Travel to Australia: An Adventurer’s Itinerary

Travel to Australia
Morning on Sandy Billabong – just hours from the Northern Territory city of Darwin.

I get a lot of questions about travel to Australia. So far, I’ve helped a few friends craft itineraries – from hanging out on beaches to my preferred style of adventure travel.

I thought some other adventurous people could use some tips for travel to Australia. Here’s what I have for you.

A Quick Pre-trip Briefing
Question 1: "When should I travel to Australia?" September, for a few reasons. First, if you’re headed outdoors -- you’ll want to know that salt-water crocodiles won’t be rampant. This is the dry season, so outdoor guides will know where crocs lurk. Also, the Brisbane Festival starts in September. I wouldn’t miss Riverfire, the monster pyrotechnic display that launches the weeks-long festival.

Kuranda Cairns Australia Queensland Travel to Australia
A view near Kuranda, just west of Cairns.

Arrange air travel between different phases of your trip. It’s a big country. Qantas offers great deals for inter-country travel if you book an Aussie AirPass.

Onto the main itinerary!

Phase One: 1-3 days
I recommend flying into Brisbane, the overlooked city of Australia, rather than Sydney (the departure/check-in queue in Brisbane is unwieldy). You’ll arrive early in the morning. Get some rest to banish jet lag. Then you’ll be ready for Riverfire revelry.

I enjoyed the Queensland Museum and the Queen Street Mall. Brisbane is very walkable – and great for biking and running, if that’s how you prefer to beat jet lag.

Phase Two: 3-6 days
If you travel to Australia, Queensland is a must. You’ll find the Great Barrier Reef, Daintree Forest, Port Douglas, Cape Tribulation and the Atherton table lands. I recommend renting a car.

Travel to Australia
What’s cuter than a baby wallaby? Nothing, that’s what.

I spent a few days each in Cairns and Port Douglas, plus one night in the small town of Yungaburra. Suggested sites: The Venom Zoo, Cape Tribulation Exotic Fruit Farm, Mungali Creek Dairy, the town of Kuranda. Also, watch for walking tracks – Queensland is a great place to spot kangaroos. You might also catch sight of a cassowary. I also recommend a guided night hike in the Daintree Forest.

Phase Three: 4-6 days
If you’re adventurous  go to Darwin on the very northern tip of the Northern Territory. It might be the highlight of your travel to Australia. You’ll spot wildlife from salt-water crocs to wallabies. You can find guides to run you out to Kakadu National Park and other Outback destinations. My trip took me to Jim Jim Falls, Twin Falls and the Corroboree, White Lilly and Sandy billabongs.

The possibilities are mind-boggling. Figure out what sites you want to see, and find a good guide company. I wouldn’t recommend renting a car and doing it yourself. It’s easy to get lost or stuck in the Outback.

When you feel like relaxing, check out the Wharf Precinct and the Parap Village Market. A quick note: Accommodations in Darwin are pretty expensive.

Sydney from Darling Harbour Travel to Australia
Evening in Sydney

Phase Four: 3-6 Days
Your travel to Australia wraps up in Sydney … the Sydney Opera House, the beaches and a lot of nightlife and shopping. I’d also recommend a trip to Katoomba in the Blue Mountains. It’s a bit cooler – and extremely laid back. You’ll find plenty of hiking.

Back in Sydney, I wouldn’t leave without a visit to the Redoak Boutique Beer Cafe. You’ll find plenty to do near Circular Quay and Cockle Bay, too.

Otherwise, I don’t need to tell you much. This is Sydney, probably the biggest reason you wanted to travel to Australia. Pick a direction and walk. Grab a water taxi. You will, if you have any innate curiosity, find something to do. Sydney is cosmopolitan and hip, yet also friendly. It’s as lively a city as you’ll ever see.

Wrapping it Up
Well, you’re about to head back home. I hope you found some great experiences during your travel to Australia.

Have you been to any of these places, whether after taking my advice or just by coincidence? If so, I’d love to hear about your experiences. Tell me all about it!

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The Awesome Australian Crocodile Hotel of Jabiru

An aerial view of the Gagudju Holiday Inn of Jabiru, Australia. Photo courtesy of Tourism NT

You can count on seeing all sorts of crazy things in Australia – termite mounds, bizarre rock formations, sharp-beaked and cantankerous cassowaries, just to name a few.

But it might be a hotel that leaves you scratching your head most.

I’d have to rank the Gagudju Crocodile Holiday Inn as one of the craziest hotels in Australia. Just being in the deep Outback town of Jabiru in the famous Northern Territory puts it on the list. Being built in the shape of a salt-water crocodile takes it into the upper echelon of wacky. And it surely has to be the most unusual Holiday Inn ever.

So is it kitschy or cool? I can’t say first-hand since I only drove through Jabiru with Wilderness Adventures guide Amy and a crew of other loons. We stopped long enough for wallaby meat pies and some oil for The Possum before heading back out. While images of kachinas, cowboys and Kokopelli statues raise the hackles of Arizonans like me, Aussies are more laid-back about embracing the touristy elements of their area. So they probably get a few laughs out of it.

As for you -- if you’re staying in Jabiru, I say go for it. The Gagudju Crocodile could be a really fun departure from the usual bland hotel experience. It’s also owned by indigenous people, so you may get some insights from the staff.

While you’re in the Top End, think about adventuring into the Kakadu National Park, which is 60 by 120 miles of rugged territory filled with wildlife. It’s definitely one of the Northern Territory’s main attractions. I don’t recommend renting your own car and going off into the Kakadu, though. It’s best to grab a knowledgeable guide to navigate the trails – and to know where the crocs are lurking!

Watch Wallabies and other Wildlife in Australia’s Top End

What's cuter than a baby wallaby? Nothing, that's what.
What's cuter than a baby wallaby? Nothing, that's what.

Everyone has a reason for traveling – shopping, lying by the beach, sightseeing, sampling cuisine.

It seeing wildlife is the reason you book long-haul flights, put Australia high on your list. The entire continent is too much for most people to explore in a single trip – especially us Americans who struggle to get two weeks away from the cubicle. If you want to maximize the number of creatures you’ll see, there’s one place you need to visit: The Northern Territory, or Top End as it’s often known in Australia. It’s a real Australian travel experience you’ll always remember.

If you’ve seen Crocodile Dundee, you’ve caught a glimpse of the Northern Territory. It’s littered with towns bearing lyrical names like Humpty Doo and Jabiru, most derived from Aboriginal languages. Among its centerpieces is the Kakadu National Park,  measuring nearly 60 by 120

Crikey, what a specimen!
Crikey, what a specimen!miles. Many of the roads are rugged, and barely even worthy of being called trails - much less roads. There are certain rental car companies that will not even rent their vehicles to people who intend to venture into the Kakadu.

And each square mile of both the Top End and the Kakadu is overflowing with creatures of every size, shape and classification. The roads are rough. The distances are formidable. The routes are varying. And many of the creatures are fierece. That makes a guide a good idea. I highly recommend Wilderness Adventures.

During my time bouncing around the NT, here are some spots that yielded the best creature sightings (WARNING – mind your guides and everything they say about staying safe. Your life is on the line out there):

Bird is the Word at Corroboree Billabong
Bird is the Word at Corroboree Billabong

Corroboree Billabong

This place is absolutely crawling with crocs. You know you’re starting to get assimilated when you point one out to your travel buddies and shout “loogit at ‘un! He’s  a’ least ite meetahs!” You also get a great lecture on the boat tour (which you should take, even though it costs extra) about the croc’s fearsome hunting and killing capabilites – along with a great explanation of how Outback charlatans wrestle crocs and live to tell about it.

But there’s more than crocs. You will see simply too many birds species to even remember half of them. And we’re talking big birds here, not sparrows. Just check the photos! On the way to the billabong, you’ll also get glimpses of wallabies bouncing all over. They’ll be moving fast, and the truck will be bouncing, so it’ll be hard to snap good photos. Not to worry – you’ll see them again.

Rock wallaby at Ubirr
Rock wallaby at Ubirr

Ubirr

There’s more here than old rock paintings. Those are cool, but get me within a few feet of a rock wallaby, and I’ll forget all about the paintings. If your guides are the adventurous sort (G’day, Amy and Grady!), they’ll egg you on to make you lick a green ant’s butt – which really does taste like lime and gets used in Aborginal cooking. You’ll see some cool insects and arachnids, along with the big rock where Mick Dundee stood to make a Bushman’s Phone Call – whipping a bullroarer around his head.

White Lilly Billabong

While most of our group went for a swim in this rare, totally croc-free billabong (at least that time of year), Sarah and I went creature spotting. We saw a very cool orange and gray snake, and some cool gray kangaroos! The lighting conditions were rough, and they were skittish. We had to be quiet to sneak a few photos.

Hold still, Skippy!
Hold still, Skippy!

This was also our first time seeing a kangaroo in full-speed flight. You might think they make a cute little hop at all velocities. But when they go to warp speed, their upper body seems to fold parallel to the ground, and they turn into a furry missile. I wouldn’t want to collide with one!

The Termite Mounds

Fairly close to Darwin, which is the major hub for adventure travel, you’ll start seeing giant termite colonies. They certainly contain no animals that are cute and cuddly, usually being filled with millions of termites or ants. But they look so cool, like set pieces from The Dark Crystal.

Also, I noticed something interesting: A gray kangaroo at rest looks a lot like a termite mound from a distance. I’d have to guess that’s evolution at work. A perfect camouflage, rapid acceleration and awesome top-end speed must make kangaroos a hard proposition for a predator.

The Didgeridoo Hut

Yeah, it’s a tourist trap. But it also sells really reasonably priced didgeridoos – and your chances of seeing cute creatures are pretty high. During my visit, the staff was caring for an oprhaned wallaby, a baby emu and sundry skinks and snakes.

Orla and Sarah at a huge termite mound.
Orla and Sarah at a huge termite mound.
An orphaned young wallaby charms visitors at The Didgeridoo Hut
An orphaned young wallaby charms visitors at The Didgeridoo Hut

How to Talk to Aborigines

Thursday, Aug. 23

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G’day, mates, and welcome to the inaugural episode of “How to Talk to Aborigines.” I’m your host, Wandering Justin!

Alright, now … lesson #1. Traditional Australian Aboriginees are quite polite. They don’t like to disagree with people. I’m hear live with Outback Amy. Amy, give us an example then, love!

“I was out in the bush with some aborigine buddies. I found some plant and said to one ‘Gus, I can eat this, right?'”

“Oh, yeah.”

“It’s good eating?”

“Yeah.”

“Will this kill me or make me sick?”

“Well, yeah.”

He didn’t want to disagree with his friend, so he didn’t. If you’re asking an aborigine a life-and-death sort of question, it’s best to be open-ended. For example: “Are there crocs in this billabong this time of year?” rather than “There’s no crocs in that billabong, right?”

You’ll remember this lesson if the need arises, right?

Sign of the times
Sign of the times

Ahem. I mean, remember this lesson if the need arises.

Okay: So I’m from the American Southwest. I know nasty desert roads. Hell, I survived the roads of rural Costa Rica. But little of that prepared me for the battering we’d take in the Possum today. We got rattled by ruts and beaten by bumps that would swallow lesser four-wheel-drive vehicles. Some rental car companies won’t even let their vehicles into certain parts of the Kakadu. This would be why. How rough were these roads? So rough that we stashed our trailer alongside a fairly civilized road. We’d get it on the way out of Twin Falls.

Welcome to Jim Jim Beach!
Welcome to Jim Jim Beach!

I’m not ever sure what time it was when we got to the beginning of the trek to Jim Jim Falls. It’s a fairly shady walk, and we twisted up and down through the trees lining a placid green river. Of course, in the wet season, there are crocs here. Sometimes they get caught for the dry season, which is why there are croc traps throughout the river. A few wet seasons ago, Amy says, a croc had a little touristschnitzel. Yes, another German. Eep!

Sarah, Orla and Anna hang out by the river.
Sarah, Orla and Anna hang out by the river.

During the one-mile hike, Dominique gave her ankle a good wrenching, followed by her knee. Dave stayed back, but the rest surged ahead. We scrambled over boulders to an inland beach at the base of a huge dry waterfall. Now, this is quite a trek, really. This is a like a giant rock monster took too many laxatives and pooped SUV-sized rocks over a quarter of a mile.

The top of the escarpment towers more than a thousand feet overhead. I can imagine this place gets dramatic during the rains. Tourists swam and lounged on a white-sand beach more scenic then anything you’ll see in Southern California. Except most of the bodies here weren’t quite as beach-ready, if you know what I mean. There was a main pool warmed by the sun, and another frigid pool that stays in the shade. Oh, my … the coldness of the water was totally epic.

Orla, Fiona, Anna, a German straggler, Sarah and me.
The camping crew: Clockwise from standing: Orla, Fiona, Anna, a German straggler, Sarah and me.

We hung around for an hour and then turn the other way. We hopped into the Possum and headed to Twin Falls.

Now this is the most rugged road of all. The Possum tackled it pretty easily, but then there was a huge stream we have to cross.

“Pick yer bags up off the floor,” Amy said, “if ya don’t want ’em to get wet.”

The Possum turns into a submarine!
The Possum turns into a submarine!

The snorkle-equipped Possum plunged into the stream, water creeping nearly up to the top of the hood. Water sloshed around the cabin, getting most of us at least a bit damp. But we were soon out the other side and on the way to Twin Falls.

We pulled to a stop at the bottom of another large escarpment. I realized that I’ve forgotten my hat, though. Not such a big deal on the first leg, but we’ll eventually climb about 1,000 feet to the top of the falls. In really bright sunlight. Fortunately, Sarah had an extra white t-shirt, which I turn into a turban type of thing. I look ridiculous, but it beats having the sun fry my gulliver.

Tony is the man in the boat.
Tony is the man in the boat.

It was a short, fairly shady walk and we soon came to a boat landing. There, we waited a few minutes for Tony and his crew to ferry us up the river. During the wet season, this stretch of river is filled with … crocs! And yes, a German was eaten here, too.

The water is incredibly clear here. Tony dropped us at a landing, where we hiked the rest of the way to Twin Falls, just more than a half-mile. We stopped to make sandwiches with the food we carried in. I was low on water, but Amy told me the water is okay.

“It’s some of the best you’ll ever drink,” she assured me.

Twin Falls is just a trickle next to what it is in the rainy season. Still, lots of fresh, cool, tasty water!
Twin Falls is just a trickle next to what it is in the rainy season. Still, lots of fresh, cool, tasty water!

I got near a waterfall and fill my CamelBak. And yes, it was some tasty water. Nice and chilly, too! It streamed down from the escarpment in two huge sheets of water, where it collects into a pool before spilling over a natural rock damn and into the river that floats Tony’s boat.

We do the usual “eat and hang out” before hiking back out to get to Tony’s boat ride. From there, we headed up the escarpment. It’s not a long walk, but it’s fairly energetic. Dominique is sitting this one out because of her injury, and Dave goes back to check on her and use the toilet. Orla also feels nature’s call, because she went back with him. Apparently, heading off to use the toilet bonds people together: As we find out later, Dave used this time to engross (or just plain gross out) Orla with tales about his bowel movements. I didn’t think he was quite old enough for that sot of conversation!

You may recognize this terrain from Crocodile Dundee.
You may recognize this terrain from Crocodile Dundee.

Once we reach the top, it’s a fairly undulating walk through bush country. It’s very dry, and you’d never know there was a major body of water within a mile. But we got there soon enough, and everyone is in for a swim again. And I’m at the nearest waterfall topping off the Camelbak. I am still amazed at how quickly what seems so arid becomes so lush and watery. Terrain like this in Arizona would mean despair, dehydration and death. But here, the dryness turns into greenery and a flowing stream before you realize what’s happening.

The view from the top of Twin Falls is pretty spectacular. The rock is smooth and slick from the water that comes pounding down the basin. I’d love to see this in December!

Amy, Orla and Sarah march toward the water at the top of the Twin Falls escarpment.
Amy, Orla and Sarah march toward the water at the top of the Twin Falls escarpment.

We lingered, swam and took photos for awhile, and then we trooped back down the hill.

After our steam crossing and our battering on the trails, we hit smooth road and grabbed the trailer. We also made a roadside stop to gather firewood for the night’s campfire.

Then we were off to Sandy Billabong where to camp for the night. This billabong is known for its rather ravenous cadre of mozzies (that’s mosquitos, to those of you who haven’t been Down Under), so we’ll be sleeping in tents. I sensed this group’s fear of mozzies, not least of all from Orla, who still bears the marks of her encounters with the savage critters. Being a pale Irish girl makes it hard to cover up the welts!

Unfortunately, the rest of the crew prepares by marinating themselves in DEET, which makes it hard for me to breathe in the Possum. By the time we get out, I had worked myself into a ferocious headache, which was relieved somewhat by swallowing a large burrito or two.

Oh, and something else about Sandy Billabong – there are lots of frickin’ crocs here. Would you be shocked if I mentioned that a German got eater here? I think the only place where a German hadn’t gotten eaten was at Sydney Airport!

Grady, another tour guide, parked his crew next to us. He had a didgeridoo, which got passed throughout the camp. Now, I must admit … I hadn’t told anyone about this. But I actually enjoy building didgeridoos from agave, or century plant. So I have my fair share of experience on the didge. I’m not great at circular breathing, but I can make all sorts of cool sounds and can sustain a drone for a long time. So while most of the other folks sounded like a donkey that had wandered into a bean farm, I was doing all sorts of mad didge stuff – I must say not even the tour guides could keep up with me. Remember the flute-playing scene from “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy”? It was like that, but I couldn’t conjure any flames from the end of the didge.

Oh, here’s something else funny. Tonight’s dinner? Burritos! Ha!

With the exception of the DEET, it’s been another great day in the Outback. I am also completely grubby and filthy from two days in the bush without a shower. Still, I can’t say enough about what an amazing couple of days I’ve had in the Kakadu. Do not miss this if you visit Australia.

Sarah is at the top of the falls. During the wet season, she'd get swept away standing where she is.
Sarah is at the top of the falls. During the wet season, she would get swept away from this spot.