Australia’s greatest journeys – by boat, train and foot

Sarah Marshall

Wed, 24 May 2023 at 8:00 pm BST

Visitors exploring Walpa Gorge at Kata Tjuta, Australia's Red Centre - Tourism NT/Kyle Hunter
Visitors exploring Walpa Gorge at Kata Tjuta, Australia’s Red Centre – Tourism NT/Kyle Hunter

Before any coordinates had been charted on a map, Australia’s Aboriginal people had their own method for navigating land and sea. Reading the landscape through a series of song lines, they were able to connect sacred waterholes, ceremonial sites and important meeting points. Trees, cliffs, caves and coves were the only signposts they needed to move around.

Many thousands of years later, those spiritual pathways continue to link present day culture with the past. Dreaming tracks provide a foundation for walking trails weaving through some of Australia’s greatest natural wonders and dusty roads link geological formations fundamental to the Aboriginal people’s story of creation.

A land mass equivalent to continental USA, this country within a continent is enormous and the idea of covering all eight states and territories in one trip is enough to send a compass spinning.

Despite its overwhelming size, however, Australia is extremely well connected; rail tracks, rivers systems, hiking paths and highways give travellers options for exploring with different modes of transport. Passing through diverse landscapes – from glittering golden beaches through to raging red canyons and mist-shrouded emerald forests – the journey quickly becomes part of the adventure.

Whether you have a few days or a couple of months, there are multiple iconic itineraries to follow. Gain an insight into First Nation cultures on guided walking tours through the outback, cruise coastlines navigated by early European sailors, or jump aboard one of Australia’s long distance trains for a slower way to soak up surroundings.

Not all trips require engines and wheels. Covering vastly varying terrain, Australia is a land made for walking, with hiking trails providing opportunities to scale magnificent mountain peaks and viewpoints while stopping to admire the smaller details such as insects and delicate wildflowers.

Combining classic adventures with newer routes, we’ve compiled some of Australia’s greatest road trips, train rides, cruises and hikes designed to deliver the very best this country has to offer. Whether you choose to follow directions on a map or prefer to stick with ancient song lines, all pathways promise rewarding journeys measured in experiences rather than clocked up kilometres. Joining dots is where the real fun begins.

A Great Australian circumnavigation

Duration: 32 days

Crossing different climates and three time zones, it requires dedication and a lot of planning to see Australia in one trip. It took explorer Matthew Flinders years to navigate the coastline at the beginning of the 1800s; now a new cruise itinerary promises to do it in 32 days. Almost 85 per cent of the country’s population live within 50km of the sea, making it easy to access most urban centres by ship.

Starting in Sydney, slip into laidback life down under by strolling along breezy beaches and marvelling at larger-than-life architectural wonder, Sydney Opera House. Further north, sunshine cities Brisbane and Cairns serve as gateways to the Great Barrier Reef, a swirl of glinting sandbanks, remote islands and colourful fish. Drop into the idyllic Whitsundays for a sailing excursion on a two-masted schooner built in 1902 and a chance to observe baby koalas and crocs at Bredl’s Wild Farm.

Upolu Cay on the Great Barrier Reef - Tourism Australia
Upolu Cay on the Great Barrier Reef – Tourism Australia

Encounter another lesser-known reef system along the west’s Coral Coast, by taking a flying safari above the 122 remote Abrolhos Islands. A habitat for tammar wallabies and lesser noddies, this Galapagos of the Indian Ocean was also the final resting place of ill-fated 17th century Dutch sailing vessel the Batavia, passing through Australian waters long before Flinders set sail. You’ll be pleased to know a safer passage is guaranteed on the 930-passenger Viking Venus.

A 32-day sailing with Viking (0800 319 66 60) costs from £13,040pp, including all meals, an excursion in each port of call and flights. Departs January 20, 2025.

Red rocks and waterholes

Duration: Four to eight days depending on your pace

Pumping life through the spiritual veins of multiple generations, rocks running through the heart of the Outback are sacred to the Northern Territory’s Aboriginal people. Experience the power of a landscape created over the course of several millennia on a road trip from Alice Springs to Uluru, driving through soaring red cliffs, plunging gorges and cooling waterholes flowing in the red desert.

Starting in Alice Springs, drive west to the Tjoritja/West MacDonnell National Park and take a dip in the sandy Ellery Creek Big Hole or spot black-footed wallabies at Simpson’s Gap. Hire a 4WD drive to detour through the scenic Mereenie Loop, traversing off-road Aboriginal land and stopping at Tnorala (Gosse Bluff) Conservation Reserve to view the powerful impact of a meteorite which crashed 142 million years ago.

In Watarrka National Park, hike the three-hour Kings Canyon Rim Walk along teetering sandstone walls. Then continue to Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park to gaze up at its 36 hulking ochre domes and trek around the base of Uluru, watching it shift through a spectrum of colours at dawn and dusk.

Uluru Kata Tjuta National Park - Tourism Australia
Uluru Kata Tjuta National Park – Tourism Australia

Stick around after dark to observe exhilarating nights shows. Watch 50,000 frosted glass stems blooming in an iridescent garden as part of Bryce Munro’s Field of Light, outshone only by Wintjiri Wiru, an after-dark performance of ancient Aboriginal tales on a stage of sky.

An eight-day Red Centre Rocks tour with Trailfinders (0207 084 6500) costs from £2,025pp, including 4WD car hire, B&B accommodation and activities; excludes flights.

Coastal wonders

Duration: Seven-night cruise

A wilderness of ancient canyons, sculptural rock formations and fierce, frothing waters, the Kimberley region of northwest Australia is three times the size of England. Some of the best sights are concentrated along the coastline, easily navigable on a small expedition ship. Adventure cruise company True North has been operating in the region for 30 years, offering a mix of activities on land and sea on their 18-room vessels.

A highlight is Horizontal Falls, described by Sir David Attenborough as “one of the world’s greatest natural wonders”. Caused by a fast-moving tidal current squeezing through narrow gorges, water gushes forward to create a ferocious torrent across the surface. Hop into tenders to get as close as possible to the raging waters.

An even greater spectacle that is also shaped by some of the biggest tidal shifts on the planet is Montgomery Reef, which appears to rise from the ocean as water drains away to expose mantas, dugongs and turtles fleeing for safety. Visit during a full moon to see it rise and fall by 10 metres in the space of 12 hours.

West Coast Explorer cruise with True North
West Coast Explorer cruise with True North

On land, go for guided hikes to explore indigenous rock paintings hidden in caves. Or get airborne in the ship’s helicopter to glide above the otherwise inaccessible Eagle Falls, touching down at remote waterholes to go for a refreshing swim.

Audley Travel (01993 838 810) offers a cruise of the Kimberley as part of a 19-day trip to west and north Australia from £13,450pp; includes flights. 

Tasmanian discovery

Duration: Six days

There might not be any saloon doors swinging or tumbleweeds blowing in this island state 240km from the mainland, but Tasmania’s wild western region is still a final frontier. Dense temperate rainforests huddle in the shadow of fierce mountains and sparkling rivers flow through valleys carved thousands of years ago.

Hire a car to explore the scenic section between Launceton and Hobart, stopping to hike, hop on steam trains or join a boat cruise along the way. Leaving Tasmania’s capital behind, begin by following the Derwent River, heading towards the waterfalls of Mount Field National Park. A gateway to the west coast, quirky historical town Strahan is worthy of an overnight stay. Set sail on a catamaran to explore surrounding islands, including Sarah Island, the setting for Australia’s longest running play. Telling the true story of an escape from the former convict settlement, The Ship That Never Was is staged at the waterfront’s Richard Davey Amphitheatre every night at 5.30pm.

The Trowutta Arch Rain Forest Walk - Tourism Tasmania
The Trowutta Arch Rain Forest Walk – Tourism Tasmania

Once a base for hopeful prospectors during the gold rush, riverside settlement Corinna serves as an entry point for the Tarkine Reserve, a sprawl of ancient huon pines and myrtle beech trees swathed in an eerie, ethereal mist. Scenes get even better at Cradle Mountain and St Clair National Park, where views of the sawtooth summit are best enjoyed from a trail fringing the Dove Lake. End at Launceston, famous for its Cataract Gorge.

A six-day self-drive trip with Freedom Destinations (0333 234 2889) costs from £445pp, including accommodation and car hire; excludes flights. 

The epic Queensland coast

Duration: 17 nights

The jewels shimmering in Queensland’s crown are undoubtedly its many islands and coral cays – this is home to the Great Barrier Reef, after all, running like a 1,400-mile-long necklace off the country’s northeastern coast. But that doesn’t mean the only way to explore the state is offshore. The coastline is equally fascinating; modern cities, pre-Jurassic era rainforests and bountiful farmlands can all be found along a 2,000km driving route from Brisbane to Port Douglas.

Less flashy than Sydney or Melbourne, subtropical Brisbane brims with laidback restaurants, hip hotels and cool art galleries. It’s also home to Australia’s only inner-city beach. Drive north towards Noosa National Park for postcard-pretty bays and views of dolphins diving in frothing surf. Expect even more marine mammal activity further along the coast at Hervey Bay, where humpbacks migrating to feeding grounds in Antarctica come to rest for a couple of weeks between June and November. Witness them breach, fluke and fin slap on whale watching tours departing the harbour – or be brave and jump in the water with Whale Watching Hervey Bay (£104) for a guided swim.

Whitsunday Paradise - Riptide Creative/Tourism Australia
Whitsunday Paradise – Riptide Creative/Tourism Australia

Nextdoor, K’Gari/Fraser Island, the largest sand island in the world, is a mosaic of shape-shifting dunes, empty beaches and rainforests in the sand. Find more powder below your feet at Airlie Beach, gateway to the Whitsunday Islands, and finish at the Daintree National Park to spot harmless butterflies or rare cassowaries with a kick to match a kung fu fighter.

A 17-day trip with Discover the World costs from £2,550pp, including mixed board accommodation and car hire; excludes flights. 

Rails and rainforest

Duration: Nine days

Carving routes through tropical rainforests and desert, railroads were once the easiest method for connecting remote dots on northern Queensland’s map. Trundle back to an era of frontier towns and mining outposts on a ride along tracks constructed more than 100 years ago.

Lesser known than the Ghan or the India Pacific, the Savannahlander is one Australia’s great forgotten train journeys. Departing Cairns weekly, it winds its way through the wet tropics of the Kuranda range into scrubby Gulf Savannah landscapes and onto the rural town of Forsayth.

Disembark to stay overnight in cosy lodges and hotels with rooms made from remodelled train carriages. Excursions include galleries of Aboriginal rock art at the Chillagoe Caves, the crimson cliffs of Cobbold Gorge and Undara – meaning ‘long way’ – home to the largest lava tubes in the world. Created by a volcanic eruption, the cool tunnels provide a safe place for rock wallabies and owls to roost.

walking next to Kuranda Scenic Railway - Tourism Australia
walking next to Kuranda Scenic Railway – Tourism Australia

Almost as impressive as the surrounding scenery, the photogenic retro train is a joy to ride. A 1960s ‘silver bullet’ with a shiny QR (Queensland Rail) insignia, it features a corrugated iron roof held together by timber beams complemented by a red linoleum floor. Zookeeper turned train driver Will Kemp regularly leads the tours. His fondness for the Savannahlander is obvious in his passionate commentary… and the train’s logo tattooed on his arm.

A 12-day Cairns and Gulf Savannah Wanderer with Travelbag holiday costs from £4,599pp, including flights and all meals on board.

Birding by houseboat

Duration: Five days

Rearing its head in the Snowy Mountains, Australia’s mighty Murray River snakes through New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia, eventually escaping into the sea. According to Aboriginal legends, the river is a rainbow serpent in search of his tribe, carving through a range of colourful landscapes; from magnificent red gum forests through to golden beaches and teal waters. One of the most scenic sections runs between Paringa and the Murray Mouth, where the river ends its journey in the Southern Ocean.

Sleeping on a houseboat operated by Murray River Trails, float slowly along the waterways on a safari and citizen science project designed to help preserve key species. Kangaroos, koalas and brush tailed possums can all be viewed through large glass windows; at night, a top deck hot tub is the best place to gaze at stars.

Murray River Boat trip
Murray River Boat trip

Head towards the outer floodplain for a chance to see dozens of bird species, including black swans, yellow-billed spoonbills and rarer blue billed ducks. Swapping your floating home for four wheels and a ferry, travel into the Ngaut Ngaut Conservation Park and Coorong to learn about the culture of the indigenous Ngarrindjeri Nation. Guided by a member of the local community, a canoe ride from fresh to salty waters provides a chance to learn about edible plants and legends explaining the origins of the river that has supported life here for thousands of years.

Five-day safaris with Murray River Trails (00 61 417 533 063) cost from £2,295pp, including full board accommodation on a houseboat and in a lodge, and transfers to and from Adelaide; excludes flights. 

Four states, three days

Duration: Three days

Ideal for those short on time but big on sightseeing, the shiny, swift Great Southern train covers four states in 72 hours. Using exactly the same sleeper carriages as the iconic Ghan and Indian Pacific trains – which are still packed with post-Covid rollover bookings – the service runs between Adelaide and Brisbane (or vice versa) from December to February, when it’s too hot for the Ghan to operate.

Passing through the vineyards of Adelaide Hills, the train stops at several lookout points above Victoria’s rugged, rocky Grampians National Park (Gariwerd), allowing opportunities for short hikes and tastings at wineries and microbreweries. Although there isn’t time to do a full trek to the largest peak in the park, an optional helicopter ride soars above Mount William and the Sera Range, where granite outcrops rise like waves in the clouds.

Australia, Victoria, Halls Gap - Getty Images/Westend61
Australia, Victoria, Halls Gap – Getty Images/Westend61

Works of human-made art and architecture are on the agenda for a stop in national capital Canberra. See famous faces in the National Portrait Gallery, unravel political history in the Old Parliament House and join a food and wine tour in the fertile Southern Tablelands.

Finally reach the sea at Coffs Harbour, a short drive from the Forest Sky Pier, a platform jutting above the 3,500km Great Dividing Range – the third longest mountain range in the world. Back by the water, spend a few hours inhaling the scent of tropical plants at North Coast Regional Botanic Garden or head south to Urunga for nature walks and storytelling led by representatives of the Gumbaynggirr people.

A three-day full-board trip with Journey Beyond Rail from Adelaide to Brisbane costs from £1,310pp including meals; excludes flights.

Epic journeys on foot

The Arkaba Walk, South Australia

Step through 600 million years of geological history on paths trodden by people for tens of thousands of years on a four-day walk through South Australia’s Flinders Ranges, covering 45km. Weave through creeks, sandstone bluffs and pine forests, pausing at abandoned woolsheds and shepherd’s camps for a taste of outback life. Reward yourself by staying in a raft of new boutique properties available close to the route, a trend Original Travel has coined ‘bootiquing’.

The 14-day Food, Wine & Walking trip from Original Travel (020 3582 4990) includes the trail. From £5,700 including flights and B&B accommodation. 

Larapinta Trail, Northern Territory

Listen to dreamtime stories told against a backdrop of rocky outcrops and deep canyons on a challenging but beautiful 72km trail in the Northern Territory’s West MacDonnell Ranges. Regularly voted one of the country’s top hikes, the route crosses ceremonial stops important to the Arrernte people and passes through sacred song lines. Sleep in safari-style tents with hot showers at award-winning architect designed, semi-permanent eco-campsites belonging to Australian Walking Holidays. During the day, plenty of waterholes provide opportunities for a refreshing dip.

A six-day escorted trip costs from £1,914pp. Various departures from April to September. 

Guilded tour through the Larapinta Trail - Tourism Australia
Guilded tour through the Larapinta Trail – Tourism Australia

Maria Island Walk, Tasmania

An island fully designated as a national park, this Noah’s Ark of rare species – including a reintroduction of Tasmanian Devils – is a conservation success story. From Hobart, guests are whisked by road and ferry across the east coast’s Mercury Passage to start an easy four-day hike. Covering between four and 17km in a day, trekkers walk on routes running through sandy beaches and eucalyptus forests, watching dolphins play in the surf while sea eagles glide overhead. Inland, an ascent into rare cloud forests delivers superb views of the glittering Tasman Sea. Sleep in camps and a heritage house dating back to a time when the island was a penal settlement.

The Maria Island Walk costs from £1,912 for two adults sharing, including full board accommodation and transfers; excludes flights. Various departures between October and April.

Maria Island Walk, Tasmania - Tourism Tasmania
Maria Island Walk, Tasmania – Tourism Tasmania

Blue Lakes hike, K’Gari/Fraser Island, Queensland

It’s surrounded by salty water, but the world’s largest sand island is also made up of several freshwater lakes. Compare different shades of blue on a hike between five of Fraser Island’s most impressive swimming spots on a new three-day, fully supported trail. Travel by 4WD to reach the start of the trail at Dilli Village, continuing to Lake Benaroon where a support guide will be waiting with a cheese board and cold beer. Tents are pitched beneath the stars at several locations and food is cooked around a campfire.

Three-day full-board tours with Fraser Island Hiking start from £490pp, based on a minimum of two sharing. Departs March to November. 

Great Ocean Walk, Victoria

Built to provide work for soldiers returning from the Second World War, Victoria’s iconic driving route can also be completed by foot. Using pathways rather than tarmac to explore a coastline shaped by the Southern Ocean, a trail links Apollo Bay with the towering sea stacks of the Twelve Apostles. Completed comfortably in eight days, the route climbs sandhills, crosses farmland and – at times – teeters on a cliff edge.

A seven-day escorted tour with Intrepid Travel (0808 274 5111) costs from £1,978, including full board accommodation; excludes flights. Departs September to November.

Great Ocean Road walk - Tourism Australia
Great Ocean Road walk – Tourism Australia

Blue Mountains Traverse Walk, New South Wales

Only a 90-minute drive from Sydney, the cliffs, forests and waterfalls of this World Heritage Site are remarkably accessible. Discover the best spots on a stomp across sandstone plateaus, moving through canyons and across waterways winding through the valley floor. There’s a high chance of seeing superb lyrebirds, famous for their elaborate courtship dances. But save space on camera memory cards for capturing scenes of the mountains shrouded in a distinctive blue haze created by eucalyptus droplets mixing with dust and vapour.

A five-day self-guided trek with Auswalk (00 61 3 9597 9797) costs from £1,044pp, including full board accommodation and transfers. Various departures. 

Cape to Cape Walk, Western Australia

Stroll barefoot along the sand for chunks of a 123km trail extending between the lighthouses of Cape Naturaliste and Cape Leeuwin on Western Australia’s south west coast. Wildflowers bloom on headlands and the crevices of rocky formations on a trail which takes most people seven days to complete. Escorting small groups, operator Walk Into Luxury combines the best sections with detours inland for food and wine tastings with some of the top producers in the Margaret River region. In between day hikes, relax in your pool villa or at the onsite spa, overlooking the National Park and Indian Ocean.

A four-day trip with Walk into Luxury (00 61 447 773 719) costs from £1,790pp, including full board accommodation and transfers.

Cape to Cape Walk - Tourism Australia
Cape to Cape Walk – Tourism Australia

Australian Alps Walking Trail, Australian Capital Territory

With ascents and descents adding up to the equivalent of climbing Everest three times, this 60-day trail starting in Jindabyne and finishing in the Thredbo Valley is challenging if you plan to do the full stretch. An easier option is to sample the highlights, sticking to the peaks, lakes and valleys of Kosciuszko National Park. Choose to zip down on the country’s largest chairlift, or squeeze in some extra steps by walking along the steep Merrit’s Track.

A self-guided seven-day itinerary with Auswalk (00 613 9597 9767) costs from £1,492pp, including full-board accommodation and luggage transfers. 

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