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Discover Australia’s magnificent wonders & wildlife
Read time: 9 mins
As the sixth largest country in the world, Australia boasts a diverse mix of landscapes and natural wonders, from deserts to rainforests and reefs. These lush environments are home to an array of wildlife, some of which is found nowhere else on the planet. Here’s a guide to Australia’s landscapes and where to spot iconic wildlife, from kangaroos to koalas and Tasmanian Devils.
An overview of Australian landscapes
Australia covers over 7.6 million square kilometres and is split into eight states and territories. Travel across the country and you’ll encounter distinctive landscapes, including:
Rainforests cover 3.6 million hectares of Australia’s land and contain 60 percent of the country’s plant species as well as rich mammal and birdlife. You’ll find all five types of climatic rainforests in Queensland, home of the Gondwana Rainforests of Australia UNESCO World Heritage Area. This crosses into New South Wales and encompasses 50 separate reserves over 366,500 hectares.
Gondwana highlights include the Kuranda and Daintree, the planet’s oldest tropical rainforest. For cool temperate rainforest, visit Victoria’s Gippsland and Yarra and Dandenong ranges, or Tasmania’s Cradle Mountain-Lake St Clair National Park. In the Northern Territory, beautiful monsoon rainforest fills Kakadu National Park and travel to Western Australia’s Kimberley region for pockets of coastal rainforest.
Desert and outback
Seventy percent of Australia’s landscape is classed as arid or semi-arid, making it the driest continent after Antarctica. There are 10 official deserts that lie roughly in the middle of the country and in these sparsely populated regions, temperatures can exceed 40 degrees in summer. However, Australian deserts are regarded as some of the mildest and wettest in the world, allowing many species of wildlife and flora to flourish. Australia’s 10 deserts are:
- Great Victoria Desert
- Tanami Desert
- Gibson Desert
- Strzelecki Desert
- Tirari Desert
- Great Sandy Desert
- Simpson Desert
- Little Sandy Desert
- Sturt Stony Desert
- Pedirka Desert
These deserts intertwine with what’s known as the Australian Outback. Outback desert areas include The Red Centre, where you’ll find Uluru and Alice Springs, which is sometimes referred to as the Capital of the Outback and lies on the nearly 3,000-kilometre-long Stuart Highway.
Some of Australia’s greatest landmarks are mammoth rock formations. The most famous is Uluru, although the Northern Territory is also home to 500-million-year-old Kata Tjuta and unusual rock spheres called the Devil’s Marbles. Drive the Great Ocean Road in Victoria to see coastal formations like the striking 12 Apostles. Continue to South Australia for Kangaroo Island’s Remarkable Rocks and a massive natural amphitheatre at Wilpena Pound.
Other notable Australian rock formations include the Tasman Arch, which crosses the sea in Tasmania and the Pyramid in Queensland’s Girraween National Park. The Blue Mountains are one of New South Wales’s biggest draws, head to Echo viewpoint to see the majestic Three Sisters formation. Over in Western Australia, the 30,000-year-old Pinnacles near Perth resemble mini mountains, while the Booroomba Rocks near Canberra are loved by climbers.
In contrast to Australia’s barren, rocky desert landscape, you’ll find plenty of lakes. Popular options include Lake Hillier in Western Australia, which has a unique pink hue and the azure Blue Lake in Mount Gambier, which turns a mystical grey in autumn and winter. For turquoise waters fringed with white sand, visit Lake Mckenzie on Fraser Island. One of the country’s most famous lakes, Lake Eyre in the South Australian Outback, is actually dry except after periods of heavy rain, making it one of the world’s largest ephemeral lakes.
Australia has some impressive mountain ranges, from forest-covered peaks to snow-topped treasures. The tallest mountain, Mount Kosciuszko, lies in the Australian Alps in New South Wales and soars 2,228 metres above sea level, with nearby ski fields in the Snowy Mountains. This area is part of the Great Dividing Range in Southeastern Australia, which also spills across Victoria and the Australian Capital Territory.
The UNESCO-listed Blue Mountains, just west of Sydney, are known for the blue haze given off by its forests of eucalyptus trees. Visit Cradle Mountain in the Tasmanian Wilderness Area for peaks of over 1,500 metres and Bluff Knoll in Western Australia’s Stirling range for regular snowfall. If you’re visiting Victoria’s Grampians, Mount William is the area’s highest peak at 1,168 metres.
Oceans, coast and reef
Australia is surrounded by the Indian Ocean to the west, the Southern Ocean and the South Pacific in the east. The coast is also bordered by a number of seas: the Afafura, Timor, Coral and Tasman. This provides Australia with rich waters filled with marine life, particularly on the Great Barrier Reef, which offers great snorkelling and diving opportunities. Over 5,000 species of fish are found in Australia of which a quarter are endemic and many, like the Black Marlin, grow to record sizes.
Australia’s coastline is one of Earth’s longest, totalling over 25,000 kilometres. Nearly 40 percent of this is comprised of the country’s 8,222 islands which dot the surrounding waters. These include the idyllic Whitsundays, Fraser, Magnetic and Fitzroy. Unsurprisingly, the country is famed for its flawless beaches with soft sands, from surf spots like Bondi and Manly to hippy Byron Bay, Cape Tribulation and rugged 75-mile beach.
UNESCO sites in Australia
Australia boasts 20 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, which are areas protected for their outstanding natural and cultural significance and make it onto most travel itineraries, including:
- The Great Barrier Reef
- Uluru-Kata Tjuta
- Fraser Island
- The Gondwana Rainforests of Australia
- Blue Mountains
- The Wet Tropics of Queensland
- Willandra Lakes Region
- The Ningaloo Coast
- Australian Convict Sites
- The Tasmanian Wilderness
- Sydney Opera House.
Australian National Parks
There are thousands of national and marine parks as well as conservation reserves across Australia, including these favourites:
- Kakadu National Park – is a UNESCO site in the Northern Territory. The park covers nearly 20,000 square kilometres, making it the country’s largest, and is famed for its ancient Aboriginal rock art sites, some of which date back over 20,000 years.
- Christmas Island National Park – lies 1,500 kilometres from Western Australia’s mainland in the Indian Ocean. The park is filled with wetlands, rainforests, craggy cliffs and is a haven for wildlife, from sea birds to turtles. Christmas Island is known for its mass Red Crab migration, which takes place from October to December.
- Great Barrier Reef National Park – the world’s most extensive coral reef enjoys UNESCO status, stretching across 344,000 square kilometres in Queensland’s Coral Sea. It’s made up of 2,900 individual reefs and 900 islands that are teeming with over 1,500 species of fish, as well as other marine life like sharks, turtles and rays.
- Grampians National Park – is three hours west of Melbourne, Victoria. The Grampians is made up of five huge sandstone mountain ranges with indigenous rock art sites, lookout points and the Brambuk Cultural Centre. A highlight is the 25-metre-high Mackenzie Falls.
- Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park – is set in the Northern Territory at the heart of the desert Red Centre. The park is UNESCO listed and loved for its Aboriginal culture and sandstone monolith, Uluru, which rises 863 metres above sea level and has a circumference of nearly six miles.
- Kosciuszko National Park – has Australia’s highest peak Mount Kosciuszko. Located in New South Wales, this is the place to come for skiing and snow sports, as well as hiking in the Snowy Mountains and six wilderness areas. The Yarrangobilly section has historic caves and thermal pools to explore.
- Flinders Chase National Park – sits at the western end of South Australia’s Kangaroo Island. Come for the Remarkable Rocks, lighthouses and Admirals Arch, where you can see Fur Seals. Experience isolated beaches and hike alongside the Rocky River.
- Cradle Mountain - Lake St Clair National Park – is part of the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area and peppered with rainforest, glacial lakes and mountains. If you’re extremely lucky, you can spot a Tasmanian Devil in the wild, as well as 78 species of bird and other wildlife like echidnas and quolls. The 65-kilometre Overland Track takes six days, but leads through rainforest to Mount Ossa.
Looking for more Australian National Parks to visit? Try Litchfield in the Northern Territory, which has waterfalls and magnetic termite mounds or Daintree in Queensland, where the rainforest meets the sea at Cape Tribulation. Purnululu in Western Australia is a sacred, UNESCO-protected Aboriginal site home to the Bungle Bungle range. While Port Campbell is where you’ll find the Great Ocean Road’s limestone rock formations.
Top Australian wildlife destinations
Australia’s wildlife is some of the most varied on the planet. Highlights include supreme marine life like whales and sharks, as well as land species like the cassowary, koalas and kangaroos. Here are some of the best destinations to see Australian wildlife.
The Great Barrier Reef
Visit for: all kinds of marine life.
The Great Barrier Reef houses a variety of colourful marine life and is Earth’s most biodiverse coral reef ecosystem. It’s possible to see over 130 species of sharks and rays, thousands of fish and six species of turtles on a snorkelling or diving tour. Look out for Australia’s Great Eight: clownfish, sharks, manta rays, Maori wrasse, potato cod, giant clams, turtles and whales.
Visit for: a bounty of wildlife including kangaroos, the Tammar Wallaby, koalas, the Short-Beaked Echidna and Southern Brown Bandicoot.
Kangaroo Island is billed as Australia’s Galapagos. Over a third of its area is protected as a nature reserve, divided into seven stunning regions. In summer, you can see black swans and Fur Seals, while Cape Barren geese and cockatoos nest in autumn, which is also penguin breeding season. In winter, spot Southern Right whales and watch mass bird migrations in spring. Don’t miss the Koala Walk at Hanson Bay Wildlife Sanctuary and dozens of sea lions on the Boardwalk Tour.
Visit for: whale sharks, vibrant coral and turtles.
Set in Western Australia in the Ningaloo Coast World Heritage Area, this is the place to come for whale shark experiences. From March to July, you can snorkel or dive with the planet’s largest fish, which can weigh a staggering 20 tonnes and grow to 40 feet long. Ningaloo Marine Park also has over 250 species of coral and 500 of fish, as well as four types of turtle: Loggerhead, Green, Hawksbill and Leatherback.
Visit for: quokkas and whales.
Head to Western Australia to see cute quokkas on Rottnest Island, which lies a short ferry ride from Perth. There are around 12,000 of these small marsupials here and they’re largely unafraid of humans, so you’ll see plenty while exploring the island. Between August and November, you can also spot migrating whales from the West End boardwalk.
Lady Elliot, Heron, Green and Fitzroy Islands
Visit for: turtles.
These east-coast islands are key nesting grounds for Green and Loggerhead turtles from November to March. Hatchlings emerge in the cool evenings and early mornings from January to May, making their way down to the sea. It’s also possible to swim among adult turtles off these islands’ powdery beaches and visit the Cairns Turtle Rehabilitation Centre on Fitzroy Island.
Visit for: penguins and Fur Seals.
Located just an hour and a half from Melbourne, Phillip Island has one of Australia’s largest colonies of Fairy Penguins, also known as Little Blue Penguins. Come to Summerland Beach at dusk to watch the 50-minute parade of penguins waddling back to their nests for the night. Phillip Island also has a Koala Conservation Centre and large Fur Seal colony, which can be found at Seal Rocks.
Visit for: wombats, wallabies and emus.
Set in Victoria, The Prom as it’s known to locals, sits on mainland Australia’s southernmost tip. The state’s biggest coastal wilderness area boasts beaches and mountains, covering 50,000 hectares. The area is a haven for wildlife such as emus and wallabies, as well as the echidna and wombat, which can often be seen around campgrounds in the evenings.
Visit for: dingoes.
Fraser is the world’s largest sand island and the ideal way to explore it is with a 4WD. The island has Australia’s purest dingo population, which means they’ve barely interbred with domestic or feral dogs. It’s thought that there are approximately 200 dingoes on Fraser Island living in 20 to 30 packs, they can often be spotted on the beaches.
Visit for: platypus.
This river in New South Wales is one of the best places to see the elusive platypus. Hire a canoe and paddle down the river for a glimpse of these shy, beaked creatures. They’re usually around in the early morning or late afternoon, check near the Nymboida Coaching Station Inn and Pollacks Bridge for sightings.
The Great Ocean Road
Visit for: koalas.
Koalas may sleep for up to 22 hours a day, resting high in Eucalyptus trees, which makes them difficult to spot. However, it’s possible to see them in the wild on the Great Ocean Road. Sightings are common on the stretch between Apollo Bay and Lorne and around the village of Kennett River. Visit the Great Otway National Park for more sightings, along with kangaroos, birds and whales off the coast during migration season.
Visit for: crocodiles, birds and cassowaries.
Daintree’s wetlands, forest, beaches and mangrove swamps house exotic wildlife. This includes a third of the country’s mammal species as well as 430 types of bird, 13 of which are only found in Australia. You can also see Saltwater Crocodiles, Sugar Gliders, Giant Tree Frogs and rare Australian Tree Kangaroos. The Southern Cassowary is incredibly shy but can sometimes be seen on the road to Cape Tribulation.
Visit for: Fur Seals and whales.
This remote island off the coast of New South Wales is known for its marine birds and colony of over a thousand Fur Seals. The seals are visible all year round in the waters off Montague Island, where you can swim and snorkel amongst them. However, they gather in large numbers from August to December, when you can also spot Humpback Whales, as well as dolphins.
Sanctuaries and wildlife centres in Australia
If you can’t catch a glimpse of animals in the wild, visit one of Australia’s best sanctuaries or wildlife centres, here are some of the favourites:
- Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary, Queensland - lies just a short hop from Brisbane and protects over 130 koalas, funding conservation work for these furry marsupials. You can also see kangaroos, snakes, lorikeets, the Tasmanian Devil and platypuses at Lone Pine.
- Bonorong Wildlife Rescue – is a sanctuary in Tasmania that offers daytime visits, as well as special night time experiences. Residents include wombats, koalas, cockatoos, echidnas and of course, the Tasmanian Devil. Bonorong also runs Tasmania’s first 24-hour rescue service and a seabird rehabilitation programme.
- Featherdale Wildlife Park – sits just outside of Sydney and houses the most extensive collection of native Australian animals. Attend ranger talks and animal feeding experiences with kangaroos and wallabies.
- Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary – sits on the Gold Coast in 27 hectares of the Currumbin Rainforest and offers educational talks and shows. There’s a wildlife hospital and the chance to see native animals like kangaroos and koalas, as well as red pandas, birds and reptiles.
- Moonlit Sanctuary Wildlife Conservation Park – located under an hour from Melbourne, Moonlit has over 200 animals, including dingoes, wallabies and reptiles. There are also endangered breeding programmes for species like Eastern Quolls and Squirrel Gliders. Enjoy encounters and talks, as well as lantern-lit evening tours.
- The Kangaroo Sanctuary – was set up by a local resident of Alice Springs, who rescues orphaned kangaroos and rehabilitates them back into the wild. It’s now an established animal hospital where you can get up close to kangaroos and take a sunset tour.