By Mark Stratton | October 2016 | 8 minute read
Spanning two states and one territory, Australia’s far north is packed with colourful adventures, authentic culture and an increasing selection of luxury experiences.
“Our top tip for selling Northern Australia is to remind clients that Darwin is the closest gateway to Australia from the UK"
NEIL BALDERSTON, TOURISM NT
All at sea: Kimberley cruises are making waves as this untamed coastline wows with whale and dolphin sightings
Dreamtime dances: The bi-annual Laura Aboriginal Dance Festival returns in 2017. It showcases dance and song from Cape York’s best indigenous dancers
The other reef: DOvershadowed by the Great Barrier Reef, WA’s coral equivalent is World Heritage-listed Ningaloo Reef: 260km-long and the premier place to dive with whale sharks
Kakadu & Katherine: NT’s most famous national parks offer bush- walking, kayaking and aboriginal rock paintings
Island life: Bearing no resemblance to mainland Australia, the Torres Strait Islands nestle above Cape York, with a Pacific Island culture and fascinating WWII history
Bush tucker trials: Forget Ant ‘n’ Dec’s platters and sample lean cuts of kangaroo, ostrich or crocodile. Uptuyu Aboriginal Adventures (uptuyu.com.au) runs bush food tours
Cargo cruise: Experience Cape York’s remote Pacific coastline on a three-night cruise with SeaSwift’s cargo-passenger ship between Cairns and Torres Strait Islands
Red rails: The Ghan train is a classic 2976km adventure through the Red Centre from Adelaide to Darwin via Alice Springs
Northern limits: Leave behind the Great Barrier Reef’s honeypot areas for the über-exclusive Lizard Island with its world famous ‘Cod Hole’ dive
Field of light: Illuminating Uluru (Ayers Rock), British artist Bruce Munro’s projected Field of Light installation continues until March 31 2017
Three regions, one adventure
Simmering above the Tropic of Capricorn, Australia’s Far North region encompasses north Western Australia, Northern Territory’s Top End and Queensland’s Tropical North. Visitors come seeking ancient mountains, 40,000-year-old Aboriginal cultures, coastal rainforests, deserts, coral-rich reefs and national parks alive with spring-heeled marsupials and exotic birdlife.
There are a number of gateways. Cairns is the hub for the northern Great Barrier Reef and 4WD expeditions up Cape York; Alice Springs and Darwin offer access to NT’s iconic Uluru and superb national parks; whilst WA’s coastal resort of Broome is a staging point for cruises and self-drive into the Kimberley.
Complementing self-drive’s success has been cruising, with WA leading the way with growth in the sector thanks to the popularity of the Kimberley seacoast between Broome and Darwin. The Kimberley is a sun-baked range of spectacular gorges and desert backed by a craggy wildlife-rich coast.
Travelling can also be done via buses and low-cost flights. Skytrans flies all over Cape York, linking it to Cairns; while Kings Canyon Resort recently introduced a new daily bus transfer from Uluru to the unmissable Kings Canyon from £39 one-way.
But northern Australia’s true magic lays off-the-beaten track so encourage clients to self-drive or join guided 4WD tours. “For those wanting to get back to nature, a camping trip allows you to experience incredible scenic diversity,” enthuses Rebecca Turner, Product Manager for Gold Medal.
Three weeks is ample to ‘do’ northern WA and NT together. From Broome to Alice Springs the route cuts across the Kimberley range via an old cattle drover’s track, the Gibb River Road, and into NT where drivers can explore fabulous birdlife and wetlands in Kakadu National Park and Katherine Gorge.
Thereafter NT offers well-signposted driving routes like the Explorer’s Way running south from Darwin to Alice Springs through Australia’s so-called ‘Red Centre’.
My Northern Australia experience
Wheel-spinning along the ochre dirt track my Landcruiser exits the dense eucalyptus bush and splash-lands in Cockatoo Creek. Rainbow lorikeets ascend from their perches in a squawking frenzy and a saltwater crocodile stirs on the riverbank to provide several anxious moments as I plough through the deep murky water. This would not be a good time to break down.
Few UK tour operators feature the thrilling 4WD epic I undertook from Cairns to Australia’s northernmost tip of Cape York. The drive follows coastal rainforest into Cooktown, a historic gold-mining town, before tracing compacted dirt roads through vast eucalyptus stands, where roadhouses and bush campsites provide food and accommodation. Crocs lurk in the creeks and wallabies bound across roads.
During my excursion, I bush-camp by waterfalls, listen to the dreamtime myths of Aboriginal elders, eat fresh barracuda and pose by lamppost-sized termite mounds.
What the experts say
“The self-drive market is key to WA. Each year approximately one million visitors take camping or caravanning road trips around WA. New car hire firms such as Crikey Campers offer 4WD vehicles with high-end safari trailers for those wanting a luxury camping experience on their driving holiday. Importantly they don’t charge one-way drop off fees.
“The WA government has committed £23 million in recent years to introduce and upgrade 450 campgrounds and visitor facilities along popular drive routes, including working with aboriginal communities to develop facilities on indigenous lands. “
ELEN THOMAS, PR MANAGER, TOURISM WA
“Cape York possesses some of Australia’s most exciting four-wheel drives taking in UNESCO-listed rock art in Quinken Country and freshwater waterfalls where you can swim free from crocodiles”
KARLINA SEE KEE, ISLAND GIRL DISCOVERY
“Northern Australia is no longer the rough uncut diamond of tourism it was several decades back. Travellers can now traverse the red centre on the first-class Ghan train; experience ancient rock-art interpreted by professional Aboriginal guides and luxuriate at five-star properties like the £950-per-night Berkeley River Lodge.”
MARK STRATTON, TRAVEL WRITER
Airlines: Philippine Airlines now operates a twice-weekly arrival from Manila to Cairns, connecting with daily flights from Heathrow.
Operators: : French cruise company Ponant adds Kimberley cruises in 2017 on the 132-cabin vessel, L’Austral.
Down Under Cruise & Dive has a new luxury 300-passenger vessel, Evolution, out of Cairns for trips to the outer barrier reef.
Native Torres islander, Karlina See Kee’s Island Girl Discovery, offers Cape York 4WD adventures and bespoke Great Barrier Reef diving trips.
Helispirit has begun a mega-luxurious six-day helicopter safaris exploring the Kimberley, priced from £9600.
Attractions: This year’s popular addition to WA’s Ningaloo Reef has been swimming with humpback whales tours, running July-October.
Multi-million dollar Cairns Aquarium opens April 2017 providing a world-class facility showcasing Tropical Northern Queensland’s incredible marine diversity.
Accommodation: Part of WA’s ‘Camping with Custodians’ initiative has seen a new campsite open on the Gibb River Road, owned by the aboriginal Imintji community
Where to book it
The 11-day Untamed Kimberley group tour from Darwin to Broome with Gold Medal crosses the Kimberley into the NT. It is priced £3,899 (May 7 2017 departure) including flights and many meals and excursions
A 10-day voyage onboard Silversea’s luxury expedition ship, Silver Discoverer, sailing between Broome and Darwin, focuses on zodiac trips into the Kimberly. The April 6 2017 departure costs £6,050pp, International flights not included.