Beauties rich and rare: outback treasures, bush retreats and remote treasures – The Australian

GILBERTON OUTBACK RETREAT, QUEENSLAND With floors of stone and timber, a tin roof and views over the Gilbert River, this rustic hideaway is a thing of great beauty. Designed and built by creative cattle farmers Lyn and Rob French, “The Hut” is open to the elements on one side, with a generous bath tub in pride of place. Guests can cook in the well-equipped kitchenette or enjoy hospitality at the main homestead nearby. Sip a glass of bubbles while relaxing in an Adirondack chair looking out over the savanna, go fossicking for gold, or take a ride with Lyn to explore the property, which has family links going back eight generations and an indigenous history that stretches much further. About six hours’ drive west from Townsville, or a short jaunt by small plane, this is a remote rural treasure deserving of its recent tourism awards.


The stone-lined bathroom at Gilberton Outback Retreat, Queensland.

KERMITS POOL, PILBARA, WESTERN AUSTRALIA Spiders aren’t thick on the ground at the 627,422ha Karijini National Park in the Hamersley Range of the under-appreciated Pilbara, but it’s still best to observe their gait to get to one of its stunning waterholes. Lush at first after a steep descent, Hancock Gorge presents more challenges. First is a shallow swim or paddle through rather cold water (not much sun penetrates this outback splinter) followed by rock scrambling. Then comes the Spider Walk, a narrow cleft that could be waded through, but who knows how deep it is? Instead, I stamp both hands and feet against the ore-rich red walls and shuffle along. The reward is Kermits Pool, so named because of its froggy colour. Lie back and stare up at some of the oldest rocks on Earth.


Kermits Pool in Karijini National Park.

BUDJ BIM, SOUTHWEST VICTORIA Inscribed on the UNESCO list last July, Australia’s newest World Heritage site, Budj Bim Cultural Landscape near Heywood at the western end of the Great Ocean Road, is also one of its least known. At 30,000 years old, Budj Bim (formally known as Mount Eccles) might be Victoria’s youngest volcano, but the lava fields at its base were used by the Gunditjmara to build villages of stone houses and construct elaborate stone aquaculture systems (the oldest in the world and the largest in Australia) to farm Kooyang (freshwater eels) long before the pyramids of Egypt were even contemplated. Recent bushfires have had some impact on the site but the relics endure and guided tours are back on the agenda. You’ll find yourself reconsidering everything you thought you knew about how the original inhabitants of this country lived.


Budj Bim Cultural Landscape.

COMPASS HUT, NORTHWEST TASMANIA This tiny house combines off-grid solitude with geographic convenience. Just 15 minutes by car from Devonport, it’s a perfect pit-stop after crossing Bass Strait on the Spirit of Tasmania. Sisters Kylie and Tamika Bell conceived and built Compass Hut as a display home for their tiny-house business Wagonhaus and have now turned it into beautifully appointed accommodation on the family’s organic farm. Expect tranquil views of grazing beef cattle and a rich parade of birdlife, including green rosella and European goldfinch that take turns to perch on a dead tree branch right in view. Nearby are several natural treasures, including Gunns Plains Caves and Leven Canyon. It is a teeny tiny house — think Honey, I Shrunk the Hotel Room — so check in with someone you love and get closer still.


Compass Hut. Picture: Kylie Bell

GROOTE EYLANDT, NORTHERN TERRITORY From the air, Groote Eylandt’s man-made structures are easy to find. Look down on the townships of Angurugu, Alyangula and Umbakumba, where sea cucumbers were traded in the 1930s and Qantas flying boats refuelled during World War II. Open-strip manganese mines are scratched like wounds into the lush and rugged landscape. Stay at Groote Eylandt Lodge, a beachfront hotel owned by the Anindilyakwa people who have occupied this archipelago for 8000 years. Their sacred sites appear just as the dreamtime stories describe them; here is the squat caterpillar, there is the snake stopped dead in its tracks. But the connecting songlines aren’t detectable; to see these we must listen to the stories told and retold by the Anindilyakwa.


The pool at Groote Eylandt Lodge. Picture: AAP/Stephanie Flack

SWAGON AT KANGALUNA CAMP, GAWLER RANGES NATIONAL PARK, SA The concept of the Swagon is simple. It’s a swag in a wagon. The swag involves very comfortable Sheridan bedding in a Wild West conveyance of canvas-covered hoop frame on a 1918 dray, formerly used to transport wheat and wool, atop four spoked wheels rusting nicely in the elements. The attached deck is decorated with chains made from old horse bits; the outhouse is a study in rustic chic. At night, guests can roll up the canvas and sleep under a neon ceiling of stars in a silent, silvery desert. Hence the Swagon, part of the 12-person Kangaluna Camp on the edge of the magnificent Gawler Ranges National Park, is also known as “The Galaxy Suite”.


Swagon at Kangaluna Camp in South Australia.

DIRK HARTOG ISLAND, WA Captain James Cook might get all the glory, but the first ­European to visit Australia and leave a record of it — a pewter plate nailed to a post at a place now known as Cape Inscription — was Dutch Captain Dirk Hartog on October 25, 1616. It’s on the northern tip of Dirk Hartog Island, accessible by barge from Steep Point, the westernmost spot on the mainland, or by boat from Denham. The 80km-long island is laced with four-wheel-drive tracks that snake across sand dunes to beaches unsullied by footprints; just 20 vehicles are allowed here at any time. Pitch a tent, or enjoy ocean views from your accommodation in the historic shearers’ quarters at the family-run lodge. The young owners are the third generation to live there and also run 4WD island tours.


DENILIQUIN UTE MUSTER, NSW Days before the annual Deniliquin (Deni) Ute Muster officially kicks into gear, utes thunder across the flat-as-a-pancake Hay Plain in south-central NSW to park outside entry gates adorned with stylised longhorns. Here, ute enthusiasts reconnect with mates they haven’t seen since the last muster and admire each other’s wheels. For these are no ordinary utes. They range from rough-as-guts, sticker-covered bush-bashers to those brandishing custom artwork and pearlescent paint jobs, along with eye-popping modifications. Welcome to the gathering of one of Australia’s most colourful tribes, where there’s a strong music line-up skewed to country and rock, fun contests such as the blue-singlet count, and circle work (drivers doing circles and figure eights) in the arena. Campsites are transformed in creative ways, such as knocking together a two-storey “pub”. The 21st-anniversary muster takes place October 2-3; music line-up will be announced next month.


Cars lined up at the Deniliquin Ute Muster.

TARKINE RAINFOREST EXPERIENCE, TASMANIA Our base at Tiger Ridge is so ­secret we’re not told where it is until we get there. The Tarkine/Takayna region of northwest Tasmania is a hotly contested landscape, where the majesty of the natural world clashes with the desire to use its resources. For three nights we sleep amid the largest cool temperate rainforest in the Southern Hemisphere, under canvas in spacious tents, layered again by the incredible canopy of sassafras, myrtle beech and mighty eucalypts. By day we take serene forest strolls, stopping to examine ferns and fungi, to hear stories from the land and to appreciate the silence and the sweet scent of this ancient rainforest. It’s an intense immersion in a unique patch of Australia that has to be seen to be fully understood.


On a walking tour through the Tarkine, Tasmania. Picture: Tarkine Trails

AMAROO COTTAGE, HAWKESBURY RIVER, NSW One of the loveliest settlements on the lower Hawkesbury River, about an hour’s drive north of Sydney’s CBD, is Bar Point, home to the self-contained Amaroo Cottage. It’s boat access only, Wind in the Willows style, to two separate dwellings set in a tiered garden of eucalypt, hydrangea and angel’s trumpet. The main house has two bedrooms filled with owner Mary Threlfall’s cherished treasures, such as antique bed frames and perfume bottle collections. In the cosy boathouse, wake up to absolute waterfront views through double wooden doors. Pick up a platter of oysters from Hawkesbury River Oyster Shed at Mooney Mooney before setting off or putter around to the relaxed Peats Bite restaurant for family-style meals and live music right by the water. It’s peacefulness and the good life wrapped with a pretty ribbon of river.


Amaroo Cottage on the Hawkesbury River, NSW.

ROCK ART TOUR, FAR NORTH QUEENSLAND Even today, our human mob has left few enduring marks on the primal sprawl of gorges and ancient forest known as Quinkan Country, inland from Cooktown. There’s an old gold rush route nicknamed the Thousand-Dollar Track as that was the average repair bill on your car if you attempted it. But today’s travellers can join an excursion with local Kuku Yalanji man, Johnny Murison, in a formidable, all-terrain vehicle that eats washouts and boulders for breakfast. He shows guests truly extraordinary human-made “marks”, indigenous rock art dated up to 20,000 years old. Johnny’s Jarramali bush camp, equipped with quality tents, kitchen, viewing deck and showers, overlooks awe-inspiring sandstone escarpments. Beneath a nearby cliff overhang, is the aptly named Magnificent Gallery, a trove of 450 paintings depicting the likes of emus, fish, humans, spirits, extinct birds and hand stencils. Discovered only in the late 1960s, most of the images are part of a 1000-year-long work-in-progress that ended, tellingly, around the time gold prospecting began.


Jarramali rock art gallery.


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