Arrive in Brisbane, the capital of Queensland, Australia’s “Sunshine State,” and transfer to our beachfront hotel on Moreton Bay, approximately 30 minutes away in the suburb of Margate. Gather this evening with our Expedition Leaders for a welcome dinner.
Days 2–4: Lady Elliot Island—Great Barrier Reef Marine Park
Transfer to a nearby airstrip to board our small plane to Lady Elliot Island, situated directly on the Great Barrier Reef. We spend the next several days exploring the southern tip of the world’s largest and most biodiverse coral ecosystem, spanning 1,400 miles in the Coral Sea. The reef sustains an astounding variety of marine life, earning it designations as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the Seven Wonders of the Natural World. Lady Elliot, a coral cay lying within the reef’s most highly protected Green Zone, is the optimal base from which to explore its wonders. The island's sole accommodation is an award-winning family-run ecolodge focused on reef health and environmental sustainability.
Within this protected sanctuary, clear ocean waters teem with manta rays, sea turtles, gentle reef sharks and more than 1,500 species of tropical fish. Humpback whales migrate northward from June to September. And the island is home to the second-highest diversity of seabirds on the barrier reef. Because Lady Elliot Island sits directly on the reef, we can snorkel from the beach as well as on boat excursions. Snorkeling instruction is provided, while certified scuba divers can opt for deeper exploration at 20 dive sites around the island (extra cost). On a glass-bottom boat with local naturalists, view the undersea realm and learn how corals are being impacted by climate change. Other activities include a visit to the historic lighthouse, birdwatching and stargazing.
Day 5: Lady Elliot Island / Margate
After a last morning to explore more of Lady Elliot Island and the surrounding marine wonderland, we depart after lunch to fly back to Margate, surveying the massive barrier reef ecosystem once more from the air. Return to our hotel on the beach to spend one more night before continuing our journey northward tomorrow.
Day 6: Brisbane / Cairns / Daintree Rainforest
Transfer to the Brisbane airport for our flight to Cairns. From Cairns, we drive north toward Cape Tribulation where two World Heritage Sites and distinct ecosystems—the Great Barrier Reef and Daintree Rainforest—converge. The route to our secluded ecolodge follows the coast before turning deep into the ancient ferns, emerald vines and dense canopy that inspired the film Avatar. Along the way, look for the endangered cassowary, the spectacular Australian bird that stands up to 6-1/2 feet tall. Ferry across the Daintree River, thick with saltwater crocodiles, to reach our destination inside the Cape Tribulation sector of Daintree National Park—land traditionally the province of the Eastern Kuku Yalanji Aboriginal people. This is part of the Wet Tropics of Queensland World Heritage Area, a region of spectacular scenery and rugged topography encompassing rivers, gorges, waterfalls and mountains draped in the planet's oldest rain forest. Tonight, take a walk after dark with our Expedition Leader as we search for nocturnal wildlife.
Days 7 & 8: Daintree National Park
Edging the Pacific Ocean in far northeast Australia, the Daintree Rainforest covers 460 square miles and is named for 19th-century Australian geologist and photographer Richard Daintree. This 135-million-year-old tropical forest shelters an unusual array of wildlife, including the musky rat kangaroo and southern cassowary. High in biodiversity, the Daintree holds 30% of Australia’s frog, reptile and marsupial species and 90% of its bat and butterfly species. Some 430 bird species live in the canopy, including the locally endemic tooth-billed and golden bowerbird, lovely fairywren, yellow-spotted honeyeater, Victoria’s riflebird, Bower’s shrikethrush and fernwren. Ancient plant species date to the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods—remnants of the dinosaur age—with wisk and tassel ferns representing some of Earth's earliest land plants. Other ancient flora includes plum pines, southern yews and buny pines.
Spend two full days exploring Daintree National Park and Mossman Gorge, where many Aboriginal sites of significance are located. On a private early-morning boat trip, enjoy birdwatching and nature photography on the Daintree River, flanked by dense rain forest and mangroves. We also visit the Botanical Ark, a conservation-driven ethno-botanical garden, to learn about plants that indigenous rain forest cultures all around the world still use for food, spices, shelter, medicine, cosmetics, fibers, oils and dyes.
Day 9: Cairns / Darwin
Drive back to Cairns this morning, then fly to Darwin, a former frontier outpost that is the gateway to Australia's "Top End” and Kakadu National Park. Located on the Timor Sea just below Indonesia and Papua New Guinea, Darwin is the capital of the sparsely populated Northern Territory. With roots into Aboriginal Dreamtime, Darwin’s indigenous heritage extends back tens of thousands of years. More recently, Darwin was an important transportation hub from the early days of European settlement and a strategic Allied base during World War II. Today the city blends Aboriginal, Australain and Asian cultures in a lively melange. Spend the night at our waterfront hotel in the heart of the city’s seaside promenade.
Day 10: Darwin / Bamurru Plains
Explore a bit of Darwin this morning, then make a 30-minute scenic flight by private chartered aircraft to Bamurru Plains, our secluded safari camp on a private concession bordering Kakadu National Park. On the coastal floodplains of Australia’s most northerly reaches, we have exclusive access to 115 square miles of savanna and woodland along the Mary River. This is the tropical side of the remote Australian Outback, home to one of the world’s largest saltwater crocodile populations and an annual migration of over 100,000 magpie geese. Skim across the floodplains by airboat, cruise the Sampan River, and take guided walks and game drives in search of brumbies, buffalo, dingos and wallabies in this wild and unusual environment.
Days 11 & 12: Exploring the Greater Kakadu Ecosystem
Bamurru Plains encompasses many distinct environments: melaleuca forest, savanna woodlands, riverine habitat that percolates with jumping fish and floating crocs, the bright green Mary River floodplains, open grasslands pocked by lagoons, primordial paperbark swamps, and wetlands full of black-wing stilts, plumed whistling ducks, egrets, ibis, magpie geese and a plethora of other birdlife. This is the storied Australian bush, which we explore via airboat, open-top safari trucks, guided walks and quad bikes. Local naturalists join our Expedition Leaders as they interpret the diverse flora and fauna of these rich ecosystems.
Greater Kakadu is also a living cultural landscape. Aboriginal people have continuously called Kakadu home since before the last ice age—for more than 65,000 years. In fact, there are so many wonders within the 7,700-square-mile Kakadu National Park that it received dual UNESCO World Heritage designations, for both outstanding natural and cultural features. Kakadu is Aboriginal land, and the Bininj/Mungguy owners work hand in hand with Parks Australia to jointly manage it using traditional knowledge and modern science.
The Kakadu region contains stunning biodiversity, including 68 mammal species, more than 120 reptile, 26 frog and 300 tidal and freshwater fish species, some 2,000 plant species, more than 10,000 insect species and one-third of all Australian bird species. Kakadu’s giant crocodiles are the world’s largest living reptiles, having thrived unchanged for nearly 200 million years. We anticipate seeing endemic freshwater crocs that live in rivers, creeks and pools, and saltwater crocodiles that thrive in floodplains, billabongs, gorges and coastal waters—both species are endemic to Australia.
Day 13: Kakadu / Darwin / Depart
Our northern Australia nature safari comes to a close this morning as we fly back to Darwin to meet departing flights, which should be booked no earlier than noon.