Life Travel

Australia's seven secret sites

West Australia's ocean coastline play hosts to a variety of marine life including dolphins and migrating Southern Right and Humpback whales. TOURISM AUSTRALIA PHOTO

West Australia's ocean coastline play hosts to a variety of marine life including dolphins and migrating Southern Right and Humpback whales. TOURISM AUSTRALIA PHOTO

Australia is a land of striking contrasts, starting with its sheer physical size.

While it is the world's smallest continent with an area of less than 7.7 million sq km, Australia is the single biggest island on the globe.

The major cities all hug the coastline from the Pacific Ocean in the east to the Indian Ocean in the west -- but in between there is enough dust and desert combined to make it the driest place on earth.

The major cities are well-worn stops on the global tourist trail. Step beyond them and you can experience barely considered jewels sometimes just a few hours trip from a major international airport and a million miles from the madding tourists crowd.

Here are just a few of the less well worn diversions in the great land down under.

Whitehaven Beach

In the far northern state of tropical Queensland, the Great Barrier Reef is the undisputed star attraction. To get to it, many tourists fly over or sail around one of its hidden wonders: Whitehaven Beach.

This majestic stretch of crystalline sand is just a 60-minute boat ride from the coastal resort towns of Shute Harbor and Airlie Beach but a world away from anywhere. Literally. There are no resorts on its brilliant Whitsunday Island shorefront. No cabanas, cafes, takeaway food joints or pubs and it is inaccessible by road.

Instead deserted Whitehaven Beach presents 7 km of the whitest sand in the world, thanks to it being composed of 98% pure silica. An easy and unforgettable day trip. Overnight camping possible at one of the 30 designated beachfront sites, but check first.

Getting there: Fly into Proserpine airport and then go by ferry or tourist boat from Shute Harbor or Airlie Beach. It is also possible to fly directly into nearby Hamilton Island.

Blue Mountains National Park

At least 70% of all foreign travellers who visit Australia will pass through Sydney Airport. Far, far fewer realize that just 80 km away from the citycentre lies Blue Mountains National Park.

This ancient slice of the Great Dividing Range is actually a low sandstone plateau, rising from the Cumberland Plain west of Sydney to an altitude of 1,100 metres. At its heart are breathtaking valleys walled in by perpendicular rock so deep the giant eucalypt forests below look like so much fluff on a verdant green carpet.

Spectacular native wildlife including kangaroos and wallabies, cockatoos and lorikeets abound, and the Three Sisters rock formation at Echo Point, Katoomba, represents the start of exploration for most visitors.

Getting there: Major tour companies have day trips from major hotels. There is hourly rail service from Sydney's main rail terminal simply called Central. An easy two-hour drive by rental car.

Cradle Mountain

Tasmania. The island state seems inextricably tied in the public mind to that great Disney creation known as the Tasmanian Devil. All swirling, hissing, spitting and angry, the cartoon character is based on the animal that still roams the thousands of square kilometres of wilderness that forms a large part of the island.

There's more to see in Tasmania than a wild animal. Up in the Central Highlands that divide the island is Cradle Mountain. This windswept peak and nearby plateau has walking tracks through the local national park and Dove Lake, a seemingly sky-high body of fresh water ringed by rocky outcrops.

Locals say you'll breathe some of the cleanest air in the world here. In the heart of the Roaring Forties at a latitude of around 42 degrees south, the highlands get their weather direct from the Antarctic and the surrounding vastness of the Southern Ocean.

Getting there: Fly direct to state capital Hobart or regional centre Launceston. Coach travel available from either city or a pleasant two-hour drive by hire car. Stay at secluded Cradle Mountain Lodge for an overnight experience.

Twelve Apostles

This towering stack of limestone outcrops stands with their feet on the edge of the watery vastness of the Great Australian Bight.

The Twelve Apostles -- or what is left of them -- were formed by erosion and have gradually been left behind by the retreat of the cliffs behind them. The weathering started 20 million years ago and affects the entire 300 km length of the Shipwreck Coast, which hosts the apostles.

There is still some debate about how many there actually are, given the collapses of recent years and confusion about just where the formation begins or ends. At last count there was only nine apostles -- not that anyone is counting. A visit is one of the highlights of any drive along the Great Ocean Road.

Getting there: Fly to Melbourne and then drive or coach out along the Great Ocean Road. Helicopter tours available in summer months from Melbourne.

Devils Marbles

Australia's major cities all hug the coastline, yet beyond the inhabited fringes of the largest continent on earth lies a massive area known simply as the outback.

At the very heart of the outback is Uluru -- a smooth sandstone monolith rising 348 metres from a flat plain. Originally called Ayers Rock by the first explorers, it has a lesser-known rival called the Devils Marbles, an easy 400-km drive north of the town of Alice Springs.

The Devils Marbles is a collection of huge, round red rocks that in local Aboriginal dreaming legend stand where rainbows come to earth. They spread over both sides of the main highway and, in the final light of a long hot day, seem to glow with their own fierce redness, thanks to the iron oxide that runs through them.

Approach them in early morning or evening light and the Devils Marbles look like the discarded playthings of a careless god.

Getting there: Fly direct to Alice Springs or Darwin and then hire a car and take the main highway linking these two main centres. Tour bus companies also operate daily services. Some camping grounds available.

Coober Pedy

Ever wondered what it is like to live underground? Even if you haven't, it's impossible not to be intrigued by the isolated opal-mining town of Coober Pedy.

This whistle stop is around 850 km north of the South Australian state capital Adelaide and is surrounded by desert on all sides. It is unselfconsciously hailed as "the opal capital of the world" and most of the 1,000 or so locals don't just work underground in search of the precious stones, they live there.

They also shop, dine, worship and pursue most of their life beneath the earth's surface, leaving just three built structures above ground. It's the only way to escape the incredible desert heat.

Getting there: Daily coach service from Adelaide. The Ghan overland train between Adelaide and Darwin stops twice a week. Hire car via sealed highway from Adelaide. Regional Express flights from Adelaide.

Margaret River

Wine and whales. They're not your usual tourist combination -- or any other combination, come to think of it.

Still, this abundant region 270 km south of the West Australian capital city of Perth has some of the best wines in the nation. Its ocean coastline also plays host to migrating Southern Right and Humpback whales from June to September.

The single most appealing thing about the Margaret River area, apart from whales or wine, is the raw natural beauty of the landscape. Like so much of Australia there is untouched wilderness with desert on one side and stunning surf beaches on the other.

A favourite playground for Perth locals and more and more Australians from the far-off eastern states. Upwards of 200 vineyards and a dozen wineries to choose from.

Getting there: Daily flights connect Perth to all major Australian capital cities. Coach travel to Margaret River is available and hire car an easy alternative.