As Aussies we have the unique opportunity to travel a nation the size of Europe, which also happens to be home to some of the most pristine wilderness areas our little planet has been endowed with. Uluru and the Great Barrier Reef are often counted among the Top 10 Natural Wonders of the World and they’re only the top of the iceberg in terms of spectacular destinations.
I’ve had the pleasure of crisscrossing this awe-inspiring continent with my husband and four kids on extended camping trips - the longest our two-year Around Oz adventure. As a typical family with a limited budget we soon learned to sniff out the best activities which could be enjoyed for free or a small fee.
So let me take you around this magnificent country and share with you Australia’s best kept secrets, without breaking the budget.
Bushwalking would have to be our favourite pastime as it allows you to experience sights others never get to see, simply because you’re willing to put one foot in front of the other. The list of breathtaking places is endless but the Kings Canyon Rim Walk in Australia’s red interior would have to top our list. The 6km hike is not for the faint-hearted with a steep 500-step climb, also known as ‘Heart Attack Hill’.
Don’t get discouraged though as there’s no reason anyone with reasonable fitness cannot complete this magnificent walk, as long as you are prepared. Our two-year-old confidently traversed the rough terrain with plenty of snacks and regular encouragement.
Just over two years ago we became the proud owners of two AquaYak kayaks and we’ve never looked back. These lightweight yaks fit easily on a couple of car roof bars and are extremely easy to take on and off. Australia abounds in rivers, lakes and waterways which are suitable for kayaking and kids love it.
The Glenelg River in south-west Victoria is a beautiful spot to take your kayak to enjoy the tranquil surrounds and spot an amazing array of birdlife. Getting out onto the water allows you to have a completely different perspective and it doesn’t cost you anything.
There’s no shortage of 4WD tracks in every state or territory. Experienced offroaders can tackle the Oodnadatta Track, the Gibb River Road or the infamous Old Telegraph Track to Australia’s northern-most point, Cape York. Getting off the beaten track is undoubtedly the best way to experience our nation’s most isolated and remote spots.
Kids love 4WDing and the earlier you take them out on offroad trips, the better. An absolute must-do is the journey to Palm Valley in the Red Centre. The spectacular drive criss-crosses the Finke several times before reaching the scenic Palm Valley campground which is a beautiful spot to spend the night.
Spending the night under the stars far away from the hustle and bustle of the city seems to be part of any Aussie’s DNA. Out in the bush the world is a different place, where kids get a taste for being in the middle of nowhere and discover that nature is the best playground of all.
We have many favourite bush camping spots but Chambers Pillar and Glen Helen Gorge in the heart of Central Australia are standouts. Closer to home we enjoy going to the Grampians and Princetown along the Great Ocean Road. Some places attract a fee but it’s still a whole lot cheaper than going to a caravan park, especially with four kids.
Who doesn’t love the beach? Kids are naturally attracted to the beach and can spend hours building sandcastles or playing in the surf. For most Aussies the beach is never far away or at least within a two-hour drive.
Our list of favourite beaches has grown steadily but last year we found one that should be on your bucket list: Memory Cove in Port Lincoln National Park, SA. The 4WD track to this idyllic spot is an adventure in itself while the small campground is positioned right next to a picture-perfect beach. You will have to book well ahead of time a spot as Memory Cove is popular.
Many tourists flock to Australia to see our native wildlife: koalas, kangaroos, echidnas, platypus, the list goes on and on. A great location to spot koalas is Tower Hill near Warrnambool, Victoria. A trip to the Grampians guarantees kangaroo sightings. Bendeela camping ground in New South Wales is the place to encounter wombats while Point Labatt along the Eyre Peninsula’s west coast is the only location in mainland Australia where you can see sea lions in the wild.
When you travel to the tropics you’ll undoubtedly come across the beautiful Ulysses butterfly and the green tree frog. You might be lucky enough to meet a cassowary near Mission Beach, Queensland. It’s an education which doesn’t cost anything but will be remembered for a lifetime.
The highest tree-top lookout in the world, the Dave Evans Bicentennial Tree, can be found in Warren NP, a short drive from Pemberton in southern Western Australia. This impressive karri tree has 130 rungs which lead to a viewing platform at a dizzying 75m high, with the tree-top cabin weighing two tonnes. This tree is part of a series of fire lookouts which were built during the 1930s and 1940s. Climbing the tree is free but you do need a National Parks Pass to enter the park.
The nearby Gloucester Tree and the Diamond Tree are also worth a look as the latter is the only wooden tree-top tower in the world. Kids will love climbing these natural giants.
There are a number of tree-top walks but unfortunately most of them come with a considerable price tag. The one exception is the O’Reilly Tree Top Walk in Lamington National Park, southern Queensland.
The first of its kind to be built in Australia, this impressive 160m walk – suspended 15m above the ground with nine expansion bridges – is free, though donations are appreciated for maintenance purposes. Constructed in 1986, the walk through the tree canopy adds a new dimension to the rainforest experience. If you are a true daredevil, a climb up the second and third platforms takes you to a dazzling height of 25 and 30 metres, respectively, for an even more spectacular view.
Scenic drives have become popular in recent years but one stands out in particular. The people of the small town of Coonabarabran in New South Wales came up with the brilliant idea of creating the world’s largest virtual solar system drive by building ten massive billboards, which represent our 10 planets, along five popular driving routes. This amazing project is, in fact, an exciting astronomy adventure which ends at the spectacular Siding Spring Observatory in Warrumbungle NP where an entry fee is payable if you want to see the telescope up close.
FOSSICKING/DIGGING FOR GOLD
Situated near the Loddon River in the heart of the Victorian goldfields, the Vaughan Springs camping area is surrounded by rolling green hills and a vast network of walking tracks. Part of the Castlemaine Diggings Heritage Park, the area is home to mineral springs and a wonderful spot to discover gold relics. The nearby slide is an all-time favourite with kids and adults alike, and free camping makes it a great place for budget-conscious travellers.
The nearby Forest Creek Gold Diggings feature 10 informative signs which guide you through the area and provide insight into the miners’ ingenuity, as well as the destructive consequences of their activities. Entry is free.