Australia’s best glamping (it’s good enough for royalty)

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Sal Salis, Ningaloo Reef, Sal Salis Ningaloo Reef/Tourism Australia

Sal Salis, Ningaloo Reef, Sal Salis Ningaloo Reef/Tourism Australia

How would you like to stay in a tent that has been set up for you, with catering, cleaning, a heater in winter – and your own bathroom? This is fancy camping (with the price tag to match).

Bamurru Plains, Mary River, Northern Territory

Just outside of Kakadu National Park, there are only nine safari lodges at Bamurru Plains. Like regular camping, the mesh walls are the only things separating you from the nature of the Top End. But unlike regular camping, you’ll have a solid floor, a bed and a high-pressure shower. Oh, and there’s also the catered meals (three course, if you please) and personalised tours into the floodplains.

Sal Salis Ningaloo Reef, Western Australia

Ranged in the sand dunes facing Ningaloo Reef and cushioned by the ochre hills of Cape Range National Park, the nine safari tents of Sal Salis Ningaloo Reef have some of the best views on this stretch of coast. They are also fancier than any other tent you’ll see on this stretch of coast, with solid beds, bathrooms and catered meals.

Longitude 131, Uluru, Northern Territory

Is the sun lighting up Uluru the best wake-up call in the world? The luxury ‘tents’ at Longitude 131 are the closest accommodation to the rock, and have a view that’s priceless (and very pricey). Apart from that,  Longitude 131 has all the fancy things we’ve come to expect from a glorified tent (that has solid walls) – all meals catered, spectacular activities and the most luxurious bed under a canvas roof you could expect. In fact, it’s so luxurious that Kate and Wills stayed here when they visited Uluru.

Roar & Snore, Taronga Zoo, Sydney, New South Wales

What’s better? Watching the sun set over Sydney’s magnificent harbour, complete with bridge and opera house, or waking up to a behind-the-scenes tour of the zoo? At Taronga Zoo’s Roar & Snore you can have both, as well as a luxury safari tent where you can dream of lions and tigers and bears (oh my).

 

Winter away in the best winter towns in Australia

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Wombat Hill restaurant, Mark Chew/Tourism Victoria

Wombat Hill restaurant, Mark Chew/Tourism Victoria

Do you want to snow down and embrace the winter season? Here are the best towns in Australia for a winter holiday – and in some of these towns it even snows!

Katoomba, Blue Mountains, New South Wales

High in the hills above Sydney is sleepy Katoomba, an enchanting village that feels like it is straight out of an Enid Blyton novel, complete with tea rooms, tartan-wearing locals and air of mystery.  Oh, and occasional snow! It snows here a couple of times a year, although the coating of white frost every morning might trick you into thinking it snows more than it really does.

With only light snow, you’re not going to be skiing down the streets or building snowmen. Katoomba’s winter is the sort you embrace by curling up in front of a fire, tea-room hopping or by attempting one of the many walks starting at Echo Point. To really get the blood pumping, we suggest the Giant Staircase, which has 800 steps down to the valley floor. You’ll really deserve your scone with jam and cream after attempting this walk.

Daylesford, Spa Country, Victoria

This is spa country, where the waters are thermal and the antiquing is hot. While there are 72 thermal springs around the area, you’ll want to visit a bathhouse where they heat up the water for you, although the alleged healing benefits are free.

You can have a good time in Daylesford even if you don’t want to take your clothes off. Only a short drive from Melbourne, it’s one of the most popular holiday towns in the state. Eat at one of the great restaurants, meander around the shops or wake up and smell the roses at the local botanic gardens. You won’t even notice that there’s no snow.

Hahndorf, Adelaide Hills, South Australia

The hills are alive with the sounds, smells and buildings of Europe – or at least they are in the Adelaide Hills. Only 30 minutes from Adelaide, the hills have a few towns with various European influences. There’s Strathalbyn, which is a wee bit Scottish, and then there’s Germanic Hahndorf. And if there’s anyone who knows how to do winter, it’s the Germans. We’re talking mulled wine, log fires and delicious bread.

While it might not snow in Hahndorf proper (snow is more likely on nearby Mt Lofty), the town does get chilly, so you’ll need to rug up. While there you should explore the town’s historic buildings, including the residence of artist Hans Heysen.

Thredbo, Kosciusko National Park, New South Wales

Snow way you can do better than Thredbo when it comes to facilities and access to ski fields. It’s the most famous winter town in the country, and should be top of your list if you want a proper winter vacation. The closest town to Mt Kosciuszko, Thredbo has the longest ski runs in the country, as well as slopes for beginners. More than that, the town has a charming village feel, so if sitting in front of a log fire with hot chocolate is more your scene than hitting the slopes, Thredbo has you covered.

Stanthorpe, Granite Belt, Queensland

Forget everything you’ve heard about following the winter sun into Queensland – you can also follow the winter snow up into Stanthorpe. The main town in the booming Granite Belt, only a couple of hours south-west of Brisbane, Stanthorpe has been known to get snow on occasion. But even when you don’t get flurries, you’ll still be feeling the chill; the town is settled into the mountains that range along the border between Stanthorpe and New South Wales’s New England region, and is thought to have the coldest weather in Queensland.

The Granite Belt region is famous for its produce, and that’s the main appeal of this heritage town – eating and drinking, with plenty of wineries to choose from. Of course, if you get sick of cellar doors after a while, the town has art galleries, historic buildings and access to adventure activities in the mountains.

Evandale, Midlands, Tasmania

Evandale is a heritage-listed Georgian town 20 minutes from Launceston and 40 minutes from Ben Lomond National Park (which has the best ski fields in Tasmania). There’s something about classical Georgian buildings that just feels right in winter, and this town has some of the best examples in the country, including Clarendon House, a building that is sure to have you saying, ‘I want one of those’.

Wander around town, pop into a cafe for a warming drink – or take advantage of the fact that you’re very close to some of the best attractions in the midlands.

 

Top 16 winter camping spots

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Gunlom camping area, Kakadu National Park, Lyndon Sparrow

Gunlom camping area, Kakadu National Park, Lyndon Sparrow

Want to camp without freezing your tent pegs off this winter? We’ve picked the best winter campsites in Queensland, Northern Territory and Western Australia.

Lawn Hill Gorge camping area, Boodjamulla (Lawn Hill) National Park, Queensland

It’s hot, dusty – and incredibly beautiful. This is an oasis in the outback, with a palm-fringed emerald river hiding in a gorge. Lawn Hill Gorge camping area is the best camping area in the national park and has 20 sites ranged next to the creek.

Darlington Park camping area, Beaudesert, Queensland

This family-friendly gem is in the Gold Coast hinterland. With plenty of space and facilities, Darlington Park camping area is a popular site.

Platypus Bush Camp, Finch Hatton Gorge, Queensland

You might not catch a glimpse of Australia’s most elusive native creature (the platypus!) at this enchanting rainforest campground, but less elusive features here include hot showers with views, treehouses and a camp kitchen.

Babinda Creek camping area, Babinda, Queensland

Find water you can swim in at Babinda Creek camping area, a family-friendly camping area with good facilities nestled next to a creek south of Cairns.

Maureen’s Cove camping area, Whitsundays National Park, Queensland

It’s the holy grail of travel – good budget accommodation within an expensive tourist precinct. The campsites in Whitsundays National Park are one such accommodation option. Boat-access only Maureen’s Cove camping area is on the north coast of Hook Island. It has limited facilities, but swell snorkelling just offshore.

MV Sarawak camping area, Inskip Peninsula Recreation Area, Queensland

Dog-friendly and suitable for large groups, these campsites with a view (looking onto Fraser Island) might have limited facilities but that has not limited their popularity. Well worth a visit.

Camerons Corner camping area, Queensland

Camerons Corner camping area is the point where Queensland, South Australia and New South Wales meet – it’s also on the edge of the Stuart Desert, so you know it’s hot. There are good facilities and a store here.

Carnarvon Gorge camping area, Carnarvon National Park, Queensland

Gorge yourself on the views at Carnarvon Gorge – and then head back to Carnarvon Gorge camping area for the night. Only open during certain school holidays, this campground has good facilities and good access to the main attraction in the park.

Punsand Bay Camping Resort, Cape York, Queensland

It’s a long way to the top, but the drive is worth it for views like these – and for the experience of being at the tip of Australia. Punsand Bay Camping Resort is the closest campground to the northernmost point of Australia, and has tip-top facilities and activities.

Gunlom camping area, Kakadu National Park, Northern Territory

This is one of the best camping areas in Kakadu, and not just because it has great facilities (although it does). No, this camping area is at the base of Gunlom Falls, where the views are remarkable and the waters are normally croc free.

Mornington Wilderness Sanctuary, Gibb River Road, Western Australia

Around 95km off Gibb River Road, down a well-graded road, this campsite is run by the not-for-profit Australian Wildlife Conservancy. It’s basic but beautiful, with shady sites ranged next to the river. And, as the name suggests, it’s a hang-out for local wildlife, as well as being close to gorges and other gorge-ous vistas.

Kooljaman camping area, Cape Leveque, Western Australia

Does it get much better than this? You’ll have to go and see for yourself.

The campground in Cape Leveque Wilderness Camp is suitably remote and beautiful (it’s greener than you’d expect), the facilities and amenities are good, and if you go for two nights, you’ll often end up staying for four.

Dales camping area, Karijini National Park, Western Australia

Karijini National Park is the jewel in the desert crown of the Pilbara region. On first glance, the national park seems to be red desert and shrubs. But the mountainous national park is hiding gorges with jewel-toned swimming holes and waterfalls. Dales camping area is near some of the best sights in the park, and has good facilities.

Surprise Creek Falls camping area, Litchfield National Park, Northern Territory

It wouldn’t surprise us if you fall in love with this remote and basic campsite in Litchfield National Park, if only for its access to an enchanting swimming hole.

Butterfly Springs camping area, Limmen National Park, Northern Territory

The three best things about this camping area are that it’s free, the spring that the campsite is named for is enchanting (and the only place to safely swim in the park), and it has a large population of butterflies that will flutter around you like you’re Snow White. A short distance off the Savannah Way, you can only stay at this campsite in dry weather.

Ormiston Gorge camping area, West MacDonnell Ranges National Park, Northern Territory

This camping area has one of the most scenic toilets you’ll find in Australia – and apart from that, it has great access to Ormiston Gorge, one of the Red Centre’s best known swimming holes.

 

 

Welcome to Marble Bar, the hottest town in Australia

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Chinaman's Pool, Marble Bar, Tourism Western Australia

Chinaman’s Pool, Marble Bar, Tourism Western Australia

If all the towns in Australia entered a ‘Hot or Not’ competition, Marble Bar would definitely be hot.

Its reputation for being the hottest town in Australia comes from early in the twentieth century, when Marble Bar recorded temperatures of over 38 degrees for 161 consecutive days. Things have cooled down a bit since then – while the town regularly reaches 45 degrees in summer, the locals normally have a day or two of relief in between.

Marble Bar is itself a relief, an oasis of modern amenities in the middle of a particularly sparse stretch of the Pilbara. It is, of course, a mining town. But it is nowhere near the scale of the major mining towns in this region like Port Hedland or Karratha, and is, quite frankly, charming, from its heritage-listed buildings to the native-tree nursery on the outskirts of town.

Iron Clad Hotel, Marble Bar, Tourism Western Australia

Iron Clad Hotel, Marble Bar, Tourism Western Australia

There’s even a heritage-listed pub, built during the gold rush. The Iron Clad Hotel is over 120 years old, although luckily the cool beverages it sells aren’t quite the same age. Unlike gold-rush-era buildings on the east coast of Australia, for instance the spectacular hotels in Ballarat and Bendigo, the Iron Clad Hotel is built on a smaller scale. Imagine an outback pub on a dusty outback road, whack a few corrugated iron panels on it and you’ll have something close to the Iron Clad Hotel.

But if a drink is not cutting it and you need full body immersion to escape the heat, Marble Bar has a few ridiculously scenic swimming holes. Marble Bar Pool and its neighbouring Chinaman’s Pool are only 4 kilometres from town. You’ll also find jasper bar at the Marble Bar Pool. The town was named after the bar, as the jasper was originally thought to be marble. Splash some water on the bar to bring out the colours, but don’t take any – the bar is protected.

Somewhere that wasn’t quite as protected as jasper bar was Comet Gold Mine, which operated from 1936 to 1955. It’s now a museum, and you can take underground tours daily. Another, less well-known historical site near Marble Bar is an old WW II airbase. It’s not operational anymore, so you can visit and wander around at your leisure.

If you do visit Marble Bar in winter, hoping to soak up some of those 45 degree days, you’ll probably be disappointed. The town has quite a mild winter.

You might not find marble when you visit Marble Bar, but you will feel like you’ve struck gold.

Winter is the best time to visit Western Australia’s hot and dusty Pilbara region. Find out more about visiting Marble Bar here. And if you’re visiting the region, don’t forget to visit one of the best national parks in Australia: Karijini National Park.

 

 

We swam with whale sharks at Ningaloo Reef (and lived to tell the tale)

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Whale shark at Ningaloo Reef, Tourism Western Australia

Whale shark at Ningaloo Reef, Tourism Western Australia

One of our Explorers, Lauren, went swimming with whale sharks over Easter. And yup, she found out that they are definitely sharks. But also that they probably won’t eat you.

‘Group 2, get on the marlin board! Quickly, quickly.’

Shoving on my flippers and snorkel, I flapped my way down the stairs to the edge of the boat. In front of us, the water of Ningaloo Reef was a sparkling blue, like the deep blue of Elizabeth Taylor’s famous sapphires. Unfortunately, unlike a sapphire, the water was not smoothly cut but choppy and getting worse by the second. In the distance, the dry brown hills of Cape Range National Park lined the shore. The heads of Group 1 were bobbing around in the ocean around 50 metres from the boat, unmoored by anything except their fascination with something underneath the surface that we couldn’t see. But I was pretty sure they were all looking at what we’d all come to Ningaloo Reef to see – a whale shark.

‘Okay, go!’

The other people on the board started leaping in the ocean. I stuck out my right foot, flipper first, and stepped off the boat.

The water was cold and tingly. A slightly panicked gasp from one of my fellow group members made me look up – ‘There are jellyfish!’ she said. That explained the tingling. But as the stings seemingly weren’t deadly, I focused my attention on looking down, trying to spot movement in the water.

Our group leader gestured for us to swim away from the boat and to stay close together. There’s nothing like being smacked by multiple flippers to encourage movement, so we all kicked our way slowly through the water, swimming towards Group 1 with our heads in the water, glancing from side-to-side to see whether we could spot anything moving in the water. At that moment the water was calm, but in the distance I saw a wave in the water. Was there something emerging from the clear blue of the reef water?

There was something, something big. It was a similar colour to the surrounding ocean, but slightly darker. As we swam closer, I could see that it was a huge head, its mouth double – triple! – my width, with white spots polka-dotting over its head and all the way down its back. It was a whale shark.

I’d travelled quite a way to see this whale shark. After flying into Perth from Melbourne, my travel buddy and I had rented a campervan (if you can call a converted Toyota Tarago a campervan) and raced – within the speed limit, of course – up the coast to Exmouth. We’d almost booked a tour with a company in Coral Bay, but decided to go further north at the last minute. It was a good call. Exmouth is an enchanting town, the final outpost of this surprisingly fertile stretch of desert, and is the gateway to both Ningaloo Reef and Cape Range National Park.

We’d been lucky to get a spot on a whale shark tour in Exmouth. When we’d enquired two weeks earlier there had been only two spots left across the whole Easter week, and we’d only gotten lucky because Ningaloo Whaleshark n Dive had two boats going out.

We found ourselves on one of those boats, the Aliikai (which apparently means Queen of the Ocean in Hawaiian), the day after arriving in Exmouth. The crew all swore, hand-over-heart, that the Aliikai was the best whale shark boat on the reef and after spending the day with them, I’m a believer – especially after eating the lunch they provided (you really want to get their lunch).

But as we bobbed around in the ocean, food was the last thing on our minds. Although I’m sure some of us were worried that we might become food.

We’d been told to stay three metres from the whale shark at all times (for their safety and ours), and as the huge head moved towards us, I scrambled to get out of its way, bashing into the other members of Group 2 in my haste. We were desperate not to startle the whale shark, as our crew had warned us that any sudden movements could lead to the shark diving away from us. As it came closer, we could see the full scale of this so-called gentle giant – this one was around five metres long. As it swam past, with other fish clinging to its fins, I forgot to breathe into the scuba mask, awed at the grace and power of this animal. The whale shark is, quite frankly, the supermodel of the shark kingdom, although slightly larger in scale than a human supermodel. It doesn’t really look like more familiar images of sharks with their pointy noses and sinister rows of teeth; a whale shark’s mouth is wider and gracefully curves into a body that is bigger than any other variety of shark. Flapping my flippers with my enthusiasm than skill, I tried to keep up with the shark, but soon fell back. In my defence, its fins were much bigger than my flippers.

Sticking my head above the water, I breathed in with a gurgle, sure that it was the end of the encounter. But everyone else still had their heads in the water – I stuck mine back down to see that the whale shark had doubled back, and was swimming past us again. It was briefly silhouetted against the hull of the boat, and was almost the same size as the boat.

Jeannette, our German photographer, had told us that these whale sharks are teen males and the whale shark swinging around was reminiscent of nothing so much as a teen boy circling a group of girls on his bicycle. The whale shark was no less impressive on the second time around.

‘Everyone, out!’ We swam back towards the boat, heads still down, hoping to catch a final glimpse of the whale shark. There are strict guidelines around interactions with whale sharks to protect them and us – only ten people are allowed around the creatures at one time. Whale shark tour boats work together to make sure everyone gets adequate time with the sharks, and our time was up for now.

We swam with our first shark three more times before moving on. Apparently he was a particularly curious and friendly guy – normally whale sharks are more bashful, so our crew wanted to give some other groups time with this rare creature.

The whale shark companies have spotter planes to find these gentle giants in the water, and another one had been spotted further west. Our second whale shark was more typically bashful. Group 1 jumped in the water, but by the time we (Group 2) jumped in, Bashful had dived down to 10 metres and we could no longer see him.

Luckily, the spotter plane had seen another whale shark a short distance away, and we spent some time swimming with this one, who was a happy compromise between Curious and Bashful.

As we were relaxing on deck after our third whale shark encounter, one of the crew members came racing down the stairs. Some manta rays had been spotted further out to ocean, so we dropped everything and sped off.

When we got there, two boats were rocking around the windy patch of ocean. There were around 40 people already in the water, moving in a pattern around what must have been the manta rays.

Before we jumped into the ocean, one of our crew members gave us an overview. Manta rays are extremely jumpy and will dive away at the first hint of too many bubbles in the water. So don’t breathe OR swim too vigorously. But no worries – it was a stingray that had killed Steve Irwin. Manta rays are more closely related to sharks, so there was nothing to concern ourselves about. We were given the cue to all jump in – no groups this time. Even the skipper was going in.

Swimming over to where the majority of people were hanging out, we looked through the water. And there was one of the most incredible sights I have ever seen – two huge manta rays, doing a synchronised swimming routine through the water. These manta rays were each around 3 to 4 metres across, and were circling around, tail to face, in incredible patterns. And contrary to the warnings of our crew member, these manta rays were swimming right at us – simultaneously the most terrifying and thrilling moment of my life. You know who will come out on top in a collision between a manta ray and a human (hint: it won’t be you). It’s an experience that’s so hard to describe. You’re trying to get out of the way of these giant creatures without smashing into everyone around you, trying to remember to breathe properly, all without taking your eyes off the manta rays. Braver people than me were free diving to get underneath the creatures, holding their breath longer than seemed possible.

After around 20 minutes I was manta ray-ed out. I felt (manta) ray-diant, but it was time to get out of the water. Swimming back to the boat, I felt almost relieved. It had been incredible, but my adrenalin levels couldn’t handle any more excitement. Around a metre from the boat, I felt a presence nearby. Looking around, there wasn’t a human within 20 metres. But the ocean below me wasn’t the blue I’d come to expect – I glanced down to see the steel grey of the manta ray stretched up mere centimetres from my legs. Gurgling screaming through my mask, I watched as the manta ray looked up at me (did the cheeky devil wink?) and leisurely glided away.

At the end of the day, our crew told us we’d had one of the best days ever, and that it would have only been complete if we’d seen a tiger shark as well. Somehow I didn’t feel like we’d missed out too much.