Hiking is a great way to see the world. It’s low-impact and simple – all you really need are your legs and a pair of good shoes or hiking boots. Do it in nature and it fills your lungs with fresh air, relaxes your body and refreshes your spirit. Walk with friends and it’s social, a conversation on the move. Go alone and it’s a moving meditation. Hiking is portable and economical – you can walk just about anywhere, and much of the time it’s free. Then there’s the sense of achievement you feel when you get somewhere under your own steam.
Sure, it takes a bit more effort to put one foot in front of the other for a few hours or days than to recline on a poolside lounge, cocktail in one hand, a good book in the other. But that’s the point. The effort makes the rewards more, er, rewarding: coastlines you’ll never see from Victoria’s Great Ocean Road, mountain views you won’t glimpse by driving through alpine national parks, tropical World Heritage rainforests accessible only by foot, outback landscapes that have been walked barefoot for thousands of years.
It’s all there for you, and your feet, to discover. Need inspiration? Walk this way, for seven of the top hiking trails in Australia…
1. Island hiking: Maria Island Walk, Tasmania
Close encounters with wildlife – sea lions on the beach, penguins in rocky crevices, wombats in the long grass, Cape Barren Geese promenading like women in grey bustle skirts – are everyday events on Tasmania’s award-winning Maria Island Walk. Much of this four-day trip is beachcombing: walking, stopping and stooping to look at something of interest on the sand, like a shark egg casing, a pretty pink razor shell, an endangered hooded plover’s egg or strings of kelp baubles like Christmas lights.
The rest is like this: a wander through forests of tall blackwood and peppermint gums, a climb to the top of the 709-metre Mt Maria for views to rival those of Wineglass Bay back on the Tasmanian mainland, visits to Aboriginal middens.
It’s also a journey back in time; the island has played host to French explorers, two convict eras, sheep and cattle farmers, Chinese abalone divers, whalers and sealers, even winemakers and a cement works, before it finally became a national park in 1972.
As if all that wasn’t enough, each night you wine and dine at candlelit outdoor tables on everything from King Island cheeses to roasted quail, Roaring Forties chardonnays, fresh scallops, even summerberry puddings – before retiring to comfortable canvas tents in secluded bush campsites. This gourmet guided walk is a genuine crowd pleaser – without the crowds.
2. Outback dreaming: The Jatbula Trail, Northern Territory
Five days of wilderness hiking in the Top End with a full pack (not a daypack) might not sound like your cup of billy tea, but this is one of Australia’s best walks for a reason. The terrain is mostly level, which makes the walking easier than it otherwise would be, and you’re trekking in the footsteps of the Jawoyn people who have inhabited this country for thousands of years.
One of the highlights of this walk, in fact, is learning about bush tucker and visiting remote rock art sites along the way, including the Amphitheatre, a pocket of monsoon rainforest two days walk from Katherine Gorge (aka Nitmiluk, where the walk begins, three hours south of Darwin) and one of the best Aboriginal art sites in the Territory. But what makes the Jatbula Trail unique is that every day ends with a swim – because every campsite is situated beside a natural waterfall or swimming hole, where the water is fresh enough to drink. And because the walking season is also the Dry Season, when it never rains, there’s no need to carry tents; your “accommodation” is simply a mosquito net, through which you can star-gaze every night from the comfort of your sleeping bag. And the stars really are something out here, so far from any city lights.
3. Coastal cruising: The Great Ocean Walk, Victoria
At first glance, the west coast of Victoria might not seem terribly inviting for a walking trip. But what it lacks in stable weather, it more than makes up for in wildness and, since 2006, a trail that traces one of the most dramatic coastlines in Australia.
If you thought the Great Ocean Road was a coast-hugger, lace up your walking shoes and take a hike along this 91-kilometre track, which meanders from Apollo Bay, three hours south-west of Melbourne, to the Twelve Apostles. Along the way you’ll pass wild beaches and quiet coves, visit remote lighthouses, climb coastal staircases, hurry across tidal rock ledges (between breaking waves) and see more stunning scenery than you can poke a trekking pole at.
One of the best things about the Great Ocean Walk is that you can walk as much or as little of it as you like. There are short walks ranging from 20 minutes to five hours; string a few day treks together (between September and May) and stay each night at a purpose-built eco-lodge owned and used by walking operator bothfeet; or tackle the entire six-day walk, from east to west.
4. Tropical hiking: Hinchinbrook Island, Queensland
Hinchinbrook Island, which nestles against the Queensland coast halfway between Townsville and Cairns like a dugong calf to its mother, is a special place. More than 30 kilometres end-to-end, uninhabited (the eco-lodge at the northern end of the island closed after it was hit by Cyclone Yasi in 2011) and boasting undisturbed valleys lorded over by 1000-metre peaks that’d look more at home in Tasmania than far north Queensland, it’s also Australia’s largest island national park and protected within the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area. So it makes sense to experience it on foot, via the four-day, 32-kilometre Thorsborne Trail, named after conservationist couple Arthur and Margaret Thorsborne who explored the island in the 1960s and ‘70s. The trail leads from one end of the island to the other and you can do the hike in either direction. There are few places in the world where such pristine wilderness exists so close to civilisation.
5. Peak experience: Lord Howe Island, New South Wales
When Lord Howe Island’s highest peak, the 875-metre Mt Gower, was first climbed, by a group of visiting botanists and two locals in 1869, it took them two days to cut the track. More recently, in 1932, climbing Gower was said to be “almost impossible without a great deal of trouble … [and] camping out for several nights”.
Now it can be accomplished in a single, eight-hour day – with a guide. Once open to independent walkers, Australia’s best, and most challenging, day walk is now accessible only with a licensed guide because much of the track is overgrown and unmarked, but that doesn’t make it any less of an adventure. Following goat-tracks along rocky ledges high above the sea, you’ll have to grab a helmet (supplied en route) before hauling yourself up near-vertical rock faces using permanently rigged ropes (which also help on the return journey).
You’ll be rewarded for your efforts of course, with peaceful palm jungles, wild waterfalls and, on the 27-hectare summit plateau, Tolkienesque cloud forests where 30,000 Providence Petrels nest in burrows every winter. The views of the island’s tranquil lagoons and beaches are heavenly too and, on a clear day, you’ll see the jagged 500-metre spire of Balls Pyramid rising out of the Pacific, 26 kilometres away.
6. Making Tracks: The Simpson Desert, Central Australia
Following in the footsteps of the Afghan cameleers, some of Australia’s greatest inland explorers and, more recently, Robyn Davidson (author of Tracks), camel-supported treks through the outback offer a rare opportunity to leave the well-beaten 4WD tracks for a real desert adventure. “Inland Australia is, on the whole, emptier now than it has been since human occupation,” says Outback Camel Company owner Andrew Harper, who was head cameleer during the making of the movie version of Tracks in 2012. He runs “short” treks of a week or two, with locations varying each season (April-September), but the real deal in terms of desert exploration is the challenging 21-day Great Southern Simpson Desert Expedition.
Called Australia’s “horizontal Mount Everest”, it involves walking at least 400km, but the expedition ends at the iconic Birdsville Hotel in western Queensland, making it possibly the world’s only cross-desert trek that ends at a pub! Add the chance to sleep in swags, walk with up to 22 camels, gaze into campfires and tune in to the desert silence, and this is a unique, and quintessentially, Australian walking experience.
7. Mountain hike by moonlight: Kosciuszko National Park, NSW
The hike to the highest point on the Australian mainland, the 2228-metre Mt Kosciuszko, is a classic – it even starts with a chairlift ride, from Thredbo at 1365m to Eagles Nest at 1945m.
Take it up a notch by leaving Thredbo in the late afternoon to take in the high-country views over the Victorian Alps at sunset before walking back down to Thredbo by the light of the full moon (Thredbo Alpine Village runs guided full-moon walks between December and March). Or pack a tent and head off on a 20km overnight hike along the iconic Main Range Trail from Charlotte Pass to Thredbo via Mt Kosciuszko.
You’ll cross the headwaters of the iconic Snowy River and see snowgums, wildflowers, historic alpine huts and the only glacial lakes in Australia, but the highlight is seeing a sunset and a sunrise (if the alpine weather gods are smiling on you) and, in between, camping out at the top of Australia, long after the day-trippers have caught the last chairlift back down the mountain to their lodges.