Wild About Australia

australia_33If you think Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman are the only ones getting all hot ‘n campy in the sensuous landscapes of wild Australia, think again. Thanks to a handful of innovative wilderness camps that bring touches of class and magic to some of Australia’s most jaw-dropping natural wonders, you don’t have to be a film star to access the national treasures showcased in Baz Luhrmann’s recent epic film Australia. With eight million square kilometers of open land ranging from lush tropical rainforests to deserted beaches just off the Great Barrier Reef and extending all the way inland to the scorched red earth of the Outback, the Australian landscape lends itself well to adventure and the wilderness experience. Here are a few of wandermelon’s favorite safari-style camps and lodges that successfully combine cultural and environmental sensitivity with cutting edge style, offering modern comforts in dramatic landscapes for present-day pioneers.

NORTHERN TERRITORY

Longitude 131°in the Northern Territory was the first luxury safari-style camp of its kind in Australia. Stationed on the border of Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park it delivers a spectacular front-row view of Uluru (Ayers Rock) in all its glory. Guests can lie back and behold the ever-changing colors of “The Rock” across a blooming desert panorama from the comfort of their beds in one of 15 hand-built, state-of-the-art tents. Perched on steel stilts, these bright spacious rooms (a far cry from what most people would call a tent) are fully kitted and elegantly appointed in earthy hues. Each room, named after local Australian explorers and adventurers (such as Burke and Wills, Giles and Gosse), tells a different story. Old photographs, letters, maps, and memorabilia decorate the interiors. In the “John McDouall Stuart” room, guests can read about the six expeditions he led to the interior in the late 19th century from pages of his journal on the wall, while examining his original sextant and eyeglass.

The best way to explore the mystery of the Central Australian desert region is to immerse yourself in the environment and the local culture. A wide range of activities is available to guests. The popular “Base Walk” around the foot of Uluru is by far the best way to appreciate the awesome size and magnetic spiritual powers of the legendary sandstone monolith. Also interesting is the “Cave Hill Safari,” which involves an all-day excursion to a small Aboriginal community across the Dingo Fence in South Australia. Guests are taken on an eco-walk by an elder of the Yankunytjatajara tribe who explains the intimate bonds between the local Anangu people and their land, as well as the importance of the songlines to their way of life. Other activities include hot-air balloon rides, helicopter tours, camel safaris and even a motorbike cruise along the famous Gunbarrel Highway, which runs straight across Australia. But for many, the real treat is to relax at base camp and enjoy the exceptional view from the shelter of one of Longitude 131°’s sumptuous tents.

RATES: AUS $1980 per person (twin share) for a two night package. Includes all meals, a selected range of premium alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages, an exceptional touring program designed exclusively for Longitude 131° guests, entrance tickets to Uluru – Kata Tjuta National Park and return Ayers Rock Airport transfers. Valid until 31 March 2009, minimum two night stay; phone: +61 2 8296 8010

GETTING THERE: You can fly daily from Perth, Sydney, Cairns and Alice Springs direct to Ayers Rock Airport. Direct flights operate twice a week from Melbourne. Flights from Darwin and Brisbane connect from Alice Springs through to Ayers Rock Airport. Ayers Rock Airport is conveniently located just six kilometers from Voyages Ayers Rock Resort (10 minutes’ travel by car).

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QUEENSLAND

At Wilson Island just off the coast of Queensland, guests can swap their “blunnies” (Blunstone hiking boots) for their “cozzies” (bathing suits) and camp out in style on their own desert island. White sandy beaches and crystal clear aquamarine waters lead to the Great Barrier Reef, exhibiting one of the world’s greatest natural treasures. This World Heritage site, also a National and Marine Park, is exclusively available to guests of Voyages Hotels & Resorts who have created a unique castaway experience for nature-lovers, divers and beachcombers. The island belongs to a large population of rare birds and turtles (including the endangered Loggerhead turtle), that use it as their nesting ground from October – March.

Nestled amongst the Pandanus groves are six modish pod-like tents with names like Tranquility, Rapture and Serenity, all overlooking the sea replete with sundeck and hammock–an ideal spot for bird-watching or viewing the turtles as they crawl up the beach to lay their eggs right in front of your tent at dusk. But be warned, nature is not always pretty or quiet. Bird poop abounds, causing an unpleasant odor and the Seagulls prey on the Noddy Tern chicks, which can be a gruesome sight to say the least. At night the turtles sound like they are smashing crockery as they toss chunks of coral aside on their journey up the beach, while the nocturnal Mutton Birds wail like demented spirits. In the old days sailors thought they were ghosts so they refused to come ashore. (Bring earplugs, and a nose peg!)

Wilson Island is about as picturesque as paradise gets, but it is a nature reserve–the birds come first, then the humans. At sundown, the pop of a champagne cork lures guests to dinner in the communal Longhouse where meals are served smorgasbord style. With the champagne flowing and perfect party atmosphere, campers soon forget about the birds and celebrate the end of another day in paradise by making some noise of their own.

RATES: AUS $1980 per room (accommodates two people per tent) for a two night package. Includes all meals, a selected range of premium alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages, snorkeling gear and return launch transfers between Heron and Wilson Islands. Valid until 31 March 2009, minimum two night stay. To rent the whole island rates start at AUS$7,800-9,800 for 2 nights depending on the season; phone: +61 2 8296 8010

GETTING THERE: Wilson Island is located just north of the Tropic of Capricorn, approximately 72 kilometres northeast off the coast of Gladstone and 15 kilometres from nearby Heron Island. Qantas flies direct from LA to Sydney, Brisbane and Cairns as well as domestically. Australian Helicopters operates scenic transfers between Gladstone Airport and Heron Island daily (excluding Christmas Day) on demand during daylight hours; phone: +61 7 4978 1177. Bookings can be made directly with Voyages.

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If you’re fantasy is to be washed up on a beautiful remote island in the middle of a coral blue sea, then Haggerstone Island in Northern Queensland is the place to go. A castaway’s dream, this bijoux island has been lovingly curated over twenty years by Roy and Anna Turner as a Swiss Family Robinson-type retreat from the world that looks like a movie set for “Australia–Part 2” when Nic and Hugh swap the farm for the love shack. Hand built open-air structures made of thatch, local driftwood, shells, and artifacts give the place a bohemian, jungle vibe that can turn even the most sophisticated urbanite native. Guests gather for meals and company in the open plan dining room/library/kitchen. From the unruly garden comes homegrown produce–passion fruit, Kaffir lime, mango, rocket and lemongrass, which make for delicious fresh cuisine when combined with the catch of the day. Guests can also enjoy marine safaris with Roy to the outer reef where the coral formations drop into the deep blue abyss and turtles, rays and dolphins swim. You can even explore an 1840’s shipwreck, complete with giant anchors, winching blocks and bronze keep bolts. Aye, aye Captain!

RATES: Rent the whole island for $3,900/day for up to 6 people. Each additional person is $300/day. Individual rates are AUS$750 p/night. Phone: + 61 740 603 413

GETTING THERE: 2-hour flight from Cairns over Cape York’s wild terrain. Keep an eye out for crocodiles sunning on the beaches or turtles and rays swimming in the shallow waters. After landing on Hick Island, a 20-minute boat journey takes you to Haggerstone.

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WESTERN AUSTRALIA

Sal Salis Ningaloo Reef is an exclusive safari camp hidden in the white sand dunes of Western Australia’s Cape Range National Park. Five spacious wilderness tents are just steps from the water’s edge and the world’s greatest and best preserved fringing coastal coral reef. Trained guides deliver insight to one of Australia’s best-kept natural secrets – Ningaloo Reef, home to the world’s largest fish, the Whale Shark, over 500 species of fish, 250 coral species and 600 species of mollusk. It is also a major breeding area for Hawksbill, Green and Loggerhead Turtles, which are seen daily in front of the camp.

The main camp building is raised above the sand and coastal scrub with views out to the reef and breakers beyond. Dinner is hosted against a backdrop of rich orange sunsets over the Indian Ocean and in the cool of the evening kangaroos and wallaroos appear from the bush for their evening graze. A bar and open lounge area with a small reference library provides a great spot to sit out the heat of day or enjoy a quiet sundowner.  The chef cooks contemporary Australian cuisine with hints of bush food and native produce; guests may help themselves to the self-service bar at any time.

The camp has been designed to operate in tune with the fragile environment of Cape Range National Park and abides by strict principles of minimal impact and sustainability.  All power is solar generated, each en suite bathroom has a nature-loo (a state-of-the-art composting toilet), water usage is very carefully managed and no waste material escapes into the surrounding ecosystem. The tents are spacious and naturally comfortable, but without any of the modern appliances you would expect to find in a hotel room.

RATES: Rates are inclusive of all meals, a selection of beverages, guided and self-guided sea kayaking and snorkeling (all gear provided), guided gorge walks, a boat cruise on Yardie Creek and national park entry & camp fees. Twin share is AUS $685 / Single occupancy AUS$1028 per person, per night. 2-night minimum.
Phone: +61 2 9571 6399

GETTING THERE: Located on the North West Cape, Sal Salis is an hour’s drive (70 kms) south of Exmouth, in the Cape Range National Park. Skywest Airlines operate a twice-daily service between Perth and Exmouth and a weekly service (on Sundays) between Broome and Exmouth.

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Kimberley Coastal Camp is a stylish yet simple camp nestled on the pristine shores of Admiralty Gulf in the heart of the great Kimberley wilderness in Western Australia–one of the least explored and most spectacular coastlines in Australia. Isolated even by Kimberley standards, getting there is in itself an unforgettable adventure by car, light aircraft and helicopter. The camp, which was hand built by Rocky Terry and his family, limits guests to just 12 creating an intimate Robinson Crusoe atmosphere while reducing the impact on the fragile environment. Rustic gazebos offer outback luxury and stunning water views. Guests can enjoy deserted beaches (though swimming is strictly off limits in these waters), wildlife and birds, delicious fresh food with daily catches of barramundi (frequently caught by the guests) and fresh oysters, a cooling pool and magnificent surrounding scenery. In addition, few people ever get to see ancient Gwion Gwion Aboriginal rock art (or Bradshaw figures), which predates Wandjina art–but you can see it for yourself here.

The appeal of Kimberley Coastal Camp challenges the accepted notions of luxury. If air conditioning, plush carpets, room service and spas matter, this is not the place for you. On the other hand, if you’re susceptible to style, charisma, character and charm, Kimberley Coastal Camp is five-star all the way. This is a barefoot paradise, pure and simple.

RATES: Packages start at 3 days/2 nights for AUS$3855 ex-Darwin return, per person, including all meals, fully guided tours, scenic light aircraft and helicopter transfers, and complimentary airport transfers. Phone: +61 417 902 006

GETTING THERE: 1/5-hour light plane and helicopter flight from Kununurra, Broome or Darwin.

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SOUTH AUSTRALIA

On the other hand, the Southern Ocean Lodge in South Australia is making quite a name for itself as Australia’s most exclusive luxury wilderness lodge. Camping this is not! Located above the rugged limestone cliffs of Hanson Bay and commanding spectacular ocean, beach and wilderness views, the 21-suite lodge combines the best of nature with the best of luxury in a unique and secluded atmosphere. With more than one third of the island declared as Conservation or National Park, visitors frequently come face-to-face with prolific bird and animal species such as New Zealand fur seals, koalas, kangaroos, Australian sea lions, ospreys, echidnas and more. Regarded as Australia’s Galapagos, there is an abundance of native wildlife to explore right on your doorstep. At the end of the day, guests relax in sumptuous modern rooms with floor to ceiling panoramic views and can enjoy creature comforts at the Southern Spa, which specializes in treatments that use local products and the wisdom of ancient Aboriginal medicines, spirituality and healing practices.

RATES: Start at AUS$900 per person, per night and include gourmet breakfast, light lunch, 4-course dinner with inspired daily menu, selected beverages, island airport transfers and exceptional guided adventures and experiences.

GETTING THERE: Regular 30-minute flights operate from Adelaide (ADL) to Kangaroo Island–Kingscote (KGC) to be met for transfer to the Lodge. Private charters can also be arranged to a nearby airfield. Kangaroo Island lies 15km from the shores of mainland South Australia. The Lodge is a 50-minute drive from the airport or 90-minute drive from the ferry terminal. For self drive island excursions, a 45-minute ferry service runs between Cape Jervis on the mainland and Penneshaw on Kangaroo Island.

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If you really want to give Nicole and Hugh a run for their money, The Great Australian Outback Cattle Drive in South Australia is an epic journey on horseback that provides a unique opportunity for visitors to re-live the glory years of Australia’s outback cattle drovers by riding alongside authentic working people (known as Jackaraoo’s), not movie stars, and moving a real herd through the outback wilderness. This event sponsored by the Australian government provides an exciting opportunity to relive the spirit of Australia’s famous drovers and experience Aboriginal culture in the midst of the dramatic and ever-changing Australian landscape. There are 6 different itineraries to chose from, such as Dawn of the Cattle Drive, Ringers Run and Kidman Country, each one lasting 4 nights and 5 days. You don’t have to be an experienced horse rider to take part. Riders at all levels can enjoy the journey. As you set off on your day’s adventure, a support crew tends camp. The camp is a village of superior tent accommodation with facilities including hot showers, flushing toilets, bar, library and a kitchen of top chefs specializing in Australian cuisine. At night, fellow travelers unwind beside a roaring campfire under a canopy of stars and tell their stories. So pack your swag and prepare for the adventure of a lifetime full of real characters and true stories that will keep your friends and family going for years to come. Don’t miss this one. Coming soon! (Next drive is in 2010.)

RATES: Start at AUS$3200 per person. Prices vary depending on packages. The next Great Australian Outback Cattle Drive is in 2010 and will be offering six 5-day / 4-night tours between Friday 30 July and Sunday 29 August. Phone: +61 8 8303 2220

GETTING THERE: There are many ways to join The Great Australian Outback Cattle Drive tour from Adelaide. By air, Regional Express Airlines (REX) is Australia’s largest independent regional airline. Flights to and from Coober Pedy are recommended for all Cattle drive Tours. By train, the Great Southern Railway – The Ghan – is one of the most fascinating rail journeys in the world from Adelaide to Manguri (46 kilometres west of Coober Pedy). Guests can also travel by coach on the Drover’s Express.

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NEW SOUTH WALES

Blue Mountains Private Safaris in New South Wales have created a unique private campsite that offers an exclusive wilderness experience on the banks of the Wollondilly River. Accessible by car or helicopter, within 2 hours of Sydney, you can hike through the magnificent gorges and escarpments of the southern Blue Mountains with your very own safari guide who knows all the secret spots and how to find the local wildlife, consisting mostly of wallabies, wombats and the shy platypus. Explorers can check out the Wombeyan Caves or try a spot of fly-fishing and kayaking. At night, amidst the eucalyptus and casuarinas, guests sleep out in a traditional (but much more stylish) Australian swags–the bedding of choice for generations of Bushmen. (If only they were so lucky!)

RATES: Start at AUS$1550 for one person, per night and go down to AUS$575 for 6 people, per night. Rates include return transfers from either Joadja Vineyard or helicopter landing point, all transport in 4WD, guide services, all meals, tea and coffee, wine, beer and soft drinks and deluxe swag accommodation. Included activities are – bush-walking, wildlife-spotting, afternoon tea with the wombats, canoeing and ‘donuttting’ on the river, fishing and 4 wheel drives to points of interest and scenic look outs. Phone: +61 2 9571 6399

GETTING THERE: By helicopter it is a 45-minute flight from western Sydney. A driver will pick you up from central Sydney to join your pilot at Bankstown Airport for your flight over Sydney’s west and into the wilderness beyond. By car, the drive from the center of Sydney will take less than 2 hours. Blue Mountains Private Safaris guide meet you in scenic Bowral where there is time for wine tasting and a chat with the wine maker before you head off to a secret bush location at the southern end of the Blue Mountains World Heritage area.

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For your own personal safari guide, check out Wilderness Australia — a small travel company specializing in exclusive tailor-made safaris throughout Australia. Wilderness Australia finds remote outback properties, private bush camps and small lodges located well off the beaten track and has successfully established relationships with local people all over the country to create journeys that truly capture Australia’s diverse natural and cultural heritage. Phone: +61 2 9231 2113

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