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Adventure holidays in Australia’s adrenaline states: wildlife treks, diving, rafting, ballooning and more
March 14, 2014 | By:
Feel the thrills in Australia’s two adrenaline states: national parks, surfing and sea life in New South Wales, and the tropical wildlife, rivers and rapids of Queensland
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King of the swingers: see the spectacular rainforest of Kuranda from the Skyrail

You know those impossible images you sometimes see of a lone figure perched on a spur of rock, surrounded by miles and miles of pristine wilderness? How is it possible that they seem to be the only person in the landscape, you wonder, and how the hell did they get there?

Well, that was me in the Blue Mountains, and I got to my spectacular lookout by trekking for three hours along a well-worn path from my hotel. Sitting in silence, I tried to absorb the heart-stopping panorama that lay before me.

A few days earlier I’d been floating around the Tenth of June, a pinnacle of reef off Lord Howe Island, a two-hour flight from Sydney. There are more than 60 dive sites to explore here in some of the clearest waters on earth, ranging from Balls Pyramid, at 551m-high the world’s tallest sea stack, to sites within a sheltered lagoon created by the world’s southernmost coral barrier reef.

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Among the 500-plus species of fish inhabiting this unique marine ecosystem I saw blue angelfish, Spanish dancers, Japanese boarfish and, at the top of the pinnacle, round-backed coral crabs.

If you’re not a diver (though this is a great place to gain your PADI open-water certificate), Lord Howe is one of the best places in Australia to go snorkelling from the beach, with a bewildering variety of fish and coral just a few metres from the shore.

At Neds Beach, you can just pick up a mask, fins and snorkel, and leave a few dollars in the honesty box.

From Coffs Harbour, a six-hour drive north of Sydney (along the Legendary Pacific Coast Touring Route, no less) or a 75-minute QantasLink flight, I’d been whale-watching, bobbing about on the Tasman Sea and cheering with my crewmates each time we spotted a mighty humpback diving and flipping its tail in what seemed like slow motion.

At Diggers Beach I tried and pretty much failed to learn to surf, but had lots of fun in the process. Still, I had more success paddling a canoe gently through secluded Bonville Creek surrounded by native bushland in Bongil Bongil National Park. This, it seemed, was much more suited to my level of fitness: challenging, but not too difficult.

You can catch your own dinner in Queensland

Diving off Lord Howe Island. Photo by Grahame McConnell

The wildlife of Queensland’s tropical north

If New South Wales is adventure-packed, then the Cairns and Great Barrier Reef region of Queensland – just a three-hour Qantas flight away – adds many more excitements of its own. Being tropical, there’s a strong wildlife aspect to some of them.

Off the coast of Port Douglas there’s a unique opportunity to swim among minke whales, with the gentle giants particularly prevalent from July to September.

From the Daintree River Cruise Centre you can take a boat to see big saltwater crocodiles; you’ll spot them by their eye reflections. But don’t worry, you’re in completely safe hands. As you will be on a skydive over Cairns, in tandem with one of the Australian Skydive assistants.

You’re never far from an adventure in this part of the world. In the sky there’s hot-air ballooning. Above the rainforest in Kuranda there’s the Skyrail. Down below, you could start with a peaceful kayak round Fitzroy Island, and progress to rafting on the gentle Barron River.

Then get your first taste of real whitewater with a Tully Raft Adventure on the eponymous river – and the next thing you know, you could be tearing along on an Xtreme Tully Raft Adventure that has adrenaline coursing through you faster than the raging, roaring waterways that flow through the rainforests surrounding Cairns.

Also in the water you can choose from parasailing, jet-skiing, ‘bumper tubing’ (being towed in a sturdy rubber dinghy, as fast or slow as you like) and any manner of nautical derring-do. They’re all reminders that, to some extent, you’re in the spiritual home of extreme sports.

Perhaps it’s an echo of this coast’s pioneer history but the gung-ho spirit is strong here. That’s another thing about this part of Australia – there always seems to be an activity to suit you, whatever degree of exertion you are up to, where you can experience its diverse terrain to the full.

Discover NSW nature

Likewise in New South Wales. The range of possibilities is endless and always surprising, whether it’s a relatively sedate rainforest stroll along the four-mile Wonga Walk in Dorrigo National Park to discover the gorgeous Crystal Shower Falls, toning your abs by stand-up paddleboarding on Lake Conjola, or feeling the rush of mountain biking through the Snowy Mountains.

Back on my rocky promontory in the Blue Mountains, I was lifted out of my reverie by the sight of a hang-glider looming into view. As he waved, and I waved back, it occurred to me that he might be just as impressed by, and possibly a little envious of, the sight of me taking it easy on my spectacular perch.

One thing’s for sure: we were both having a cracking good time.

Five memorable adventures in eastern Australia

Float over the treetops north of Cairns, by cable car or zipline, and get a bird’s-eye view of the world’s most ancient rainforest.

Kayak in Jervis Bay’s clear waters, mangroves and protected coves, which are home to an abundance of wildlife including playful dolphins, migrating humpback whales and all kinds of fish and bird.

Take a four-wheel drive across Cape Tribulation, where the reef and the rainforest meet.

Drive the Waterfall Way route between Bellingen and Dorrigo, one of the world’s great drives, from the tablelands to the coast.

Fly by helicopter above the Great Barrier Reef’s sparking coral cay, and touch down for champagne.