Europe has Australia beat? I don't think so, and here are five reasons why, writes Tim Baker.
Australia - why bother?
Having just driven 27,000 km over eight months with our family of four around this vast island nation of ours, I feel I can address the above question with some qualification.
I've noted with interest the hand-wringing over the dire state of domestic tourism, detected Australia's old cultural cringe coming to the fore in our stampede to declare our resorts outdated, our travel experiences so vastly inferior to the rest of the world, our service lousy. A recent Traveller poll found 73 per cent of respondents consider our tourist attractions second rate. Yet this is all so far from our recent experience, I wonder if we are talking about the same country.
Let me take the recent article, 'Sorry Australia, Europe Rules', by David Whitley as a starting point. Whitley seems to take the greater concentration of humans in Europe, and thus its greater concentration of everything else man-made, as its chief point of superiority. Yet in a world that has just topped seven billion people, surely it's our sparsely populated land, its vast open spaces, its still untrammeled wilderness and unspoilt coastline that are among its main attractions. Follow Whitley's reasoning and we'd all jet off to the People's Republic of China for our next vacation.
Australia's vast beguiling landscapes, driving for hour upon hour and seeing nothing but the subtly changing vegetation and geography, the occasional roadhouse and cattle station, the play of light, a blue dome of sky that stretches to the horizon in every direction, the most star-drenched skies you've ever seen - these are intangibles I'll treasure from our travels as much as any “attraction”.
And when you do get somewhere that abruptly interrupts this meditative emptiness, prepare to have your mind boggled.
Why bother? Herewith, a few quick reasons:
1. Karijini National Park
I'd never heard of it before we left, yet traveller after fellow traveller insisted it could not be missed. And now I know why. Yet I'd wager more Australians are familiar with the name and vistas of the Grand Canyon than this natural wonder of the Pilbara, in WA. It's stunning gorges, waterfalls, swimming holes, all set against the most vivid red earth, blue skies and white gums you can imagine – these places are our great cathredals and temples, places of worship for an indigenous culture far older and as rich and fascinating and exotic as anything Europe has to offer.
2. Ningaloo Reef
Sure the Great Barrier Reef gets all the press, but you have to actually get out there (and back again!). Imagine strolling off the most exquisite white sand beach, decorated with vast fields of pink river stones washed down from gorges, wading into an endless turquoise lagoon, poking your head underwater and being greeted by an hallucination of brilliantly coloured tropical fish, electric blue finger coral, small and harmless black-tipped reef sharks. The recently World Heritage-listed reef is home to 300 species of coral, 650 species of mollusks, 600 crustracean species, 700 varieties of fish, along a coastline where 10,000 turtle eggs are laid annually. Out at sea, humpback whales breach and splash, whale sharks cruise by, and perfect waves peel along Australia's largest fringing reef. And you want to go to the Maldives? You can camp in the Cape Range National Park for about $20 bucks a night, or splurge on the most opulent five-star safari tent at the magnificent Sal Salis eco-resort for around $700 a night.
I was focused on the surf during our circumnavigation, so rather dreaded the prospect of the waveless return leg across the top. How narrow-minded I was. Windjana Gorge, scene of the heroic resistance of Aboriginal leader Jandamarra, as pastoralists stole his people's land, should be better known to Australians than the battlefields of Europe. Its poignant and grisly history has been celebrated in literature, song and theatre, yet most Australians have never heard of it. Its staggering cliff face was once a coral reef, thrust dramatically upwards as sea levels receded, complete with seashells and fossilized marine creatures. The sheer splendor of wandering the breath-taking gorge, admiring the teeming birdlife and freshwater crocodiles, the natural wonder of nearby Tunnel Creek and its ancient rock art, should be enough to earn it a spot on the wish list of every Australian traveller. Throw in the truly breath-taking Bungle Bungles, the well-appointed oases of station campgrounds like El Questro, the proliferation of staggering natural features in this region – thermal hot springs, endless gorges, unique and remote coastline – and it's a wonder any Australians go abroad before seeing it.
You want to fly to Europe, endure jetlag, spend a bomb and queue up all day to get into the Uffizi Gallery in Florence and gaze at historic art? Why not fly to Darwin, hire a camper, and stroll the mesmerising rock art site of Ubirr to your heart's content. Our time here was a revelation. Free rangers' talks explain the stories behind the showpieces of this incredible, ancient, art gallery. Local artists conduct free painting workshops. Our family was taught to make brushes out of water reeds, watched as paints were mixed out of ochres, and learnt the delicate cross-hatching techniques this area is famous for. Renaissance Art is remarkable for its use of depth and perspective? What about Kakadu's x-ray rock art, thousands of years older, which depicts the skeletons and internal organs of animals? That it is all here, free, beautifully preserved and generously shared and interpreted for us makes it a priceless national treasure. Our visit coincided with the Stone Country Festival, the one day of the year you can enter nearby Arnhem Land without a permit, and we were treated to a veritable open day of indigenous culture at the remote community of Oenpelli.
Australia has some of the richest, healthiest and best managed fisheries in the world and our fresh seafood is the envy of chefs and gourmands everywhere. If I were given the task of attracting more Asian tourists to our shores I would make our stunning seafood one of my chief marketing points. Our abalone, tuna, and other delicacies are whisked off to Asian markets so quickly and fetch such outrageous prices that it can sometimes be difficult to source them here, if you are not a keen angler. But by the simple and shameless ploy of hanging about boat ramps and fish cleaning tables I was freely offered an embarrassment of riches. Fresh tuna in Port Fairy, abalone in Tasmania, snapper in Kalbarri, mackerel in Denham and Ningaloo. Succulent fresh local oysters procured for a relative song in Coffin Bay or Tathra. The accomplished anglers I encountered ate like kings under the stars over campfires – an experience no Michelin-starred fine dining can match.
I could go on and on. The quaint country towns, historic old pubs, friendly locals, verdant national parks, unspeakably gorgeous little coastal gems we stumbled upon. You want attractions? Tassie's Tarkine Forest Experience, and the Stanley chairlift to the top of the Nut. Walpole's Tree Top Walk. South Bruny Island's wilderness cruise. A helicopter ride over the Bungle Bungles. Jet Boating up the Horizontal Falls. And, note, I have not even mentioned our cosmopolitan cities, the Great Barrier Reef, Uluru, the Harbour Bridge, Opera House, Kangaroos or Koalas.
As I said, surf was a prime motivator for me in our travels, and I found that in abundance - pristine, uncrowded, world-class wave and wave with barely a soul around. But I found so much more besides. If you want old churches and ancient temples, museums and art galleries, certainly Europe is hard to top, though we can do those too. The entire art world is abuzz over Hobart's Museum of Old and New Art, for good reason, yet how many Australians would prioritise a trip there?
If you want your faith restored in humanity by boundlessly hospitable locals, to find reasons for optimism that we haven't yet irretrievably trashed the planet, to be awestruck by nature in its endless variety and beauty, you need not get ink on your passport.
To live in this remarkable paradise and not even know or recognise it - now that would be worth wringing your hands over.
Tim Baker is the author of SURFARI, published by Ebury Press and out now. See www.bytimbaker.com