Here’s to kick-starting 2019 with this list of top places to tour: five of the best destinations in Australia to do more of what you love. To make the cut, our top five had to blow us away with their beautiful beaches and crystal-clear waterholes, blissful campsites and exciting wildlife encounters, and offer the chance to go paddling, bushwalking, put the 4WD into gear and meet fellow travellers over some grand sunset drinks (and maybe tempt you with a top festival or two).
It was a tall order, but these five unbeatable destinations ticked every box and more!
1. Mataranka, NT
Hot Springs Heaven
With the best hot springs anywhere in the country, Mataranka tops our list for its one-of-a-kind snorkelling adventure through Bitter Springs, unbeatable bush camping, barramundi angling and its tufa waterfalls, festivals, pioneering relics and walking trails too.
The oh-so-dreamy drift dive through Bitter Springs’ translucent tropical current is the best time you’ll spend snorkelling away from the reef, gliding past freshwater turtles as you float downstream to tackle lap after gloriously warm lap. It’s absolutely free, and easy access into and out of the hot springs makes this an adventure for all ages. Arrive at dawn for heavenly solitude.
A few kilometres away at Mataranka thermal pools, travellers soothe road-weary bones in simmering emerald pools beneath the world’s largest stand of livistona rigida fan palms. At times, these palms quite literally support a colony of little red flying foxes that can number up to 250,000, and watching them depart their daytime roosts and fly out over the Roper River creates a stunning sunset spectacle.
In Mataranka, Little Roper Stock Camp gets my votes for its delicious camp oven dinners, bush yarns and free breakfast billy tea, all of which bring campers together. The best part for families? Kids stay for free and hosts Des and Telka will direct anglers to secret barramundi fishing holes on Little Roper River.
If you yearn to put the 4WD into gear, follow the Roper River downstream into nearby Limmen National Park for more camping and fishing fun.
- Mataranka is 420km south of Darwin.
- May-September is the best time to visit.
- At Little Roper Stock Camp, unpowered sites cost $20/family/night or $30 powered (www.littleroperstockcamp.com.au).
- At Elsey National Park’s Jalmurark Campground, unpowered sites (with hot showers) cost $6.60/adult and $3.30/child.
- Roper River for barramundi.
- Bitter Springs.
- Territory Day (July 1) for the chance to buy fireworks, and the annual Mataranka Barra Bash (October).
2. Mitchell Plateau, WA
Australia's Best Falls
Rising high above a sandstone wonderland and sculpted by more rain that falls anywhere else in the Kimberley, the dramatic slab of laterite that caps Ngauwudu — the Mitchell Plateau — showcases one of Australia’s most beautiful waterfalls.
It’s the pinnacle of Kimberley hot spots, one of the furthest to reach and it is soon to become the centrepiece of Australia’s biggest national park, preserving a massive five-million hectare slice of the Kimberley and its pristine coastal waters.
There is plenty to lure 4WD travellers so far off the beaten track. Mitchell Plateau's magical, four-tier cascade easily eclipses any waterway you can drive to in the Kimberley, and a hike here can turn your bucket list on its head when you hitch a helicopter ride back to camp for a celebratory champagne at sunset in the rock pools above Little Mertens Falls.
The plateau’s galleries of 16,000-year-old Gwion (Bradshaw) rock art are some of the world’s oldest and most intriguing, and floating in the plunge pools that gather on the lofty edge of Little Mertens Falls is a truly unforgettable experience.
Head here at sunrise to greet the day before ducking behind the diamond-studded falls to discover hidden rock art. Continuing on, it takes around two hours to reach Mitchell Falls, spotting monjon — Australia’s smallest rock wallabies — and ancient rock art en route.
Beyond Mitchell Falls you can 4WD to Aunauyu (Surveyors Pool) and push another slow, rugged 30km (allow two hours) to Port Warrender, one of the loneliest fishing spots in the northwest.
- Mitchell River Campground is 260km off the Gibb River Road (high clearance 4WDs only). Leave your offroad caravan at King Edward River (three hours' drive away) or at Drysdale River Station.
- From 2019, entry to traditional lands (including Mitchell Plateau) costs $45 per person via an Uunguu Visitors Pass (under 5 years free).
- $11/adult, $7/concession, $3/child (6-16 years), payable on site; toilets, water (boil before drinking), fireplaces provided (BYO wood).
- Little Mertens Falls, King Edward River.
- Port Warrender.
- Derby’s Mowanjum Festival (July).
3. Ningaloo Reef, WA
Step right off the sand and experience one of the world’s most accessible coral reefs, snorkelling across turquoise lagoons sandwiched between the deep blue and the rugged red canyons of Cape Range National Park.
Sweeping close to the shore on WA’s Coral Coast, Ningaloo Reef nurtures a mind-blowing diversity of wildlife and the encounters on offer here will keep you adventuring for weeks. Watch sea turtles nesting over the summer months, swim with whale sharks (the world’s largest fish) from April to June, and snorkel year-round with an endless procession of luminescent coral fish on a drift dive across aptly-named Turquoise Bay.
You can paddle your kayak, surf with dolphins at Hunters Beach, go rock climbing, launch a tinny at Tantabiddi boat ramp, fish and hike the high trail above Yardie Creek Gorge and spot rare rock wallabies at sunset — all without spending a cent.
For self-sufficient travellers happy to forgo daily showers for drift dives and to enjoy Happy Hour with toes dug into the sand, the rustic beachfront campsites in Cape Range National Park can’t be beaten. Outside the national park there are holiday parks en route to Exmouth and, at the southern end of Ningaloo Reef, Coral Bay offers power and showers, cafes and lovely sunset cruises.
From Cape Range National Park, 4WD travellers can cross Yardie Creek at low tide and embark on an unbeatable offroad adventure all the way to Coral Bay. If you go, pack sand recovery gear, stock up on food, water and fuel, and wait for lowest tide possible to cross Yardie Creek.
- Cape Range National Park is 36km west of Exmouth (1250km north of Perth). Turn off south of Exmouth to reach Coral Bay.
- National park campsites cost $11/adult, $7/concession and $3/child, plus a park entry fee of $13/vehicle ($7 concession). There are toilets, tables and a bore water tap (no fires, BYO drinking water).
- Summertime turtle watching tours (www.ningalooturtles.org.au).
- www.parks.dpaw.wa.gov.au for campsite bookings and find out more at www.visitningaloo.com.au.
4. Boodjamulla, QLD
Best Outback Oasis
In Queensland’s remote northwest, Lawn Hill Creek blazes an emerald, palm-fringed path across a parched landscape of sandstone ranges and spinifex plains. Delicate tufa dams segregate the creek into staggered, deep gorges, equally impressive at sunset from the bow of a canoe or atop a towering rock lookout.
There are petroglyphs and shell middens to discover along Wild Dog Dreaming, a top walking trail that leads to Lawn Hill Creek where freshwater crocodiles bask in the sun and a colony of flying foxes bends the canopy above (4.5km/1.5hrs return).
The big appeal of Boodjamulla is its waterfront camping with easy-to-access swimming and a 6km-long canoe adventure deep into the gorge. Head upstream beneath sheer, blazing red cliffs that shoot skywards to where Indarri Falls snags Lawn Hill Creek, sending it cascading over a broad two-metre high drop into deep, crystal-clear swimming holes. You can tie up your canoe here and take the plunge, warming yourself on granite slabs afterwards.
Boodjamulla’s boundaries also protect fossilised prehistoric Aussie mega fauna at Riversleigh World Heritage Area, 50km away. A short stroll here reveals the rocky remains of a flightless thunderbird, a five metre-long freshwater crocodile and a giant Riversleigh turtle. There’s plenty of information on site and if you happen to be travelling with kids, consider the week’s home-schooling done!
Reaching far-flung Boodjamulla is no easy feat, so if you need a few creature comforts when you arrive, there are hot showers, restaurant meals and ice-creams at nearby Adels Grove (along with fuel and basic supplies too). For a top free camp en route to the national park, bed down by the river at Gregory Downs.
- Located 100km west of Gregory Downs via the Wills Developmental Road.
- May to September.
- National park campsites cost $6.55/person or $26.20/family (free for kids under 5 years).
- A canoe or hire one on site.
- Riversleigh World Heritage Area for fossilised Aussie mega fauna.
- Book campsites at www.npsr.qld.gov.au or www.adelsgrove.com.au.
5. Freycinet NP, Tas
Tasmania'a Tri-coloured East Coast
Of all Tasmania’s alluring seascapes, none mesmerises visitors like Freycinet’s famous Wineglass Bay, dominated by rugged pink granite peaks and arced by a ribbon of impossibly white quartz sand nudging a shimmering blue sea.
There’s plenty to do around Freycinet: go snorkelling at Sleepy Bay, birdwatch at Moulting Lagoon and spot southern right whales from Cape Tourville lighthouse. Take a swim at Honeymoon Bay rock pools, spend a day climbing Mount Amos and return to your free campsite at Friendly Beaches in time to watch the sun set over the sea while Bennetts wallabies, wombats and pademelons emerge to crop the grass around your camp chair.
The coastline north of Freycinet reserves its best beaches for campers, so plan for lengthy stays at Lagoons Beach and Bay of Fires Conservation Area, both of which provide toilets and fireplaces, and permit-free camping for up to a month. These beachfront beauties are not only top places to fish, swim and go boating, but are home to rare shorebirds that nest on the sand over summer (what where you tread!), penguins, pademelons and more.
- Freycinet National Park is located 194km from Hobart on Tassie’s East Coast.
- Friendly Beaches (Freycinet National Park), Lagoons Beach (20km SE of St Marys) and Bay of Fires Conservation Area (7 camps, 10km from St Helens).
- Honeymoon Bay (Freycinet), Sloop Reef (Bay of Fires).
- Beautiful, Friendly Beaches, Grants Lagoon and Anson Bay (Bay of Fires).
- Tasmania’s free public Wi-Fi at 50 locations around the state (www.freewifi.tas.gov.au).