As travel restrictions begin to slowly ease around Australia, now’s the time to plan your next road trip and tick your way through this travel-changing Bucket List.
It’s full of big and small challenges to shape your travels and make those memories stick, no matter what you are into or where you are headed to next.
1. Do something that scares you
Life is too short to live with fears, so steel yourself to tackle that thing on your Bucket List that you swore you’d never do. It’s amazing just how easily you can turn your fears on their head when you decide to swim with sharks (albeit from the inside a underwater cage), stare down vertigo by climbing a lofty fire lookout tree, abseil off a cliff, or go skinny dipping at sunrise.
Make this the year you tackle the thrill that you’ve never wanted to try, and discover just what it feels like to live life a little braver, and to wear a grin that nobody can wipe off.
Top thrills: Brave the Spider Walk through Hancock Gorge (Karijini National Park, WA), climb to the windy, canopy cabin atop the 75 metre-high Dave Evans Bicentennial Tree (Pemberton, WA), zip line your way through Victoria’s Otway Ranges, go adventure caving in SA’s Naracoorte Caves or snare a barramundi from a saltie in the NT’s Mary River Wetlands.
2. Follow in the footsteps of an Aussie explorer
It’s impossible to take a road trip throughout Outback Australia and not become intrigued by the hardy overland pioneers who explored it all first. Those who opened up Australia’s vast, unknown interior had a pretty tough gig in the 1800s. Today, some of our most popular travel routes are peppered with memorials, ruins and relics of their misadventures.
You don’t have to journey across the entire country as Burke and Wills did. Instead, you could follow them out of Melbourne and into Corner Country, or detour to Camp 119 west of Cairns where the pair launched their final push to the sea.
Although he lost naming rights on Alice Springs itself, John McDouall Stuart is fondly celebrated in the Red Centre with dozens of tourist sites (and one top highway to travel). And while he didn’t make it to The Tip alive, Cape York will always belong to my favourite explorer, Edmund Kennedy, even if his expedition reads like a lesson in what not to do in the tropics.
Right across the country, no matter where you set out from, trails and tracks will lead you past tree blazes to lonely riverside camps on historical journeys with tales to tell.
Tackle a Bucket List track: Follow Edmund Kennedy from Cardwell to Cape York, off-road along the Buchanan Highway (forged by Barkly Stock Route pioneer Matt Buchanan), or let Major Mitchell lead you along Central Queensland’s Wilderness Way.
3. Stay in a town you’ve never heard of
Popular travel routes draw a crowd, so the best way to strike out on your own and make great discoveries is to pull up a map, pinpoint a place you know nothing about, and include it on your next adventure away. Your chosen destination might not have any big-ticket attractions or plush holiday parks, but it could have a top bush camp, a quirky annual festival, and a secret patch of Australia that few travellers know about.
You might discover this ‘unknown’ spot by complete accident, like the time we pulled over for a toilet break, saw a tiny sign pointing us to Top Springs and wondered if it really was? It wasn’t (even the pub’s swimming pool was dry). But camped in complete isolation on the edge of the nearby Victoria River was a dream come true. Later, we discovered Jasper Gorge and the unexpectedly awesome Judbarra National Park (which really should be on your Bucket List).
You don’t have to venture too far from home either. Anywhere unfamiliar and off-the-beaten track will do. Just be sure not to Google it ahead of time and spoil all the fun.
Undiscovered treasures: Your mystery town only needs to be unknown to you. When you know just where your road trip will take you, scout out some unlikely stopovers and put them on your map.
4. Find your festival
A really rocking festival can light up the sleepiest of towns, drawing big crowds with music, food, street fun and quirky Aussie action. I once timed a cross-country road trip just to arrive in Alice Springs for the annual Camel Cup, cheering from the sidelines as an awkward entourage of camels and riders worked their way to the finish line.
There was a pirate-themed water battle and a bride-and-groom camel race to the alter – none of which made sense but was utterly entertaining. It turned out to be the highlight of our Red Centre adventure and very worthy of the long drive out of Darwin.
Australia is full of iconic festivals that showcase country towns at their best, and celebrate everything from music to flowers, wildlife to Indigenous culture, historical events and indulge sporting passions. Nail down the one that’s on your Bucket List and time your next trip around it.
Favourite fun-fests: Catch Katherine’s Flying Fox Festival (August), the Tablelands Folk Festival (FNQ, September), Jabiru’s Mahbilil Festival (NT, September), Broome’s Shinju Matsuri (Festival of the Pearl, September and totally Bucket List), Nannup’s Tulip Festival (Southwest WA, August), Jumpers and Jazz (Warwick, Qld, July), Festival of Voices (Tasmania, June-July) or the Dorrigo Folk and Bluegrass Festival (October).
5. Take a midnight hike
Years ago, under the light of a big, bright moon, I switched off my alarm at midnight, shouldered my daypack, and set off by torchlight to explore the world after dark. The moonlight blazed brightly on the path ahead of me, and a wide, easy trail lead me to a lofty viewpoint where I sat and ogled a scene bathed in bewitching, golden light.
Owls hooted, crickets chirped and water bubbled away through the forest at my feet. I opened my thermos, poured a steaming mug of milky tea and sat back to take in this sublime slice of the wilderness that I’d never experienced before.
Adventuring after dark is a fest for the senses, tuning you into sounds and smells you’d hardly notice in the daylight hours. The key is to pick an easy trail through open ground, so you can see the stars. Time your trip for a bright moon phase so that the trail is well illuminated. Carry a couple of torches and a small pack with the usual bushwalking gear (a first aid kit, phone, food and water), and take at least one pal with you to share the walk.
Top midnight trails: Scale the red Gregories Beach dunes in Francois Peron National Park (WA), stand at The Tip of Cape York (Qld), climb SA’s Pildappa Rock, peer into the Devils Gullet (TAS), or watch the moon over Granite Falls in Morton National Park (NSW).
6. Cook a complete meal on a campfire
Campfire cooking is the ultimate slow cuisine. It begins with an afternoon bushwalk, wandering and exploring in search of wood (and various wild things along the way). Then you break it up, create some kindling and build your fire. There’s time to stoke the fire, boil your billy or crack a can, then when it’s ready, the cooking begins.
It doesn’t matter what you cook – the perfect damper, a just-caught fish, a slow-cook stew or something wildly elaborate – just as long as it takes place under a starry night sky and ends with a few toasted marshmallows.
Bucket List Campfire Camps: Red Bluff (WA), Sloop Reef (Bay of Fires, Tas), Taylors Beach (Lincoln National Park, SA), Mereenie Lookout (Red Centre Way, NT), and Monks Tanks (Idalia National Park, Qld).
7. Learn to do that one thing
It’s the think you’ve always wanted to be able to do, that ‘one day’ hobby you always meant to take up before work and family and life got in the way. It could be playing the guitar, riding a wave, or picking up a second language. Maybe you want to learn to scuba dive, build a blog (or learn to run your laptop), or indulge your true passion and take it to the next level.
Road trips are made for new beginnings, so make this the year you get busy with your personal to-do list. The first step is to buy some gear because once you invest, you commit. For me it was a surfboard and I’m happy to say that I recently tackled my first waves since I was a teenager. I barely got off my knees but I’m on my way, and you can be too.
Start something new: Buy that guitar, seakayak or yoga mat, download the app, seek out some lessons and start learning, no excuses.
8. Spot 10 Aussie animals
If you love going wild, make a pact to spend this year in search of the Aussie animals that intrigue you most. Make your list – it might be big crocs, a southern cassowary, tree kangaroos, whale sharks, turtles laying eggs or brolgas dancing on the Savannah – and then map out the very best places in the country to encounter them. It’s a great way to guide yourself around your state or the entire country, and you’ve got all year to tick it off.
Spot this: Estuarine crocodiles (Cahills Crossing, NT), Lumholtz’s tree-kangaroos (Atherton Tablelands, Qld), southern cassowaries (Djiru National Park, Mission Beach), nesting turtles and whale sharks (Ningaloo Reef, WA), little penguins (Penguin, Tasmania) and brolgas (Karumba, Qld).
9. Find yourself far, faraway
It began with a little piece of wisdom from a favourite aunt: go to the furthest point you’ve ever wanted to see, and slowly work your way back. Basically it’s a lesson in taking big – rather than baby – steps. I plan every trip this way, making a beeline for the most remote, difficult-to-reach location on my radar and worrying about the return route afterwards.
Experience has shown me that when I play it safe, I seldom get off the beaten track at all. Small steps equal small discoveries too. Think bold, dream big and find yourself far, faraway this year.
Escape the pack: Set your compass for the Kimberley’s Mitchell Falls, Cape York’s Chilli Beach, Cobourg Peninsula (Arnhem Land, NT), Tassie’s Arthur-Pieman Conservation Area, Poeppel Corner, WA’s Wolfe Creek Crater or Cape Arid National Park on WA’s south coast.
10. Pay it forward
I once pulled into a roadside rest area halfway between Katherine and Kununurra, to find a cheeky bottle of red wine on the picnic table with a note that simply said “Enjoy”! We had long since polished off our own stash of vino, and that starry night around the campfire and the generous, random gift of some beautiful stranger is something I’ll never forget.
In the years since I’ve met people who always leave a roll of toilet paper in a free rest area loo. Other gather up kindling for the next camper to come along. Paying it forward is a wonderful, selfless thing to do and it doesn’t have to cost a cent. You can do fellow travellers a huge favour by simply leaving a share of tank water for them, or by spending a few minutes picking up litter around camp before you leave.