the day, drunk revellers at night. But then its main resort closed, and tourism dropped by 90%. Now it’s something of a ghost island – and, some would say, immeasurably better for it.
The long sandy beaches are empty and silent. The inland walking paths are spanned with spider webs. The ground everywhere is covered with coconuts. You can visit on a day trip with a tiny gaggle of other sightseers, or you can stay overnight at the last remaining beachfront holiday village, which has more possums than guests, and simply cannot be recommended enough.
Karijini National Park, Western Australia
So much fun. So much fun. So much fun. Karijini National Park is one giant adventure playground, created solely by nature. And it is so much fun. This place is characterised by enormous gorges and idyllic swimming holes, and a network of absurdly scenic walking trails.
The trails are classed according to difficulty and danger. Class 6 trails are off limits to those who don’t have ropes and pulleys and balls as big as the Devil’s Marbles, but class 5 trails and down are yours to pursue.
And you should pursue. All if possible. Factor in a few days at Karijini National Park if you have the time. There are basic campsites throughout the park which are surprisingly pricey, but for the fun you get to have exploring, they’re worth every cent.
Keep River National Park, Northern Territory
Deep in the burnt heart of the Outback, smack bang on the Western Australia and Northern Territory border, you’ll find Keep River National Park. The biggest mystery about this place is not its ridiculously out-of-place 100ft-high palm trees (the coast is hundreds of miles away). Or its extraordinary towers of dome-shaped cliffs which emerge from a completely flat landscape. But rather the fact that no one is there to see these things.
Remoteness is of course a factor. Like many of the places featured here, Keep River National Park is not somewhere to visit on a day trip. It can be found off the Great Northern Highway, which links Darwin and Broome, a four day road trip in itself.
If you’re lucky enough to be making that road trip, you should absolutely take a day or two here to relax – there is a campsite with very basic facilities. There are a couple of easy walking trails which take you to all the best bits, which as well as the aforementioned natural wonders include ancient Aboriginal rock art, a cultural wonder which anywhere else in the world would be fenced off and adjacent to a gift shop.
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