Australian outback travel guide and things to do: Why the outback is finally 'in'

 

A gourmet feast enjoyed at an outback train station literally in the middle of nowhere. Sunset drinks atop an escarpment accessible only by helicopter. An immersive light installation spectacle set beside the world's largest monolith.

Whether you want to connect with one of the world's oldest cultures, cruise one of the world's most remote coastlines where the red of the outback meets the sapphire-coloured sea, or simply explore a little-visited wilderness, the back of beyond is calling the world like never before.

Never has there been more to see and do in Australia's outback, with a range of operators offering new tours, cruises, accommodations and experiences at levels of comfort that would have been out of the question even a decade ago. Indeed, the enduring allure of the outback was at the heart of Tourism Australia's recent, high-profile Crocodile Dundee campaign in the US.

"The raw, natural appeal of Australia's outback remains largely unchanged," says John O'Sullivan, Tourism Australia's managing director. "What has changed is the growing quantity and increasing quality of tourism product now available [in the outback].

"Today's adventurous and discerning traveller wants to experience the outback in style and also in comfort, and we have seen growth in new tourism experiences built around the land – glamping, luxury lodges, Indigenous experiences, nature and wildlife tours, even fishing."

Andre Ellis, director of the Northern Territory-based Outback Spirit Tours says that today's travellers to the outback definitely "want more comfort, in how they travel, how they sleep and how they eat".

"Our desert safari program brings a level of sophistication to desert camping adventures in the most remote parts of the outback, like the Simpson Desert or the Canning Stock Route."

Important as comfort is nowadays, a sense of connection is essential too, according to Penny Rafferty, executive officer of Luxury Lodges of Australia, which includes several outback properties such as the Kimberley's El Questro Homestead and Uluru's Longitude 131, a luxury tent camp.

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She says that travellers are looking for "a chance to connect with Indigenous culture and to learn about wildlife [and they] also want to shake off the constant bustle and go one step beyond".

While the outback is famous for its landscapes, there is a lot more to discover, according to Angus Tandy, head of Kimberley & Outback Wilderness Adventures for APT. "Whether it be the insights gained when meeting the unique characters of Cape York or the millions of years of history in one location at the stromatolites in Western Australia, everything you experience throws up surprises."

With new experiences being rolled out across Western Australia, the Northern Territory, Queensland and South Australia, the question has to be asked: just where exactly is the outback? More than a geographical location, it seems the outback is a state of mind.

"The outback is the bits beyond built-up civilisation, where the spirit soars and a sense of freedom takes over," says Ellis, while Angus Tandy puts it more it pragmatically: "the outback starts when you lose phone reception."

Whatever the case, Traveller has compiled the essential guide to the best experiences of the new outback, encompassing every corner of Australia, as well as some new and exciting ones in the works.

ANCIENT AND CONTEMPORARY: ARNHEM LAND, NORTHERN TERRITORY

WHY YOU MUST GO One of the true last frontiers of outback travel, Arnhem Land encompasses 90,000 square kilometres of Australia's Top End.

It is a place of wild beauty including dramatic escarpments and verdant savannah, pristine rainforest and white sand beaches. The area's biggest draw, however, is its rich Indigenous culture, expressed both in ancient traditions and in a thriving contemporary art scene.

WHAT TO SEE AND DO With permission from the traditional owners, Outback Spirit has created a network of lodges stretching all the way from Nhulunbuy to the Cobourg Peninsula, which it uses for its 12-day Arnhem Land Wilderness Adventure. As well as visiting Indigenous communities, travellers get to explore extraordinary rock art sites and the ruins of the military outpost of Victoria Settlement, as well as exploring some of the area's most memorable landscapes, from stone country to bays and beaches just made for fishing. Elsewhere, Indigenous-owned Lirrwi Tourism invites visitors to take part in the daily life of the Yolngu people and to learn about everything from traditional lore and language to crafts, kinship and belief systems as well as bush medicine. The company's multi-day itineraries include a photography tour and a women-only program which focuses on women's business, from food gathering to healing ceremonies. Activities on all tours vary with the seasons.

ONE MORE THING Prefer to stay put? Then the Banubanu Beach Resort on beautiful Bremer Island may be what you are looking for. Staying in either cabins or safari-style tents, guests can enjoy an eco-friendly away-from-it-all escape.

ESSENTIALS outbackspirittours.com.au; tourismtopend.com.au; lirrwitourism.squarespace.com; banubanu.com

RIDE THE RAILS: THE GHAN AND THE INDIAN PACIFIC

WHY YOU MUST GO Sweeping outback landscapes rarely look better than when seen through the windows of a railway carriage.

Australia's two great transcontinental rail journeys – the Ghan, travelling between Adelaide and Darwin, and the Indian Pacific, travelling between Sydney and Perth – have recently reinvented themselves as genuine luxury rail cruise experiences, complete with multiple off-train excursions in a variety of outback locations.

WHAT TO SEE AND DO The journey itself is the one thing that hasn't changed. At 2979 kilometres (the Ghan) and 4352 kilometres (Indian Pacific) respectively, these trains cover some serious territory, even by world standards, with the on-board experience completely revamped.

The old sleep-in-your seat option is gone. These days, passengers choose between Gold and Platinum classes, both of which offer elegantly outfitted en suite cabins.

While there is plenty of joy to be had in watching the outback landscapes roll past, the most memorable parts of these journeys are the off-train activities. Aboard the Ghan – which follows the routes used by early cameleers (who actually came from Pakistan rather than Afghanistan) – you might enjoy an Indigenous tour of Alice Springs, go underground in Coober Pedy or sign up for a breathtaking flight above Nitmiluk Gorge.

On board the Indian Pacific, you might explore the mining town of Broken Hill or enjoy a starlit feast beside the track in the middle of the Nullarbor. A little closer to civilisation, the Indian Pacific now also includes a stop in the Blue Mountains.

ONE MORE THING Whichever train you choose, expect meals to be a highlight. Meals feature classic Australian ingredients showcased in fine dining style: think lamb shoulder done in Kangaroo Island and black vinegar.

ESSENTIALS Rates start from $2069 for the four-day Adelaide-Darwin trip aboard the Ghan, and from $2389 for the four-day Sydney-Perth trip on the Indian Pacific. See greatsouthernrail.com

CULTURE CLUB: ULURU, NORTHERN TERRITORY, BIRDSVILLE, QUEENSLAND AND ORD RIVER VALLEY, WESTERN AUSTRALIA

WHY YOU SHOULD DO IT It is no secret that in the outback, they know how to throw a party. What is less well-known is the extraordinary range of cultural events and celebrations on offer in our most remote regions.

WHAT TO SEE AND DO The Field of Light near Uluru, an immersive light installation by Bruce Munro, has been such a favourite with crowds that it has been extended until 2020.

A less well-known but equally arresting artwork can be found 90 minutes outside Kalgoorlie in WA, at the salt lake of Lake Ballard. More than 50 steel statues by British sculptor Antony Gormley are scattered across the lake, creating a mirage-like effect.

If music is your thing, then make tracks to the Big Red Bash. Held in the dunes of the Simpson Desert near Birdsville in Queensland every July, it claims to be the world's most remote music festival and draws audiences in their thousands.

This year's line-up includes John Farnham, Kate Ceberano, the Black Sorrows and the Hoodoo Gurus. In May, the Kimberley town of Kununurra hosts the Ord Valley Muster, an unlikely but effervescent mix of events including rodeo, Indigenous activities and foodie feasts, crowned by the Kimberley Moon Experience concert, which this year is headlined by Lee Kernaghan and the Cat Empire.

Film buffs can spend a week watching cinema under the stars in July, when the Vision Splendid Outback Film Festival comes to the Queensland town of Winton.

ONE MORE THING Garma Festival, held near Nhulunbuy in Arnhem Land every August, is Australia's most famous Indigenous festival, but there are plenty of others held regularly right around the country, from Uluru's Tjungu festival, which takes place every April, to the Laura Dance Festival, held every two years in Cape York.

ESSENTIALS bigredbash.com.au; ordvalleymuster.com.au; visionsplendidfilmfest.com; yyf.com.au, ayersrockresort.com.au; facebook.com/LauraAboriginalDanceFestival

NATURE'S PALETTE: FLINDERS RANGES, SOUTH AUSTRALIA

WHY YOU SHOULD DO IT Some places awaken your inner artist. Others can turn you into a science nerd. The Flinders Ranges does both, with its compelling geology and ever-changing palette that ranges from mauve mornings to fiery orange sunsets.

WHAT TO SEE AND DO With 600 square kilometres of wilderness to explore, where do you start? Arkaroola Wildlife Sanctuary points visitors in the right direction with its range of guided and self-guided options for hikers and four-wheel drivers.

Highlights include the early evening Bats & Bubbly drive and walk, and the 4½-hour Ridgetop Tour, a thrilling four-wheel drive experience rich in rugged terrain and breathtaking panoramas. Arkaroola also has three fully equipped observatories, which take you on an exciting journey through the night sky.

A more exclusive experience is available at Arkaba Conservancy, set on more than 24,000 hectares. The homestead, which takes a maximum of 10 guests at a time, offers guests a safari-style experience with daily activities including 4WD adventuress, wildlife tracking and visits to Indigenous sites. Guests also have the option of tackling the Arkaba Walk, a four-day trek in which guests sleep in luxury swags.

Walking and driving are not the only ways to explore this area. Wrights Air offers scenic flights across the Flinders Ranges as well as Kati Thandi-Lake Eyre, while Camel Treks Australia offers multi-day camel safaris, including themed itineraries dedicated to photography and painting.

ONE MORE THING If you want to take in a range of South Australia's best outback experiences, try APT's 12-day Best of the Corner Country, with highlights including the mighty Wilpena Pound and the eye-catching Marree Man geoglyph.

ESSENTIALS arkaroola.com.au; arkabaconservancy.com; wrightsairportaugusta.com.au; cameltreksaustralia.com.au; aptouring.com

WHERE THE OUTBACK MEETS THE SEA: KIMBERLEY, WESTERN AUSTRALIA AND TORRES STRAIT, QUEENSLAND

WHY YOU SHOULD DO IT For a big place, the outback isn't exactly over-equipped with roads, which is why taking to the seas can be a great way to explore. Western Australia's picturesque Kimberley coast – with its dramatic gorges and escarpments, plunging waterfalls and tranquil waterholes – is one of Australia's most popular cruising destinations, but has been joined by other intriguing destinations.

WHAT TO SEE AND DO Never heard of the Houtman Abrolhos islands? Off the WA coast near Geraldton, this archipelago of more than 120 islands is a haven for nature lovers, with beautiful coral reefs and an abundance of marine life, including playful sea lions.

It is also rich in history. This is where Dirk Hartog became the first European to set foot on Australian soil in 1616, and where the notorious shipwreck of the Batavia took place.

Or head north, where cruising routes stretch from the islands of the Torres Strait in the east to the Arafura Sea in the west. The cruises showcase the area's different Indigenous cultures, from Thursday island where Torres Strait and Indigenous Australian cultures co-exist, to the unique traditions of the Tiwi Islands, best-known for their eye-catching Pukumani funerary poles.

Expect to explore some of the country's least-visited rock art sites, as well as contemporary Indigenous art centres such as Elcho Island and Nhulunbuy.

ONE MORE THING There are plenty of deserted white sand beaches and coral reefs to enjoy along the way.

ESSENTIALS True North's 10-night West Coast Explorer from Perth to Dampier takes in the Houtman Abrolhos Islands, Ningaloo Reef and the Montebello Islands. From $12,595 per person, see truenorth.com.au

Coral Expeditions' 11-night Cape York & Arnhem Land cruise takes in the Cobourg Peninsula and the Tiwi Islands. From $8290 per person, see coralexpeditions.com

CATTLE AND CANE: FAR NORTH QUEENSLAND

WHY YOU SHOULD DO IT The reef and the rock aren't Queensland's only remarkable landscapes. The serene plains and bushlands beyond Cairns offer plenty of opportunities to breathe deep and discover a forgotten side of Australia.

WHAT TO SEE AND DO There is no need to rush on an outback retreat with Kinrara Expeditions. These five-day programs, which depart from Cairns, are designed for relaxation and rejuvenation, with a range of activities you can take part in or not, depending on your mood: think kayaking expeditions, guided walks following the footsteps of explorer Ludwig Leichhardt, exploring lava tubes, birdwatching or fishing. Sleep in tents decked out with inner-spring mattresses, quality linens and your own private deck.

A more indulgent escape can be had at Crystalbrook Lodge, a 40-minute helicopter flight from Cairns. With just five rooms and an infinity pool overlooking a 120-hectare lake, guests at this five-star retreat on a working cattle station can enjoy hiking or mountain biking, go paddle boarding or explore the limestone Chillagoe Caves. Want to take it slower? Try birdwatching or fishing for barramundi.

ONE MORE THING Opening towards the end of the year, Mount Mulligan Station will be a sister property to Orpheus Island Lodge and will focus on sustainable luxury.

Overlooked by a dramatic 18-kilometre sandstone ridge, each suite will have its own dedicated utility terrain vehicle so that guests can explore the property on their own. Guests are also welcome to take part in station activities such as cattle mustering.

ESSENTIALS kinraraexpeditions.com.au; crystalbrooklodge.com.au; mountmulligan.com

ROCK ON: REDISCOVER THE RED CENTRE

WHY YOU SHOULD DO IT Home to some of the outback's greatest sights – from Uluru and Kata Tjuta to King's Canyon and Ormiston Gorge – the Red Centre is an essential outback experience.

WHAT TO SEE AND DO The gorges and valleys of the West MacDonnell Ranges are firmly on the tourist trail, but the East MacDonnell Ranges are not as well known.

Alice Springs Expeditions offer one-day tours and two-day itineraries that explore the best of the area, including Central Australia's oldest settlement, Arltunga, founded as part of a short-lived gold rush, and Ruby Gap, where glittering stones – actually garnets – can be seen in the river sand. Another highlight is the chance to explore one of the country's largest collection of petroglyphs, more than 6000 of them, in the N'dhala Gorge.

The company also offers itineraries exploring the (usually dry) creek beds of what may be the world's oldest river system, the 400-million-year-old Finke River, and experiencing the Simpson Desert's remarkable sand dunes, some of which stand up to 30 metres high.

Speaking of dunes, mountain bikers will find plenty of thrilling trails in and around Alice Springs. Follow old dirt roads, race down rocky gullies and ride through tall grass with Outback Cycling NT. Popular options include the night-time tours and an overnight expedition.

ONE MORE THING Coming to Alice Springs later this year is a new home for the famous Alcoota fossils. The megafauna fossils, which date back eight million years, include giant wombats and crocodiles as well as one of the largest birds that ever lived, Dromornis stirtoni.

ESSENTIALS alicespringsexpeditions.com.au; outbackcycling.com; magnt.net.au

FIVE TIMELESS OUTBACK MOMENTS AND PLEASURES

TAKE A STROLL

Outback mornings are magical, with soft colours, active wildlife and mild temperatures that make it a great time to take a hike.

MARVEL AT AN EMPTY LAKE

Turns out that you don't need water to make a spectacular lake, as visitors to South Australia's Lake Eyre or the Red Centre's Lake Amadeus can testify.

SINK AN OUTBACK BREW

If you work up a thirst, pull up to the bar at one of the outback's classic pubs, savour a mango beer in Broome or a craft brew made with native quandong in Alice Springs.

EXPLORE A HIDDEN WORLD

Expect the unexpected when you step inside one of the outback's dramatic gorges: it could contain anything from a palm forest to a slow-flowing river.

BE DAZZLED BY A BLANKET OF STARS

When you are a million miles from anywhere, the stars shine more brightly. Prepare to be astonished.

THE OUTBACK: SEPARATING FACT FROM FICTION

IT'S ALWAYS HOT

Depending on where you are travelling and when, layers may be essential. In the Red Centre, for instance, overnight temperatures in winter can drop below freezing.

THE ONLY KANGAROO YOU WILL SEE IS ON YOUR PLATE

You won't necessarily get to see safari-style herds of animals, but even the more arid environments offer memorable animal encounters, from flocks of finches to the arresting-looking thorny devil.

YOU CAN LEAVE YOUR SWIMSUIT AT HOME

You may be a long way from the coast, but the outback has plenty of gorgeous swim spots, with waterholes tucked away in unlikely places. Just remember: no swimming in croc country.

THE ACCOMMODATION IS A LITTLE RUSTIC

The most-visited parts of the outback have accommodation to suit every budget, including some of the county's most luxurious resorts, such as El Questro The Homestead in the Kimberley and Longitude 131 near Uluru.

THE FOOD IS NOTHING LIKE WHAT YOU GET IN THE CITY

You will be surprised by how many memorable meals you will enjoy in outback: anything from fine dining under the stars at Uluru to Birdsville Bakery's famous curried camel pies.

ADVENTURE UNLIMITED: FIVE MEMORABLE OUTBACK JOURNEYS

FOLLOW THAT COW

Ready for some 4WD action? Western Australia's Canning Stock Route, once used by drovers, traverses 1800 kilometres and three deserts, stretching all the way from Halls Creek in the Kimberley to Wiluna. See outbackspirittours.com.au

GOLF YOUR WAY ACROSS THE DESERT

Welcome to Nullarbor Links, the world's longest golf course: 18 holes spread across 1365 kilometres, from Kalgoorlie in Western Australia to Ceduna in South Australia. See nullarborlinks.com

HEAD FOR THE JUNGLE

Accessible only during the dry season, the Old Telegraph Track, a 4WD route running along Cape York, is known for its lush beauty and its often-challenging river crossings. See tropicalnorthqueensland.org.au

HIT THE DUNES

Can't get enough of sand dunes? Then head for the Simpson Desert, where the 440-kilometre French Line route from Dalhouse Springs to Birdsville crosses around 12,000 or so sand dunes. See outbackspirittours.com.au

JOIN THE MAIL RUN

Pressed for time? Get some insights into outback life when you spend a day with the posties who do the mail run around Coober Pedy, the opal-mining town in northern South Australia famed for its subterranean houses. See mailruntour.com.au

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