Q&A: Rocks and crocs in Australia's outback

The Independent Parent: Your Questions Answered
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The Independent Travel

Q. We are afflicted with the travel bug! We have just returned from the most wonderful family holiday in Denmark, following your practical and realistic advice in March. Our next destination is Australia but we are rather overwhelmed with choices and need help. The good news is we are both teachers so we have four weeks to spend there next summer. The bad news, however, is that I only work part-time and so we are on a fairly limited budget. We have friends to stay with in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane and would also love to visit the Barrier Reef. We have three active boys who are four, seven and 10.

Q. We are afflicted with the travel bug! We have just returned from the most wonderful family holiday in Denmark, following your practical and realistic advice in March. Our next destination is Australia but we are rather overwhelmed with choices and need help. The good news is we are both teachers so we have four weeks to spend there next summer. The bad news, however, is that I only work part-time and so we are on a fairly limited budget. We have friends to stay with in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane and would also love to visit the Barrier Reef. We have three active boys who are four, seven and 10.

Caroline Mathews Worcester

A. For a real outback adventure with wildlife encounters, extraordinary natural attractions and Aboriginal culture, I suggest you spend the bulk of your stay in the Northern Territory. A tour through this untamed state, which incorporates vast plains, savannah woodland, rainforest and tropical coastline, would offer the ideal contrast to your visit to Australia's urban centres, and complement a brief stay on the Barrier Reef. The Northern Territory covers an area the size of France, Spain and Italy combined, so the main challenge in planning your trip will be finding the best way to cover the incredible distances between stops.

Start off by flying into Darwin where you can cruise around the harbour at sunset on a pearl fishing boat and admire the spectacular coastline (prices from around £8 to £14 per adult with children going for about half price). You can take the boys to one of the wildlife attractions - feeding the myriad fish at high tide at Aquascene (admission around £1.50 for adults, £1 for children), or caressing the crocs at Crocodylus Park (around £5.60 for adults, £2.80 for children), for example.

East of Darwin, Kakadu National Park in the north of the state (known as the Top End) is a UN World Heritage Site and may well prove the most memorable part of your trip. Take a boat ride on the Yellow Water wetlands to see waterbirds and crocs up close (around £9 per adult, £4.50 per child). Or take a guided walk to see some of the oldest paintings in the world at the rock art sites of Ubirr and Nourlangie. Eight types of kangaroos and wallabies inhabit the park, along with possums, bandicoots, and a whole host of other animals, including 120 reptile species (but don't let that put you off!). Also worth a visit in the Top End is Litchfield National Park where sitting under a waterfall is among the activities your boys might enjoy.

Further south you come to the area known as the "Red Centre", where weathered ochre-coloured boulders rising out of the desert include the Devil's Marbles. Camping out under the stars in the desert is great fun and worth risking wildlife encounters of the unwanted kind. Take a camping tour from Tennant Creek to the Devil's Marbles and with luck you may see (and hear) packs of dingoes.

For a quick injection of human company away from the isolation of the desert, stop off in Alice Springs and explore Todd Street Mall for the best Aboriginal art galleries. The MacDonnell Ranges form the backdrop to this pioneering town, and a driving excursion is the best way to see their dramatic red gorges and ridges. Alternatively you can take an organised tour from Alice Springs (prices are steep, though, at up to about £40 per adult, including lunch).

Finishing up in the south at Kata Tjuta National Park, you come to "the Olgas", a group of massive, rounded red rocks which are equally as imposing as the better known sacred Aboriginal site of Uluru (Ayers Rock). You won't want to climb Uluru with children, but stay nearby and wake them up early to see the sunrise or, if that's too early for you, watch the colours change from sandy yellow to deep red at sunset. For an unforgettable panoramic overview take a light aircraft and observe the rock formations alleviating the otherwise flat landscape stretching away to distant horizons. A 30 minute flight with Rockayer costs around £25 per adult, £20 per child.

Travelbag (0870 737 7781; www.travel bag.co.uk) can organise a complete package for £6,610 for the whole family, taking in the three towns where you want to stay with friends, a three-day stop in Hamilton Island on the Great Barrier Reef, and a tour of the Northern Territory. Its quote includes return flights with Emirates from Birmingham to Sydney, internal flights with Qantas between Sydney, Brisbane, Hamilton Island, Darwin and Melbourne, and hiring a motorhome for 14 nights to drive down from Darwin to Alice Springs.

Qantas Holidays (020 8222 9104) can provide a similar itinerary without the stop in Hamilton Island for £6,280, including a tailor-made tour of the Northern Territory with hotels, specific day tours and car hire. Other companies you could contact include Bridge the World (020 7734 7447; www.b-t-w.co.uk), Quest Travel (020 8547 3123; www.questtravel.com) and Austravel (020 7734 7755; www.austravel.com).

If those sums look too large, you could put something together using discount flights: from Heathrow or Manchester, Malaysia Airlines will allow you to fly in to Brisbane or Melbourne and back from Darwin. In between, you can benefit from various pre-booked cheap deals on internal flights, or check for bargains on Sir Richard Branson's new Australian venture at www.virginblue.com.au.

There are plenty of good guidebooks, but in particular Lonely Planet's Northern Territory guide (second edition, August 1999, £10.99) will give you the help you need.

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