The monolithic sandstone of Uluru. The lush rainforests of the Daintree. The high plains of the Australian Alps, the snowy mountains of Tasmania, and the barren wastes of the Outback. Australia is a land of extremes, and its geologic features are no exception this rule: here’s a guide to some of the most famous and interesting features of the Australian landscape.
Uluru (Ayers Rock): Rising 350 meters (~1150 feet) above the western Australian desert, Ayers Rock is probably Australia’s single most famous natural landmark. Glowing different shades of red and orange depending on the season, angle of the sun, and time of day, Uluru is an eroded “island mountain” that measures 9.4 KM in circumference and which has named a world heritage site by UNESCO. Approximately 400,00 visitors come to view the rock every year, making it far and away the Outback’s most visited tourist site.
The Australian Alps: Australia’s highest mountain range, the Australian alps straddle the New South Wales/Victoria border in southeastern Australia. Home to to the highest peak in the continent Mount Kosciuszko at 2,288 meters (7,310 feet), the mountains are the only place in mainland Australia that regularly accumulates snow every winter. Most of the Alps are protected as national parks, a recognition of their importance as a site for recreation (skiing in the winter, hiking and trekking in the summer) and water collection, as a number of major rivers (which can be few and far between on this dry continent) have their headwaters in the Alps.
The Daintree Rainforest: A tropical rainforest north of Cairns in far northeastern Queensland, the Daintree is Australia’s most biological diverse and vibrant region. Over 30% of Australia’s frog, marsupial, and reptile species, 65% of its bat and butterfly species, and 20% of its bird species are found solely in the Daintree, which only takes up around 0.2% of Australia’s total land area.* A World Heritage site (along with Ayers Rock), the Daintree is home to a number of interesting animals, most notable among these the saltwater crocodile (which does regularly eat humans and can grow to over 25 feet long) and the cassowary, a cousin of the emu which can run 35 miles per hour and grow up to 6 and half feet tall.
The Nullarbor Plain: Part of the Australian “outback” (a general term used to describe any region of Australia removed from the coast and large areas of settlement), the Nullarbor Plain is a 200,000 KM stretch of southern Australia that can best be described as a “desolate wasteland.” The plain is flat (one stretch of the trans-Australian railway that passes through has no turns for 478 KM), hot (temperatures hit 120 Fahrenheit routinely), and isolated: the only settlements are there to help travelers driving the Eyre Highway, which also passes through this region.
Cradle Mountain/Lake St. Clair: Home to Australia’s most spectacular alpine scenery, Cradle Mountain/Lake ST. Clair National park in Tasmania is an alpine wilderness that bears a greater resemblance to the Canadian Rockies than anywhere else on the Australian continent. Home to some of Tasmania’s highest mountains and Australia’s deepest lake, the region was shaped by glaciers and sees extensive snowfall during the southern winter. Part of the Tasmanian high country, the park is populated by wombats, wallabies, and a number of other species.
The Whitsunday Islands: A group of islands off the mid-Queensland coach, the Whitsundays are a tropical archipelago that contain some of Australia’s most beautiful beaches and best sailing and snorkeling opportunities. Accessible only by boat, the islands are largely undeveloped and provide an unspoiled alternative to the more developed tropical beaches up the Queensland coast towards Townsville and Cairns. Whitehaven Beach, perhaps the most beautiful in Australia, is in this chain.
Sydney Harbour: No, you wouldn’t expect a “natural” feature to be found in the middle of the biggest city in the country, but if you look at its role in the country’s history than its pretty clear that the inlet is the most important natural feature in the entire country. The site of Australia’s first European settlement (the convict colony at Sydney Cove established in 1788), the Harbor strength as a national port paved the way for the modern city of Sydney to develop and has helped make the country the economic power it is today. Besides, considering that both the Sydney Opera House and the Sydney Harbour Bridge are located on the harbour, there is no question that this is Australia’s most photographed, visited, and famous natural feature.