Seven wonders, by the road: Australia road trips to natural wonders
Australia's icons come with plenty of drama – the world's oldest rainforest, world's biggest monolith and it's not called the Good Barrier Reef, is it?
With some of the planet's best scenery outside your window, switch off the phone and seize the moment to explore our most photographed beaches, our most frequently painted mountain ranges or go it alone in the strange, remote deserts of the continent's interior – often easily seen through your car window. There's no hardship: eat our national coat of arms in South Australia, fill the Esky on the Great Ocean Road or shop for a glass of wine at day's end in Tassie. Read on to discover seven natural icons found on seven great road trips, where the journey becomes the destination.
The icon: Great Ocean Road, Victoria
Get the picture: You're doing it to see the 12 Apostles, right? But make time to visit Australia's capital of surf, Torquay's Bells Beach, spot wild koalas and feed the parrots at little Kennett Creek. Plan a cafe and ice-cream run at Lorne and fill the Esky from Timboon's providores for a picnic at Cape Otway.
Leave from: Melbourne. Torquay, the starting point, is 100km west of the capital's CBD.
How much time to take: You can drive the GOR straight in five hours, but why bother? Allow at least two nights to explore. Double your driving time allowance if you're doing it in the summer school holidays.
Distance: 243km with plenty of hairpin bends and most of it is speed limited to 80km/hour.
The icon: Alice Springs to Uluru, Northern TerritoryThe flavour of the trip: You've seen the ads: blood-red desert sands flank long, straight stretches of highway.
Get the picture: Sacred Uluru is the undoubtable drawcard, but add to the list Kata Tjuta (the Olgas) and Atila (Mt Connor, aka Fool-uru), another spectacular monolith that rises up on the southern side of Lasseter Highway: the rookie mistake is thinking it's Uluru. To visit Atila, book through Curtain Springs Station (curtinsprings.com)
Leave from: Fly in to either Alice Springs or Ayres Rock airport and hire a camper or standard car (you won't need a 4WD if you don't stray from the highway). For the full immersion, drive 1500km from Darwin.
How much time to take: Six hours without stops, but savour it with an overnighter en route. It's speed limited at up to 130km/hr, so you can put your foot down, but don't drive at night: you won't see anything except that roo, camel, cow or emu coming through the windscreen.
Distance: 462km down the Stuart Highway, then chuck a sharp right at Erldunda Roadhouse onto the Lasseter Highway. See travelnt.com.
The icon: Flinders Ranges, South AustraliaThe flavour of the trip: A gentle introduction to the outback (though flashes of aquamarine waters of the Spencer Gulf always come as a surprise). It's hard to keep your eyes off the watercoloured ranges, but watch for wild donkeys on the road.
Get the picture: Stop for a FMG ("feral mixed grill") at the Prairie Hotel, Parachilna (prairiehotel.com.au) and a wedge-tailed eagle's view of the ranges with a light aircraft flight from Wilpena Pound Resort (wilpenapound.com.au). Stay overnight at tiny Arkaroola village and wilderness sanctuary to spot elusive yellow-footed rock wallabies, take a 4WD tagalong tour and visit the astronomical observatories (arkaroola.com.au).
Leave from: Hawker is 400km from Adelaide on the A1, which finishes at Darwin.
How much time to take: Four nights will fit in the basics, but it deserves a week's exploration.
Distance: The classic Flinders circuit is 230km, from Hawker to Blinman, across to Parachilna and back to Hawker. Add on a round-trip from Hawker up to Arkaroola, about three hours from Parachilna. See roadtrips.southaustralia.com.
The icon: Mungo National Park, New South Wales
|Big skies and bigger stories: Mungo National Park. Photo: Quentin Jones|
Get the picture: See the skeletons of ghosts past, when Australia's massive inland sea receded at the end of the last ice age. Mungo Man, Australia's oldest human remains, were discovered here, and plan for sunset and sunrise looking to the dramatic Walls of China. You can do a 2.5-hour tagalong driving tour of the national park with Aboriginal Discovery Rangers and learn about the megafauna – giant kangaroos, wombats, lions and emus – who lived here.
Leave from: Sydney via Goulburn and Wagga, with eyes peeled for emus on the Hay plains. Otherwise, award-winning Echidna Walkabout Nature Tours runs tours from Melbourne (echidnawalkabout.com.au).
How much time to take: Allow two days to reach Mungo. If desert camping is too extreme for you, pitch your tent by the Murrumbidgee in Balranald, 130km from Mungo, or take a motel room in Wentworth and visit the red dunes outside the town, 148km from Mungo.
Distance: 875km from Sydney. See visitmungo.com.au.
The icon: Daintree, QueenslandThe flavour of the trip: A sunny drive up the scenic Queensland coast to visit the world's oldest surviving tropical rainforest, with the Great Barrier Reef served up on the side.
Get the picture: Beach camping, twice-daily swims, sunset barbies: it's the great Australian holiday. For a change of scenery, take the byroads through the lush Atherton Tablelands.
Leave from: Townsville. The drive up to the Daintree and nearby Cape Tribulation is around 500km. Determined roadtrippers could start out in Brissy for an 1800km one-way journey.
How much time to take: Allow a week to soak up the Cairns vibe and let yourself be diverted from the road on a boat trip out onto the reef off Townsville, staying at luxe Orpheus Island (orpheus.com.au) or friendly Magnetic Island (magnetic-island.com.au).
Distance: 470km. See queensland.com.
The icon: Freycinet Peninsula, TasmaniaThe flavour of the trip: A slow drive up Tasmania's sleepy east coast with a day's detour on the foot passenger ferry to the former convict colony of Maria Bay.
Get the picture: Constantly featured in "Top 10 world's best beaches", the perfect curve of Wineglass Bay is best appreciated from its lookout. Don't miss the chance to stock up on local wine on the way (winetasmania.com.au) and make time for a short walk down to Hazards Beach on the Freycinet Peninsula. Keep the camera ready for white-bellied sea-eagles and adorable little paddymelons.
Leave from: Hobart via Sorrel, Orford and Swansea.
How much time to take: Three days minimum, unless you really like seafood and cool-climate wines.
Distance: 400km for a round-trip circuit. See discovertasmania.com.au.
The icon: Bungle Bungle Range, Western AustraliaThe flavour of the trip: Lonesome and lovely, this drive through the Kimberley is the dictionary definition of the word "remote". Mind you, the Gibb River Rd does become a bit crowded in peak (winter) season.
Get the picture: The sandstone "beehives" known as the Bungle Bungles are in Purnululu National Park, weathered away over 350 million years. Book a scenic flight over them from the local caravan park (bunglebunglecaravanpark.com.au). Take a dip in Cathedral Gorge, but stay clear of the waters of Windjana Gorge – it's croc territory.
Leave from: Broome and turn due east.
How much time to take: Seven days minimum – you're on bush time now and the roads into Purnululu are slow. But you could fall in love with the Kimberley and never leave.
Distance: 1100km via the Gibb River Rd. You could leave from Perth, but that is a 3000km drive, one way. See westernaustralia.com.
This article brought to you in association with Avis.
This feature by Belinda Jackson was published on Fairfax Media's Traveller website.