Want to escape Australia’s beaten track? Plant the first footprints on a faraway beach? Explore wild places and encounter creatures you never expected to meet? Then ditch your guidebook and make a beeline to one of these awesome destinations right now! They demand some determination to reach, but you are sure to shake off the crowds along the way.
1. Red Bluff, Western Australia
The headland swell that peels off Red Bluff has magnetised West Coast surfers for decades, drawn to this remote beach camp, a bumpy, two-hour trip north of Carnarvon. Riding the epic left-hander by day and dossing down in swags and tents overnight has long been a ritual for wave riders, but it’s Red Bluff’s invigorating seascape and rustic campsites nestled against the cliffs that will excite all kinds of travellers to this one-in-a-million West Coast surf Mecca.
Uniquely, not much has changed about this spot in 20 years: the facilities are still primitive, the endless white sand beach remains utterly pristine and the coastal access track is still sandy and corrugated. The famous ‘Bluff Barrel’ is as powerful as ever and the family-run Red Bluff Store continues to brew a mean coffee, served in its weather beaten shack overlooking the sea.
Thankfully for non-surfers, Red Bluff’s appeal stretches beyond its world-famous waves. There are coral reefs and wreck sites to dive and snorkel, great beach fishing, and the best blowholes on the West Coast – all within easy reach of this remarkable wilderness camp. Located on Quobba Station at the southern edge of Ningaloo Marine Park and accessible only to 4WD vehicles with off-road rigs or tents, Red Bluff doesn’t offer much in the way of camper facilities (unless you splash out for the plush safari tents). There’s no power or showers, water or firewood, but the allure of this back-to-basics camping experience is palpable!
Essentials: Drive 24km north of Carnarvon, turn west and push on for 50km to reach the sea. Red Bluff (quobba.com.au) is another 64km north. Unpowered campsites cost $15pp (pit toilets only, BYO drinking water).
2. Dampier Archipelago, Western Australia
Midway up Australia’s rugged western coastline, beyond the rusty ironstone hills of the Burrup Peninsula, Flying Foam Passage leads boaties and kayakers into an archipelago of reef-fringed islands to snorkel, fish and camp in solitude. Clustered in a 45km-radius from land and irresistibly close to shore, 42 islands, islets and rock outcrops and their shallow protected seas nurture nurseries of stingrays, turtles and reef sharks.
Coral blooms on rocky reefs, and dugongs and bottlenose dolphins surf the swell that breaks onto endless white sand beaches. The entire archipelago is an important turtle-nesting site, and you can spot humpback whales passing by on their annual northern migration from July to September. Out of the water the landscape is just as remarkable. In 2014, WA proclaimed Murujuga National Park its 100th national park, finally affording protection to the Burrup Peninsula and the world’s largest concentration of ancient, Indigenous rock art.
Etched with an estimated 100,000 petroglyphs, these 30,000-year-old rock canvases extend beyond the Burrup Peninsula to the archipelago islands too, where self-sufficient adventurers can pitch a tent and explore the ironstone hills that lie over the dunes. There are no facilities so bring drinking water, a fuel or gas stove, a shade shelter or tarp to keep the sun off, and take all rubbish away with you. Top spots to camp include the calm western edge of Dolphin Island, or the western sides of Gidley and Angel Islands where protected lagoons are ideal for snorkelling.
Essentials: From Karratha follow Dampier Road, turn onto Burrup Peninsula Road and continue north to the Withnell Bay boat ramp. Free camping is permitted on select offshore islands within 100m of the high tide mark (5-night limit, no pets, marginal phone coverage, head to parks.dpaw.wa.gov.au for maps and more). Visit during winter (June to September) when cool, comfortable temperatures average 13-26˚C.
3. Cedar Bay, Far North Queensland
Deep within one the north’s last remote patches of tropical rainforest, Cedar Bay’s tiny blue lagoon nudges against an arc of bleached, palm-fringed sand. Rare Bennetts tree kangaroos and cassowaries range the misty flanks above this blissfully deserted spot, which remains utterly pristine because it is only accessible to hikers and boaties.
Very few people make their way to Cedar Bay in the Mangkalba section of Ngalba Bulal National Park. This guarantees you a taste of the tropical utopia that existed in the 1970s before police dramatically destroyed the bay’s harmless hippy commune. Hiking is a wonderful way to reach this spot and the strenuous 17km (8 hours) trek from Rossville’s Home Rule Rainforest Lodge is one of the best in all of Northern Australia.
When you arrive at Cedar Bay, explore north to discover the beachside grave of Cedar Bay Bill, aka William Yale Evans, and his abandoned tin mining camp upstream on Ashwell Creek.
Essentials: Accessed via Home Rule Rainforest Lodge, 53km south of Cooktown, Cedar Bay is accessible on foot and via boat (launch at Ayton on the Bloomfield River). Bloomfield River Water Sports (phone 07 4060 8252) transfers campers and hires boats. Pay national park camping fees at www.nprsr.qld.gov.au ($6.15pp, BYO a fuel stove, water treatment system and take away all rubbish.) Be aware that estuarine crocodiles inhabit the area and avoid swimming or crossing tidal creeks at high tide. Visit during the cool, winter months to avoid marine stingers.
4. Mt Hypipamee National Park, Far North Queensland
If you crossed a bear with a kangaroo, the result might look something like the heavily muscled, canopy-dwelling Lumholtz’s tree kangaroo. As few as 2000 are estimated to exist only in Queensland’s far northern forests, and Mount Hypipamee National Park on the Atherton Tablelands is the best place to spot them. This high-altitude rainforest also supports a huge variety of gliders and possums, and there are waterfalls and dramatic views from the rim of a volcanic explosion crater with sheer granite walls that drop 140m to the water below.
You have to be extremely lucky to spot a normally nocturnal Lumholtz’s tree kangaroo but it’s not out of the question. On an early morning’s winter walk we were stunned by two tree kangaroos that bounded across our path and climbed swiftly up a nearby tree, their long tails swinging free as our eyes met in equally curious stares. Known to Indigenous Australians as Mabi, Lumholtz’s tree kangaroo spends most of its time in the rainforest canopy but is extremely agile on the ground too.
Essentials: Mount Hypipamee National Park is located 24km south of Atherton along the Kennedy Highway (www.nprsr.qld.gov.au). Free camping is permitted at Archer Creek Rest Area, close to Big Millstream, Australia’s widest, single-drop waterfall (www.itablelands.com.au).
5. Ewens Ponds, South Australia
It’s one of Australia’s most surreal snorkelling experiences, but Ewens Ponds on the South Australian-Victorian border harbours no bright corals or spangled tropical fish. In this trio of frigid inland pools, freshwater springs feed a strange underwater world where snorkellers push past tendrils of lurid green algae anchored to limestone floors, and glide through reeds as they navigate shallow swim-throughs.
Discovered by Thomas Ewens in the late 19th century after his dog chased a kangaroo into the water, the crystal-clear ponds have incredible clarity. Snug inside a wetsuit to ward off the 10˚C temperature, I fin down through streams of bubbles rising 11m from the limestone floor, ducking under overhangs in search of the pond’s rare inhabitants: 10cm-long galaxiids, the parasitic pouched lamprey – the most primitive of all fish surviving in the world today – and South Australia’s own Ewens pygmy perch that hides amongst the reeds and under ledges.
Ewens Ponds is permit-and-fee-free: simply turn up, slide in and start swimming, completing as many circuits of the chilly pools as you can bear! The nearby Piccaninnie Ponds boasts superb underwater limestone scenery too, but requires advance bookings and fees of $11pp ($9 kids).
Essentials: Ewens Ponds is signposted off Port MacDonnell Road, 36km south of Mount Gambier. Visit year-round and find out more at www.environment.sa.gov.au.
6. Flora River Nature Reserve, Northern Territory
The allure of this tiny nature reserve, 130km west of Katherine, is hard to pin down. Perhaps it’s the limestone tufa waterfalls that send the Flora River swirling into emerald spas, the freshwater crocodiles hunting barramundi in impossibly translucent pools or the little red flying foxes that cling restlessly to the paperbarks.
Providing generously for campers, Flora River Nature Park makes a worthy detour off the Victoria Highway, with abundant wildlife and great angling opportunities. There’s a boat ramp to launch canoes and travel-sized tinnies so you can explore and fish for the bream, catfish and grunters that keep the barramundi company. From spacious Djarrung Campground, short walking trails lead to Djarrung and Kathleen Falls, two dynamic spots where the Flora River is channeled over tufa dams that span the river.
Head here to enjoy the river, go fishing, hiking, paddling and return weary to stoke a campfire as northern nailtail wallabies appear to graze on the edge of camp. The park’s unsealed access track is suitable for high-clearance 2WD vehicles and rigs during the dry winter months only.
Essentials: Take the signposted turn off the Victoria Highway, 86km west of Katherine and continue for 46km to the park. Visit during winter (the park closes from November to May). Campsites cost $6.60pp (half-price for kids) and hot showers, firepits, picnic tables and a boat ramp are provided. Visit nt.gov.au or www.visitkatherine.com.au for more information.
7. Butterfly Falls, Northern Territory
If it weren’t for the corrugated access roads and frequently flooded causeways, more travellers would be dining on barramundi at Limmen National Park’s secluded waterfront camps. Etched with deep, emerald rivers and lily-covered lagoons, this isolated sandstone wilderness in the territory’s remote northeast is where you’ll find the blissful oasis at Butterfly Falls.
Nestled in a cool, stone amphitheatre beneath a trickling waterfall, the park’s only safe waterhole takes it name from the thousands of common crow butterflies that rise in fluttering clouds when disturbed. It’s an immensely picturesque spot and after a long hot hike through Limmen’s Southern Lost City, Butterfly Falls provides delicious relief.
A short walking trail winds from a nearby shady campground to the springs beneath fragrant fern-leafed grevilleas that attract great flocks of sulphur-crested cockatoos. Lazing in the shallows you might spot azure kingfishers and all kinds of waterbirds that stalk the purple water lilies downstream. Butterfly Falls is accessible only to self-sufficient travellers with 4WD vehicles and its camp provides wheelchair-accessible toilets, tables and firepits for a tiny $3.30pp (half price for kids).
Essentials: From the east, turn off the Carpentaria Highway 26km south of Borroloola, travel 50km and turn north into Limmen National Park. Alternatively, follow the Roper Highway 200km east of Mataranka. Visit from May to September (nt.gov.au, www.savannahway.com.au & www.ntlis.nt.gov.au/roadreport).
8. Lipson Cove, South Australia
Paddling easily across a barely rippling sea, we glide to Lipson Island and linger to watch crested terns, cormorants and pairs of magnificent Pacific gulls shifting restlessly on the sand. Suddenly the sea explodes as dolphins hunting a school of blue salmon into the shallows trigger a seagull feeding frenzy. Time for fishing! Back on the beach it takes mere minutes to reel in our first catch of salmon and our easiest seafood dinner ever is served spiced and diced and fried up less than an hour out of the sea. We devour it as the sun goes down, our feet dug into the sand on one of South Australia’s prettiest beaches.
A top free camping spot on the Eyre Peninsula, Lipson Cove’s large, designated campsites accommodate all kinds of rigs, and provide just enough facilities to encourage self-sufficient beach-devotees to spend a few days. There are toilets, fire pits and rubbish bins and no time limits on your stay. Pets and generators are permitted and there’s mobile reception if you wander around a bit! At low tide a thin tendril of sand surfaces to connect campers to tiny Lipson Island, and a walking trail leads south of the campground along immensely scenic coastal cliffs.
Essentials: Signposted off the Lincoln Highway, 290km south of Port Augusta. Camping is free (BYO drinking water and firewood). Visit www.southaustralia.com.
9. Marlgu Billabong, Eastern Kimberley
From Kununurra to Wyndham, this little-travelled detour off the Savannah Way traverses magical territory full of hidden waterholes, secluded, lily-covered lagoons and idyllic waterfront camps. Strictly 4WD, the 250km round trip takes two to three days (or longer if you’ve got a boat on board). But its Marlgu Billabong in Parry Lagoons Nature Reserve that impresses the most, with great flocks of waterbirds, congregating closely in the dry season and taking flight in hypnotic whirls, reflected in shimmering pools.
With boardwalks and a spacious bird hide, this wetlands sanctuary brings together wildlife lovers and a menagerie of native and migratory birds from as far away as Siberia. Spot magpie geese and brolgas, whistling ducks and green pygmy geese, jabirus and flitting about the grasses, crimson finches, honeyeaters, and kingfishers too. On Telegraph Hill overlooking the billabong you can explore the 100-year-old ruins of Wyndham Wireless Station or stroll the endless flaxen grasslands studded with boabs to capture surreal sunset photographs.
Essentials: Kununurra (www.visitkununurra.com) is located 40km west of the NT border. To reach Parry Lagoons drive 18km west of town, take the signposted turn to Valentine Springs and continue for 125km to regain the bitumen 20km south of Wyndham. Along the way, free camp at Mambi Island boat ramp (toilets only) or enjoy power and hot showers at Parry Creek Farm (south of Marlgu Billabong).
10. Liffey Falls State Reserve, Tasmania
This surprising patch of World Heritage-listed wilderness at the foot of the Great Western Tiers harbours Tassie devils, pygmy possums, potoroos and bettongs. Australia’s favourite conservationist Bob Brown saved pristine riparian rainforest and sclerophyll forest at the lower end of the reserve by outbidding loggers to buy the land at auction and gifted it to back to Bush Heritage Australia.
Today, the enlarged reserve safeguards traditional Indigenous meeting places and relics, and offers peaceful strolls beneath towering king ferns that flank the Liffey River. The river’s trio of waterfalls is accessible in a 2-3 hour return hike from the Liffey Falls campground, which provides picnic tables and firepits and serenity in spades. There’s more walking alongside Pages Creek through stands of sassafras, myrtle and blackwood too
Flooding events in 2016 caused much damage to the reserve’s campground, picnic areas, river viewing platforms and walking trails, which are currently under repair and are expected to reopen in early 2017.
Essentials: To reach the camp below the falls, turn off the A1 at Carrick, west of Launceston and take the signposted turns to Bracknell and Liffey River. A shorter walk to the falls is accessed off Lakes Highway on the western side of the reserve. The riverfront campsites are free (no pets) with picnic tables and fireplaces provided (www.parks.tas.gov.au).