The variety and beauty of the Australian landscape, and the many senses it evokes – stillness, solitude, spirituality, awe – make it a destination unlike any other. This is our homage to the ‘great southern land’.
GIBB RIVER ROAD, WESTERN AUSTRALIA
The Kimberly in Australia’s northwest is so vast you could lose yourself in it – and many travellers do. But our journey along the fabled Gibb River Road was securely bookended by Derby in the west (reached via the old pearling outpost of Broome) and Kununurra in the east. All we had to do was head straight down this track – built to transport cattle from the region’s stations – and we wouldn’t get lost. And so we set off in our rented 4WD (essential for these conditions) along a 660km ribbon of corrugations that slices and dices its way through the country’s most beautiful landscape: cavernous gorges carved from sandstone and clogged with rainforests; waterfalls gushing into icy rock pools – perfect for a cooldown, even when shared with freshwater crocodiles (care should always be taken not to swim in waterways inhabited by saltwater crocs; check for signposts); tracks the colour of oxblood trailing off into the bush; mountain ranges painted in stripes of pink and gold and purple by the setting sun; rock-faces stippled with art by Australia’s First People eons ago. We bedded down on vast cattle stations and glamped in tents tucked into tussock grass. All too soon we reached the end of the (glorious dirt) road.
SNOWY MOUNTAINS, NEW SOUTH WALES
Smoked, fried, grilled, baked, stuffed – ahhh, the many ways with fresh trout caught in the rivers and dams of the New South Wales high country. I have vivid memories of myself as a little girl camping and fishing with my father at Lake Tatangara dam in the Kosciusko National Park, and arriving home with enough trout to feed our extended family.
All those years ago, there was something about this landscape that caught my eye and my heart. I’ve always loved “the Snowies” (the Snowy Mountains, the highest on mainland Australia), whether it be to go skiing, snowboarding, hiking or just enjoying the scenery from a balcony with a view of the magnificent high country.
Granite boulders are scattered across the landscape, almost as if a giant had decided to cast them on the earth like a bag of marbles. These are the first signs that I am getting closer to the high country. The road starts to narrow and wind like a red-bellied black snake, the mountains close in and I know I’ve arrived. There is something magic about following the beautiful summer hiking trails that cross gentle streams and weave through wildflowers and snow gums, onwards past melting winter snow drifts all the while magnificent views unfold at every bend in the trail.
This ancient landscape makes my heart sing. TTW
PORT STEPHENS, NEW SOUTH WALES
Port Stephens is a reminder of how wonderful Sydney would have been if only 5 million people hadn’t descended on it. Its harbour is twice the size of Sydney’s and it’s blessed with beautiful beaches and stunning scenery, yet only about 70,000 people are scattered around its shores and in the rest of the local government area, which is pretty sizable at 980 square kilometres. Shoal Bay, the most easterly stretch on the southern shore, is where I always stay, and I have many wonderful memories of the place: parasailing for the first time – the views were awesome, the experience exhilarating; encounters with bottlenose dolphins – Port Stephens is home to more than 100 of them; doing the walk with my dad to the lookouts on Tomaree Mountain, which has great views inland and out to sea, as the photo above attests; and romantic dinners at the waterfront restaurants along the esplanade (wink, wink, coy smile). Shoal Bay is a U-shaped suburb bordered on both sides by the Tomaree National Park, and as a result it’s quiet and has the feel of a sleepy suburb. I count this as a bonus – catching up on one’s sleep is part of a holiday, right? If you need brighter lights, Nelson Bay, just a short drive away, is where most of the shops, resorts and restaurants are.
If it’s so big and beautiful, why do comparatively few people live there? The answer is its geography. This part of the NSW coast is dotted with lakes, making a coastal north-south highway impractical. So the “Pacific Highway” veers inland – 50km inland from Shoal Bay from the turn-off near Raymond Terrace, in this instance. In the early days of settlement, it would have been considered a bit of a backwater. All up it’s a 205km drive from Sydney.
Incidentally, Hawks Nest on the northern side of the bay was renowned as the place where former Australian Prime Minister John Howard spent his Christmas holidays – religiously, year after year, for decades. But as he was viewed by many as a dour and dull conservative, it wasn’t necessarily a seal of approval to brag about!
ALICE SPRINGS & ULURU, NORTHERN TERRITORY
Let me tell you the story of Walala Tjapaltjarri. This was a man who had, as they liked to say, “come out of the desert” in 1984. I arrived in Alice in 2005 for a story commissioned by my newspaper and what unfolded never made it to print. That red soil, the determined vegetation, the extraordinary Uluru Rock, which was to me like a religious epiphany, and above all else the people who made me, in my limited way, understand what this incredible continent is about touched a nerve like no other place.
Alice Springs. The name conjures up images like no other in Australia – A Town Called Alice, Wake in Fright, and the dreadful story of “a dingo’s got my baby!” of Azaria Chamberlain. But rest assured gentle visitors, this heart of Australia is the most true and beautiful place in this extraordinary continent. There are a few reasons for this and in my experience, admittedly limited, they are threefold. The landscape, the people, the remoteness.
Linx Macpherson’s Tingari Arts embraced a number of artists, including Walala and Pansy Napangardi. I asked him about his painting and Walala smiled – or did he? He looked at me with his eyes, opaque and mysterious, and went back to painting – red, black, white. Outside and beyond, Uluru beckoned in all its unclimbed glory, Kata Tjuta lured and Alice’s night life boomed on until the wee hours.
His four paintings – individual but as one – hang on a wall in my home and visitors who admire them can only dream of his life in the desert.