Head into the Australian outback for unforgettable experiences you won't find anywhere else.
By Leah Dobihal
A journey into the Australian outback is one you'll never forget. A staircase to the moon, rock art that comes alive with the help of an Aboriginal ranger, luxury accommodation buried deep underground, and made-by-nature swimming pools are just some of the unbelievable experiences that you'll find only in outback Australia.
South Australia’s outback is full of surprises. In the opal mining town of Coober Pedy, just under nine hours from Adelaide, most people live underground in a bid to beat the summer heat. Here, you can visit houses, cafes and churches all carved into the earth, but perhaps the most immersive way to experience the Coober Pedy way of life is to sleep underground. The Desert Cave Hotel is dug into the sandstone hillside in the main street of town. A good night's sleep is pretty much guaranteed: rooms are quiet and pitch black when you turn off the light.
Another of South Australia’s outback experiences is all about the freedom of the open road. Embark on a self-drive adventure along the Eyre Highway, which stretches long and straight across the Nullarbor Plain between Adelaide and Perth. Feel the vast outback beneath your wheels as you spot wild camels and kangaroos, go whale watching on a cliff top lookout, and explore hidden caves. You can even play the world’s longest golf course – it's an unbelievable 1365 kilometres (849 miles) long, with a hole at each town or roadhouse along the way.
For more outback adventure, head to the Flinders Ranges, where you’ll find incredible rock formations, charming country pubs and rich Aboriginal history. The terrain here dates back millions of years, and visitors often feel like they’ve stepped onto another planet. One of the most otherworldly attractions here is Wilpena Pound, a sunken amphitheatre surrounded by a circle of mountains. Don’t miss seeing the marvel from above on a scenic flight. You can also soar over the vast Lake Eyre, a glistening salt pan that transforms into a pink-hued lake when flooded with rain. Enjoy some outback hospitality when you stay at Wilpena Pound Resort, the only accommodation located within Ikara-Flinders Ranges National Park.
Less than four hours from Darwin lies one of the most adventurous outback experiences in the country. There are several ways you can explore Nitmiluk (Katherine) Gorge, a chain of 13 spectacular gorges that wind between towering rock cliffs in Nitmiluk National Park near the Top End town of Katherine. You can fly through it in a helicopter, take a sunrise or sunset cruise to see the red rock walls morph into a million shades of mauve, or follow one of the many walking trails. But if you really want to see the extraordinary gorge up close the best way is by kayak. Paddle to spots the tour boats can't reach and even camp out overnight if you like. Hire your kayaks at the visitors’ centre, and don’t miss your chance to take a refreshing dip in one of the many swimming holes.
Another indescribable outback experience is the viewing of rock art created over 20,000 years ago by the world’s oldest living culture. The World Heritage-listed rock art galleries of Kakadu National Park are some of the best in the world. The galleries are marvellous to look at, but when you see them on a tour with a local expert, you’ll see the paintings come alive with the stories and meanings behind them.
If you’re looking for a spiritual outback experience, there’s no better place to go than Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park. Watching Uluru, a massive red monolith, change colour as the sun sets is one of outback Australia's most magical moments. Doing it in five-star style at a Sounds of Silence dinner is unforgettable. The three-course buffet features native bush ingredients such as crocodile, kangaroo, barramundi and quandong (a native peach). Add a didgeridoo performance and a guided tour of the night sky and you have all the ingredients for an unbelievable evening in the outback.
One of Western Australia’s most mesmerising outback experiences happens only after the sun goes down. Three nights a month, between March and October, the coastal town of Broome in the remote Kimberley region, celebrates one of outback Australia's most unbelievable sights: the Staircase to the Moon. A natural phenomenon caused by a rising full moon reflecting off the tidal flats of Roebuck Bay, it really does look like a stairway to heaven. Markets are held on the first two nights, with lots of entertainment, food stalls and didgeridoo performances.
The Kimberley is often considered one of Australia’s last great frontiers. For the ultimate outback experience, take a road trip down the Gibb River Road. The Gibb River Road is considered one of the country’s greatest 4WD adventures, stretching over 660 kilometres (410 miles) across the Kimberley’s terrain. Discover pounding waterfalls, clear swimming holes and untamed wilderness.
For a quintessential Aussie experience, head into Queensland’s outback. A three and a half hour drive from Cairns, you’ll find Mount Mulligan Lodge, an outback station that brings together luxury and rugged adventure. Here, you can pan for gold, fish for barramundi and hike through rocky terrain before sitting down to a private picnic or chef-prepared degustation.
You’ll have to turn your eyes to the skies to experience one of New South Wales’ most magical outback views. Warrumbungle National Park, near the town of Coonabarabran in central western New South Wales, is Australia's first dark sky park, where the skies are guaranteed to be free of light pollution. Spot the stars on your own, or check out the largest telescopes in Australia at the nearby Siding Springs Observatory.
Step into Mungo National Park for an outback experience that feels more like Mars than it does Earth. Located in the south-west corner of New South Wales, the views are worth the road trip. The ancient landscape holds insight not only into Australia’s geology but also the history of the First Australians. Take a tour guided by an Aboriginal ranger to the Walls of China, one of the most unbelievable landscapes in outback Australia. Here, you’ll find fragile, fascinating sand and clay formations sculpted by thousands of years of erosion.