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12 Top-Rated Outdoor Adventures in Australia

Oct 28, 2015

Few places on the planet rival Australia for its spirit of adventure. Blessed with a mosaic of rugged and ravishing landscapes, this sun-soaked country offers the perfect settings for exhilarating activities on land and sea. Along the coast, you can zoom on a jet boat through a horizontal waterfall, snorkel with whale sharks, or sail around tropical islands at the Great Barrier Reef. In the red-earthed deserts of the country's arid interior, more rugged adventures beckon. Australia's famous Outback tracks offer the ultimate 4WD journeys, or you can hop in a kayak and paddle through towering red-walled gorges. Many Aussie adventures take place in beautiful World Heritage-listed wilderness areas; like the pristine Franklin River in Tasmania and Queensland's Fraser Island, the largest sand island in the world. Even the cities offer their own unique adventures. In Sydney, you can climb to the summit of the iconic Sydney Harbor Bridge, and less than an hour's drive away, rappel down sheer limestone cliffs in the Blue Mountains. Whether you're soaring over the spectacular coastline, abseiling, zip-lining, or white-water rafting, these Aussie adventures are sure to get your heart pumping.

1 Climb the Sydney Harbor Bridge

Climb the Sydney Harbor Bridge
Climb the Sydney Harbor Bridge
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Standing atop the Sydney Harbor Bridge, one of Australia's most iconic tourist attractions, sparks the senses. Far below, the glittering harbor wriggles and coils along the coast, salty sea air bristles your skin, and you can actually feel the splendor of this stunning city. Guided ascents of the bridge include a pre-climb prep talk, all the safety gear, a photo on the 134-meter-high summit, and entertaining stories about the history of the bridge along the way. (Did you know Paul Hogan, aka Crocodile Dundee, worked on the bridge before rocketing to international stardom?) In addition to day climbs, you can choose from dawn, twilight, and night ascents for a different perspective of this glamorous harbor city.

2 Four-wheel Drive on Fraser Island, Queensland

Four-wheel Drive on Fraser Island, Queensland
Four-wheel Drive on Fraser Island, Queensland
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World Heritage-listed Fraser Island, off the coast of southeast Queensland, offers one of the most unique 4WD adventures in Australia. Cruising down 75 Mile Beach, a seemingly endless stretch of wave-thrashed shore on the planet's largest sand island, is an exhilarating experience. Along the way, stop by the rusted hulls of the Maheno shipwreck, dodge dingos on the beach, and explore the red-streaked cliffs of the Cathedrals. Inland, you can jolt through subtropical rainforest to clear streams and aquamarine lakes. Fishing, mountain biking, birding, hiking, and swimming are all popular pursuits here, and accommodations range from the plush Kingfisher Bay Resort, to apartments, and bush-fringed campsites. Since the island lacks paved roads, 4WD vehicles are essential, and high-clearance low-range capacity is a must for the soft sands of the interior. Tours range from single day visits to multi-day adventures. You can also rent vehicles and access Fraser Island by ferry and boat services at Rainbow Beach, Hervey Bay, and River Heads. Be sure to check tide times before you leave.

3 Sail the Whitsundays, Queensland

Hamilton Island
Hamilton Island
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Strung along the World-Heritage listed Great Barrier Reef, the 74 idyllic Whitsunday Islands are the perfect playground for sailing adventures. The islands lie in the turquoise Coral Sea off the coast of central Queensland. Most are uninhabited and protected by six national parks, while eight are home to resorts, including the luxurious One&Only Hayman Island and Qualia on Hamilton Island. Thanks to the protective embrace of the reef, the waters are typically calm and ideal for sailing, as well as snorkeling, SCUBA diving, and swimming. Highlights of sailing around these dreamy islands include the dazzling silica sands of Whitehaven Beach; the appropriately-shaped Heart Reef; and the underwater wonderland with its giant clams, colorful coral, and tropical fish. Butterfly, Blue Pearl, and Hook Island Bays provide protected anchorages. The main launching points for sailing trips are Airlie Beach and Shute Harbour on the mainland where you can book classic sailing boats, catamarans, and tall ships. Both crewed and bareboat charters are available.

4 Jet Boat through the Horizontal Falls, Western Australia

Jet Boat through the Horizontal Falls, Western Australia
Jet Boat through the Horizontal Falls, Western Australia
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Horizontal Falls, deep in the rugged Kimberley region, offers an adrenaline-soaked adventure by seaplane and jet boat. The tour typically begins with a low-level seaplane flight over the spectacular scenery of the Buccaneer Archipelago, where red cliffs rise along the coast and 800 islands dot the striking turquoise sea. After a water landing on calm Talbot Bay and a delicious lunch, you hop aboard a jet boat and skid across the glassy waters through the seething horizontal falls, which are actually powerful tides of up to 11 meters that gush through two narrow gorges. In case your adrenaline isn't pumping after that, the tour usually offers shark swims in the safety of a shark-proof (and saltwater croc-proof) cage. Seaplane flights depart from Broome or Derby, and overnight stays are also available in a houseboat.

5 Snorkel with Whale Sharks at Ningaloo Reef, Western Australia

Snorkel with Whale Sharks at Ningaloo Reef, Western Australia
Snorkel with Whale Sharks at Ningaloo Reef, Western Australia Julie Edgley
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Imagine gliding effortlessly alongside a gentle 10-meter-long whale shark, the largest fish on the planet. At Ningaloo Reef, off Western Australia's north coast, you can make this dream come true. Often overshadowed by the famous Great Barrier Reef, World Heritage-listed Ningaloo Coast encompasses the world's longest fringing reef with 200 species of hard coral, 50 species of soft coral, and a dazzling array of tropical fish. Dugongs, dolphins, turtles, manta rays, and whales are also found in the park, but the highlight are the graceful whale sharks that swim these waters, typically between April and August. Once the whale sharks are spotted from a plane, a boat zips you to the perfect location, where you can don your snorkel or dive gear, plunge into the clear blue depths, and swim through a fizz of bubbles within meters of these graceful animals. The fastest way to access Ningaloo is via a two-hour flight from Perth to Learmonth Airport. Both nearby Exmouth and the little beach town of Coral Bay make great bases for visiting the park.

6 Hover in a Helicopter over the 12 Apostles, Victoria

Hover in a Helicopter over the 12 Apostles, Victoria
Hover in a Helicopter over the 12 Apostles, Victoria
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Rising from the wild sea like giant jigsaw pieces adrift from the deeply scalloped coast, the 12 Apostles in Port Campbell National Park will take your breath away. You can drive along the scenic Great Ocean Road to admire the spectacular scenery, but it's even more awe-inspiring from the air. Hop aboard a helicopter to really appreciate how the pounding surf and blasting winds sculpted this rugged coastline. In addition to the 12 Apostles, you can also see other giant rock formations, including London Bridge, Loch Ard Gorge, the Sentinel, and the Arch. This area is called the Shipwreck Coast, and a glimpse at the treacherous sea and sheer cliffs from the air reveals why. Flights depart from various locations around the 12 Apostles. They typically take about 15 minutes and include a commentary on the history and geology of the area. You can also tour the coast in a seaplane or Tiger Moth.

7 Kayak Katherine Gorge (Nitmiluk National Park), Northern Territory

Kayak Katherine Gorge (Nitmiluk National Park), Northern Territory
Kayak Katherine Gorge (Nitmiluk National Park), Northern Territory
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Flowing through a series of steep-walled, red rock gorges, the Katherine River in Nitmiluk National Park offers the ultimate Outback kayaking adventure. Cliffs rise up to 100 meters on either side of the river as you paddle through pandanus-fringed pools, past paperbark forests, and over gentle rapids. Kayaking the river allows you to go beyond the first few gorges, which can be crowded with tourists, and see the even more scenic gorges deep in the park. Freshwater crocodiles lurk in some of the pools, and the screech of cockatoos echos through the steamy air. In between paddling, you can cool off in one of the tranquil lagoons. Organized tours, some led by aboriginal guides, typically include picnics on the sandy riverbank near peaceful waterfalls and stories about the ecology, history, and sacred sites of the area. Multi-day trips offer the chance to sleep under the stars. You can also rent a kayak or canoe and tour the gorge on your own. The safest time to kayak the gorge is during the dry season, from May through November, as the river can rise rapidly during the rainy season.

8 Surf the Jungle along Cape Tribulation, Queensland

Surf the Jungle along Cape Tribulation, Queensland
Surf the Jungle along Cape Tribulation, Queensland
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In tropical Far North Queensland, Cape Tribulation is one of the few places in the world where two of the planet's richest ecosystems - coral reef and rainforest - meet along dazzling white-sand beaches. For a bird's eye view of this incredible beauty, you can surf through the jungle canopy of the World Heritage-listed Daintree Rainforest, the world's oldest rainforest, on a zipline tour. This is a great adventure for the whole family. After you're clipped into the gear, you can soar through the ancient treetops, stopping at six platforms along the way with a brief pause to admire the rainforest and hear about the ecology. The guided canopy tours last about one hour, and no experience is necessary. Book well in advance, especially during school holidays.

9 Drive the Gibb River Road, Western Australia

Drive the Gibb River Road, Western Australia
Drive the Gibb River Road, Western Australia
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The Gibb River Road is one of Australia's legendary 4WD adventures. Deep in the remote

Kimberley region, this 660-kilometer dirt track bumps and grinds past red rock gorges, rugged mountains, and rock pools fed by multi-tiered cascades.The "Gibb," as it's called, runs from Broome or Derby on the west coast to Kununurra/Wyndham on the the state's eastern border. You can drive the route on your own (4WD vehicles are essential) or join a multi-day guided tour. Highlights include wilderness hikes, swimming in the cool waters of steep-walled gorges, barramundi fishing, sunset safaris, and therapeutic soaks in natural hot springs. Along the way, you can explore Windjana Gorge National Park, see freshwater crocodiles, and take a scenic flight over stunning Mitchell Falls or the bizarrely shaped rock formations of the Bungle Bungles. Note that the road is usually closed from November through March due to flooding.

10 Abseil in the Blue Mountains, NSW

Abseil in the Blue Mountains, NSW
Abseil in the Blue Mountains, NSW
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Sliding down the sheer face of a limestone cliff into the misty blue haze of a World Heritage wilderness area is an unforgettable experience. About 50 kilometers from Sydney, Blue Mountains National Park is one of the city's top day trips and encompasses the iconic Three Sisters rock pinnacles, plunging valleys, waterfalls, and eucalyptus forests stretching as far as the eye can see. Abseiling or rappelling down the limestone cliffs and waterfalls is an exciting way to experience this wilderness. Tours include lessons, safety briefings, and all the necessary equipment. Canyoning, rock climbing, and mountain biking tours are also available. Bring a waterproof camera and layers of clothing as the weather can change quickly.

11 Raft the Franklin River, Tasmania

Raft the Franklin River, Tasmania
Raft the Franklin River, Tasmania Franklin River Rafting
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Slicing through Tasmania's ravishing Word Heritage Area, the mighty Franklin River is the setting for one of the world's great rafting adventures. This wild and beautiful river remains a triumph of the environmental movement. In the 1980s, passionate activists led a successful campaign to protect the river from being dammed. Today, thanks to their efforts, you can enjoy the primeval beauty here on a multi-day rafting adventure. Wildlife in the region includes wallabies, platypus, and black cockatoos. Trips typically range from 5-10 days and run the entire 125-kilometer length of the Franklin River to the Gordon River through a pristine wilderness of eucalyptus forests, tranquil pools, and roiling rapids. No previous rafting experience is necessary, although rafters should be physically fit in order to help portage at the wilder sections of the river, some of which are Class VI rapids. Trips include equipment, meals (usually prepared with fresh local produce), and experienced guides.

12 Travel the Oodnadatta Track, South Australia

Travel the Oodnadatta Track, South Australia
Travel the Oodnadatta Track, South Australia enjosmith
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Traveling the Oodnadatta track, through the red hot heart of South Australia, you can meet an affable cast of genuine Aussie characters and admire the stark beauty of the red-earth desert. This famous 620-kilometer unsealed Outback track takes you away from the tourist throngs as you follow ancient aboriginal trade routes, drive through an inland seabed, and pass the remnants of the Old Ghan railway. Highlights include mingling with the locals at the tiny outpost of William Creek (population 10), which seems straight out of a movie set from Crocodile Dundee, and a drive through Anna Creek, the largest cattle station in the world. (It's the size of Belgium). Extend your Outback adventure in the opal mining town of Coober Pedy, where you can dig for the iridescent gems and stay in a subterranean hotel. The route is suitable for a two-wheel drive, though 4WD is recommended. Better still, join the Coober Pedy to Oodnadatta One Day Mail Run and help deliver mail to remote outback cattle stations while learning about the area's history and ecology along the way. Avoid mid-summer when temperatures can soar up to 50 degrees Celsius.

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