The ultimate Australia travel guide

From the baking deserts of the ‘Red Centre’ to the tropical rainforests of Queensland, Australia has something for every traveller. Whether you want to embark on an epic Australia road trip or just enjoy a city break in Sydney, you will find here on the Wandering Kiwi blog all the information you need to plan your vacation in my ultimate Australia travel guide:

Australia is an extremely ancient landscape and its indigenous peoples, known as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, have dwelt there for at least 40,000 years. The geographical size of Australia means that there was (and is) a wide variety of indigenous societies, each with its own customs and language. Approximately 130 indigenous languages remain in use, although Aboriginal people frequently speak a mix of English and their own language.

Aboriginal rock art, Kakadu National Park, NT, Australia

European contact with Australia began with Dutch seafarers on the west coast of Australia in 1606, while the most significant European landing was Captain James Cook in 1770 on the east coast. Survey and exploration of the eastern coastline led to the decision to use this isolated country as a site for prisoners due to overcrowding in Britain and a fleet of convict ships arrived near what would become Sydney in 1788. Transportation of convicts continued until 1868 and the conditions for prisoners were notoriously harsh.

Chateau Yaldara, Barossa Valley, South Australia

In the 19th century settlement of Australia by the British proceeded, in what was then called New Holland, to the tragic detriment of the Aboriginal inhabitants of the land due to introduced diseases and the often violent actions of settlers. After over 200 years of devastating colonisation some Aboriginal communities have managed to maintain their traditional lifestyles.

Free settlers began to travel from Britain and Ireland in the 19th century as land was opened up for farming. Goldrushes in Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland, along with the success of the agricultural industry brought increasing prosperity and Australia was often dubbed ‘the lucky country’. Settlers from other European countries and China also flocked to Australia during this period.

In the 1880s a sense of nationalism began to grow and eventually the various settlements agreed to join together in a federation called Australia under an act of parliament in 1885. The federal system of states comprises New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland, Tasmania and Western Australia, while the Northern Territory is Australia’s famous ‘Top End’.

Over the past 100-or-so-years Australia has experienced transition from a colonial outpost to a developed nation of approximately 22 million people, with an international economic and cultural standing.

Australians are famous for their “laid-back” attitude and the barbecue and beach lifestyle is part of what makes travel here so appealing. The sunny climate makes outdoors pursuits popular and socialising outdoors congenial.

Sydney Opera House and Harbour Bridge photo, Australia

The tropical east coast

Australia’s tropical east coast will be an important highlight of any Australian vacation itinerary. The Great Barrier Reef is a huge drawcard of course. It is the largest coral reef in the world, covering over 2,600 km in the Coral Sea. An amazing array of sealife makes their home here, from dolphins to dugongs and of course beautiful tropical fish.

The reef is only one of the two Unesco World Heritage Sites in this region: the Daintree National Park is another beautiful treasure. Port Douglas is the perfect base to make the most of the Daintree, as well as the wild Cape Tribulation.

Eastern Queensland as a whole is immensely popular thanks to the idyllic beaches and delightful climate. The Whitsundays are the jewel in the crown, with Airlie Beach a brilliant place to spend a holiday in this area.

Fraser Island is a huge sand island and another natural World Heritage Site. An adventure here involves 4X4 driving along beaches and through rainforests, as well as swimming in the exquisite fresh water lakes, which are formed where there are large indentations in the sandy hills of the island.

Coffs Harbour, Australia

Australia’s “Top End”

The Northern Territory state of Australia is like nowhere else in the country. In fact it isn’t even a proper state of Australia yet. An experience in Australia’s “Outback” is a must-do when visiting and the eye-popping colours and beautiful wild animals and vegetation are sure to excite. One third of Australia is officially classed as desert but the countries bone dry ‘Red Centre’ is far from being devoid of life.

Unique and ancient geology shape iconic sites such as Uluru and Kata Tjuta National Park. Such places are of great spiritual significance to the local Aboriginal people. Don’t forget to visit an Outback Pub for a cold beverage and a crocodile burger.

Saltwater crocodiles, Kakadu National Park, NT, Australia

Further north, Kakadu National Park is a fecund haven for plant and bird life with its tropical monsoon climate, and it feels like a very adventurous destination, although independent travel here is very accessible. Kakadu offers authentic opportunities to understand the culture of Australia’s indigenous peoples, in particular through the beautiful rock art.

There are a number of gorgeous waterholes where hot and dusty travellers can swim, while always keeping an eye out for crocodiles! The small city of Darwin is the jumping off point for such adventures and has its own charm, with colourful sunset markets and several exciting crocodile parks.

Darwin, Australia

Australia’s alpine country

You may not think of Australia as mountainous but the Great Dividing Range runs for over 3,500 kilometres from western Victoria to the north-east of Queensland. Australia’s stunning alpine scenery offers fresh air and wild flowers among the eucalypts in spring and summer, while in the winter snow-covered hills are home to several ski resorts for snowy fun. Tourists can drive the Great Alpine Road to see the best of Victoria and New South Wales’ high country.

The Great Alpine Road, Australia

Wine regions of Australia

Wine lovers have many pleasant choices before them when planning a vacation in Australia. The reputation of Australian wine continues to grow and vineyard touring is popular through the many excellent wine regions.

Probably the most famous is the Barossa Valley and here you will find both the most historic vineyards and the highest quality wines. The Hunter Valley near Sydney is also justifiable popular. The state of Victoria has a long history of winemaking and the Yarra Valley, the Grampians region, and the Heathcote wine region all make the most of their ancient soils and appropriate climates. In Tasmania, cool climate wines are in fashion.

All of these regions have a wide variety of vintners from large productions to tiny boutique wineries showcasing the best of Australian winemaking. Australian vineyards make it easy to enjoy a wine tasting holiday, with most vintners offering both cellar door tastings and delicious food amid the rolling hills covered in vines.

Pyrenees wine region, Victoria Australia

Truly remote Australia

The Kimberley is tucked away up in the north-west corner of Australia and is thus wildly remote. Here, eroded mountain ranges provide a home for unique wildlife and geology in what remains a pristine environment. Dramatic gorges and an even more dramatic climate make this a beautiful and challenging place to travel – 4X4 vehicles are a must and some areas are only accessible by boat or helicopter.

Lake Eyre, Australia

When to visit Australia

Australia is a big place with a range of widely-differing climates, from the tropical north-east to the cooler Victoria and Tasmania. So consider the best time for scenery, weather and wildlife sighting in the places your itinerary will cover. For example, in the northern part of the country (known as ‘The Top End’) there is a wet and a dry season rather than four traditional seasons. Although it can be spectacular in its own way, during the wet season many parts of the country become in accessible.

An important thing to note is that Australian schools have their summer break in December and January (6 to 8 weeks) so if you plan on visiting at this time book accommodation well in advance and expect higher hotel rates and queues at the bigger attractions.

Melbourne, Australia

Visas for Australia travel

All tourists visiting Australia need a visa, unless you are from New Zealand. There are three types of visa that you can apply for online to visit Australia for tourism:

The Electronic Travel Authority (subclass 601)​ is suitable for people who want to stay in Australia for less than three months and are nationals of the USA, Canada, Malaysia, Singapore, Japan, South Korea and Brunei. This is valid for 12 months and includes multiple entries.  You can apply for this online at the same time as you book your flight.

Citizens of the UK and Ireland, and most European countries should apply for an eVisitor (subclass 651) visa. The Visitor visa (subclass 600) is for citizens of other countries.

Getting around in Australia

The distances in Australia are very big so most interstate travel is via domestic flights. There are a range of flights available across Australia with the national carrier Qantas, as well as low-cost airlines Jetstar and Virgin Blue.

Australia’s rail system is limited but it does have some iconic long distance rail journeys. The Ghan train runs from Adelaide up to Darwin and the Indian Pacific train runs from Sydney all the way across to Perth.

Travelling by car or camper van are other popular ways of getting around in Australia. Big road trip and rail journeys are the perfect way to understand the vast distances of the Australian continent and think about the challenges facing early European exploration and settlement.

When driving in Australia you should avoid travelling on the roads in rural areas at dawn and dusk as that is when wildlife is most active. Your hire car insurance will often be invalid if you hit an animal while driving at these times.

If you travel in remote parts of Australia check the weather forecast and route conditions before you leave. You can check route conditions with the Main Roads Department (1800 013 314). It is also worth checking the fuel stops on your route as these can be few and far between in some places. Inform a responsible party of your travel plans and always carry plenty of food, fuel and water.

Uluru, Australia

Tipping in Australia

Tipping is appreciated rather than necessary in Australia and is usually  included as a reward for good service at restaurants. Adding 10 per cent or rounding up to the nearest $10 is sufficient.

Internet and mobile phones

It is important to understand that in many parts of Australia there will be no mobile phone coverage or mobile internet service, particularly in regional and isolated areas and most particularly in the Northern Territory and Western Australia.

You should plan accordingly when travelling long distances overland. Tell someone where you are travelling and always carry emergency supplies of water, fuel and food.

Australia’s mobile phone providers are Telstra, Optus and Vodafone. You can usually buy a mobile phone SIM card at airports or at mobile phone shops in cities.

So what are you waiting for? Start planning your dream Australia trip now! Take a look at my Top 10 Things to do in Australia post and at four suggested Australia travel itineraries. This beautiful continent draws travellers from around the world to its unique landscapes, fascinating wildlife and chilled-out lifestyle.

By Natasha von Geldern

The Ultimate Australia Travel Guide

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