Australia serves up plenty of excuses to just sit back and roll your eyes across the landscape, but that same landscape lends itself to boundless outdoor pursuits – whether it's getting active on the trails and mountains on dry land, or on the swells and reefs offshore.

On the Land

Bushwalking is a major pastime in all Australian states and territories. Cycling is a great way to get around, despite the mammoth distances sometimes involved. There's also skiing in the mountains and wildlife-watching pretty much everywhere.

Bushwalking

Bushwalking (also known as hiking, trekking or tramping, depending on where you're from) is supremely popular in Australia, with vast swathes of untouched scrub and forest providing ample opportunity. Hikes vary from 20-minute jaunts off the roadside to week-long wilderness epics. The best time to head into the bush varies from state to state, but as a general rule the further north you go the more tropical and humid the climate gets: June to August are the best walking months up north; down south, summer and early autumn (December to March) are better.

Notable walks include the Overland Track and the South Coast Track in Tasmania, and the Australian Alps Walking Track, Great Ocean Walk and Great South West Walk in Victoria. The Bibbulmun Track in Western Australia (WA) is epic, as is the Thorsborne Trail across Hinchinbrook Island and the Gold Coast Hinterland Great Walk in Queensland.

In New South Wales (NSW) you can trek between Sydney and Newcastle on the Great North Walk, tackle the Coast Track in Royal National Park, the Six Foot Track in the Blue Mountains, or scale Mt Kosciuszko, Australia's highest peak. In South Australia (SA) you can bite off a chunk of the 1200km Heysen Trail, while in the Northern Territory (NT) there's the majestic 233.5km Larapinta Trail and remote tracks in Kakadu National Park and Nitmiluk (Katherine Gorge) National Park.

Most visitor information centres have information sheets on local national parks, and these invariably include an overview of bushwalks in the area – a good way to start planning. Most are also available online as pdfs through the relevant state or federal national park authority.

Best Bushwalks

Responsible Bushwalking

To help preserve the ecology and beauty of Australia, consider the following tips when bushwalking:

  • Carry out all your rubbish, including sanitary napkins, tampons, condoms and toilet paper. Never bury your rubbish: digging disturbs soil and ground cover and encourages erosion. Buried rubbish will likely be dug up by animals, who may be injured or poisoned by it.
  • Where there is a toilet, use it. Where there is none, bury your waste. Dig a small hole 15cm (6in) deep and at least 100m (320ft) from any watercourse. Cover the waste with soil and a rock. In snow, dig down to the soil.
  • Don't use detergents or toothpaste in or near watercourses, even if they are biodegradable.
  • For personal washing, use biodegradable soap and a water container at least 50m (160ft) away from the watercourse. Disperse the waste water widely to allow the soil to filter it fully.
  • Wash cooking utensils 50m (160ft) from watercourses using a scourer, sand or snow instead of detergent.
  • Stick to existing tracks and avoid short cuts. Walking around a muddy bog only makes it bigger – plough straight through.
  • Don't depend on open fires for cooking. Cook on a lightweight kerosene, alcohol or Shellite (white gas) stove and avoid those powered by disposable butane gas canisters.
  • In alpine areas, ensure that everyone is outfitted with enough clothing so that fires are not a necessity for warmth.
  • If you light a fire, use an existing fireplace. Don't surround fires with rocks. Use only dead, fallen wood. In huts, leave wood for the next person.
  • Do not feed the wildlife as this can lead to animals becoming dependent on hand-outs; unbalanced populations; and diseases.
  • Study-up on local laws, regulations and etiquette about local wildlife and the environment.
  • Pay any requisite track fees and obtain permits.
  • Seek advice from environmental organisations such as the Wilderness Society (www.wilderness.org.au) the Australian Conservation Foundation (www.acfonline.org.au) and Planet Ark (www.planetark.org).

Safety Guidelines For Bushwalking

Before you lace up your boots, make sure you're walking in a region – and on tracks – within your realm of experience, and that you feel healthy and comfortable walking for a sustained period. Check with local authorities for weather and track updates: be aware that weather conditions and terrain can vary significantly within regions, and that seasonal changes can considerably alter any track.

Cycling

Cyclists in Australia have access to plenty of cycling routes and can tour the country for days, weekends or even multiweek trips. Or you can just rent a bike for a few hours and cycle around a city.

Standout longer routes include the Murray to the Mountains Rail Trail and the East Gippsland Rail Trail in Victoria. In WA the Munda Biddi Trail offers 900km of mountain biking, or you can rampage along the same distance on the Mawson Trail in SA. The 480km Tasmanian Trail is a north–south mountain-bike route across the length of the island state.

Rental rates charged by most outfits for road or mountain bikes start at around $25/50 per hour/day. Deposits range from $50 to $250, depending on the rental period. Most states have bicycle organisations that can provide maps and advice.

Skiing & Snowboarding

Australia has a small but enthusiastic skiing industry, with snowfields straddling the NSW–Victoria border. The season is relatively short, however, running from about mid-June to early September, and snowfalls can be unpredictable. The top places to ski:

Feature: Wildlife Watching

The local wildlife is one of Australia's top selling points, and justifiably so. National parks are the best places to meet the residents, although many species are nocturnal so you may need to hone your torch (flashlight) skills to spot them. Camping in national parks greatly increases your chances of seeing something interesting. Tracking down the numerous iconic and charismatic species can be like a treasure hunt – you just have to know where to look. To get things started, here's five of the top wildlife encounters from around the country:

  • Whales Hervey Bay, Queensland
  • Grey kangaroos Namadgi National Park, Australian Capital Territory
  • Penguins Phillip Island, Victoria
  • Tasmanian devils Maria Island, Tasmania
  • Wombats Cradle Mountain–Lake St Clair National Park, Tasmania

On the Water

As Australia's national anthem will melodiously inform you, this land is 'girt by sea'. Surfing, fishing, sailing, diving and snorkelling are what people do here − national pastimes one and all. Marine-mammal-watching trips have also become popular in recent years. Inland there are vast lakes and meandering rivers, offering rafting, canoeing, kayaking and (yet more) fishing opportunities.

Diving & Snorkelling

The Great Barrier Reef has more dazzling diving and snorkelling sites than you can poke a fin at. Put simply, the reef is one of the world's best places for diving and snorkelling.

In Western Australia, Ningaloo Reef is every bit as interesting as the east-coast reefs, without the tourist numbers. There are spectacular artificial reefs here too, created by sunken ships at Albany and Dunsborough.

The Rapid Bay jetty off the Gulf St Vincent coast in SA is renowned for its abundant marine life, and in Tasmania the Bay of Fires and Eaglehawk Neck are popular spots. In NSW head for Jervis Bay and Fish Rock Cave off South West Rocks.

Fishing

Barramundi fishing is hugely popular across the Top End. In the NT, these are the best fishing spots:

Over on the Queensland coast of the Gulf of Carpentaria, try Karumba and Lake Tinaroo in Queensland.

Ocean fishing is possible right around the country, from pier or beach, or you can organise a deep-sea charter. There are magnificent glacial lakes and clear highland streams for trout fishing in Tasmania.

Before casting a line, be warned that strict limits to catches and sizes apply in Australia, and many species are threatened and therefore protected. Check local guidelines via fishing equipment stores or through the relevant state-government fishing bodies for information.

Surfing

Bells Beach, Cactus, Margaret River, the Superbank...mention any of them in the right company and stories of surfing legend will undoubtedly emerge. The Superbank and Bells Beach are mainstays on the Association of Surfing Professionals (ASP) World Tour calendar each year, with Bells the longest-serving host of an ASP event. Cactus dangles the lure of remote mystique, while Margaret River is a haunt for surfers chasing bigger waves.

While the aforementioned might be jewels, they're dot points in the sea of stars that Australia has to offer. Little wonder − the coastline is vast, touching the Indian, Southern and South Pacific Oceans. With that much potential swell, an intricate coastal architecture and the right conditions, you'll find anything from innocent breaks to gnarly reefs not far from all six Australian state capitals.

New South Wales

  • Manly through to Avalon, otherwise known as Sydney's northern beaches.
  • Byron Bay, Lennox Head and Angourie Point on the far north coast.
  • Nambucca Heads and Crescent Head on the mid-north coast.
  • The areas around Jervis Bay and Ulladulla on the south coast.

Queensland

  • The Superbank (a 2km-long sandbar stretching from Snapper Rocks to Kirra Point).
  • Burleigh Heads through to Surfers Paradise on the Gold Coast.
  • North Stradbroke Island in Moreton Bay.
  • Caloundra, Alexandra Heads, near Maroochydore, and Noosa on the Sunshine Coast.

South Australia

  • Cactus Beach, west of Ceduna on remote Point Sinclair – internationally recognised for quality and consistency.
  • Greenly Beach on the western side of the Eyre Peninsula.
  • Pennington Bay – the most consistent surf on Kangaroo Island.
  • Pondalowie Bay and Stenhouse Bay on the Yorke Peninsula, part of Innes National Park.
  • Victor Harbor, Port Elliot and Middleton Beach south of Adelaide.

Tasmania

  • Marrawah on the exposed northwest coast – can offer huge waves.
  • St Helens and Bicheno on the east coast.
  • Eaglehawk Neck on the Tasman Peninsula. Legendary Shipstern Bluff isn't far from here – Australia's heaviest wave.
  • Closer to Hobart, Cremorne Point and Clifton Beach.

Victoria

  • Bells Beach, the spiritual home of Australian surfing (...when the wave is on, few would argue, but the break is notoriously inconsistent).
  • Smiths Beach on Phillip Island.
  • Point Leo, Flinders, Gunnamatta, Rye and Portsea on the Mornington Peninsula.
  • On the southwest coast, Barwon Heads, Point Lonsdale, Torquay and numerous spots along the Great Ocean Rd.

Western Australia

  • Margaret River, Gracetown and Yallingup in the southwest.
  • Trigg Point and Scarborough Beach, just north of Perth.
  • Further north at Geraldton and Kalbarri.
  • Down south at Denmark on the Southern Ocean.

Whale, Dolphin & Marine-Life Watching

Southern right and humpback whales pass close to Australia's southern coast on their migratory route between the Antarctic and warmer waters. The best spots for whale-watching cruises are Hervey Bay in Queensland, Eden in southern NSW, the mid-north coast of NSW, Warrnambool in Victoria, Albany on WA's southwest cape, and numerous places in SA. Whale-watching season is roughly May to October. For whale sharks and manta rays try WA's Ningaloo Marine Park.

Dolphins can be seen year-round along the east coast at Jervis Bay, Port Stephens and Byron Bay in NSW; off the coast of WA at Bunbury and Rockingham; off North Stradbroke Island in Queensland; and you can swim with them off Sorrento in Victoria. You can also see little penguins in Victoria on Phillip Island. In WA, fur seals and sea lions can be seen at Rottnest Island, Esperance, Rockingham and Green Head, and all manner of beautiful sea creatures inhabit Monkey Mia (including dugongs). Sea lions also visit the aptly named (though not technically correct) Seal Bay on SA's Kangaroo Island.

Planning Your Outdoor Trip

When to Go

  • September & October

Spring brings the climax of the football season, which means a lot of yelling from the grandstands. The more actively inclined rejoice in sunnier weather and warmer days, perfect for bushwalking, wildlife watching and rock climbing.

  • December–February

Australians hit the beach in summer: prime time for surfing, sailing, swimming, fishing, snorkelling, skydiving, paragliding...

  • March–May

Autumn is a nostalgic time in Australia, with cool nights and wood smoke: perfect weather for a bushwalk or perhaps a cycling trip − not too hot, not too cold.

  • June–August

When winter hits, make a beeline for the outback, the tropical Top End or the snow. Pack up your 4WD and head into the desert for a hike or scenic flight, or grab your snowboard and head into the mountains for some powdery fun.

Online Resources

  • Bicycles Network Australia (www.bicycles.net.au) Information, news and links.
  • Bushwalking Australia (www.bushwalkingaustralia.org) Website for the national body, with links to state and territory bushwalking clubs and federations.
  • Coastalwatch (www.coastalwatch.com) Surf-cams, reports and weather charts for all the best breaks.
  • Dive-Oz (www.diveoz.com.au) Online scuba-diving resource.
  • Fishing Australia (www.fishingaustralia.com.au) Comprehensive fishing coverage.
  • Ski Online (www.ski.com.au) Commercial site with holiday offers plus snow-cams, forecasts and reports.