I have by now been to 37 countries on six continents, from Mongolia to Morocco, India to Iceland, but my first great adventure was a six-month solo trek around and across Australia. I had traveled solo before, but that had been weeks at the Stratford Festival or monthly corporate business trips to places across the US and Canada. However, they weren't significant, life-altering trips. Australia was.
By the time I left Australia, I had covered nearly 20,000 miles -- by bus, 4WD, horse, foot, and an occasional airplane. Actually, the fact one can travel that sort of distance within Australia is one of the things that surprises most people. Few people who don't travel realize that Australia is almost the same size as the continental United States. With a population of only 20 million, there is a lot more "out there" than there is settled land -- and yet Australia is the most urbanized country in the world, with 85 percent of its population in a handful of major cities. But is was not the cities that captivated and transformed me.
While it was the weirdly desolate landscapes of the Northern Territory, from the red rocks of the center to the screw palm savannah, forests, and wetlands of the Top End, that really got into my blood, my first real understanding of why I was there came during my first visit to the rainforest in Queensland. The beauty was intoxicating: soaring trees dripping with vines, mosses and fungus, orchids and bromeliads, parrots and bower birds, streams and waterfalls. My spirit resonated so powerfully that I almost couldn't leave.
I found Australia to be a land of constant surprises. Yes, there are parrots, but there are also huge colonies of penguins in the south. It is a land fabled for its deserts, and yet it has lush rainforests (both tropical and temperate), primal wetlands, and the Great Barrier Reef, and the southwest of Western Australia is said to have among the most fabulous displays of spring wildflowers of anywhere on earth (I know I've never seen anything else like it).
If you like camping out, the northern half of Australia offers a very useful feature: there are two seasons, the Dry and the Wet. If you plan your camping trip during the Dry, you can expect several months without any sign of a cloud in the sky.
The people are amazingly friendly, so it's not necessary to be lonely if you don't want to be. Bargain travel is available everywhere (just check with the Government Tourist Bureau for whatever state or territory you wish to visit), so it doesn't have to be a costly vacation. And if you're a foodie, this is one of the planet's great destinations.
There are splendid, innovative chefs turning out sensational meals at high-end places, but food bargains abound. Between the huge influx of Europeans at the end of World War II and the proximity to Asia, street vendors and food courts in shopping malls offer splendid repasts of Malaysian, Lebanese, Indonesian, Greek, Cambodian, and many other cuisines. Every major city has a Chinatown, but most have enclaves of other ethnicities as well (for example Melbourne has the third larges Greek-speaking community in the world, after Athens and Thessalonica). It's an island, so you're surrounded by great seafood; it's one of the world's great wine-producing countries; they make amazing cheese; and you're in the tropics, so you get mangoes and all sorts of other tropical delights. Plus macadamia nuts originated in Australia (where they are as often known as Queensland nuts), so those are less costly then they are most places.
It is the mix, the irony, the contrast that I love most. I can happily spend three or four weeks out in the middle of a rugged, remote wilderness that boasts some of the oldest rocks on the planet (it is believed that the Hamersley Range in the northwest may have been the first part of the earth's crust to cool), some of most unusual plants (would you believe an underground orchid), and all those delightfully crazy animals (wombats to echidnas to sealions to kangaroos and wallabies), then I can return to the coast and eat huge prawns and sweet "bugs" (what Europeans call slipper lobsters) or stop in at an all-you-can-eat Cambodian buffet, and maybe catch a play at one of the many excellent theaters or cruise through one of the great art galleries or museums.
While I've been to heaps of other places, Australia remains a favorite destination. I've been back three times since that original grand trip (though only for a month on each subsequent trip). It's the perfect place for the person who has been everywhere, as there are some of the most remote, untouched regions on earth. And it's the perfect place for someone who is just starting out, as there are great camping outfitters and backpacker cabins and loads of places with rooms for singles.
It's a hard destination to beat.
Cynthia Clampitt is author of the award-winning travel narrative Waltzing Australia, the story of her six-month, 20,000-mile solo journey around and across Australia.