This list was always going to get tricky. When we sat down to put it together, it quickly emerged that this list could be a ‘Top 100’. But, with restraint, we have picked our Top 5 Australian experiences to have in your lifetime – and know that controversy (of the fun kind!) will ensue!
If you ever wanted to put a definition around that oft used term ‘the lucky country’, we think it might specifically relate to the actual land we live on. The wilderness, coast, natural wonders and heritage that is all around us here in Australia is simply astounding. And the land is huuuuuuge – so the options are boundless!
From the coast to the mountains, the outback to the tropics, there is something for everyone. But here are the experiences we think everyone should try at least once in their lifetime.
Snorkel (or dive) the Great Barrier Reef
Perhaps we should add to this ‘see the Great Barrier Reef from the air’ as well. Because sometimes we have real difficulty deciding which angle it looks best from – above or below the water?
Below the water, this 2000-kilometre treasure is made up of 3000 individual reefs and coral cays and crowned with hundreds of breathtaking islands. It is home to the world’s largest collection of corals, and over 1500 species of tropical fish who swim amongst turtles, dolphins, rays, sharks, molluscs and of course, the giants themselves – whales.
Duck your head under the water in this natural paradise and pinch yourself – you will be confronted with an explosion of colour and movement.
Above the water, the coral reefs can be viewed from the sky in a dazzling array of colour. It is also from the sky that you gain the benefit of scale. You can truly see that the reef simply goes on, and on, and on…
One of our favourite experiences on the Great Barrier Reef was diving Bait Reef on the edge of the Coral Sea, around 2 hours by boat from Airlie Beach. The waters were like a gigantic, warm fish tank, filled with hundreds of tiny, brightly coloured fish, beautiful coral gardens underwater caves and swim throughs. A few reef sharks came to visit which was a highlight as they always carry a particular energy, different to the other fish.
A unique experience is diving the Great Barrier Reef at night. This is when the ‘larger’ fish typically come out and isn’t for the faint-hearted! Descending into the black ocean at Bait Reef with only the light from our torches was a whole new world and it’s safe to say your heart is definitely in your mouth!
The night dive was touted by our dive instructor as ‘Predator Hour’- and by this he meant the schools of giant trevally (which can weigh up to 20kg each, who come out at night to hunt the smaller fish… By the light of the torch you can literally see the silver spiral you might find yourself in!
You can snorkel or dive the reef from literally hundreds of locations along the Queensland coast – whether it’s straight off the sand from one of the many islands, or by boat. One thing is for certain, it’s an experience you will never forget.
Discover the outback by foot
The outback is a huge place. And we certainly don’t mean that you should try and explore it all on foot a.k.a. Burke and Wills. What we are referring to here is that the outback is full of incredible walks and hikes. Trails that take you to natural gorges, swimming holes, waterfalls, caves and more. Those enormous red, rocky escarpments that envelop you as you travel through the outback are filled with more hidden treasures than you can poke a stick at and we encourage everyone to go out and explore some.
There is so much more to the outback landscape than what you can see from a carpark. So forget about pulling up the car, snapping a pic and moving on. Strap your walking shoes on instead and get out into the red dirt. A walk in the outback will help you discover secret treasures, cross the path of native wildlife and breathe in the incredibly fresh warm air under that huge sky.
In the Red Centre the West MacDonnell Ranges are filled with walking trails which explore rocky chasms, gaps, gorges and waterholes. Walks can be as simple as a 15-minute stroll, to the 223km Larapinta Trail. And all are worth it. Uluru and Kata Tjuta themselves offer different walks for all ages to marvel at the famous monoliths set in the red desert.
And there are countless walks in this part of the country that you might never have never heard of, such as the Mushroom Rock or Claypan Walks in the Rainbow Valley Conservation Reserve. Better yet, there are many Aboriginal guided cultural walks, operated by the Traditional Owners, who will likely take you to areas you are otherwise unable to access.
One of our very favourites in this neck of the woods is the circuit walk around the rim of Kings Canyon. Six kilometres in length, it takes about 3-4 hours for fit walkers (reasonable fitness is definitely required). The 360 degree views from the top of the canyon are magical, from the sheer gorge walls, to the ‘Lost City’ and the Garden of Eden, a beautiful rockhole filled with rare plants.
The Kimberley is home to some of our other favourite outback walks. From the walk along fossilised creek beds to a spectacular natural cathedral in the Bungle Bungles, to the incredible trail through outback scrub to Bell Gorge (where you are rewarded at the end by a spectacular tiered waterfall and swimming hole), this land is teeming with walks for everyone. El Questro has multiple trails on offer such as the hike to Emma Gorge for a swim in her waters which are crowned by a perfect droplet waterfall.
But the pièce de résistance for us is the walk along the remote Mitchell Plateau to the incredible four-tiered Mitchell Falls. Some of the most spectacular falls we have ever seen on the planet.
The walk isn’t difficult, and just requires reasonable fitness and good shoes for the three-hour journey in. The beauty of the walk is in the treasures that are encountered along the way. From caves filled with prolific ancient aboriginal art, to several waterfalls that will build anticipation for the main event.
And once you are there, with the four tiers of thunderous water above you, the mist of the water hitting you in the face, and tales of the Rainbow Serpent who carved the gorge walls in your head, you will understand why this walk is one of the most worthwhile in Australia.
Our recommendation is to take a scenic helicopter ride out of the falls. Not because of laziness, but because the aerial view of these spectacular wonders will be imprinted in your mind forever.
Watch the sunrise over a Kakadu billabong
Dragging yourself out of bed at 5am is never easy, especially when you are on holiday. But there are certain occasions when staying in bed for a sleep-in is simply out of the question – because when you wake up in Kakadu, the magic happens at dawn.
Boarding a boat in the dark at the Yellow Water Billabong made us wonder what it was that was going to be so special. Our indigenous guide from Yellow Water Cruises welcomed us all on board and as we settled in, we began to see the sun inch its way into the bottom of the horizon.
As it lifted, and we drifted peacefully out onto Kakadu’s most famous wetland, the mist began to reveal itself in the growing light and the world around us began to wake up.
Slowly, the sounds of birdlife and insects reached our ears and as the light grew, so did the volume. Soon the sky was glowing orange, and the mist transparent enough to make out the flood plains around us covered in lush mangroves, pink and white waterlilies, pandanus and paperbark forests.
And the wildlife was simply breathtaking. Flocks of magpie geese. Proud jabirus. Sea eagles and whistling kites, and even buffalo along the edges of the water. Their calls joined together in chorus and we were all silenced by their song.
But none of us took our eyes away from the water for long, for we were all searching for that one local resident of these waters… the saltwater crocodile.
And it wasn’t long before we drifted into the path of a beauty. Warming him (or her) self in the growing sun on the bank of the billabong, this huge reptile barely gave us a blink as we rested the boat a short distance away. We watched, mesmerised, each of us secretly thinking of this giant’s capabilities but knowing we were entirely safe in the boat.
In the end, he (or she) got sick of us before we got sick of him, and he glided into the water and silently swam away. We were obviously not that interesting.
Our experience was heightened by the narrative of our guide, who had us spellbound by his tales of the lands history and culture. It is hard to bring a landscape any more to life than with stories that reach back to the dreamtime, and the people who are as much a part of it as the native flora and fauna.
Watching this incredible world ‘wake up’ was undoubtedly the highlight of our time in Kakadu. During our stay we experienced incredible moments, however the silence and power of the experience at dawn, when the local wildlife is at their most active and the landscape was glowing in its best light, eclipsed all else.
Discover Aboriginal Art Galleries
We all learn history at school, in books, and these days, online. We can all probably recite some facts and figures about Australia’s history, memorised due to either need or want. But experiencing it is a totally different thing.
Books are not necessary in the many parts of our country that tells our lands story in a different way. For the traditional owners and inhabitants of Australia told their stories through paintings.
Around Australia there are caves, gorge walls and cliff overhangs that are filled with some of the most prolific and significant art on the planet. Art that is up to 60,000 years old and tells real stories. Stories of people, places, events, beliefs.
From the incredible art sites of Ubirr and Nourlangie in Kakadu National Park, to the Bradshaw, Gwion Gwion and Wandjina rock art of the Kimberley; the stories painted inside the caves of Queensland’s Carnarvon Gorge, and the more than 250 rock art sites spread throughout Victoria’s Grampians, these authentic art galleries are dotted around Australia and available for everyone to experience.
Some of the best experiences are with an indigenous guide. Many will have grown up on the very same land and had these paintings and stories as part of their world from the very beginning. To have them share it with you is a privilege, these people are our very own historians and they ensure you experience the real interpretation of the art, and walk away with a true understanding.
One of our very favourite and moving experiences was at Mount Borradaile, a sacred region of western Arnhemland we visited with Max Davidson’s Arnhemland Safaris. In the ancient escarpments of this timeless landscape are galleries that shows the longest chain of art to be found on earth.
Paintings that date back to 45,000 years showing rainbow serpents, extinct wildlife and stories of birth and death. But they evolve to pictures of sailing ships, rifles, and men on horses… signalling the arrival of white man to Australia. The impact on the viewer is profound. Nowhere else can you literally feel, see and understand the stories of this countries indigenous people, from ancient to modern times. It is certainly something that has stayed with us ever since.
Have a beer and a yarn at an outback pub
We are going to put it out there… Outback pubs are not JUST for refreshing with a cold one after escaping the heat of the country. Absolutely, this is one of their roles. But for us, they are also a place to connect. To meet the locals, share some stories, experience some culture.
The country pub in Australia is often the heart of the community. Have you ever driven through a two-horse town and noticed that they might not have a post office, a petrol station or a doctor’s surgery, but they definitely have a pub?
We always make it a point to drop into the local hotel when we are travelling in the outback. One of the first people we tend to meet is the publican. They are usually behind the bar themselves, chatting to the locals and keeping everyone refreshed. It is common that you will be greeted as soon as you walk in the door, and the conversation normally flows from there. ‘Where are you from?’… ‘Where have you been?’… ‘Where are you going?’… And the advice that pours forth from both behind the bar and the locals in front of it will be what enriches your trip moving forward.
Of course, a glass of the local lager and a counter meal never goes astray, but that’s a given.
Many of the outback pubs we have visited allow their visitors to leave a little legacy… So many front bars of Australia are festooned with random memorabilia from bras, to business cards, flags and more, that you could spend hours gazing at the memories of people who have been here before you. It certainly makes you feel like you are part of a community.
Some of our favourite outback pubs include the Birdsville Hotel, the William Creek Hotel and the Grand Hotel in Kookynie – check them out!
Do you have a favourite Australian experience that you think should be on this list? Tell us in the comments!