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Experience tropical Australia

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Covering a whole continent, Australia is one of the largest countries in the world and it can be tricky to get a handle on. If you’ve never visited, then the ‘land down under’ might feel relatively unknown. There are popular culture references to fall back on, such as Crocodile Dundee in the outback, big wave surfers, that iconic sweeping vista of Sydney Harbour, or the silent red rock of Uluru (Ayers Rock) standing proud against blue skies. But beyond this, things might get a little hazy. With most towns and cities in Australia gathered around the temperate south and southeast coasts, these are by far the most-visited regions. But what lies beyond? In this guide to tropical Australia, we are heading past the Red Centre and the immense deserts of the interior, to Australia’s north. 

We’ll explore the northern reaches of three regions – Queensland, the Northern Territory and the Western Territory. Closer to the tropical climes of Indonesia and Papua New Guinea than to Sydney and Melbourne, tropical Australia is characterised by humid rainforests, vast grasslands, and untamed wilderness that’s ideal for road-tripping. 

Far North Queensland

We begin in North Queensland in the coastal city of Cairns. Originally a swampy port town servicing the inland goldfields, today Cairns is the region’s main tourist hub. This will be the point of entry for most travellers exploring Far North Queensland and the Great Barrier Reef, that lies just offshore in the Coral Sea.

To the north and south of Cairns, small beach towns dot a wild coastline. Head north for the palm-fringed golden sands of Palm Cove, then on to Port Douglas for its famous Four Mile Beach. For a sleepier scene, travel south to the small towns of Mission Beach and the Cassowary Coast. Here locals outnumber tourists and quiet stretches of silvery sand are backed by tropical rainforest.

Inland from Cairns, there are opportunities for day trips to explore relaxed backwaters and national parks. Southern Cairns is well set up for camping and outdoor activities like fishing, canoeing, hiking and birdwatching. Ride the rails for a scenic train journey to the nearby mountain town of Kuranda, or head further inland to the highlands of Atherton Tableland. This expansive region has a mix of wildlife-rich habitats and a waterfall trail where visitors can hike rainforest paths and swim in waterfall pools. 

Cape York Peninsula and the Torres Strait Islands

At the top of Far North Queensland, the Cape York Peninsula reaches out towards Papua New Guinea like an arrowhead. Long and tapering, it’s home to wild beaches, rugged national parkland and the northern reaches of the Great Barrier Reef. This is Australia untamed, and those who travel here have a spirit of adventure. Most of the roads are unpaved, so if you’re going overland, it’s 4×4 only beyond the little inland town of Laura. 

Out beyond the tip of the mainland are the remote Torres Strait Islands. This archipelago of over 200 islands speckles the ocean from the tip of Far North Queensland 150km (approximately 93mi) north to Papua New Guinea.   

Throughout Cape York and its islands live two distinct indigenous communities. Both Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island peoples have inhabited the land here for some 60,000 years. Around Laura you can discover some of the most numerous and intricate Aboriginal artworks in Australia. 

On the eastern coast of the peninsula, just south of Cooktown (where Captain Cook landed back in 1770), are Daintree and Cape Tribulation. This is a wild and pristine stretch of dense and ancient rainforest, sweeping down to meet coral sand beaches and reefs. On the western side is the Gulf of Carpentaria, a jumping-off point for road trips setting forth into the Northern Territory. 

Australia’s Northern Territory

Australia’s Northern Territory encompasses the vast ochre deserts of the Red Centre. But for our guide to tropical Australia, we are staying north, hugging the wilderness coastline to the capital city of Darwin. The ‘Top End’ is where the outback meets the tropics, and it was one of this region’s compatriots that inspired Crocodile Dundee. Crocs do live here, so take heed of any warnings and only swim in safe areas.

Darwin is the largest city in tropical Australia, and it has a lively cosmopolitan energy. Often referred to as the ‘Gateway to Asia’, there is a real mix of nationalities here, many of whom hail from Southeast Asia. This has had a strong influence on the culture and cuisine in Darwin, and the city is a foodie haven with plentiful seafood on the menu. The nightlife is fun and al fresco, and there’s an interesting (if short) history to explore, dating back to the founding of this northerly capital in 1869.

The Northern Territory has the largest population of Aboriginal communities in Australia. The Tiwi Islands just off the coast of Darwin have a unique Aboriginal culture to explore, and in Kakadu National Park there is ancient rock art to discover. Kakadu is a vast protected area southeast of Darwin encompassing humid wetlands, sandstone escarpments and fast-flowing rivers. Still further east is Arnhem Land, a true wilderness home to the traditional Aboriginal landowners. Visitors will need a special permit to enter this densely forested protected area. Closer to Darwin, Litchfield National Park is a wonderland of unspoiled bushland with walking trails, giant sculptural termite mounds, and idyllic waterfall pools to plunge into.

North of the Western Territory

The Western Territory is Australia’s largest state, covering around a third of its entire landmass. Up at its northern tip, the Kimberley is a vast wilderness area and the final section of tropical Australia. This is the place to come for epic road trips, majestic river gorges and miles of uninhabited outback dotted with small, characterful towns.

Founded in the 1880s as a pearling town, coastal Broome is known as the ‘Gateway to the Kimberley’. It’s a fun little place with something of a frontier feel mixed with an alternative vibe. The weekend market is great for people-watching, and lengthy Cable Beach is popular for sunset camel rides with Indian Ocean views.

Beyond Broome, the wilderness of Kimberley begins with miles of deep red earth and scrubland punctuated by weird and wonderful rock formations and rivers. For one of Australia’s top road trips, steer a 4×4 along the Gibb River Road deep into the outback. Along the way, gaze at the monolithic sculpted rocks of Cathedral Gorge and the Bungle Bungles – a range of striped, beehive-shaped mountains.

Right across the region, river and waterfall pools entice hikers and road-trippers to cool down in clear waters before drying off on sun-baked sandstone rocks. Way up top, the King George Falls are a set of dramatic twin waterfalls that cascade into tidal waters and are best seen on a coastal cruise.

Make it happen

Feeling inspired to explore some of the wonders of tropical Australia? Chat with one of our local experts in Australia and start mapping out your next great adventure. 

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