Unforgettable beaches: sand, sea and solitude

As an author of six books on travel in Australia, Lee Atkinson has seen a lot of beautiful beaches. She recounts five she'll never forget.

Summer holidays in Australia are synonymous with the beach. With more than 50,000 kilometres of coastline there's no shortage of places to go, some are wilder than others, plenty are inaccessible and, at this time of year, a fair few of them are crowded.

But a beach can be more than a pretty place for a dip and a spot of cricket. It is the place to go for some once-in-a-lifetime encounters with wildlife, offbeat adventures and genuine back-to-nature-style experiences.

Beachcombing in Arnhem Land

The Top End is not the first place you think of in terms of beaches. It is, after all, a place of crocodiles and billabongs, wetlands and waterfalls. But the Cobourg Peninsula in north-western Arnhem Land has some of the most hauntingly beautiful beaches I've seen.

Rugged and isolated, Cobourg is one of the Top End's last frontiers, surrounded by wild and largely uninhabited country.

Most people who visit this area fly into one of the luxury wilderness resorts but that means you miss out on the adventure of driving across the wild expanse of Arnhem Land, skirting the rocky edge of the escarpment, driving past lily-covered billabongs and paperbark swamps and splashing your way through rocky creeks while crocodiles watch from the muddy banks.

Much of the peninsula is protected by Garig Gunak Barlu National Park and only 20 vehicle permits to enter the park are issued at any one time, so you know you have the place pretty much to yourself.

We spent four days there, exploring the ruins of Victoria Settlement - one of four ill-fated northern outposts abandoned before Palmerston (Darwin) was finally established in the mid-19th century - and driving the coastal four-wheel-drive track that threads through the monsoon forest along the shore line.


We also wandered the beaches, marvelling at the litter of enormous shells washed up by wet-season storms, while keeping one eye out for any crocodiles lurking in the dunes.

It may not be a good place to swim but it's a deserted beach paradise you'll have to yourself.

WHERE The park is about 570 kilometres (by road) north-east of Darwin and is 4WD access only. It is impassable during the wet season, from November to April.

STAY You'll need a permit to travel through Arnhem Land and camp in the national park. Phone (08) 8999 4814 or see nt.gov.au/nreta/parks.

All rise for Yamba

Yamba has long been one of NSW's best-loved surfing spots. Or more specifically, the nearby famous Angourie Point has, with its revered right-hand break.

So esteemed is this surf location that in January 2007 it became the first dedicated surfing reserve in NSW.

Spend any time in the village and you'll see that surfing is the No. 1 pastime of all but a few of the locals, who include former world champion Nat Young and Jeremy Walters, another Australian surfing champion who runs a surf school here.

Surfboards decorate the walls at the cliff-top Pacific Hotel, surf shops dominate the main street, surfing movies play on a continuous loop at the backpackers' hotel and just about everyone you meet has a surfing tale to tell.

Yamba was the place where, after numerous surfing lessons on various beaches around the country, I finally managed to stand up and ride a wave in to shore.

It wasn't a big wave, the surfboard was big and soft and I didn't quite have the style and finesse of Layne Beachley, but none of those things mattered. Nor does the fact I've not been able to replicate this feat of surfing prowess. At least I can say I've done it once.

WHERE Yamba is 670 kilometres north of Sydney, 63 kilometres north-east of Grafton, see yambansw.com.au.

STAY For great-value private rooms with an ensuite, try Yamba YHA Backpacker Beach Resort, see yambabackpackers.com.au.

SURF Yamba-Angourie Surf School, phone (02) 6646 1496, see yambaangouriesurfschool.com.au.

Whale of a time in Western Australia

Like surfing, I've never had much luck with whales. Put me on a whale-watching boat and you're guaranteed to have a whale-free day. I thought I was a jinx until one day on the beach at Point Ann, on the south-western coast of Western Australia.

Halfway through a road trip along the southern coast, we pulled up for lunch at the Point Ann camping ground inside Fitzgerald River National Park.

It's a wild and lonely spot with a breathtakingly beautiful beach - all picture-perfect turquoise water lapping up against blindingly white sands - and we had the place to ourselves, apart from the 20 or so whales frolicking just beyond the breakers.

Point Ann is one of just two places in Australia (the other is Head of the Bight on the Nullarbor in South Australia) where southern right whales come to calve in large numbers.

There are two purpose-built wooden viewing platforms that extend from the headlands over the sea and the best time to see them is between June and October.

We were there in August, with the whales and their calves wallowing directly below us. And they kept on arriving, announcing their appearance with a spectacular show of spouting, breaching and tail and fin slapping.

Despite our plans to eat and get back on the road, we decided to stay for the afternoon, transfixed by the spectacle.

WHERE Fitzgerald River National Park is 180 kilometres north-east of Albany.

STAY You can camp at Point Ann, see naturebase.net for more information.

Stepping out on Maria Island

It's not just one beach that lingers in my memories of Maria Island, it's six or seven.

A little less than 20 kilometres long and 13 kilometres at its widest point, Maria Island, which is off the east coast of Tasmania, is essentially two smaller islands that are joined by a narrow sandy isthmus.

Steep and mountainous in the interior, the island is ringed by stretches of white sandy beaches and limestone cliffs and we walked the length and breadth of many of them on a four-day guided walk across the island.

About as far away from hardcore hiking as you can imagine, each day involved walking between 10 and 15 kilometres, most of it along white sandy beaches.

You carry your own pack with all your gear but because each night is spent in a permanent camp, a collection of hard-floored canvas-walled cabins, you're not laden with heavy sleeping and cooking equipment, or food (or wine).

And fine food it is - our two guides, Brad and Stefan, were dab hands in the kitchen and each night they whipped up a three-course meal. Forget freeze-dried instant potato and stodgy stews, think fresh-scallop risotto, venison, quail and salmon, Tasmanian wines and desserts such as summer pudding full of local berries.

Highlights, aside from the picture-perfect beaches, included the convict ruins of Darlington (Maria Island was a penal colony in the 1820s and 1850s), a staggering array of birdlife, wombats, echidnas and kangaroos everywhere and, of course, plenty of breathtaking scenery.

In terms of taking a walk along the beach, this place is as good as it gets.

WHERE Maria Island is off the east coast of Tasmania and is about 90 kilometres north-east of Hobart.

STAY For more on the Maria Island Walk, see mariaislandwalk.com.au.

Towing at Ten Mile Beach

You have to hand it to the grey nomads. They make it look easy, yet reverse-parking a caravan is a dark and mysterious art.

Commissioned to write a book on caravanning, and while no stranger to long trans-continental trips in a campervan, I was at that stage still a caravanning virgin. My partner and I hired a van and headed for Bundjalung National Park on the north coast of NSW for a trial run.

About midway between Evans Head and Iluka, there's room for just 26 people in the little Black Rocks camping area behind Ten Mile Beach, but it was empty when we arrived.

Which was just as well, because it took a number of abortive attempts, along with much shouting, frantic hand signalling (some ruder than others), a fair bit of swearing and a lot of hysterical giggling before we finally managed to manoeuvre the unwieldy van into the designated spot.

Early the next morning we went to the beach to watch the rising sun turn the black-coffee-coloured rock cliffs pink, then red, then brown, as sea eagles soared above and we couldn't believe we were the only ones there.

They say you always remember your first and despite the parking misadventures of the night before, or perhaps because of them, it remains one of my most memorable beach moments.

WHERE Bundjalung National Park is 50 kilometres south of Ballina.

STAY Camp at Black Rocks or Woody Head, see environment.nsw.gov.au.

PHOTOS Five unforgettable beaches