Australia's most remote territories and how to visit them

Outback towns may think they're pretty remote, but they're not a patch on the most far-flung specks of Australian territory. The country's tentacles have spread out to all manner of obscure places  - some of which are easier to reach than others. But why are they part of Oz, and what will you discover if you, ahem, advance Australia far?

Christmas Island

Distance from the mainland: 1560 km

Discovered on Christmas Day, 1643, this 135 square kilometre speck in the Indian Ocean is around 1560km north-west of Exmouth in WA. It's firmly in the tropics and much closer to Indonesia than Australia.

It became an Australian territory in 1958, after Australia bought it from Singapore, which was at that time still a British colony. The Brits decided to administer the island from Singapore, and it was largely seen as a giant phosphate mine.

The phosphate operations are now long closed, and Christmas Island is now best known for its controversial immigrant detention centre.

But for visitors who have got visas, there's plenty to do – most of it nature based. The annual red crab migration (which usually takes place in November or December) is the calendar highlight. For the rest of the year, expect plenty of bird-watching opportunities, rainforest hikes and fab snorkelling or diving on the reef that surrounds the island.

Unlike many of Australia's other territories, Christmas Island is relatively easy to get to – Virgin Australia flies direct from Perth. See Christmas.net.au.

The Cocos (Keeling) Islands

Distance from the mainland: 2129 km

Also served by Virgin Australia flights from Perth – and even further away than Christmas Island - the Cocos (Keeling) Islands are a collection of tiny islands on two atolls. First spotted in 1609, they became the home of two squabbling British merchants and a harem of Malay women they fought over. Eventually, the islands passed to Australia after a spell of British colonial control in 1955.

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Only two of the islands – West Island and Home Island – are inhabited, and the somewhat unusual cultural heritage offers a counterpoint to the nature-based activities. Canoeing over to uninhabited islets and prime warm-water snorkelling aren't bad ways to kill time either… See cocoskeelingislands.com.au.

The Ashmore and Cartier Islands

Distance from the mainland: 320 km

Stranded between Australia's north-west coast and the Indonesian island of Rote, these uninhabited islands are another inheritance from colonial Britain. The only visitors tend to be the occasional scientist, Indonesian fisherman or Australian Navy ship. There are no anchorage points, and permits are required to go there, even if you were thinking of heading over in your own yacht.

Norfolk Island

Distance from the mainland: 1456 km

Uninhabited when Captain Cook arrived in 1774, Norfolk Island was used as penal settlement for the very worst convicts in Australia's early colonial era. Then, after the penal settlement was closed down, waves of Pitcairn Islanders – descended from the Bounty mutineers and their Polynesian wives – moved in.

The island now has a population of around 2,300, and is broadly self-governing without any representation in Australia's parliament. Heritage tourism is the strong suit, although the beaches and lagoons aren't exactly unwelcome either. The convict sites around Kingston and Arthur's Vale are World Heritage-listed, while there is a surprisingly large collection of museums. These delve into the Bounty story, the way convicts were treated, the Polynesian settlers and photography from the olden days.

It's around 1456 km east of Byron Bay, with Air New Zealand operating direct flights from Auckland, Sydney and Brisbane. See norfolkisland.com.au.

The Coral Sea Islands

Distance from the mainland: 722 km

On the other side of the Great Barrier Reef from the Australian mainland, only one of the Coral Sea Islands – Willis Island – is inhabited. And that's by the three or four hardy souls manning the meteorological station there.

For somewhere so obscure, however, Willis Island is mightily popular with cruise ships. P&O, Royal Caribbean and Princess Cruises all go there regularly. This might be for the scenic sail-around, where a knowledgeable naturalist lectures passengers about the bird life. Cynics may, however, suggest it's because the detour technically takes the ships into international waters, allowing the cruise lines to sell tons of duty free.

Heard and McDonald Islands

Distance from the mainland: 3985 km

About as remote as you can get, these volcanic islands sit thousands of kilometres from anywhere, in the middle of a rough triangle between Australia, Madagascar and Antarctica. Initially claimed by the British then transferred to Australian control in 1947, there have only been 240 recorded visits to Heard Island in history. For McDonald Island, that drops to two.

Unless part of a scientific expedition – and if you've the money, interests and credentials to join, one (heardisland.org) is departing next summer – there's virtually no chance of getting there.

But if you do, it's somewhere extraordinary. Heard Island is dominated by a Mawson Peak, an enormous volcano, and the complete lack of human-introduced predators makes the islands a snapshot of nature almost impossible to find elsewhere.

Australian Antarctic Territory

Distance from the mainland: 3160 km

Australia lays claim to just under 5.9 million square kilometres of Antarctica – another gift from the UK - although that sovereignty is only recognised in a few other countries. The Australian Antarctic Division maintains three year-round research stations, although the vessels supplying them are for scientists and workers only. The Division's website has good information on how to visit Antarctica too. See Antarctica.gov.au.

There are plenty of Antarctica cruise options, but very few of these visit the Australian Antarctic Territory (the vast majority go from South America to the Antarctic Peninsula). A small minority depart from Bluff in New Zealand or Hobart in Tasmania, but even these tend to go to the New Zealand-administered Ross Dependency.

The cheat's method is to take a scenic flight over Antarctica from one of the Australian capital cities – Antarctica Flights (antarcticaflights.com.au) sells the marathon 12 hour trips.

Macquarie Island

Distance from the mainland: 1470 km

Once popular with sealers, this sub-Antarctic island is technically part of Tasmania despite lying almost 1500km south-east of it. It has a surprisingly mild climate given its position, and is most notable for its large penguin populations. In particular, it's the only place in the world where the royal penguin lives.

The Australian Antarctic Division maintains a permanent base there, but otherwise there are no human inhabitants.

A sub-Antarctic Islands cruise, usually taking in some of New Zealand's more obscure outposts as well, is the best way to visit. Heritage Expeditions (heritage-expeditions.com) is amongst the companies specialising in them.

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