New South Wales is Australia’s premier state in more ways than one. The oldest of the six states, and also the most densely populated, its 7.3 million residents make up a third of the country’s population. The vast majority occupy the urban and suburban sprawl that straggles along the state’s thousand-plus kilometres of Pacific coastline, and the consistently mild climate and many beaches draw a fairly constant stream of visitors, especially during the summer holiday season, when thousands of Australians descend on the coast to enjoy the extensive surf beaches and other oceanside attractions.
South of Sydney, the coast offers a string of low-key family resorts and fishing ports, good for watersports and idle pottering. To the north the climate gradually becomes warmer and the coastline more popular, but there are still plenty of tiny national parks and inland towns where you can escape it all. One of the most enjoyable beach resorts in Australia is Byron Bay, chic these days, but still retaining something of its slightly offbeat, alternative appeal, radiating from the thriving hippie communes of the lush, hilly North Coast Hinterland. For those with a true desire for escape the crowds, there are the Pacific islands far off the north coast of New South Wales: subtropical Lord Howe Island, 700km northeast of Sydney, and Norfolk Island, 900km further northeast, inhabited by the descendants of the Bounty mutineers.
Just over 280km southwest of Sydney is the Australian Capital Territory (ACT), which was carved out of New South Wales at the beginning of the twentieth century as an independent base for the new national capital. While Canberra struggles to shed its dull image, it is the principal gateway to the Snowy Mountains, which offer skiing in winter and glorious hiking in summer.
Inland New South Wales may not be a stand-alone holiday destination but it gives a real insight into the Australian way of life and covers a strikingly wide range of landscapes, from the rugged slopes of the Great Dividing Range to the red-earth desert of the Outback. Inland towns such as Bathurst and Dubbo date back to the early days of Australian exploration. Free (non-convict) settlers appropriated vast areas of rich pastureland here and made immense fortunes off the back of sheep farming, establishing the agricultural prosperity that continues to this day. When gold was discovered near Bathurst in 1851, and the first goldrush began, New South Wales’ fortunes were assured.
Moving west the land becomes increasingly desolate and arid as you head into the harsh Outback regions, where the mercury can climb well above the 40°C mark in summer and even places that look large on the map turn out to be tiny, isolated communities. The small town of Bourke is traditionally regarded as the beginning of the real Outback; other destinations in the area include the eccentric opal-mining town of Lightning Ridge and, in the far west of the state almost at the South Australian border, the surprisingly arty mining settlement of Broken Hill.
Top image © Kummeleon/Shutterstock
The first European squatters settled in the valleys and plains north of the Snowy Mountains in the 1820s, though until 1900 this remained a remote rural area. When the Australian colonies united in the Commonwealth of Australia in 1901, a capital city had to be chosen, with Melbourne and Sydney the two obvious and eager rivals. After much wrangling, and partly in order to avoid having to decide on one of the two, it was agreed to establish a brand-new capital instead. In 1909, Limestone Plains, south of Yass, was chosen out of several possible sites as the future seat of the Australian government. An area of 2368 square kilometres was excised from the state of New South Wales and named the Australian Capital Territory, or ACT. The name for the future capital was supposedly taken from the language of local Aborigines: Canberra – the meeting place.
In 1912 Walter Burley Griffin, an American landscape architect from Chicago, won the international competition for the design of the future Australian capital. His plan envisaged a garden city for about 25,000 people based in five main centres, each with separate city functions, located on three axes: land, water and municipal. Roads were to be in concentric circles, with arcs linking the radiating design.
Construction started in 1913, but political squabbling and the effects of World War I, the Depression and World War II prevented any real progress being made until 1958, when growth began in earnest. In 1963 the Molonglo River was dammed to form long, artificial Lake Burley Griffin; the city centre, Civic, coalesced along the north shore to face parliamentary buildings to the south; while a host of outlying satellite suburbs, each connected to Civic by a main road cutting through the intervening bushland, took shape. The population grew rapidly, from fifteen thousand in 1947 to nearly four hundred thousand today, completely outstripping Burley Griffin’s original estimates – though Canberra’s decentralized design means that the city never feels crowded.
Being such an overtly planned place populated by civil servants and politicians, Canberra is in many ways a city in search of a soul: while there are all the galleries, museums and attractions that there should be, many seem to exist simply because it would be ridiculous to have omitted them from a national capital. Still, several key sights definitely justify staying a couple of nights, particularly the War Memorial, the extraordinary, partly subterranean Parliament House, the National Gallery and the National Botanic Gardens. With so much of the city being dotted with trees, visiting the bush might seem a bit pointless, but the Brindabella Ranges and the Namadgi National Park on the outskirts definitely warrant a short visit.
Canberra’s nightlife – in term time at least – is alive and kicking. The two universities here (and the Duntroon Military Academy) mean there’s a large and lively student population (good news for those who have student cards, as most attractions offer hefty discounts), and the city also claims to have more restaurants per capita than any other in Australia, which is saying something. Canberra also holds the dubious title of Australia’s porn capital, due to its liberal licensing laws, which legalize and regulate the sex industry.
The Australian War Memorial does an admirable job of positively commemorating Australia’s war dead while avoiding any glorification of war itself – a notable achievement for a country that sees participation in world wars as key to its identity.
The centrepiece is the Byzantine-style, domed Hall of Memory, approached past an eternal flame rising from a rectangular pond. Look up to see mosaics depicting veterans of World War II (the walls and ceiling are covered with more than six million tiles), while the lovely blue stained-glass windows commemorate those who fought in World War I. In the centre is the tomb of the Unknown Australian Soldier, while over 102,000 names of the fallen are etched onto the walls outside. This, the commemorative area, is where you should be just before closing time when the story of one of the soldiers named on the roll of honour is read out, and a bugler plays the Last Post in moving testament to the war dead.
Wings either side of the Hall of Valour house paintings by war artists, battle dioramas, military relics, photographs, personal possessions and films, while the lower level covers conflicts and peace-keeping missions from 1946 to the present day, as well as some temporary exhibitions. The fighter aircraft and huge naval guns of the Aircraft Hall compete for your attention with the ANZAC Hall with its giant Lancaster bomber, Messerschmidt fighters, and impressive sound and light shows that include coverage of the Japanese submarine attack on Sydney.
Travelling around Australia you’ll notice that almost every town, large or small, has a war memorial dedicated to the memory of the Anzacs, the Australia and New Zealand Army Corps. When war erupted in Europe in 1914, Australia was overwhelmed by a wave of pro-British sentiment. On August 5, 1914, one day after Great Britain had declared war against Germany, the Australian prime minister summed up the feelings of his compatriots: “When the Empire is at war so Australia is at war.” On November 1, 1914, a contingent of twenty thousand enthusiastic volunteers – the Anzacs – left from the port of Albany in Western Australia to assist the mother country in her struggle.
In Europe, Turkey had entered the war on the German side in October 1914. At the beginning of 1915, military planners in London (Winston Churchill prominent among them) came up with a plan to capture the strategically important Turkish peninsula of the Dardanelles with a surprise attack near Gallipoli, thus opening the way to the Black Sea. On April 25, 1915, sixteen thousand Australian soldiers landed at dawn in a small bay flanked by steep cliffs: by nightfall, two thousand men had died in a hail of Turkish bullets from above. The plan, whose one chance of success was surprise, had been signalled by troop and ship movements long in advance; by the time it was carried out, it was already doomed to failure. Nonetheless, Allied soldiers continued to lose their lives for another eight months without ever gaining more than a foothold. In December, London finally issued the order to withdraw. Eleven thousand Australians and New Zealanders had been killed, along with as many French and three times as many British troops. The Turks lost 86,000 men.
Official Australian historiography continues to mythologize the battle for Gallipoli, elevating it to the level of a national legend on which Australian identity is founded. From this point of view, in the war’s baptism of fire, the Anzac soldiers proved themselves heroes who did the new nation proud, their loyalty and bravery evidence of how far Australia had developed. It was “the birth of a nation”, and at the same time a loss of innocence, a national rite of passage – never again would Australians so unquestioningly involve themselves in foreign ventures. Today the legend is as fiercely defended as ever, the focal point of Australian national pride, commemorated each year on April 25, Anzac Day.
The cool climate wines of the ACT are enjoying increasing recognition for their quality. Although many varieties can be found here, visitors should ensure they try a Shiraz or Riesling.
There are more than one hundred wineries in the Canberra region and more than thirty within half an hour of the city. Pick up a map from the Visitor Centre or visit the website canberrawines.com.au for details of wineries with tours and restaurants. If you’re at a loss for where to start, visit Clonakilla (clonakilla.com.au) and try its famous Shiraz Viognier, or sip the impressive Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling wines at Brindabella Hills winery (rindabellahills.com.au). Don’t miss the Wiley Trout vineyard (poacherspantry.com.au) as it shares space with the Poachers Pantry, which dishes up gourmet meals using fresh and local produce, as well as meats smoked on site.
The central west of New South Wales is rich farmland, and the undulating green hills provide both seasonal work and easy hiking tracks. Although Dubbo is the region’s major hub, and home to a famous zoo, Bathurst is the most sophisticated town, attracting the Sydney crowds on weekends with fine architecture and numerous museums. Cowra’s fame derives from the breakout of Japanese prisoners here during World War II, while Young was the site of the Lambing Flat Riots against Chinese miners in 1861, significant events in Australian history. Both towns lack major draws though, and could easily be overlooked. Parkes’ main attractions are its nearby observatory and its annual Elvis Festival. While not tremendously cosmopolitan, the central west is picking up its culinary act and Orange is now widely known for its F.O.O.D. Week in April. There are also a number of wineries in the area around Mudgee and Young – lunch at one of these is de rigueur for Sydneysiders escaping the city at weekends and makes for a lovely break from the road.
The pleasant city of BATHURST, elegantly situated on the western slopes of the Great Dividing Range, 207km west of Sydney, is Australia’s oldest inland settlement. Its cool climate – proximity to the mountains means it can be cold at night – as well as its beautifully preserved nineteenth-century architecture, quirky shops, lively arts scene and good cafés make it an enjoyable overnight stop, and it has a very different feel to anywhere on the baking plains further west. The settlement was founded by Governor Macquarie in 1815, but Bathurst remained nothing more than a small convict and military settlement for years, only slowly developing into the main supply centre for the rich surrounding pastoral area. It was the discovery of gold nearby at Lewis Ponds Creek at Ophir in 1851, and on the Turon River later the same year, which changed the life of the town and the colony forever. Soon rich fields of alluvial gold were discovered in every direction and, being the first town over the mountains for those on the way to the goldfields, Bathurst prospered and grew.
Although there’s still the odd speck of gold and a few gemstones (especially sapphires) to be found in the surrounding area, modern Bathurst has reverted to its role as capital of one of the richest fruit- and grain-growing districts in Australia. The presence of the Charles Sturt University, one of Australia’s leading institutes, gives the city an academic feel and adds to its liveliness. Car enthusiasts, however, probably associate it with racing and during the second weekend in October, rev-heads turn up for the big annual motor-racing meetings – centred on the famous Bathurst 1000 endurance race – at the Mount Panorama Racing Circuit.
Named after an Aboriginal word meaning “red earth”, DUBBO lies on the banks of the Macquarie River 420km northwest of Sydney and about 200km from Bathurst. The regional capital for the west of the state (with around 40,000 people), it supports many agricultural industries and is located at a vital crossroads where the Melbourne–Brisbane Newell Highway meets the Mitchell Highway and routes west to Bourke or Broken Hill. As such, it’s well used to people passing through, but not staying long. The only real attraction is the Taronga Western Plains Zoo, which can easily fill a day.
About 120km north of Bathurst on good roads, the large, old country town of MUDGEE (meaning “the nest in the hills” in the Wiradjuri language) is the centre of an important wine region that’s the original home of Aussie Chardonnay. The town is set along the lush banks of the Cudgegong River, and the countryside appears to have more grazing cows and sheep than vineyards. Dotted with original boutiques and local produce shops, it’s popular with the Sydney crowd.
The majority of the forty-odd cellar doors are immediately north of Mudgee and offer free tastings. Consider cycling around the vineyards on a bike rented from Countryfit (0429 650 807, mudgeegym.com).
Botobolar Australia’s first organic winery is known for its Marsanne, with tastings on a shady terrace (botobolar.com). There’s also a picnic area and BBQs.
Di Lusso Estate A winery specializing entirely in Italian varieties and blends, founded by a doctor eighty years ago and now run by the charming Robert Lane. Enjoy fourteen different Italian wines paired with wood-fired pizzas. Also stages an Italian film festival every three to four months (02 6373 3125, dilusso.com.au).
Huntington Estate Wines Delicious wines, notably the young Semillons and the intense, heady Cabernet Sauvignons. Hosts an excellent annual chamber-music festival in November (02 6373 3825, huntingtonestate.com.au).
Pieter Van Gent Daily tastings in a delightful setting: beautiful nineteenth-century choir stalls on cool earth floors, overshadowed by huge old barrels salvaged from Penfolds Winery (02 6373 3030, pvgwinery.com.au). Try the Pipeclay Port, a tawny specimen aged in wood. The wine-maker is Dutch, and the herbs he uses in his traditional vermouth are specially imported from the Netherlands.
Robert Oatley The oldest winery in Mudgee (established in 1858) and still one of the best. Known for its Montrose label and the fact that Australian Chardonnay began life here. There’s an interesting museum featuring old wine-making equipment, too (02 6372 2208, robertoatley.com.au).
The rolling plains of southwestern New South Wales, spreading west from the Great Dividing Range, are bounded by two great rivers: the Murrumbidgee to the north and the Murray to the south, the latter forming the border with the state of Victoria. This area is now known as the Riverina. The land the explorer John Oxley described as “uninhabitable and useless to civilized man” began its transformation to fertile fruit-bowl when the ambitious Murrumbidgee Irrigation Scheme was launched in 1907. The area around Griffith normally produces ninety percent of Australia’s rice, most of its citrus fruits and twenty percent of its wine grapes, so if you’re looking for work on the land, you’ve a reasonable chance of finding it here.
The eastern limit of the region is defined by the Hume Highway, the rather tedious route between Sydney and Melbourne. It is often choked with trucks, particularly at night, and still occasionally narrows to one lane either way, so you’ll want to keep your wits about you. Better still, stop off at towns along the way, many of them truly and typically Australian – rich in food, wine, flora and fauna, and friendly locals. Tick off the big sheep at Goulburn, but don’t miss the town’s old brewery. Yass has associations with Hamilton Hume – after whom the highway is named – while Gundagai is more famous for a fictional dog’s behaviour. You’ll have to detour 50km off route to visit likeable Wagga Wagga, the capital of the central Riverina and the largest inland town in New South Wales, while the last stop in the state is Albury, twinned with Wodonga on the Victorian shore of the Murray River.
Heading west, Narrandera really only justifies a meal stop, while Griffith is good for wine tasting and fruit picking. There are several interesting festivals in the region, including the Wagga Wagga Jazz Festival in September (w waggajazz.org.au) and Griffith’s La Festa (w lafesta.org.au), an orgy of Aussie wine, food and culture held on Easter Saturday.
The explorer Hamilton Hume was different from many of his contemporaries in that he was born in Australia – in Parramatta, to free settlers in 1797. When the family moved to Appin, Hume began to explore the bush and his later explorations would rely on the first-hand knowledge he acquired during this time as well as the Aboriginal skills and languages he had learned.
Hume’s best-known exploration was in 1828 when he paired with Hovell, an English sea captain, to head for Port Phillip Bay; you can follow in their footsteps on the Hume and Hovell Walking Track (lpma.nsw.gov.au; full map kits are available from the visitor centre in Yass), which starts at Yass and runs over 440km southwest to Albury. Hume also assisted Sturt in tracing the Murray and Darling rivers, before retiring to Yass with his wife in 1839 and moving into Cooma Cottage.
World Heritage-listed LORD HOWE ISLAND is a kind of Australian Galapagos, and a favourite destination for ecotourists attracted by its rugged beauty. It is 700km northeast of Sydney, on the same latitude as Port Macquarie, and is technically a part of New South Wales, despite its distance from the mainland. Its nearest neighbour is Norfolk Island, 900km further northeast. Just 11km long and 2.8km across at its widest point, two-thirds of the crescent-shaped island is designated as Permanent Park Reserve. As you fly in, you’ll get a stunning view of the whole of the volcanic island: the towering summits of rainforest-clad Mount Gower (875m) and Mount Lidgbird (777m) at the southern end; the narrow centre with its idyllic lagoon and a coral reef extending about 6km along the west coast; and a group of tiny islets off the lower northern end of the island providing sanctuary for the prolific birdlife. Much of the surrounding waters and islands fall within Lord Howe’s protective marine park.
The emphasis here is on tranquillity and most of the four hundred visitors allowed at any one time are couples and families. Though it’s expensive to get to the island, once here you’ll find that cruises, activities and bike rental are all relatively affordable. The island’s climate is subtropical, with temperatures rising from a mild 19°C in winter to 26°C in the summer, and an annual rainfall of 1650mm. It’s cheaper to visit in the winter, though some places are closed.
Lord Howe Island was discovered in 1788 by Lieutenant Henry Lidgbird Ball (who named the island after the British admiral Richard Howe), commander of the First Fleet ship Supply, during a journey from Sydney to found a penal colony on Norfolk Island. The island wasn’t inhabited for another 55 years, however; the first settlers came in 1833, and others followed in the 1840s. In 1853 two white men arrived with three women from the Gilbert Islands in the central Pacific, and it is from this small group that many of Lord Howe’s present population are descended. In the 1840s and 1850s the island served as a stopover for whaling ships from the US and Britain, with as many as fifty ships a year passing through.
With the decline of whaling, economic salvation came in the form of the kentia palm, which was in demand as a house plant, making its seeds a lucrative export. Tourism later became the mainstay – Lord Howe was a popular cruise-ship stopover before World War II, and after the war it began to be visited by holiday-makers from Sydney, who came by seaplane.
Seven million years ago, a volcanic eruption on the sea floor created Lord Howe Island and its 27 surrounding islets and outcrops – the island’s boomerang shape is a mere remnant (around two percent) of its original form, mostly eroded by the sea. While much of the flora on the island is similar to that of Australia, New Zealand, New Caledonia and Norfolk Island, the island’s relative isolation has led to the evolution of many new species – of the 241 native plants found here, 113 are endemic, including the important indigenous kentia palm.
Similarly, until the arrival of settlers, fifteen species of flightless land birds (nine of which are now extinct) lived on the island. However, in the nineteenth century Lord Howe became a port of call for ships en route to Norfolk Island, whose hungry crews eradicated the island’s stocks of white gallinule and white-throated pigeon. The small, plump and flightless woodhen managed to survive, protected on Mount Gower, and an intensive captive breeding programme in the early 1980s (aided by eradication of feral goats, pigs and cats) saved the species. There are now about 250 woodhens on the island, and you’ll often spot them pecking around your lodging.
About one million sea birds – fourteen species – nest on Lord Howe annually: it is one of the few known breeding grounds of the providence petrel; has the world’s largest colony of red-tailed tropic birds; and is the most southerly breeding location of the sooty tern, the noddy tern and the masked booby.
The cold waters of the Tasman Sea, which surround Lord Howe, host the world’s southernmost coral reef, a tropical oddity that is sustained by the warm summer current sweeping in from the Great Barrier Reef. There are about sixty varieties of brilliantly coloured and fantastically shaped coral, and the meeting of warm and cold currents means that a huge variety of both tropical and temperate fish can be spotted in the crystal-clear waters. Beyond the lagoon, the water becomes very deep, with particularly good diving in the seas around the Admiralty Islets, which have sheer underwater precipices and chasms.
It will take decades for the attractively rugged countryside around Canberra to fully recover from the awful 2003 bushfires that burned out two-thirds of the ACT, incinerating acres of forest and gutting more than five hundred homes. However, Australian native vegetation is generally fire-tolerant, and many of the visible scars are healed, making a visit to the Namadgi National Park, occupying almost half of the ACT, in the west and southwest, well worth considering. Its mountain ranges and high plains rise to 1900m, have a far more severe climate than low-lying Canberra, and give rise to the Cotter River and many smaller streams.
The New England Plateau rises parallel to the coast, extending from the northern end of the Hunter Valley, some 200km north of Sydney, all the way to the Queensland border. At the top it’s between 1000m and 1400m above sea level, and on the eastern edge an escarpment falls away steeply towards the coast. This eastern rim consists of precipitous cliff faces, deep gorges, thickly forested valleys, streams and mighty waterfalls, and because of its inaccessibility remains a largely undisturbed wilderness. On the plateau itself the scene is far more pastoral, as sheep and cattle graze on the undulating highland. Because of the altitude, the climate up here is fundamentally different from the subtropical coast, a mere 150km or so away: winters are cold and frosty, with occasional snowfalls, while in summer the fresh, dry air can offer welcome relief after the coastal heat and humidity. Even during a heatwave the nights will be pleasantly cool.
In the first decades of the nineteenth century, when European settlers started to move up to the highlands and to use Aboriginal-occupied land on the plateau as sheep and cattle pasture, many of the local Aborigines fought back. Time and again bloody skirmishes flared up, though most were never mentioned in pioneer circles and have subsequently been erased from public memory. The Myall Creek massacre is one of the few that has found a place in the history of white Australia.
For Aboriginal people, expulsion from the lands of their ancestors amounted to spiritual as well as physical dispossession, and they resisted as best they could: white stockmen staying in huts far away from pioneer townships or homesteads feared for their lives. In 1837 and 1838, Aborigines repeatedly ambushed and killed stockmen near the Gwydir and Namoi rivers. Then, during the absence of the overseer at Myall Creek Station, near present-day Inverell, twelve farm hands organized a raid in retribution, killing 28 Aborigines. In court, the farm hands were acquitted – public opinion saw nothing wrong with their deed, and neither did the jury. The case was later taken up again, however, and seven of the participants in the massacre were sentenced to death on the gallows.
TAMWORTH – on the New England Highway – is also known as the “City of Lights” because it was the first in Australia to be fitted with electric street lighting, in 1888. To most Australians, however, Tamworth means country music – it’s a sort of antipodean Nashville and recently became the Texas town’s sister city. If country music isn’t your thing, there are art galleries and craft studios around, and the city is gradually building its reputation as a food and wine destination. In April it hosts the Taste Tamworth festival, which is ten days of food-related activities. In the second half of January each year, fans from all over Australia and beyond descend on the city for the ten-day Tamworth Country Music Festival. Every pub, club and hall in the city hosts gigs, record launches and bush poetry, culminating in the presentation of “Golden Guitars”, the Australian Country Music Awards – for information and bookings, contact the visitor centre.
Outside of festival time Tamworth is a lot less atmospheric but there is still enough to keep you busy. For panoramic views of the city and the Peel River Valley, head to the Oxley Lookout and Nature Reserve at the end of White Street.
Armidale makes a good staging-post north through the New England Plains or east to the coast through some of Australia’s most beautiful national parks. The main access road, the sealed World Heritage drive Waterfall Way, travels to Coffs Harbour via hundreds of kilometres of rainforest roads, waterfalls and lookouts. The exceptional New England National Park, 85km east, and the several patchwork sections of the Oxley Wild Rivers, Guy Fawkes River and Cathedral Rock national parks around it are full of ancient ferns, towering canopy trees, gorges and spectacular waterfalls (although the falls can diminish to a trickle during prolonged dry spells).
The Wollomombi Falls are among the highest waterfalls in Australia, plunging 225m into a gorge just over 40km east of Armidale, off the road to Dorrigo. Nearby are the Chandler Falls, while Ebor Falls, a stunning double-drop of the Guy Fawkes River, can be viewed from platforms just off Waterfall Way, another 40km beyond Wollomombi.
Between Wollomombi and Ebor, Point Lookout in the New England National Park offers a truly wonderful panoramic view across the forested ranges – you’d be forgiven for thinking you were in the middle of the Amazon. The road to the lookout is unsealed gravel, but is usually in reasonable condition. The rest of the park is virtually inaccessible wilderness.
Just 8km long and 5km wide, tiny, isolated NORFOLK ISLAND is an External Territory of Australia, located 1450km east of Brisbane and geographically closer to New Zealand. The island has had an eventful history, being linked with early convict settlements and later with the descendants of Fletcher Christian and other “mutiny-on-the-Bounty” rebels. It’s a unique place, forested with grand indigenous pine trees, and with a mild subtropical climate ranging between 12°C and 19°C in the winter and from 19°C to 28°C in the summer; Norfolk is also said to have some of the world’s cleanest air after Antarctica.
Today, it attracts honeymooners and retirees, and is also an ornithologist’s paradise, with nine endemic land-bird species, including the endangered Norfolk Island green parrot, with its distinctive chuckling call. Norfolk Island’s tax-haven status makes it a refuge for millionaires and it definitely does not cater to budget travellers.
Norfolk is one of a handful of islands created by a violent volcanic eruption three million years ago. Captain Cook “discovered” the then-uninhabited islands in 1774, noting that the tall Norfolk pines would make fine ships’ masts, but it’s now known that migrating Polynesian people lived here as far back as the tenth century – their main settlement at Emily Bay has been excavated and stone tools found. The first European settlement was founded in 1788, only six weeks after Sydney, but was short-lived – the island lacked a navigable harbour and the pine timber turned out to be too weak for purpose. The site was abandoned in 1814, its buildings destroyed to discourage settlement by other powers.
Around ten years later, Norfolk began a thirty-year stint as a prison and up to two thousand convicts were held here, overseen by sadistic commandants. The island was again abandoned in 1855, but this time the buildings remained and were taken over a year later by the 194-strong population of Pitcairn Island who left their overcrowded conditions over 6000km east across the Pacific to establish a new life here. The new settlers had only eight family surnames among them – five of which (Christian, Quintal, Adams, McCoy and Young) were the names of the original mutineers of the Bounty. These names – especially Christian – are still common on the island, and today about one in three can claim descent from the mutineers. Bounty Day, the day the Pitcairners arrived, is celebrated in Kingston on June 8.
The coast from Sydney north to Queensland is more densely populated and much more touristy than its southern counterpart, with popular holiday destinations such as Port Stephens, Port Macquarie and Coffs Harbour strung along the coast north of Newcastle. Since the 1970s, the area around Byron Bay has been a favoured destination for people seeking an alternative lifestyle; this movement has left in its wake not only disillusioned hippie farmers (as well as a few who’ve survived with their illusions intact), but also a firmly established artistic and alternative scene.
As in the south, the coastline consists of myriad inlets, bays and coastal lakes, interspersed with white, sandy beaches and rocky promontories. Parallel to the coast are the rocky plateaus of the Great Dividing Range, whose national parks provide bushwalkers with remote, rugged terrain to explore. Numerous streams tumble down from the escarpment in mighty waterfalls, creating fertile river valleys where the predominant agricultural activity is cattle breeding; in the north, subtropical and tropical agriculture takes over, especially the cultivation of bananas. In essence, the further you go, the better this coast gets.
Situated at the end of a long, sweeping bay, the vibrant township of BYRON BAY boasts 30km of almost unbroken sandy beaches and is high on most travellers’ lists. Once a favourite with barefoot hippies, Byron’s small-community feel and bohemian atmosphere have been disappearing over the past few years, and it now has stylish hotels, restaurants, lively pubs, chic boutiques and a fascinating mix of subcultures as surfie meets soap starlet meets free spirit.
As you would expect, Byron Bay offers a huge variety of alternative therapies, New Age bookshops, crystals, palmists and tarot readers – all with a good dose of capitalism, as prices are hiked during the lucrative summer months. The alternative culture attracts artists and artisans in droves, and galleries and artists’ studios abound.
From Dubbo, the Newell Highway, the main route from Melbourne to Brisbane, continues through the wheat plains of the northwest, their relentless flatness relieved by the ancient eroded mountain ranges of the Warrumbungles, near Coonabarabran, and Mount Kaputar, near Narrabri, with the vast Pillaga Scrub between the two towns. Clear skies and the lack of large towns make this an ideal area for stargazing, and large telescopes stare into space at both Coonabarabran and Narrabri. The thinly populated northwest is home to a relatively large number of Aboriginal people, particularly in the town of Moree, the area’s largest. In 1971 Charles Perkins, an Aboriginal activist, led the Freedom Ride, a group of thirty people – mostly university students – who bussed through New South Wales on a mission to root out racism in the state. The biggest victory was in Moree itself when the riders, facing hostile townsfolk, broke the race bar by escorting Aboriginal children into the public swimming pool.
The area with rich black soil that extends from Gunnedah, just west of Tamworth, to Walgett is cotton country. Beyond Walgett, just off the Castlereagh Highway that runs from Dubbo, is Lightning Ridge, a scorching-hot opal-mining town relieved by hot artesian bore baths.
The population of LIGHTNING RIDGE, 74km north of Walgett on the Castlereagh Highway, is a transient one, where people in their hordes pitch up, lured by the promise of opal. Amid this harsh landscape scarred by holes and slag heaps, Lightning Ridge’s opal fields are the only place in the world where black opal is found. Against their dark background, these “black” stones display a vivid spectrum of colours, and command top dollar. You can try your luck at finding opals in clearly demarcated fossicking areas (in 2007, a tourist unearthed a $20,000 black opal), but don’t do it anywhere else, or you may stray onto others’ claims and infringements are taken very seriously.
Travelling beyond Dubbo into the northwest corner of New South Wales, the landscape transforms into an endless expanse of largely uninhabited red plain – the quintessential Australian Outback. The searing summer heat can make touring uncomfortable from December to February. Bourke, about 370km along the Mitchell Highway, is generally considered the turning point; venture further and you’re into the land known as “Back O’Bourke” – the back of beyond.
En route to Bourke, the Mitchell passes through Nyngan, the geographical centre of New South Wales, where the Barrier Highway heads west for 584 sweltering kilometres, through Cobar and Wilcannia, to Broken Hill.
BOURKE is mainly known for its remoteness, and this alone is enough to attract tourists; once you’ve crossed the North Bourke Bridge that spans the Darling River, you’re officially “out back”. Bourke was a bustling river port from the 1860s to the 1930s, and there remain some fine examples of riverboat-era architecture, including the huge reconstructed wharf, from where a track winds along the magnificent, tree-lined river. The Darling River water has seen crops as diverse as cotton, lucerne, citrus, grapes and sorghum successfully grown here despite the 40°C-plus summer heat, while Bourke is also the commercial centre for a vast sheep- and cattle-breeding area.
Bourke has suffered in former years due to prolonged periods of drought, consequently losing one-third of its population (some 1000 people), who moved out of the region to find employment, but tourism is helping the town get back on its feet. An ideal way to see how life is lived out here is to stay on an Outback station; the visitor centre has details of those that welcome guests.
The ghosts of mining towns that died when the precious minerals ran out are scattered all over Australia. BROKEN HILL, on the other hand, has been riding the minerals market roller-coaster continuously since 1888. Its famous “Line of Lode”, one of the world’s major lead-silver-zinc ore bodies and the city’s raison d’être, still has a little life left in it yet.
Almost 1200km west of Sydney and about 500km east of Adelaide, this surprisingly gracious Outback mining town – with a population of around 20,000 and a feel and architecture reminiscent of the South Australian capital – manages to create a welcome splash of green in the harsh desert landscape that surrounds it. Extensive revegetation schemes around Broken Hill have created grasslands that, apart from being visually pleasing, help contain the dust that used to make the residents’ lives a misery. It’s aided by a reliable water supply – secured for the first time only in 1953 – via a 100km pipeline from the Darling River at Menindee.
Inevitably, Broken Hill revolves around the mines, and the slag heap towering over the city centre leaves you in no doubt that, above all, this is still a mining town. Since the 1970s, however, it has also evolved into a thriving arts centre, thanks to the initiative of the Brushmen of the Bush, a painting school comprising local artists Hugh Schulz, Jack Absalom, John Pickup, Eric Minchin and Pro Hart. Diverse talents have been attracted to Broken Hill, and their works are displayed in galleries scattered all over town. Some may be a bit on the tacky side, but others are excellent, and it’s well worth devoting some time to gallery browsing.
The CBD and the bulk of town lies to the northwest while the mostly residential South Broken Hill lies southeast and feels quite separate. The streets – laid out in a grid – are mostly named after chemicals; Argent Street (Latin for silver) is the main thoroughfare, with the highest concentration of historic buildings and a really good art gallery.
The city is also a convenient base for touring far-northwest New South Wales and nearby areas in South Australia.
Mungo National Park, 135km northeast of Wentworth, is most easily reached from the river townships of Wentworth, and Mildura (over the Victorian border about 110km away).
The park is part of the dried-up Willandra Lakes System, which contains the longest continuous record of Aboriginal life in Australia, dating back more than forty thousand years. During the last Ice Age the system formed a vast chain of freshwater lakes, teeming with fish and attracting water birds and mammals. Aborigines camped at the shores of the lake to fish and hunt, and buried their dead in the sand dunes. When the lakes started drying out fifteen thousand years ago, Aborigines continued to live near soaks along the old river channel. The park covers most of one of these dry lake beds, and its dominant feature is a long, crescent-shaped dune, at the eastern edge of the lake, commonly referred to as the Walls of China.
Nearby, the impressive old Mungo Woolshed is open for inspection at any time. From here a 50km loop road heads out across the dry lake bed to the dunes, then around behind them and back through malee scrub to the visitor centre. Many people just drive the first 10km to a car park from where a short boardwalk takes you onto the Walls of China dunes. This low dune system barely rises 30m from the level of the lake bed, but it is a dramatic spot especially around dawn and sunset when the otherworldly shapes and ripple patterns glow golden, and kangaroos and goats make their way onto the dunes for meagre pickings. It is a 500m walk to the top of the dunes and views over the other side.
Australia’s and the Great Dividing Range’s highest terrain is in the Snowy Mountains, which peak at the 2228m Mount Kosciuszko, named in 1840 by the Polish-born explorer Paul Strzelecki, after the Polish freedom fighter General Tadeusz Kosciuszko. The Snowies are just one section of the Australian Alps that sprawl from northeast Victoria into New South Wales via the Crackenback Range, and they have Australia’s best skiing and in summer, some fine bushwalking.
The easiest option for skiing in the Snowy Mountains is to arrange a ski package departing from Sydney or Canberra – always check exactly what’s included in the price. Be aware that snow conditions can let you down and that the resorts’ interpretation of “good” conditions may not match yours, so check an independent source like the excellent ski.com.au (which also has links for accommodation) before you go.
The longest downhill runs are at Thredbo (thredbo.com.au), while the Perisher Valley/Mount Blue Cow/Smiggin Holes/Guthega complex (known as Perisher; all one lift pass; perisher.com.au) is the largest and most varied; other resorts include family-oriented Selwyn Snowfields (selwynsnow.com.au), in the far north of the park, and Charlotte Pass (charlottepass.com.au), which has more advanced runs. If you have your own equipment and vehicle, and don’t need a package, check out the resort websites for details of lift pass prices and lift-and-lesson deals. Resorts are generally child-friendly, particularly Thredbo’s Friday Flats area and Perisher’s Smiggin Holes.
The Paddy Pallin Mountain Adventure Centre (1800 623 459, mountainadventurecentre.com.au) in Jindabyne runs all manner of cross-country ski trips, plus mountain biking in summer. Sydney-based Ski Kaos (02 9908 8111, skikaos.com.au) offer two-day deals, to which you’ll have to add food, lift pass and equipment costs.
From Jindabyne, the Alpine Way continues 35km west into the national park to THREDBO, an attractive, bustling little village at 1380m, entirely devoted to the needs of hikers, bikers and winter sports enthusiasts. The array of pitched-roof houses and condos huddles against the mountainside in a narrow valley between the road and the infant Thredbo River. Once the snows have melted, some of the valley trails are open for mountain biking.
Unlike the other resorts, Thredbo is reasonably lively in summer, with activity focused on the Village Square where the bulk of the restaurants, bars and shops stay open year-round.
Once the snows have melted, hikers take over the hills, with the main hiking season running from December through to April or May. Some of Australia’s most interesting and beautiful bushwalking tracks pass through the area. Initially you might find yourself between beautiful snow gums with multicoloured bark in greens and yellows, before climbing up to the barren tops. Thredbo’s Kosciuszko Express chairlift carries you 560m up to the Eagles Nest restaurant, giving easy access to hiking in the high country. You can book guided walks through thredbo.com.au.
MT Kosciuszko Summit This relatively gentle hike (13km return; 4–6hr; 300m ascent) starts at the top of the chairlift on the edge of a high plateau. The altitude here will have you struggling to catch your breath, it can be -5ºC even in summer, so check conditions at the bottom. Views are particularly panoramic from Kosciuszko Lookout (after 2km), from where Australia’s highest peak seems barely higher than the surrounding country. A guided sunset walk can be arranged (thredbo.com.au).
Main Range Walk Perhaps the best hike in the park (32km loop; 8–10hr; 600m ascent), this starts from the top of the chairlift and follows the Kosciuszko Summit track, then skirts a beautiful glacial lake before dropping down to Charlotte Pass ski resort and looping back via the stone Seaman’s Hut. If undertaking this walk, a topographical map and a compass are required.
Merritts Nature Track A picturesque alternative to riding the Kosciuszko Express chairlift. Best done downhill, unless you relish the slog (4km one way; 2–3hr; 560m ascent).
The south coast of New South Wales is all rather low-key and family-oriented, with green dairylands and small fishing villages. There are a few wildlife and amusement parks to keep the children happy, and plenty of opportunities to cast a rod or relax on a sunny beach. Exposed parts on this stretch of the coast are perfect for surfing, while the numerous coastal lakes, bays and inlets are suited for swimming, windsurfing, sailing or canoeing. Away from the ocean there’s some superb rugged scenery, with some great bushwalking and horseriding in the forest-clad, mountainous hinterland.
Give yourself four or more days to drive the scenic Princes Highway and appreciate the beautiful coastline. The area between Jervis Bay and Batemans Bay in particular can get busy during the summer months, especially from Christmas to the end of January, and prices rise accordingly.
Wallaga Lake is the birthplace of one of Australia’s most important Aboriginal figures, the elder named Burnum Burnum, an ancestral name meaning “great warrior”. He was best known for his flamboyant political stunts, which included planting the Aboriginal flag at Dover to claim England as Aboriginal territory in Australia’s bicentennial year, in order to highlight the dispossession of his native country. He was born under a sacred tree by Wallaga Lake in January 1936. His mother died soon afterwards and he was taken by the Aborigines Protection Board and placed in a mission at Bomaderry, constituting one of the “stolen generation” of indigenous children removed from their families in this period. After graduating in law and playing professional rugby union for New South Wales, he became a prominent political activist in the 1970s. He was involved in various environmental and indigenous protests, including erecting the “tent embassy” outside the Federal Parliament in Canberra, and standing twice, unsuccessfully, for the senate. Burnum Burnum died in August 1997 and his ashes were scattered near the tree where he was born.