Lee Atkinson has visited 150 of Australia's national parks. Here, she reveals her five favourites.
Australia is a wild-at-heart continent with one of the largest and most comprehensive national park networks in the world, protecting and conserving a staggering 67 million hectares of beautiful and pristine country in more than 7000 designated parks, nature reserves, conservation areas and marine parks. In addition, Australia has 17 World Heritage sites, 15 of which are natural wonders or wilderness areas, as well as one-third of the world's protected marine areas.
Some of our parks are pure wilderness with little or no facilities, or even restricted access, but most offer a range of activities from camping and caravaning to bushwalking, picnicking, four-wheel-driving, mountain biking and other adventure pursuits. All of them strive to protect significant sections of landscape, delicate ecosystems and precious cultural heritage for future generations.
And these days, spending time in a national park is not always about roughing it. Many feature luxury accommodation, mostly in the form of eco-sensitive "wilderness retreats" or permanent safari tents, such as those found in the private game parks of Africa. This has opened up sensitive areas of the environment to a whole new group of visitors, who would sooner dig their own grave than dig a hole to bury their own waste or go without a hot shower for more than 24 hours.
From red sandy deserts to unspoilt, windswept beaches, snow-covered mountain peaks and lush green rainforests, Australia's collection of national parks encompasses the best of our landscape, a landscape so varied and diverse that you could spend years exploring it and still discover something new. I had trouble picking just 150 for my book. So narrowing the choice down to five was even harder but if I could spend time in only five, this is where I would go.
Known simply as the Prom to locals, Wilsons Promontory is a rugged knob of land hanging like a fishhook-shaped pendant off the southernmost tip of mainland Australia, surrounded by the sea on three sides. Its granite headlands, undeveloped beaches, rivers, walking trails and wildlife make it one of Victoria's most loved national parks but the reason it tops my list is its unique mix of wilderness and luxury accommodation.
Must-see spots include Squeaky Beach, a beautiful arc of white sand flanked by large granite boulders and famous for its squeaky sand; Whisky Beach; the panoramic views from the summit of Mount Oberon; and the historic 1859 lighthouse, a 19-kilometre, fairly challenging one-way walk where you can stay overnight in the keepers' quarters. However, for this walk you need to be able to carry all your food and gear on the long hike in and take all your rubbish out.
An easier option is one of the four wilderness retreats, a canvas cabin or "tent" with a wooden floor raised way above the reach of any creepy crawlies that might want to visit in the night, an ensuite, queen-size bed with crisp white sheets and fluffy doona. There's also a heater, lights, a fridge for the obligatory chilled sundowners and a private deck out the front.
Photos: Wilsons Promontory
How to get there: Wilsons Promontory is 200 kilometres south-east of Melbourne via the South Gippsland Highway, about a three-hour drive.
Kalbarri National Park
Canoeing through the magnificent red and white banded gorges of Kalbarri National Park is something everyone should do before they die. Formed by the Murchison River as it makes its way to the Indian Ocean, this really is the type of stop-you-in-your-tracks scenery that makes you suck in your breath and say "wow". Beyond paddling, the most famous – and most photographed – of all sights in the national park is Nature's Window.
It's part of a wider area of the park known simply as the Loop, a short cliff-top walking trail above a loop of the Murchison River, with several lookouts along the way that give different perspectives on the river's switchback course.
The star attraction, Nature's Window, is a natural rock arch that perfectly frames the upstream view and has become a must-have photo for almost all the travellers who come here and sit at its edge.
Eleven kilometres down the road, another highlight is the gorge known as the Z bend, where the river has cut a Z-shaped channel deep into the rock. Along the coast, wind and wave erosion has exposed the layers of the coastal cliffs that rise more than 100 metres above the ocean. From Red Bluff, extensive views south overlook colourful coastal limestone and sandstone ledges, which look their best glowing in the late-afternoon sun.
How to get there: Kalbarri is 577 kilometres north of Perth.
Bay of Fires and Mt William National Park
Empty beaches, coastal lagoons and heathlands covered in wildflowers are the main attractions of both the Bay of Fires Conservation Park and neighbouring Mt William National Park in the far north-east corner of Tasmania. These beaches are perfect, and I mean perfect, and there's usually no one there – although that may change since Lonely Planet listed it as its "world's hottest travel destination for 2009". But until the rest of the world finds it, it's the ultimate place to get away, by pitching a tent in one of the free camping spots.
From the northern tip at Musselroe Bay, you can see across to the Bass Strait islands. At the southern end is the historic lighthouse at Eddystone Point, a striking pink-granite tower on a point that juts out into the sea. Both parks are a great place to go bird watching, fishing and diving, as well as see lots of wallabies, wombats, echidnas, pademelons, kangaroos (including the Forester, unique to Tasmania) and Tasmanian devils, at their most active at dawn and dusk or, in the case of the devils, at night.
Photos: Bay of Fires
How to get there: St Helens is about 250 kilometres north of Hobart and the closest sizeable town to the Bay of Fires area. The closest town to the Mt William section is Gladstone, 133 kilometres north-east of Launceston.
Carnarvon National Park, central Queensland
An oasis in the semi-arid heart of Queensland, between Roma and Emerald, Carnarvon Gorge is a steep-sided canyon of towering white-sandstone cliffs with lush side gorges full of hanging gardens of mosses and ferns, icy swimming holes and sinuously curved ravines with walls so close you can reach out and touch both sides of the gorge at once. But the real reason I love this place so much is its fantastic 20-kilometre walk along boulder-strewn Carnarvon Creek, which winds through the gorge. Side tracks spear off every few kilometres to caves and hidden gullies full of the largest ferns in the world and the sandstone overhangs are decorated with some of the finest Aboriginal rock art in the country.
This is also another park where you can sleep in style, at Carnarvon Gorge Wilderness Lodge, with air-conditioned safari tents complete with ensuite and shady veranda.
How to get there: Carnarvon Gorge is about 740 kilometres north-west of Brisbane via Roma.
Washpool National Park
Part of the Gondwana Rainforests of Australia, this World Heritage park that straddles the Great Dividing Range about halfway between Grafton and Glen Innes in northern NSW is home to one of my favourite short walks in the country: the four-hour Washpool Walk. It's a mini-wilderness trek through gorgeous rainforest that will make you feel like you have entered a whole new world, following the twisting path of beautiful creeks, past lush ferns and some of the least-disturbed forest in NSW, including the world's largest stand of coachwood trees and beautiful specimens of old-growth red cedar. Camping facilities are basic and it can be cold and damp in winter but in summer there's no better place to be.
How to get there: Washpool is 93 kilometres west of Grafton via the Gwydir Highway.
An edited extract from Australia's Best National Parks: a Visitor's Guide, by Lee Atkinson, published by New Holland, $29.95.