Amazing Places


With so many incredible landscapes to choose from, many outstanding spots in Australia and New Zealand simply get overlooked. Travel + Leisure has put together a list of top secret places that have remained lesser-known destinations – until now.



1. COCKBURN RANGE, EAST KIMBERLEY, WA

What is it? As imposing as Uluru, the Cockburn Range at El Questro Wilderness Park, at the north-eastern end of the Gibb River Road, rises like a vast fortress more than 600 metres above the East Kimberley plains. It plays a starring role in Baz Lurhmann's Australia where it serves as a constant, mesmerising backdrop.

Why is it overlooked? It's the Bungle Bungles in Purnululu National Park, several hours' drive or a light plane flight south of El Questro, that attract the attention in the Kimberley. Yet the Cockburns have many of the same features, including deep gorges and pristine waterholes.

We love it because... The Cockburns completely dominate the landscape on the Gibb River Road between the Pentecost River and the Great Northern Highway. From every vantage point, thickly wooded slopes rise to majestic golden-orange hued sandstone cliffs. At the western end near the Pentecost River, the cliffs take the form of long narrow peninsulas, giving the impression of a handful of "fingers". Driving the rough 4WD track that runs around the base of the escarpment allows you to experience its enormous variety of landscapes, from grasslands to mudflats that stretch to infinity (or at least all the way to Wyndham) and shimmer like a desert oasis. Boab trees, some more than 1000 years old, stand sentinel above the bushy scrub, there's a plethora of birdlife including ospreys, brown whistler ducks and spinafex pigeons, timid freshwater crocs lolling in drying billabongs, and two-metre-plus "salties" patrolling the Pentecost River. Much of the drive around the base follows the Karunjie Track, the original stock route used by rugged drovers from Derby to Wyndham and on to the Northern Territory. One of the best views of the Cockburns is from Home Valley Station in the late afternoon, when the setting sun turns the cliffs from deep orange to burning pinks, purples and reds.

How to get there From Kununurra it's about an hour's drive to Emma Gorge Resort at El Questro, the departure point for most people's explorations of the Cockburns. El Questro offers a guided 4WD tour around the vast, varied terrain of the range. You can drive it yourself but you need to be thoroughly prepared and have significant off-road driving experience. Scenic flights provide amazing views of the Cockburns; take a helicopter from El Questro or a light plane from Kununurra. Selected outback tour operators in the Kimberley offer private bushwalking expeditions.

Where to stay The Emma Gorge Resort, El Questro Wilderness Park (08 9169 1777; elquestro.com.au; doubles from $270), has tented cabins with private ensuite and a decent, if overpriced, restaurant. Emma Gorge, an hour's walk from the camp, is part of the Cockburn Range and gives a taste of the spectacular scenery. Home Valley Station (08 9161 4322, homevalley.com.au) is located on the western bank of the Pentecost River, about an hour's drive from El Questro. It offers three levels of accommodation plus camping, with a variety of tours, on an historic cattle property run by the Indigenous Land Corporation as a TAFE for indigenous trainees. Grass Castle luxury bungalows, doubles from $420; Homestead Guesthouse Rooms (chic motel-style accommodation), doubles from $230; Sand Castle safari style eco-tents, sleeping four, from $190.

Don't miss Playing out your drover fantasy on the mudflats on the northern side of the Range. These baked, cracked mudflats – where the stampede scenes in Australia were filmed – are transformed into a vast sea during the Wet as the inland rivers empty their contents into the Cambridge Gulf.

The details Qantas and Virgin Blue have regular flights to Darwin and Perth. Both Airnorth and Skywest service the Darwin-Kununurra route and the Perth-Broome-Kununurra route. You can rent a 4WD in Kununurra; Europcar has a large selection (europcar.com.au). El Questro Wilderness Park is open from April 1 to October 31. The Cockburn Range 4WD circuit tour costs $227 per person; 30-minute scenic helicopter flights cost from $185 per person (08 9169 1777; elquestro.com.au). Willis's Walkabouts (08 8985 2134; bushwalkingholidays.com.au) offers a two-week Green Kimberley tour, which includes seven days bushwalking in the Cockburn Ranges. – Sally Webb


2. BARRINGTON TOPS, NEW SOUTH WALES

What is it? With steep ridges, wild streams, and rainforest wilderness, Barrington Tops National Park is a deserving recipient of its World Heritage status. The 74,000-hectare national park lies close to the well-travelled Pacific Highway, but the hour-long detour is far enough for the park to be bypassed by most travellers.

Why is it overlooked? The Blue Mountains are a better-known World Heritage alternative, but those willing to go the extra distance, literally, will find the Barrington area reaps equal rewards, without the crowds.

We love it because... even if it were filled with visitors, Barrington's natural environs would be worth the effort for a weekend or longer, any time from September to May. Crisp, clear waters tumble down from the 1500m-high plateau, the thick rainforest is magically still, and the lack of competition for the trails is a positive. From the Dungog entrance, Burraga Swamp, tucked away high up in the hills, may be the jewel in Barrington's crown. Tree ferns and towering Antarctic Beech trees greet walkers on the short (30-minute return) trail, which turns more Tolkien-esque the further you go. The Williams River day area offers short tracks and swims in the crisp, clear waters. Hardier types should leave one car here and drive up Lagoon Pinch Road for the 7km, muddy, leaf-littered, Rocky Crossing walk. Allowing time for plenty of detours down the side tracks to the Pool of Reflection or Rocky Crossing itself captures the best of this trail, and a relative abundance of rare lyrebirds will reward many visitors to the whole Williams River area.

How to get there Fly to Newcastle where you'll need to rent a car (two-wheel-drives are sufficient) on arrival. From New Zealand, fly into Sydney, rent a car, and make the three-and-a-half hour drive north along the Sydney-Newcastle expressway (F3). Follow the Pacific Highway through Raymond Terrace to reach the park's entry points.

Where to stay Camping and bed and breakfasts are the best options. Yeranda Cottages (02 4992 1208; yeranda.com.au) are ideal for exploring the southern half of the park. Elouera ($50-$80 per person per night) is the most popular of Yeranda's four cottages. Sunrise Cottage (02 6559 1228; jacksonsfarmstay.com; doubles from $150) is 30 minutes from Gloucester with visitors renting this three-bedroom house enjoying 607 hectares in which to relax. Eaglereach Wilderness Resort (02 4938 8233; eaglereach.com.au; doubles from $210) is an upmarket alternative though it's more than an hour's drive into Dungog or Gloucester to the park.

Don't miss About an hour's drive from Gloucester through the rainforest park, Devils Hole Lookout offers magnificent views over the sweeping Barrington Plateau. In winter, the 1400-metre-high site (and its much appreciated barbecue area) receives snow, so check if the snow gates are locked before you visit.

The details Qantaslink, Jetstar and Virgin Blue fly to Newcastle. Both Tourism NSW (visitnsw.com) and the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service (nationalparks.nsw.gov.au) have extensive information on the National Park. Barrington Outdoor Adventure Centre (126 Thunderbolts Way, Gloucester; 02 6558 2093; boac.com.au) offers guided trips and bike, canoe and kayak rental. One-day tours cost $130 per person. – Sue White


3. WHITE ISLAND, BAY OF PLENTY, NEW ZEALAND

What is it? One of New Zealand's most active volcanoes, White Island (or Te Puia o Whakaari in Maori) is in the Bay of Plenty on the eastern coast of the North Island.

Why is it overlooked? Many Kiwis will be familiar with White Island but, to the majority of Australians, New Zealand's only active marine volcano remains largely unknown. A visit to White Island can also entail a reasonable amount of time and, particularly if travelling by helicopter, expense.

We love it because... it's one of the most surreal, apocalyptic places anywhere in Australasia, acquiring its anglicised name from Captain Cook who noted its tendency to be enveloped in white steam. Since 1826 there have been almost three dozen eruptions on White Island (believed to be as old as 200,000 years), with the last being in 2000, blanketing the island in mud and creating a new crater. Tours by Rotorua's Helipro (helipro.co.nz) consist of an action-packed three-and-a-half hours, straight out across the Bay of Plenty with the aircraft circling the island before landing on its stark, lunar-like surface. On certain days gas masks must be worn, with hard-hats compulsory. As you step from the helicopter you're confronted by a strange world, tinged sulphur yellow and full of steaming fumeroles and boiling mud. The helicopter then heads back out across the Bay of Plenty for a summit landing on the dormant Mount Tarawera, on the mainland, the scene of an epic 1886 eruption that claimed 153 lives.

How to get there White Island can be accessed by boat as well as helicopter, with fixed-wing flyovers also available. Rotorua, itself renowned for its geothermal activity, is surprisingly easily reached from Australia's eastern seaboard, and within New Zealand itself, with frequent half-hour connecting flights with Air New Zealand from Auckland.

Where to stay Rotorua has a wealth of accommodation, including the luxurious lodge and estate, Treetops, (+64 7 333 2066; treetops.co.nz; doubles from $405 per person) and the more affordable Accolades Boutique Hotel (31 Flemington Place, Brunswick, Rotorua; +64 7 345 5033; accolades-boutique-hotel.co.nz; doubles from $327).

Don't miss The eerie remnants of a failed sulphur mining operation, which ended in the 1930s, including buildings and machinery corroded by the island's sulphuric gases.

The details Helipro operates tours of White Island. Tours cost about $732 per person. White Island Tours (+64 7 308 9588; www.whiteisland.co.nz) operate boat trips from Whakatane Wharf on the Bay of Plenty. Tours, which generally take about six hours return, cost $145 per person. – Anthony Dennis


4. DOUBTFUL SOUND, FIORDLAND, NEW ZEALAND

What is it? Doubtful Sound, the deepest of New Zealand's fiords, is a breathtaking watery wilderness, aptly dubbed the "Sound of Silence". Extending over 40 kilometres inland from the Tasman Sea, it consists of towering peaks with near vertical sides.

Why is it overlooked? The majority of visitors to this part of New Zealand opt for the smaller Milford Sound, which is widely promoted, easier to access and with established infrastructure. But canny Kiwis will tell you that Doubtful Sound – three times longer than Milford – is more serene and spectacular.

We love it because... part of the adventure lies in the reaching of Doubtful Sound: first you must take a boat trip across scenic Lake Manapouri and then a road trip over the 670-metre-high Wilmot Pass and down into Deep Cove. This is Fiordland National Park, New Zealand's largest and part of the Te Wahipounamu World Heritage Area. Chris Lemin, the owner of Deep Cove Charters (+64 3 249 6828; doubtful-sound.com) is a knowledgeable, knockabout skipper and guide who recently acquired a luxurious new vessel, Seafinn. During the cruise we encountered not just pods of bottlenose dolphins and fur seals on the rocks near the entrance to Doubtful Sound, but also red deer, through binoculars, on the rocky, precipitous sides of the peaks.

How to get there Manapouri, 170 kilometres from Queenstown and close to the township of Te Anau, is the starting point of the two-stage, two-hour or so, journey that needs to be undertaken in order to reach Doubtful Sound. From Manapouri you take a boat across the lake and then a coach or van across Wilmot Pass.

Where to stay It takes a few hours to reach Doubtful Sound from Manapouri, so an overnight cruise makes practical sense, aside, of course, from the fact that it's a such rewarding experience. Before and after your visit there is plenty of affordable accommodation in Manapouri and Te Anau (fiordland.org.nz). One luxury option is Fiordland Lodge (472 Te Anau Milford Highway; +64 3 249 7832; fiordlandlodge.co.nz; doubles start from about $500).

Don't miss Waking up at dawn, or soon thereafter, on your overnight cruise boat located in the embrace of one of the sheltered arms of Doubtful Sound with scarcely another craft in sight.

The details Deep Cove Charters is a small, family-run operator for between two and 12 passengers aboard the new boat, Seafinn. Overnight cruises operate between October and March with prices from $336 per person, including lunch, dinner and breakfast. The far larger, somewhat less personalised, though recommended Real Journeys (+64 3 249 7416; realjourneys.co.nz), operates day and overnight cruises aboard the Fiordland Navigator. Overnight cruise prices start from $362 per person. – ad


5. LITCHFIELD NATIONAL PARK, NORTHERN TERRITORY

What is it? Covering 1500 square kilometres, Litchfield National Park is the ancestral home of the Koongurrukun, Marranunggu, Werat and Warray Aboriginal people who believe that spirits shaped the park. If they did, they certainly had an eye for dramatic scenery. The national park is home to gargantuan magnetic termite hills, tranquil lagoon pools with skyscraper-high waterfalls and four-wheel-drive tracks challenging enough to keep your teeth chattering.

Why is it overlooked? Litchfield has a far flashier, far better known neighbour in Kakadu National Park, yet many locals agree that the two share much of the same classic Top End terrain.

We love it because... it's Kakadu without the crowds, and because of its remote beauty. Swim in the Buley waterhole (croc-free in the dry season), explore the fascinating termite mounds or bathe in Wangi Falls to the sound of crashing water. For campers, there is the oft-overlooked Walker Creek area where a handful of raised wooden campsites are set next to a clear-water stream. There is also a peaceful walk here where visitors can wander for hours with just a few 'roos for company. The Walker Creek track follows the stream, moves through some marshland where you walk on duckboards and culminates in a ridge with a commanding view. For the outdoors types the more challenging Tabletop Track offers 39 kilometres of some of the park's most interesting terrain.

How to get there Fly into Darwin and hire a vehicle. You will need a 4WD if you plan to visit the Lost City. Contact the Parks and Wildlife Commission of the Northern Territory (08 8976 0282; nt.gov.au) to check conditions. It takes just over an hour to get to Litchfield and you can fit in a walk, a swim and the Lost City in a day trip.

Where to stay Campsites are peppered throughout the park but for day-trippers, Darwin is your best base. Try SkyCity (Gilruth Avenue, Mindil Beach; 08 8943 8888; skycitydarwin.com.au; doubles from $220), which is close to the city and next to the Mindil Beach markets.

Don't miss The Lost City – a tumble-down collection of wind-blasted sandstone monoliths that look eerily like a metropolis in decay. One huge formation offers a Hellboy moment as it resembles a giant rocky figure striding along. It is also eerily silent here save for the rustling of leaves and the buzzing of flies.

The details Qantas, Virgin Blue and JetStar fly to Darwin. Hire a 4WD through Budget (budget.com.au), Europcar (europcar.com.au) or Hertz (hertz.com.au) at Darwin airport. There is a detailed fact sheet on Litchfield and other Northern Territory parks at nt.gov.au. – Paul Chai


6. GawlerRanges, South Australia
If it weren't for the heat and the red dirt surrounds, the glistening white salt pan that forms Lake Gairdner may deceive visitors into thinking they are looking at a piece of Antarctica. At 430km from Adelaide, the Eyre Peninsula's Gawler Ranges also house the impressive ochre-red "organ pipe" rock columns. gawlerrangessafaris.com


7. Baird Bay, SA
Sea lions' curious natures are a hit in Baird Bay, 745km west of Adelaide, where swimming with the animals is available for visitors. The experience of frolicking with sea lions, and often dolphins, is even better given the animals simply turn up every day by choice. bairdbay.com


8. Walls of Jerusalem National Park, Tasmania
Highlights, such as King David's peak, can only be reached on foot. Novices should consider a group trip, as this is experienced hikers' terrain. tasmanianexpeditions.com.au


9. The Tarkine, Tasmania
Unknown to many Australians, the largest temperate rainforest in the Southern Hemisphere lies in their backyard. With a wealth of Aboriginal cultural sites, a wild coastline, and a habitat harbouring 50 threatened species, it's easy to see why the Tarkine may be Tassie's best-kept secret. tarkinetrails.com.au


10. Little Desert National Park, Victoria
A desert in name only, many areas receive more than 600mm of rain a year. Excellent tracks make the 375km drive from Melbourne worthwhile. parkweb.vic.gov.au


11. Curio Bay, New Zealand
Near New Zealand's southernmost tip lies a chance to step back to the Jurassic age. Just 88km from Invercargill, Curio Bay houses one of the world's finest fossil forests. Formed 170 million years ago when ancient volcanoes flooded the forest floor with debris, the trees look like wood, yet feel just like stone. curiobay.org


12. Lake Waikaremoana, New Zealand
Hikers will love the great walk through the North Island's largest untouched native forest. Leaving Rotorua behind, groups set off for four days passing lakes, bluffs and spectacular wilderness. walkinglegends.com


13. Poruma Island, Queensland
Tucked away in the Torres Strait archipelago, visitors to Poruma may come for the fishing but they stay for much more. The island's 180 residents welcome guests with traditional cooking, arts and crafts. poruma.com


14. Adels Grove, QLD
The arid landscape west of Mount Isa makes the existence of the oasis that is Adels Grove even more remarkable. Those driving three hours towards the NT/QLD border will find a gorgeous gorge perfect for canoeing, swimming, fishing and birdwatching. www.adelsgrove.com.au


15. Capertee Valley, NSW
Capertee Valley is the second largest enclosed valley in the world (after the Grand Canyon), but tends to get overlooked for the Blue Mountains. Although mainly 4WD access, Gardens of Stone National Park's rock formations and tranquility impress those who make the trip from Lithgow. environment.nsw.gov.au


16. Oxley Wild Rivers National Parks, NSW
This spectacular gorge country is even more impressive by helicopter, with the Flight of the Six Gorges a favourite. Taking in NSW's highest waterfalls, found at Wollomombi Gorge, an hour-long aerial tour presents the national park's rugged landscape at its most dramatic. fleethelicopters.com.au


17. White Cliffs, NSW
Coober Pedy is well-known for its underground living, but NSW has its own version. Most of White Cliffs' 225 residents live beneath the red earth. Visitors can try it for themselves at one of the town's hotels and B&Bs. visitnsw.com


18. Yankee Hat, Namadgi National Park, Australian Capital Territory
For visitors to Canberra, ancient rock art lies only an hour's drive and a leisurely 3km stroll away. Deep in Namadgi National Park, Yankee Hat boasts two rock shelters, both with painted art. australianalps.deh.gov.au


19. Cape Range National Park, Western Australia
Whale sharks, manta rays and humpback whales make the Ningaloo barrier reef their home. On land the Cape Range National Park protects limestone ranges, breathtaking canyons and more than 700 caves. www.exmouthwa.com.au


20. Cape Leveque, WA
White sands and red earth make the Dampier Peninsula's Cape Leveque a place to remember. Four-wheel-drives are strongly recommended, as is a stay at Kooljaman, a luxury campsite owned by the local indigenous communities. kooljaman.com.au


21. Cobourg Peninsula, Northern Territory
The final destination is the pristine beaches, sparkling waters, and abundant sea life of the Peninsula's Garig Gunak Barlu National Park, but the journey through Kakadu is inspiring. travelnt.com – Sue White

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