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Monday, January 12, 2009

Best time to visit Australia? It may be summer, but don't head Down Under

How well do you research the best times of year to travel to places before you buy your tickets? I'm asking because I was astonished to see Queensland's Great Barrier Reef listed as a place to visit now on a popular travel magazine's site. This is in fact the worst time of year to visit northern Queensland. Indeed, anywhere in northern Australia, known as 'the tropics' - which gives a hint why! It's currently the Wet season, which means it's sweltering, it's raining constantly, there are regular thunderstorms, high winds, strong chances of cyclones, and frequent flooding. And it's going to stay this way until April. Although the tourism bodies and tour operators still try to encourage travellers to visit now. In tropical Queensland for instance they market the season as 'The Green' rather than The Wet as they do in the Northern Territory and Western Australia. The Green (like The Wet) begins in early November with a period called The Build-Up when things start get steamy, there are spectacular lightening displays and the first monsoonal showers fall. The heaviest rains hit in January and February, when the humidity is at its highest, before easing off and stopping in April or May when The Dry begins. As a result of the rain, rivers are full, waterfalls flowing, and everything is lush and green. Some argue this is the best time to visit the NT's Kakadu National Park* for instance - they're probably right, but you must have flexible travel plans. Dirt roads turn to mud (if not raging rivers!) and are closed, and if you get trapped somewhere you could be stuck for days if not weeks. Keep in mind the official tourist season (which begins in April/May) ends in October: many resorts shut for the season, operators stop offering tours, and businesses let their staff take leave, staying open for shorter hours with a skeleton team. On the plus side, hotels staying open offer reduced rates. As for the rest of Oz ... while we're finding it lovely and warm here in the south right now, everybody is talking about the "heatwave", bushfires are blazing in SA and NSW, and because school kids are on summer holiday families take their annual breaks, so accommodation is fully booked and anything near the beach is expensive. As far as I'm concerned, the best times to visit anywhere in Australia are spring and autumn (fall). But before you buy your tickets, rather than following false advice, check Australia's reliable Bureau of Meteorology website.

* Take a look at the fascinating six seasons that the indigenous people of Kakadu follow here.

Pictured? Our vehicle on the Mereenie Loop, an outback track west of Alice Springs, just before we were caught in a flash flood in early November. Read about our adventure on Terry's blog Wide angles, wine and wanderlust in his post Staying calm in the eye of the storm, part 1 and part 2.


jeanp said...

Hi Lara.
We are planning a trip and are trying to figure out the best time of year for our journey to Australia. In a perfect world of 3 weeks of traveling, we would like to see the Barrier Reef, Sydney, Melbourne and New Zealand, and spots in between and along the way. The Barrier Reef will only be a short stop,long enough to have a day in the water.We want to see the Reef, hike and/or bike in New Zealand or rent a car and drive around the island to see as much as possible,staying in small inns along the way,most likely South Island. In cities,public transport, of course, unless you think a car is the way to go. We have a TomTom, so navigation shouldn't be too tough.Getting lost a couple of times is always a good thing in my opinion anyway! We will spend a couple of days in Sydney on the way in and out, as that's our airport destination.

OR- if there is a part of the country that is worth a flight and a few days to see, we are flexible there..

A friend had said he thought that April would be the best,latter part into May. Of course, the airlines are starting a big blitz at the moment for travel between now and Dec of '09.... then prices will ratchet up again...

I appreciate any tips/advice....thanks .. Jean

Lara Dunston said...

Hi Jean

Nice to hear from you - and what a wonderful trip you've got planned!

Well, I can't help you with New Zealand, but here goes on Australia.

Sydney is lovely in April, although Melbourne is already starting to get cold. Sydney, however, is gorgeous in autumn (fall) - the clarity of light is beautiful and the air is fresh!

Both are great cities, with fantastic restaurants, cafes and bars, and great shopping. Although Sydney of course is also very beautiful (Melbourne isn't), and has unique things to do like the Sydney Harbour Bridge Climb.

With only 3 weeks to play with - and Australia being such a massive country - I'd question why you need to visit two big cities in that time... if you feel the need for whatever reason, I'd recommend allowing 5-7 days in Sydney and just a 2-3 days in Melbourne.

From Sydney I'd recommend you fly north in order to see the Barrier Reef. While there are beautiful beaches along the NSW and Queensland coast, the towns themselves are rather drab and they all become a bit monotonous. Once you've seen one or two you've seem them all. The distances are vast and a driving trip like that exhausting.

Keep in mind, however, that you can't really go to the Barrier Reef (or anywhere in northern Queensland) or northern Australia before April due to the Wet season. It's pretty much raining continuously between now and then, with cyclones, floods, etc.

Your itinerary overlooks what for me are Australia's greatest assets:

1) Uluru (Ayers Rock) - this rock is not only an extraordinarily striking and beautiful natural phenomenon, but it's also a place of spiritual value to the indigenous people. You need at least 2 days here. You can fly directly or fly to Alice Springs and then travel overland, which is fascinating. Depending on your budget, stay at Longitude 131 (very special) or Sails in the Desert (very comfortable).

2) Kakadu National Park (near Darwin) - this is a World Heritage listed site, and home to thousands of works of ancient Aboriginal rock art, beautiful waterfalls and waterholes (great swimming!), pristine wilderness 'rock country' boasting dramatic rock formations and escarpments, and lush mangrove country - you can't go here until April either, however, in April and May it will be looking particularly lovely after several months of rain. The wildlife, especially birdlife, is amazing! I'd suggest flying into Darwin, spending a day or two there to acclimatize, then taking a 3-day tour to Kakadu. I strongly recommend Connections small-group (6 people) 4WD tours (not the buses! and ask for guide Gerry) and then adding on a 1-day trip to Aboriginal-owned Arnhem Land with Sab Lord of Lord's Safaris (also 6 people only in a 4WD).

3) Broome, for me, is another highlight of Australia - a fascinating town with a wonderful indigenous art scene, pearling history (and still a pearling centre), and intriguing Chinese heritage. All around is striking red desert (teaming with wildlife) yet this is where you'll find one of Australia most beautiful beaches (a camel ride at sunset is a must!) - the contrast between the red desert, the white beach, and the aquamarine water is special. Once again, though, due to the Wet season you can't visit until April. There are direct flights.

And then there's Kangaroo Island in South Australia (Australia's Galapagos Island!); the wine regions of South Australia (the Barossa, Adelaide Hills, McLaren Vale, and Coonawarra; all a short drive from foodie capital, Adelaide); and Western Australia's Margaret River region and south-eastern Western Australia's 'tall tree' forests... ah, so much to see and do...

Hope that helps!

Anonymous said...

Hi Lara:

I am trying to plan my honeymoon and would love your insight.

I thought your article was very informative and really appreciate your post. Just to confirm, April (24th, 2010) is good to trave to Sydney and the Great Barrier reef...correct, or no. If not, is May good?
Thank you for your time Sabrina

Anonymous said...


I appreciate your blog-I am trying to reassure myself that having to move my trip to Australia from November to April may be to my advantage.

I am 20 yrs old and traveling alone-I have no idea how long I want to stay as this is my first trip where I will be backpacking and just winging it.

I PLAN to fly into Sydney at the beginning of April and from there who knows-I have some ideas but would like to see if you have any suggestions.

At the moment I am debating on how long I should stay as I know it can be pricey-I am thinking about 4 months so until the end of July.

I want to do the east coast-Sydney to Cairns, although I have the option of going joining some friends in Perth in the beginning of April and after that leave to Cairns and go down the coast to Sydney.

Is Perth a good idea or somewhere I could miss and not regret it? Also any thoughts on Melbourne or Adelaide? Should I leave it until the end? I was offered work in Adelaide but I am sure I can find work elsewhere to or at least hope so.

Please help if you can?

Thank you,
Alyx (

visitor ETA visa said...

When to Visit the Reef -- April through November is the best time to visit the Great barrier reef.