Before sunrise in the West MacDonnell Ranges, we abandon our cosy beds to join black-flanked rock wallabies in their rocky playground, spooking lorikeets and finches as we cross the tiny trickle of water flowing through Trephina Gorge.
After just 20 minutes on the Panorama Track, one of the best vistas in the Red Centre is all ours and we look on mesmerised as the rising sun that’s warming our backs turns Trephina’s striking chasm of red quartzite cliffs gold and crimson, revealing rock wallabies resting motionless on towering lookouts that zigzag north into Mordor Pound towards a distant horizon.
After a day spent exploring Altyerre – The Red Centre’s “Eternal Land” – bewitched by ghost gums towering above shimmering saltbush flats, Trephina Gorge beckons us back to the rim of its rugged abyss, climbing past blooms of vibrant flowers basking in the disappearing light as the sun carries its colours to the far horizon, and then hurls them skyward in a stunning crimson spectacle.
Essentials: Trephina Gorge Nature Park is located 85km east of Alice Springs. Camping costs $3.30/adult ($1.65/child) with toilets, picnic tables, free gas barbecues and rainwater tanks provided (nt.gov.au/leisure/parks-reserves).
Off WA’s remote Coral Coast where Ningaloo Reef sweeps close to the shore, campers pitch tents and park their rigs at rustic beachfront nooks, waking and walking mere metres onto the sand to snorkel at dawn on Australia’s most accessible coral reef.
If you can forgo showers for daily drift dives and enjoy the idea of salty happy hours at the sun goes down, this incredible, pristine wilderness will woo you with the most affordable reef experience you are likely to find anywhere in the world. What’s more, the wildlife encounters are mind-blowing: think rarely seen mating rituals, feeding frenzies and close encounters with just-born young.
The mass spawning of corals in March and April lure whale sharks – the world’s largest fish – along with manta rays and migrating humpbacks that linger until November when sea turtles return to their birthplaces in the dunes. Snorkel Turquoise Bay’s drift dive, paddle your kayak across calm, see-through seas at sunrise, surf with dolphins and hike the high trail above Yardie Creek Gorge to spot rare rock wallabies – all for the cost of your campsite.
Essentials: In addition to the $12/vehicle entry fee, campers in Cape Range National Park pay $10/adult or $2.20/child. Outside the park, Lighthouse Caravan Park, Yardie Homestead and Vlamingh Head Lighthouse all offer power and showers. Find out more at parks.dpaw.wa.gov.au.
Bay of Fires
Imagine a sunrise that ignites a tricoloured coastline of golden granite headlands, glistening white sand and arcing, impossibly blue bays where you can swim and beachcomb, fish and paddle, or simply sit and stare out over one of the most scenic destinations on the planet.
Rivaling the superb scenery of nearby Freycinet National Park, Bay of Fires Conservation Park tempts travellers with free, month-long stays in any of eight campgrounds set up on the shores of shimmering shallow lagoons and wild, sunny beaches, atop weathered headlands and beside tiny, blue coves.
It’s close enough to St Helen’s for day trips, but to immerse yourself in one of the most engergising landscapes around, getting back to basics can’t be beaten.
Essentials: On Tassie’s east coast, head 10km out of St Helens via Binalong Bay and Garden’s Roads. If you camp take drinking water, firewood and take away all rubbish. Find out more at www.parks.tas.gov.au.
Cape Le Grand
Magnetising tourists to its sweeping white sand beaches and powder blue bays, Cape Le Grand is one of the west’s most idyllic and famous national parks. With towering granite peaks and sandy plains dotted with freshwater lakes, this destination is huge and diverse and you’ll want to wake up here several mornings in a row just to experience all that’s on offer.
Launch a tinny at Lucky Bay, surf the break at Le Grand Beach and tackle the easy, 30-minute climb to the top of Frenchman Peak – the highest in an impressive chain of Precambrian domes. The park’s two excellent waterfront campgrounds provide hot showers, camp kitchens and barbecues, and when its time to resupply, the town of Esperance is a short drive away.
For solitude at sunrise, tackle the Coastal Trail that traverses the park, dipping into Whistling Rock where dolphins surf the breakers at dawn and ending at Rossiter Bay, a top birdwatching location. With easy access to beautiful, calm bays (and catches of Australian salmon, sand whiting, skippy and more), anglers get pretty excited about a visit to Cape Le Grand too.
Essentials: Cape Le Grand is signposted 59km southeast of Esperance via sealed roads. Camping costs $10/adult and $2.20/child (plus the $12/vehicle entry fee), generators are permitted but pets and campfires are not. Holiday parks in Esperance offer powered sites and cabins. Contact parks.dpaw.wa.gov.au or www.visitesperance.com.
Frangipani Beach (Pajinka)
Standing at dawn on Mount Bremer’s low-lying spine of rock, shifting your view from your Frangipani Bay campsite over York and Eborac Islands and finally, that much-photographed sign at the very tip of Australia, is a dream wakeup for Cape York Pilgrims.
Not only does it provide a much-anticipated climax to a long and dusty adventure, but when you turn back south, you’ve got a slighter shorter Bucket List. After setting up camp on the very edge of Frangipani Bay, we stroll over the edge of this wide, shallow bay, watching Torresian pigeons feeding in the treetops and bright blue solider crabs hustling against the retreating tide. After a moonlight night we tackle the short trail over Mount Bremer at first night and experience a magical sunrise as we dangle our dusty red feet off the very top of the country.
Essentials: Frangipani Bay is located 32km north of Bamaga via a corrugated dirt road. Free camping is included in your Jardine River ferry pass, but no facilities are provided. Visit during the dry season (May through October) and plan your trip here: www.tourismcapeyork.com.
It’s the pinnacle of Kimberley hot spots, one of the furthest to reach and surely the best place to wake up in the northwest. At first light, carry your cuppa and a daypack of supplies down the short trail to Mertens Falls to float at sunrise in the glorious plunge pools that gather on its lofty edge. As the sun warms the waterfall’s smooth rock slabs and the first walkers bound for magnificent Mitchell Falls begin to appear, retreat below to discover sacred rock art hidden behind Mertens diamond-studded falls.
This is some of the best rock art in the Kimberley, and it’s oh so easy to find. As you stroll on towards Mitchell Falls, keep a keen eye out for more rock art painted along Mertens Creek where you can soak and swim en route to Mitchell Falls itself – a magical, four-tier cascade that easily eclipses any accessible waterfall in the Kimberley. If you feel like a splurge, hitch a helicopter ride back to camp in time for a celebratory champagne sunset.
Essentials: Mitchell River campground is located 260km off the Gibb River Road and requires a high clearance 4WD vehicle to access. Camping costs $11/adult and $3/child, payable on site with composting toilets, water (boil before drinking) and fireplaces (BYO wood) provided. Find out more at australiasnorthwest.com.