Top 5 experiences Tropical Australia
Fresh back from a trip to Far North Queensland and the Top End of Australia, Australia expert Jonathan Fitzsimmonds shares his top five recommendations for activities in the area.
A helicopter ride over the Great Barrier Reef
Whether cruising, snorkelling or flying, the Great Barrier Reef is a must see for all visitors to tropical North Queensland. A myriad of vessels head out from Cairns or Port Douglas daily. I left from Port Douglas with local cruising company Quicksilver, and we headed for a permanent floating platform at Agincourt reef, one of the outermost coral cays. There are a variety of ways to view this magnificent underwater world. A few of them, such as the semi-submersible, don’t even require getting your feet wet. One such optional extra I highly recommend is a 10-minute scenic flight over the reef by helicopter. The best way to do it is to take a dip underwater for a snorkel among the colourful, flitting fish, and then fly over for the bigger picture – a truly breathtaking experience. All the publicity shots you see of the Great Barrier Reef are taken from above, with the turquoise water dotted with the interesting shapes of the reefs below. It is only when you head into the sky that you can really appreciate the scale and natural beauty of the reef. If you want to head back in style, a helicopter ride to the mainland is also possible to arrange.
Kuku Yalanji Dreamtime Rainforest Walk
After exploring the reef, it was time to visit the region’s second biggest draw, the pristine Daintree rainforest and its surrounds. Both the reef and rainforest have Unesco world heritage status. I went on a 1.5-hour interpretative walk in the Mosman Gorge area, run by the Kuku Yalanji people, the traditional landowners of the region. After a traditional ceremony to welcome us to their land, our guide led us through the forest, combining appreciation of the rainforest ecosystem with an insight into the Kuku Yalanji culture and traditions. This rainforest experience can be enjoyed on a self-drive holiday or by an organised excursion, such as Down Under Tours’ Daintree Walkabout, which also takes in a Daintree river cruise and lunch at the nearby 5-star rainforest eco-lodge Silky Oaks. Silky Oaks also offers guests a Kuku Yalanji package, including half board at the lodge and a visit to the dreamtime walk.
Yellow Water Billabong Cruise
Completing a hat trick of Unesco natural heritage sites located in Australia’s tropical north, my next destination was Kakadu National Park – a 7,600 sq km area of rivers, estuaries and floodplains with a remarkable concentration of wildlife, including the formidable estuarine crocodile, and a third of all Australia’s bird species. The closest town is Darwin, which is connected to most main Australian cities by direct flight – I flew in from Cairns. The park can then be reached on a number of multi-night tour packages, including one with coach tour operator AAT Kings. Luxury camp Wildman River Lodge, located in the Mary river wetlands, also offers excursions into the national park.
I went on a dawn river cruise at Yellow Water Billabong, Kakadu’s most famous wetland. It was a magical experience watching the sky change through various hues of purple and blue, unveiling the emerald green vegetation and waterways dotted with water lilies. We saw fish, eagles, cormorants, Jabiru storks, kingfishers and Jacanas, as well as a number of gargantuan crocs lurking on the bank. This was an authentic and well-guided nature safari, and I definitely recommend it.
As well as the natural world, Kakadu has great cultural significance. There are numerous Aboriginal rock art sights, with Ubirr rock and Nourlangie rock the most frequently visited. Nourlangie features an easy 1.5km circular walk, which takes you past several naturally sheltered rock galleries with well-preserved paintings in different styles. Some of the paintings are up to 20,000 years old, while some have been added as recently as the 1960s. The art’s purpose is to teach and encourage the tradition of storytelling amongst the indigenous communities. The trail continues to a view point and then down through sweet-smelling eucalypt bush to the starting point.
Katherine Gorge lies within the Nitmiluk National Park, bordering Kakadu, about 300km south of Darwin. The park’s custodians are the Jawoyn people, and the rock formations and landscape hold great ceremonial significance for them. You can include Katherine on one of AAT Kings’ Top End 2- or 3-night tours, or on a self-drive tour, staying at the newly opened 5-star Cicada Lodge. It is also one of the stops on the Ghan train between Alice Springs and Darwin. I first came through here on the end of a 30-hour Greyhound bus journey from Townsville as a backpacker 20 years previously and was very happy to return to this stunning spot. The ‘gorge’ is actually a series of 13 gorges carved into the ancient sandstone by the Katherine River over millions of years. The most commonly visited are the first two. You can reach both by taking a scenic cruise to the first and taking a short walk to the second, where the boat picks you up again. The scale of the scenery is breathtaking, with sheer rock walls towering 70 metres high. For guests who are spending a night or two at the lodge, longer hikes and trails will take you to further gorges and waterholes. There is also a fantastic and well-priced scenic helicopter flight.
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