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Updated: 27th August 2020
Ahhh Australia, the land down under which always felt like a distant dream to me as a kid, being located on the other side of the world. It’s not somewhere I ever imagined myself seeing with my own eyes, let alone spending lots of time in, but I feel truly privileged to have done so and had some truly amazing Australian travel experiences.
Memories that will last a lifetime is an oft overused cliche in travel writing, but for Australia, it’s a fact rather than empty words. I might not have had the drunken backpacker experience the younger me might have had, but there were still some absolute life-changing moments and I’ll try to distil these into my top ten.
While a lot of travellers focus their trips around the big cities in Australia such as Sydney or Melbourne, and rightly they should, you also need to allow yourself time to explore this continent-sized country as best as possible.
For sure, you’ll never get to see every corner of it even if you take a one or two-year working holiday option, but if you are able to swing a month sabbatical, you will be able to hit most of the highlights, by a mixture of internal flights, driving, or making use of the long haul bus options like Greyhound Buses. When my parents came to visit me during my time-based in Australia, they had the luxury of that month and we saw, and drove, a lot!
Of course, it’s 2020, so if you are travelling domestically you should consult local travel advice and understand which state borders are closed, and for the rest of us, we will just have to use this time to plan and dream of a trip to Australia as soon as it’s open once more – hopefully these unforgettable Australia travel experiences will have you more than sold.
1. Learn about Aboriginal art and culture in Port Douglas
When Lonely Planet asked me what experience I would love to produce a mini-travel video on, I straight away said Aboriginal art and culture. For me, it’s a must to learn about for anyone who visits Australia, and the art is exquisite, but sadly beyond a painted didgeridoo that may have come from a factory in China, many people miss the authentic offering and chance to learn.
Port Douglas is a dream place to do this. Here you have the Daintree Rainforest, the oldest in the world, and home to Mossman Gorge where Dreamtime walks lead by the locals lead you through many aspects of their history and culture, but also Janbal Gallery run by the incredibly talented artist Binna.
Not only can you take workshops at his gallery to learn the traditional methods and materials he uses to create bespoke and modern Aboriginal art, but he is a wealth of knowledge on the local area. I spent two days with Binna exploring Port Douglas for that video project, and it was such an unforgettable Australian travel memory for me, a year later I returned to visit him again, this time taking back a group of fellow travellers to enjoy his artworks and class.
2. Meet a Quokka on Rottnest Island
Say hello to the ‘happiest animals in the world’ – the Quokka!
These super smiley marsupials are indigenous to Western Australia, with a particular concentration on Rottnest Island, a short boat ride from Perth or Freemantle, which is an absolute bonus because it’s a dreamy destination itself.
You’ll find these cheerful, almost cat-sized creatures wandering freely all over the island, and while getting the smiling selfie seems to have become the ultimate aim, be respectful and mindful of their space and protect them. I spent hours just sitting and watching them with a smile on my face bigger than theirs!
One of the most unforgettable Australia travel experiences I’ve had, in huge part due to the sheer beauty of the island too. Grab a bicycle, rent a little beachside cabin room, and spend a few days cycling between white sand beaches, rocky outcrops, swimming in the see and smiling along with your new little friends.
3. 4WD on the worlds largest sand island at Fraser Island
Do this! Do not miss Fraser Island on your trip through Queensland.
Deservedly a World Heritage-listed natural attraction, this is the largest sand island on our planet and the only place in which rainforest grows just on the sand. If that doesn’t blow your mind just for that sheer fact it also has crystal clear lakes, is home to the infamous Dingo and the 75-mile beach is a designated runway and highway – perhaps the best drive of my life as little planes fly towards you and bathers, vehicles and planes combined!
It’s possible to do it either by tour or by hiring a 4WD and getting the ferry over, but it’s a very unique experience that shouldn’t be missed!
4. Road trip the Great Ocean Road from Adelaide to Melbourne
This one needs very little introduction and is an absolute staple travel experiences in Australia. Road tripping the Great Ocean Road is popular for a lot of reasons, and after arriving in Adelaide from Alice Springs on the Ghan (long train, lots of red dirt for views, uncomfortable in the economy class seat for nearly a day!) I really enjoyed the city.
While it might be overlooked by a lot of travellers, I think it’s worth a day or two if you can, and then before hitting the most famous sights of the Great Ocean Road such as the 12 Apostles, you can have night stops in Mount Gambier, a beautiful place with an impressive sinkhole that doubles as an animated video space, and the deep blues of the aptly named blue lake.
5. Hang out with the ‘Roos and Koalas
No Australia travel experiences list would be complete without some furry friend encounters. Of course, you aren’t limited to one particular place to come face to face with these locals. Magnetic Island Koala Park offers close-up encounters, while along the Great Ocean Road you’ll likely spot some in the trees with good eyes.
For the Kangaroos, again keep your eyes peeled, but the park just outside Adelaide for me was the standout experience to meet them, where they are housed in a huge natural park area for their protection due to city limit proximity.
6. Witness Vivid light festival in Sydney (or NYE)
Sydney is a city that stole my heart, and in another life, where I would have called home permanently had I been allowed. From the iconic Opera House to Bondi Beach, there is no shortage of amazing attractions and viewpoints.
But, if you time your visit right you’ll be able to enjoy one of the world-class events the city often holds. Obviously, New Year’s Eve is the best known, and I can promise you from my personal experience it’s amazing and worth the crowds to see the fireworks across the bridge before heading to a speakeasy, but Vivid is a very close second.
This light festival takes over huge parts of the city, from projections on the Opera House to installations in side-streets, it really adds a magical touch to any visit to Sydney, and is a reward for those who visit in winter.
7. Admire the Great Barrier Reef from above (and Whitehaven Beach)
The Great Barrier Reef is another popular travel experience in Australia, especially when it comes to taking a boat out from Cairns to snorkel in the warm waters and spot colourful fish.
However, one moment I’ll never forget is flying over it. From water level, it’s impressive, but it’s not until you see it from above you appreciate the sheer grandeur of the reef, and I was actually moved to tears during the flight. As a bonus, we got to see Whitehaven Beach from above, which again looked better with a birds-eye view, and snap the ‘heart reef’ photo for an Instagram tick.
The flight I took departed from Arlie Beach, and while it wasn’t the cheapest activity (what is in Australia?) – it’s one I would pay again and again for.
8. Watch the magical light change at Uluru
This year brought some good news (yes, believe it or not) with climbers being banned from Uluru, which is a very important spiritual site for the local community.
If I’m honest, naive me at the start of my backpacking days didn’t really understand why we were travelling so far out the way to see a large rock, but that all changed once I saw it at sunset. The colours that change, the vastness of the empty space dominated by Uluru, and something in the air (spiritually, if you like) just felt magical. The flies attacking my face and ears constantly the only slight mood dampener.
The Outback is a place unlike any other, and while I only spent a few days here, I hope one day to experience more of its barren beauty.
9. Tour Parliament House in ACT
The Australian Capital Territory is somewhere that’s likely not too use to getting a mention on ‘top 10 experience’ lists. Built to house the capital and parliament of the country (no, that’s not Sydney) the ACT sits in its own region amongst the greenery of New South Wales.
For that reason alone, like Brasilia in Brazil, for example, it fascinates me. Purpose-built cities and capitals often have a weird vibe to them (I’m looking at you Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan) but thanks to progressive local politics, a large student population, and a lot of cool and quirky bars and restaurants popping up, I actually quite enjoyed my time here.
Touring the parliament is pretty cool, and there are actually parts you can enter and visit (such as the roof) without a guide – at least there were when I went. It might not be something everyone wants to do, but I got hooked on an Australian drama called The Code which had a lot about Aussie politics in it, which lured me in to visit the unique shaped Parliament House.
10. Visit the local Victoria wine regions
Another of my favourite experiences in Australia was hitting up the Bellarine Peninsular from Melbourne, the less famous neighbour to the Mornington Peninsula.
Perhaps it was because I was with the lovely Anna, who I had met in a hostel while enjoying a New Zealand North Island itinerary, and we reunited with our camper-van Big Bertha for this little road trip, or perhaps it was the warmth of all the locals, the amazing food, and the incredible wineries and cider houses (don’t drink and drive kids, park up first!) – either way, this slice of Victoria region is delightful, and somehow relatively overlooked by international visitors who just put their foot down and head straight for the Great Ocean Road.
Of course, picking just ten amazing Australian travel experiences is a mission impossible, so I’ve tried to focus on my personal experiences and highlights. Plus, if you asked my mum, I’m pretty sure visiting the Neighbours street and set and meeting Libby Kennedy would make the cut, so it’s surely subjective haha.
But, I still haven’t made it to Tasmania, nor much of Western Australia, and from pink lakes to the bay of fire, there are many more amazing memories you can create in other regions the longer you stay.
I’m sure I’ll be expanding this list when I make it back to the land down under, so please leave any suggestions in the comments and, safe travels!