The traveller's guide to: Great Australian journeys
David Orkin explores the island continent by train, boat, car – and camel
Saturday 17 November 2007
It's a long way – why do i want another journey?
The world's largest island is a land of deserts, stunning white beaches, turquoise waters with beautiful coral reefs, pristine rainforest, magnificent mountains, unique wildlife – and much more. Travelling from place to place in Australia is not just about getting from A to B; plan the right itinerary and almost every hop can be a Great Australian Journey.
Australia's railway history is chequered (including an unbelievably cumbersome selection of conflicting gauges), but in the 21st century, train travel is an extremely civilised way to appreciate the nation's vast scale and intricate detail. Australia is home to two of the world's great long-distance train journeys – the Indian Pacific and the Ghan.
The Indian Pacific is named after the two oceans that it connects, travelling 4,352km between Perth and Sydney. Some extended stops are made en route, to allow passengers to explore attractions – such as Kalgoorlie, the gold-mining capital of Western Australia, where passengers can savour the "Wild West" atmosphere.
The average speed is a touch over 40mph – which makes it slower than flying, but the Indian Pacific still claims to be the only way to cross Australia without a seat belt.
The journey includes the world's longest length of straight railway track: 478km through the desolate Nullarbor Plain. The straight stretch finally ends at the isolated "city" of Cook, at one time a thriving railway town with 300 people – and a brass band. These days, its permanent population has fallen to two.
The Indian Pacific is unashamedly a tourist train, with levels of comfort to match. Choose Red Kangaroo (second) or Gold Kangaroo (first) class; both offer sleeper compartments and on-board meals, though there is also a Red Kangaroo Daynighter seat that is far cheaper. Bookings are available via Rail Australia (01778 421999; www.railaustralia.com.au); a one-way trip costs as little as A$680 (£316) and as much as A$1,790 (£833).
Many people prefer to travel on the Indian Pacific only between Perth and Adelaide – which happens to be the starting point for the Ghan. This is the only train in the world that bisects a continent from coast to coast: 2,979 km from Adelaide through the Red Centre to Darwin, tropical capital of the Northern Territory.
The name Ghan derives from the Afghan camel drivers who were brought in to help build the railway into the dry heart of Australia.
A prolonged stop is made at Alice Springs, with the possibility of making a side-trip by road to Ayers Rock/Uluru. The lowest one-way fare from end-to-end is A$690 (£320). Incidentally, the two lines meet at a forlorn South Australian junction called Tarcoola, but the timetables do not exactly dovetail; you could face a wait of a couple of days between getting off the Indian Pacific and boarding the Ghan.
If you prefer short-but-satisfying rail journeys, head for the island state of Tasmania. Built in 1896 to haul copper from the mines to the port, the West Coast Wilderness Railway (00 61 3 6225 7000; www.puretasmania.com.au) connects Strahan and Queenstown. The 35km track traverses tight curves and jaw-dropping bridges as it passes through rainforests and gorges. The excursion includes stops at historic stations, lunch, and a 45-minute coach journey back to the starting point. It takes around five hours and costs A$114 (£53).
In far north Queensland, the Kuranda Scenic Rail train (00 61 7 4036 9333; www.kurandascenicrailway.com.au) climbs upwards through the rainforest from Cairns, passing spectacular waterfalls on a one-hour 45-minute journey to Kuranda village. At Kuranda, soar high above the forest on a cablecar. Prices for the train journey, Skyrail (cablecar) and return to Cairns by coach start at A$78 (£36).
Take a luxury cruise to the Great Barrier Reef from Cairns. Join up to 50 other passengers on the Coral Princess (00 61 7 4040 9999; www.coralprincess.com.au) for a four-night trip north to Lizard Island and back, from A$1,896 (£882). Price includes all meals, snorkelling equipment and glass bottomed boat excursions. Or you might prefer a seven-night Ultimate Reef cruise on the MV Reef Endeavour (00 61 2 9206 1100; www.captaincook.com.au) visiting Green Island, Hinchinbrook Channel, Cooktown and Lizard Island, from A$1,999 (£930). The purpose-built ship carries a maximum of 150 passengers. Price includes all meals, snorkelling equipment, glass bottomed boat excursions, guided rainforest and island walks.
Under sail, the destination of choice is the beautiful Whitsunday Islands. You reach them from Airlie Beach in Queensland on a skippered square rigger such as the Coral Trekker (00 61 7 4946 1777; www.barefootcruises.com.au), three nights from A$795 (£370). Or put on the captain's uniform yourself and – after a comprehensive instruction session – take the wheel and sail away, anchoring to snorkel on the reef, dive the stunning waters or picnic on pristine white beaches. Through Yacht Charters (00 61 7 4946 7400; www.yachtcharters.com.au), the price for a week is A$1,126 (£524) based on two people, with reductions for bigger parties.
Less well known but every bit as worthwhile is Western Australia's northern coastline: there are dozens of possibilities such as a four-night Taste of the Kimberley luxury cruise which begins and ends with a seaplane flight from Broome to Doubtful Bay on the seven-cabin MV Great Escape (00 61 2 9527 3630; www.kimberleycruises.com) from A$4,300 (£2,000). The cruise visits Doubtful Bay, Montgomery Reef, Ruby Falls, the Glenelg and Sale Rivers. Australia's rivers also offer some great journeys. In South Australia, the good ship Murray Expedition (00 61 8 8231 9472; www.riverofaustralia.com) operates two- and five-night cruises from Murray Bridge, just 85km southeast of Adelaide on the Murray River from A$765 (£356); or there's the Murray Princess (00 61 2 9206 1100; www.captaincook.com.au), powered by a stern paddlewheel, offering three-, four- and seven-night cruises from $652 (£303) departing from Mannum.
For a different form of paddle power, get the adrenalin flowing as you raft Tasmania's wild Franklin River. Journeys lasting five, seven or 10 days are offered by Rafting Tasmania (00 61 3 6239 1080; www.raftingtasmania.com), from A$1,250 (£580) including bus and 4WD transfers, specialist clothing, equipment and meals.
A road trip is one of the best ways to meet Australians and get to know the country, but don't attempt too much in too short a time. The distance between Sydney and Melbourne or Sydney and Brisbane is roughly the same as that between London and Inverness; you should allow at least two days to enjoy the drive. Sydney to Perth is around 4,000km.
Australia's best-known scenic drive is the Great Ocean Road, which begins south of Geelong, itself south-west of Melbourne. The road was created to provide employment for soldiers returning from the First World War and comprises a spectacular series of shoreline vistas interspersed with picturesque fishing villages and terrestrial wilderness.
The beaches, wineries, coastal scenery and magnificent forests of the south-west of Western Australia offer wonderful driving journeys. Drive a themed itinerary focusing on, for example, the vineyards, or take in many of the highlights on a circular drive from Perth visiting Margaret River, Pemberton, Denmark and Albany. Those who appreciate beautiful scenery, boutique accommodation, and good food and wine will not be disappointed in South Australia's Barossa and Clare Valleys.
The drive between Brisbane and Port Douglas (north of Cairns) along the northern Queensland coast is also a delight. Watch the scenery become more and more tropical and break up the 1,750km trip with walks in the rainforest in search of a giant cassowary (a rare flightless bird that can grow to almost two metres in height), a hop across to one of the beautiful islands, or a trip out on the Great Barrier Reef. All the major Australian specialists offer car and motorhome hire at competitive rates, and unlike most car-hire companies or car rental brokers, can book en route or pre/post drive accommodation and discuss ideal itineraries with you. For seven days' rental, Airline Network (see How Should I Book?) charges from £196 for a four-door mid-size car and Trailfinders (see below) offers a Spirit 4 berth camper van from Maui Motorhomes from £637. These and other companies offer numerous pre-bookable (including car and accommodation) self-drive itineraries, such as a 10-day circular tour of Tasmania from Hobart for £604 from Travelmood (see below).
The ultimate Australian journey?
There is over 800,000km of road in Australia, of which less than 50 per cent is sealed. Challenging, adventurous and remote, the Canning Stock Route traverses the Great Sandy Desert for 1,800km between Halls Creek and Kalgoorlie in far north Western Australia. Travel is advised only between May and September. Allow two weeks to drive by 4WD, hopping between water wells.
If you plan to do any driving off sealed roads, check carefully with your rental company, as in many cases doing so will invalidate your insurance and leave you liable for a huge bill for any damage. There are a number of 4WD rental options for both cars and motorhomes but even if you rent a 4WD there are likely to be limitations on where you can – or more importantly can't – use the vehicle.
Can someone else drive me?
Tours range from backpacker buses, to deluxe coach trips stopping for the night at some of Australia's top hotels, to 4WD tours taking you where rental vehicles are not allowed to go. There are also any number of short and long themed tours – for example the escorted natural history journeys offered by Naturetrek (01962 733 051; www.naturetrek.co.uk).
The major long-distance coach company is Greyhound Australia (00 61 7 4690 9950; www.greyhound.com.au), serving around 1,100 destinations daily. In addition to point-to-point fares such as A$80 (£37) from Sydney to Melbourne, a range of different money-saving passes are available: some have set routes but allow you to get on and off as you please, such as the Best of the Outback, Sydney – Melbourne – Adelaide – Alice Springs – Darwin (and points in between) valid for up to six months for A$996 (£463). Others allow travel for a maximum distance, for example 5,000km for A$654 (£304). This would allow you to travel one way from Cairns – Townsville – Brisbane – Surfers Paradise – Coffs Harbour – Sydney – Canberra – Melbourne – Adelaide or vice versa.
How should I book?
While you could book each part of your holiday separately by going direct to each operator, it makes sense to use a specialist travel company. Try, for example, Airline Network (0871 700 1777; www.airline-network.co.uk); Bridge & Wickers (020-7483 6555; www.bridgeandwickers.co.uk); Trailfinders (0845 054 6060; www.trailfinders.com); or Travelmood (0800 0111 945; www.travelmood.com).
Four legs rather than four wheels?
Climb aboard a camel. Camels were imported to Australia in large numbers in the mid 19th century (see Trains...?). You can ride your new humped friend on Cable Beach in Broome (00 61 8 9193 7423; www.redsuncamels.com.au) or along the (usually dry) Todd River in Alice Springs.
For four-day trips, head for the Lake Eyre Basin (a 12-hour drive north of Adelaide) and Explore the Outback (00 61 8 8672 3968; www.austcamel.com.au).
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