Australia: Flights, camera, action
If Nicole Kidman’s film inspires you to see the country, we tell you where and how.
The Three Sisters, in Katoomba in the Blue Mountains, just one of the epic landscapes Australia offers visitors
Far more potently than any travel brochure, the vast sweeping landscapes of Baz Luhrmann’s new movie, Australia, are bound to fuel mid-winter dreams of a trip to that majestic land Down Under.
Bush fever, rather than a longing to see Sydney’s iconic skyline, is what this epic inspires, and who can blame the director for making his country’s rugged and dramatic open spaces the stars of this homage to his homeland?
While Sydney does, indeed, boast the world’s most exciting modern cityscape and Melbourne exudes an unmatchable cosmopolitan cultural buzz, it is Australia’s natural wonders which thrill to the core — and which, thanks to the film, have been made more accessible than ever to visitors, as its furthest-flung nooks and crannies finally get digestibly packaged.
That’s just as well, since few Brits would easily find their way to the Kimberley, Kununurra and other locations which wowed Luhrmann but have yet to be discovered by the British public. The film was largely set in the far frontiers of Western Australia and Northern Territory, where urban Australians themselves aspire to take adventure holidays and which are thousands of miles from Sydney and Melbourne, the principal international gateways.
Perth, however, is also a gateway, and one several hours closer to Britain. It is a jumping-off point — which, given Australia’s vast distances, tends to mean a domestic flight — for the majestic Kimberley, with its red rock table-top mountains, and the many other jaw-dropping delights of Western Australia.
These include Broome, with its miles of crystal-white beaches; the mysterious Bungle Bungle range and the rugged Dampier Peninsula.
Perth itself is a lively modern city, and wine-lovers may want to take a side-trip to the excellent vineyards of nearby Margaret River. Souvenirs, as almost everywhere in Australia — but particularly in the west, north and Red Centre — include spectacular and surprisingly affordable Aboriginal art.
Thanks to Australia, a new tourist route has opened up all the way across the north-west from the Kimberley to Darwin, where the film draws to a climactic close.
Northern Territory, which occupies a vast swathe of Outback, has hitherto been best known for Uluru — aka Ayers Rock — and it has to be said that this is one of the great wonders of the world, of which more later.
But the film is bound to focus attention on what is known as the Top End — not just Darwin but the Aboriginal homelands of Arnhem Land, and the slightly tamed-for-tourists wonderland of Kakadu National Park.
I would like to say I enjoyed the same sense of wonderment as Nicole Kidman expressed when she flew over Kakadu in her downtime during filming.
If I did not, it is only because Northern Territory is so wild and primeval that by the time I reached the park, Kakadu looked positively manicured beside some of the more rarefied experiences available out of Darwin. My own Kidman moment involved flying over an ancient escarpment in a two-seater plane to visit ancient cave drawings in Arnhem Land.
Another day-trip offered an introduction to the artists and rituals of the Tiwi Islands off Australia’s north coast, whose inhabitants happily share their culture, show their sacred burial places, sell their exquisite art and offer a swim in their idyllic waterholes before the short flight back to the mainland.
But while these experiences involve a bit of research, packages incorporating Kakadu and Uluru are ready to go and will knock the socks off those who have not already hit the wilder shores of Northern Territory.
It’s better to savour one of these national parks than dilute the wonder by attempting both; Kakadu has crocodiles and cave drawings, Uluru the great red mountain.
There’s a choice of accommodation at Uluru, with the Sails in the Desert the premium hotel, though far from sumptuous. Even if you don’t stay there, indulge in the evocative Sounds of Silence dinner in the nearby desert, featuring a look at the night sky with a story-teller and astronomer and full silver service.
The Whitsunday Islands of Queensland doubled for some of the Darwin locations in the film, and indeed the whole top half of this north-eastern state is positively packed with wonders which deserve exploration even though they did not feature.
Few could fail to be staggered by the beauty of the Daintree Rainforest, the mangrove-fringed beaches of Port Douglas, the underwater tropical fish-fest of the Great Barrier Reef and the fascinating rainforest hinterland accessed via the Kuranda scenic railway.
All the attractions of FNQ — as tropical Far North Queensland is chirpily referred to by the Aussies from cooler climes who regard it as their prime sun’n’fun playground — are easily accessed by foreign travellers via a fourth international gateway, Cairns and can logically be combined with a visit to Darwin and Kakadu.
While the southeast tip of Australia is known mainly for its cities and vineyards, there’s a lot more to New South Wales than Sydney and Canberra.
The Blue Mountains and Hunter Valley wine region are within an easy drive of Sydney, and for real bushwhackers there are opal mines and stunning lunar landscapes further afield, using Broken Hill as a starting point.
Victoria has Melbourne (less spectacular than brashly beautiful Sydney, but with an interesting dining, shopping and art scene), as well as a bit of bush, plus the beauty of the Great Ocean Road and Philip Island, with its penguins and koalas. But the one state which has all the majesty and wild beauty of the film locations, yet is inexplicably overlooked by many visitors, is South Australia. It has fantastic Outback, kangaroos and other native wildlife, amazing beaches and the country’s finest vineyards. And while it was not featured in the film, South Australia is also home to the experience which inspired Lurhmann in the first place — the Great Australian Outback Cattle Drive, such a huge event it is only organised every few years.
The next go-round, lasting five weeks and involving 500 head of cattle and 120 riders, will be in 2010. Those who can’t spare that kind of time — or can’t wait — can enjoy a three-day droving experience in the Flinders region, involving sleeping under the stars in a “swag” and a night at Australia’s most iconic Outback hotel, the Prairie. Mini-cattle drives are also available in other states including New South Wales.
Personally, on my own recent bush exploration of South Australia I was happy to sit on a verandah by the creek at Portee Station, a fabulously comfortable Victorian homestead, sip a glass of an excellent chilled local plonk and gaze on thousands of sheep tinted pink by the earth.
Travelbag(0844 8804406; www.travelbag.co.uk) offer a 10-day April bargain at £998 per person for return flights to Perth and a motorhome to tour. Or combine a return flight (from £700) from a consolidator like the Flight Centre (0870 499 0042; www.flightcentre.co.uk), with one of the many Australia the movie-themed land packages. Netflights(0800 747 0000; www.netflights.com) offers an 8-day Top End tour from £1,059 combining Arnhem Land with Darwin and Kakadu. Qantas Holidays (020 8222 9124; www.qantasholidays.co.uk) offers 10 days of location highlights including those of Western Australia from £2,062. For just £815, OzXposure (020 8772 3770; www.ozxposure.co.uk) offers a Broome to Darwin jeep safari through the Kimberley. Contact Portee (0061 8 8540 5211; www.portee.com.au) for details of private air tours, double rooms from £126 with wombat safari and sundowners
Jewish convicts aboard the First Fleet founded Australia’s community in 1788.
Today, it is 120,000- strong, mainly descended from refugees and Holocaust survivors. Recent immigrants are from South Africa.
Half them live in Melbourne and a third in Sydney, with smaller populations in Perth, Adelaide and the Queensland Gold Coast.
Monash University, which houses the Australian Centre for Jewish Civilisation was named for Sir John Monash, commander of the Australian Corps from 1918, and a leading member of the Jewish community