Mungo National Park, New South Wales © Destination NSW
A guide to Australia’s incredible World Heritage sites
From ancient Aboriginal sites to rainforest wonders, here’s how to visit Australia’s greatest natural – and cultural – treasures.
By Lee Atkinson
Australia’s collection of 20 UNESCO World Heritage sites are some of the most extraordinary natural and cultural treasures on the planet – after all, a place has to be truly remarkable to make it onto UNESCO’s list.
Our World Heritage wonders range from prehistoric rainforest wilderness and ancient Aboriginal settlements to unique landscapes and natural attractions, as well as convict heritage and iconic 20th century buildings. Some are listed for their heritage values, others for their natural or cultural values. Many achieved their special status thanks to the passion and commitment of conservationists, ensuring that these special places will always be treasured. Here’s a taste of some of them.
Budj Bim Cultural Landscape
Where: Four hours’ drive southwest of Melbourne.
If you thought that all the world’s oldest villages were in Africa or Europe, think again. The Gunditjmara people of south-west Victoria built stone houses and complex aquaculture systems to farm fish at Budj Bim more than 6,600 years ago. Older than Egypt’s Pyramids of Giza, it’s one of the world’s oldest human settlement sites, demonstrating the dynamic relationship that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people continue to have with their ancestral lands today.
How to experience it: Gunditjmara-led guided tours are available for groups, or you can take a self-guided tour on the 45-minute walking trail in the Tyrendarra Indigenous Protected Area near Heywood.
Take a step back in time and witness Australia’s convict beginnings in the ruined penal settlements, imposing gaols, barracks and grand country estates where Australia’s convicts lived and worked. It’s a fascinating time capsule of crime, unique to Australia. Built with convict labour in the mid-19th century, Port Arthur (a 90-minute drive from Hobart) is one of Australia’s best-preserved convict sites.
How to experience it: Take an Escape From Port Arthur walking tour and feel history come alive as you listen to the true crime stories of convicts who tried to break free. Discover some of the eerie settlement’s secrets on a night-time ghost tour.
Mammal fossil sites
Australia’s animals used to be huge – think wombats as big as cars, and 200-kilogram (440-pound) kangaroos. That’s just two of the amazing fossils found here. With findings spanning several ice ages to the arrival of humans, it is the most complete fossil record we have for this time period. Of 28 known caves in the park, four are open to the public, with the others being set aside for scientific research and preservation.
How to experience it: Visit the Wonambi Fossil Centre to see what animals roamed the plains of Naracoorte 200,000 years ago. The World Heritage Tour will take you through the working fossil digs where you can chat to the palaeontologists at work in the lab.
It’s not just the shifting sand dunes, tropical rainforests and spectacular wildlife that are special on the world's largest sand island, K’gari (formerly Fraser Island). Kingfisher Bay Resort was one of the first eco-friendly resorts in Australia and has won many awards for its sustainability initiatives. Float in the blue waters of Lake McKenzie, walk through the Valley of the Giants and 4WD on the beach while exploring this incredibly unique island.
How to experience it: The six-to-eight-day K'gari Great Walk will take you to all the best places, but you don’t have to do it all – stay at Kingfisher Bay Resort and step out on a different walk each day.
Gondwana Rainforests of Australia
This collection of verdant rainforests is among the only places on the planet that remain relatively unchanged since the dinosaurs roamed. It’s the largest swathe of sub-tropical rainforest in the world, and contains almost all the world’s Antarctic beech cool rainforest.
How to experience it: Immerse yourself in the rainforest at O’Reilly’s Rainforest Retreat in Lamington National Park, a two-hour drive south of Brisbane. The mountain-top retreat offers a range of guided walks and activities, from flying fox adventures and Segway safaris to glow worm tours and wildlife encounters.
Great Barrier Reef
The Great Barrier Reef is the world’s largest living thing and one of the most complex natural ecosystems on the planet. The numbers are mind-blowing: 3,000 coral reefs, 600 islands, 300 coral cays and 150 inshore mangrove islands and is home to 1,625 kinds of fish, 600 types of coral and more than 30 species of whales and dolphins.
How to experience it: Become a citizen scientist and join reef researchers snorkelling and diving on a five-day expedition with Earthwatch on Magnetic Island, offshore from Townsville.
Kakadu National Park
Where: A three-hour drive southeast of Darwin.
The homeland of the Bininj/Mungguy people for more than 65,000 years, Kakadu is one of the best places in Australia to experience the world’s oldest living culture. The national park is jointly managed by the area’s traditional Aboriginal owners, many of whom still live and hunt in the park, just as they have always done.
How to experience it: See rock art at Nourlangie and Ubirr, learn more about Kakadu’s Indigenous heritage by walking with an Aboriginal guide, and join a Guluyambi Cultural Cruise to learn about their culture and bush survival skills.
Lord Howe Island
Where: A two-hour flight from Sydney.
Home to the world’s southernmost coral reef and the world’s tallest sea stack (coastal rock formation), this sub-tropical rainforest-covered volcanic island is a true paradise. It’s home to just 350 people, but 500 different types of fish and some of the world’s rarest birds, including the Lord Howe woodhen, saved from extinction by the locals who banded together to eradicate rodents on the island. You don’t need a car on Lord Howe, as everyone cycles or walks.
How to experience it: The island only permits 400 visitors at any time, so book well in advance. Family-run Pinetrees Lodge can organise kayaking, cycling, walking, snorkelling and fishing excursions.
Purnululu National Park
Where: A four-hour drive from Kununurra in the Kimberley, Western Australia’s northern tip.
Also known as the Bungle Bungles, this spectacular range is more than 350 million years old and is home to unique black and orange rock beehive domes. The world’s best-kept geological secret, the area was known only to local Aboriginal people and a few farmers until the 1980s.
How to experience it: Access is by 4WD, and walking tracks will take you deep inside the range to magical places like Cathedral Gorge, but the best way to see the formations are from above, just like the film crew that “discovered” them back in 1983 did, on a helicopter safari.
Want to immerse yourself in natural history? You could go to a museum, but diving into the warm waters of Shark Bay, on Western Australia’s Coral Coast, is much more fun. Not only is this aquatic wonderland home to the richest seagrass beds in the world and one of the largest populations of dugongs, but it’s also where you’ll find the oldest life forms on Earth, living fossils called stromatolites.
How to experience it: See what the world was like 3.5 billion years ago by swimming with the stromatolites on a heli-snorkelling Stromatolite Adventure.
Sydney Opera House
Where: Sydney Harbour.
Opened in 1973, the Sydney Opera House is a masterpiece of modern architecture and one of the world’s most recognisable buildings – and the youngest cultural site ever to be included on the World Heritage list. Built with the future in mind, the architect, Jorn Utzon, incorporated clever sustainable design elements such as a cooling system using seawater from the harbour.
How to experience it: If you’ve ever dreamt of singing on stage in the world's most famous concert hall, join an early morning backstage tour.
Where: West of Hobart.
You’ll never have to worry about crowds in this World Heritage site – occupying the southwest corner of the island state of Tasmania, the Tasmanian Wilderness is one of the world’s last truly wild places. Covering almost 20 per cent of the state, the fight to save this wild expanse of temperate rainforest in the 1980s gave birth to the green movement in Australia.
How to experience it: It may be wild, but there are plenty of ways to experience this breathtaking slice of nature. Cruise deep into the most remote stretches of Bathurst Harbour and Port Davey aboard a luxury abalone boat.
Where: 20 kilometres (12 miles) from Ayers Rock Airport or a five-hour drive south of Alice Springs.
It’s one of the country’s most famous natural landmarks, but the handover of Uluru to the Anangu people in 1985 was a symbolic highpoint for Aboriginal land rights. Today the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park is managed with a mix of modern science and Tjukurpa (traditional knowledge).
How to experience it: Join a SEIT Uluru tour to hear Creation stories, see ancient rock art and learn why Uluru is still an important place for teaching Aboriginal children.
Wet Tropics of Queensland
Where: A one-hour drive north of Cairns.
Part of the Wet Tropics of Queensland’s World Heritage Area which stretches approximately 8,940 square kilometres (3,450 square miles) from Townsville in the south to Cooktown in the north, the Daintree Rainforest is the oldest rainforest in the world. World Heritage-listed for its biodiversity, it’s home to 663 species of animal, 230 butterfly species and over 2,800 different types of plants – most of which are not found anywhere else. The campaign to save it from development in the 1980s, known as the Daintree Blockade, ultimately led to the protection of all of Queensland’s tropical rainforests. Now that’s something to be proud of.
How to experience it: Many of the Daintree’s unique creatures are nocturnal and exploring the rainforest on a guided night walk at Cape Tribulation will give you a new view of life in the jungle.
Willandra Lakes Region
The discovery of Mungo Lady in 1968 and Mungo Man in 1974 – the oldest known human skeletons to be found outside of Africa – on the edge of a dry lakebed in Mungo National Park rewrote world history by doubling the length of time that humans have inhabited Australia. The park forms part of the Willandra Lakes Region World Heritage Area, an otherworldly ancient landscape shaped by wind and water.
How to experience it: Stay at Mungo Lodge and join a guided tour of the lunette – called the Walls of China because of its fantastic shape – where the human remains were found.