Camel trains, canoeing and outback palaeontology... Jo McKay discovers six bucket-list adventures that get to the heart of our captivating interior.
Arnhem Land, NT
Art and about
ALLOW Four days
BEST TIME April
Davidson’s Arnhemland Safaris is an eco lodge set on 700 square kilometres in Arnhem Land’s captivating north-west. Guests can explore Mount Borradaile, a sacred Aboriginal site, and sweeping escarpments that hide galleries of some of the best and most prolific rock art in the world. There’s also rainforests, flood plains and waterways teeming with crocodiles, birds and barramundi.
Located about 350 kilometres east of Darwin, Davidson’s Arnhemland Safaris has been showing off this northern stretch of the Territory for more than 30 years. Guides are highly trained and eager to share their knowledge. The lodge itself is a slice of luxury in the wilderness, featuring a bar, library and pool. The 20 cabins have bush views; wi-fi and phone coverage are blissfully unavailable so you can unplug with ease.
YOU WON’T FORGET The idyllic isolation combined with the area’s cultural significance. This is an escape that’s both restorative and enlightening.
NEED TO KNOW There’s no schedule; instead, staff help guests pick and choose their daily activities when they arrive. The lodge is open from March to November.
WHILE YOU’RE THERE Try landing a barra. The fishing is excellent in April, when the creek system is in full flow and the billabongs are at their peak, thanks to wet-season run-off.
Flinders Ranges, SA
ALLOW At least three days
BEST TIME April to May
Rugged and untamed, the Flinders Ranges is 650 million years old, with majestic, imposing geology and abundant wildlife. Now imagine exploring it on the back of a camel. Camel Treks Australia co-owner Karen Ellis describes the trips as “four-wheel driving by camel – you’re accessing land that you wouldn’t otherwise see.”
The treks are unhurried, leaving from Beltana Station in the northern Flinders, about 500 kilometres north of Adelaide, and covering eight to 15 kilometres a day. The animals meander through valleys and gorges, along ridges and gum-lined creek beds and, on some excursions, over red sand dunes.
Ditch any thoughts about camel-riding being difficult: the animals’ gentle plod is often described as meditative (Karen says it’s like “being in a moving armchair”). Nights are spent around the camp fire, a glass of wine in hand, with a hearty meal bubbling away in the camp oven.
YOU WON’T FORGET The awe-inspiring sunsets and the night skies awash with stars. Then there are the camels, each with their own personality. “They’re highly intelligent and capable of expressing themselves very well,” says Karen. It’s quite common, she says, for trekkers to become very attached to them.
NEED TO KNOW Trips run from April to October. Groups are kept small, with 12 to 14 people, and swags are provided for camping. In winter months, the camels travel further north, exploring the country around the Birdsville Track, Clayton Station, Tirari Desert and Lake Eyre.
WHILE YOU’RE THERE Take an aerial tour of Wilpena Pound to get a different perspective of the region’s distinctive geology.
ALLOW At least three days
BEST TIME August to September
Paddling 40-plus kilometres along the river system in Katherine, about 300 kilometres south of Darwin, might sound like an action-packed trip but it’s a surprisingly serene adventure. “It’s isolation offered in a unique way,” says Mick Jerram, owner of Gecko Canoeing and Trekking. “You’re in the wilderness. Where we go, we rarely see anyone else.”
Accommodation is in swags by the river. “We camp on white-sand beaches with shallow, clean water that you can drink or cool off in.” If you’re thinking, “Aren’t there crocs up there?” the answer is yes – but certainly not where you’ll be drinking and wading.
You can expect to see myriad birdlife and fish, paddle past turtles and spot wallabies and wallaroos on the banks of the river. You’ll float through channels fed by springs and soaks and cruise by paperbark forests and rocky outcrops.
YOU WON’T FORGET The sense of peace that comes from drifting through this tranquil tropical-savanna river system.
NEED TO KNOW You don’t have to be an experienced paddler; the team will instruct you and help where necessary. Swags, sleeping-bags and all meals are included. Trips run from May to September.
WHILE YOU’RE THERE Take a boat cruise to the stunning Nitmiluk Gorge.
CENTRAL WEST, Qld
The bone collectors
ALLOW Seven days
BEST TIME May to June
For three weeks of the year, the Australian Age of Dinosaurs museum in Winton offers Dig-A-Dino trips, where enthusiastic excavators can play palaeontologist in the area’s prehistoric fossil-rich fields.
What draws people to Winton in Central West Queensland, almost 900 kilometres west of Rockhampton, is not so much the digging (though finding a bone is pretty cool) but rather the camaraderie that’s formed out in the field. The museum’s dig coordinator, Judy Elliott, describes it as a team experience with an atmosphere like a family get-together.
It all takes place on the vast, open plains of local sheep and cattle properties, which, depending on rain, could be bare golden earth or blanketed with grasses and wildflowers. There’s no experience necessary and you can dig as much or as little as you like. You can try washing and plastering the specimens or “doing the jigsaw”, a euphemism for fitting the pieces of dinosaur bones together.
YOU WON’T FORGET The thrill of the chase. It’s slow, considered work but, says Judy, “There’s the excitement of the find and in knowing that what you unearth is so old.” If you do uncover a bone, offer a word of thanks to the palaeontology gods. One “dugger” (a repeat digger) worked for four years before finding one.
NEED TO KNOW Digs are fully catered and accommodation is twin-share, often in old shearers’ quarters. There are just 39 spots a year; 2019 bookings will open at the end of this year’s schedule (around August) but you can register now to go on the waitlist.
WHILE YOU’RE THERE Leave time to drive a few hours south to Opalton, where you can fossick for opal, Australia’s national gemstone. You’ll need a permit, which you can get at the Winton Visitor Information Centre.
Gulf Country, Qld
Shelly’s big backyard
ALLOW Six days
BEST TIME May
Pull on your hiking boots and get prepped for The Big Loop Trail, a 66-kilometre, five-day guided walk on Herbertvale Station and in Boodjamulla (Lawn Hill) National Park.
Shelly Hawkins, who has lived on Herbertvale for 18 years, offers the tour through her new walking company, Trek West. She meets the group in Mount Isa before ferrying everyone to Herbertvale, almost 400 kilometres north.
The beauty of the trail, she says, is that it traverses diverse environments, from spinifex-covered hills and craggy escarpments to beautiful waterholes and dense bushland dotted with termite nests.
The walk is challenging but tempered with touches of luxury: a cooling drink and refresher towels at the end of each day, hot showers every night (even at campsites) and nourishing meals.
YOU WON’T FORGET The charm of this under-explored landscape teamed with Shelly’s attention to detail (for example, the beautifully laid dinner table, complete with white linen and silverware). “I want our walkers to feel comfortable the entire time,” she says.
NEED TO KNOW These fully catered tours operate from May to August, with groups of up to eight. Support vehicles carry the heavy gear but you’ll need a daypack for water, a camera and other personal effects. Plan well ahead – 2018 is almost booked out.
WHILE YOU’RE THERE Arrive in Mount Isa a day early to see Lake Moondarra and take the Hard Times Mine tour.
Golden Outback, WA
ALLOW At least seven days
BEST TIME September to November
In spring, an intoxicating display of some 12,000 native wildflower species transforms Western Australia’s outback. One of the best ways to see it is to drive north-east of Perth, following the Goldfields Wildflower Trail. The 1765-kilometre return trip reveals country blanketed with bright pinks and purples, vibrant yellows and intense reds.
Among the stunning flora, you’ll find mulla mulla, emu bush, orchids and everlastings. The trail takes in eucalypt forests and parts of the Great Western Woodlands, the largest and healthiest temperate woodland on the planet.
The best way to enjoy the floral spectacle is gradually. Aim to spend at least a week combing the roadside and national parks. Either camp along the way or book accommodation in Merredin, Kalgoorlie and Menzies.
YOU WON’T FORGET The seemingly endless fields of everlastings that colour the land with whites, yellows and pinks.
NEED TO KNOW Call the visitor centres in Merredin (08 9041 1666) and Kalgoorlie (08 9021 1966) to find out about the season’s best spots and worthwhile detours. Note that picking wildflowers is against the law.
WHILE YOU’RE THERE Stop at Lake Ballard near Menzies to see Inside Australia, an outdoor sculptural installation by Turner Prize-winning artist Antony Gormley.