1. THE PINNACLES, WA
Hundreds of limestone spires protrude from the desert in Nambung National Park near the town of Cervantes.
They recall the magnetic termite mounds of Litchfield, but what makes these limestone pillars stranger yet is that no willpower caused their existence. They’ve been brought about by an environmental roll of the dice.
As with any lost city-style oddity worth its salt, the Pinnacles inspire outlandish and clear-headed speculation in equal measure. Prominent theories state they calcified around tree roots or the seashells of an inland sea. In any case, the structures are baffling to behold — particularly when they rise above 3.5 metres.
2. HORIZONTAL FALLS, WA
Only a true outback oddity could turn gravity on its side. Impressive enough to attract the enthusiasm of David Attenborough, Horizontal Falls in WA’s Buccaneer Archipelago (near Broome) occurs when water funnels between a narrow chasm in the McLarty Range with such force it creates a huge swirling whitewash and impact zone, akin to a waterfall.
The Kimberley’s enormous turquoise tides are said to fall and rise 10m in places. The resulting current is responsible for the show, and for flipping the direction of the falls on a regular basis — as casually as one might flip a pancake. Leave the van behind and hop on a scenic cruise or flight to witness the magic.
3. DALY WATERS PUB, NT
Walk under the bougainvilleas and into this corrugated iron pub bursting with character.
The best outback pubs contain a trace of all the characters who have passed through. This one benefits from the fact it was once a watering hole for local roustabouts in a time when sheep stood in place of tourists. Daly Waters is an open canvas, an evolving exhibition of sorts where stories materialise as items left behind.
Banged-up numberplates, caps with logos, wide-brims, hung-up bras, and tourism stickers result in an explosion of colour. It’s difficult for the eye to immediately process all the noise — which is a good excuse to enjoy a few minutes of contemplation over an ice-cold beer.
4. JENOLAN CAVES, NSW
If you think getting on top of a mountain is thrilling, try getting inside of one. Lurking behind the walls of the Southern Blue Mountains are the intricate underground chasms and passageways of the Jenolan Caves.
These limestone hollows aren’t just renowned for their ancient geological beauty and bright blue underground rivers. They’re also widely recognised for the many myths and legends that haunt this corner of the underworld.
With several so-called ‘show caves’ to explore on tour, there’s plenty of room beneath the stalactites to get friendly with the ghosts and hear the mysterious tales firsthand.
5. COOBER PEDY, SA
Undertake your own moon landing at Coober Pedy, South Australia’s opal mining Mecca.
In this treeless mullock-heaped town of rusted car-wrecks and lean-tos, many locals live in underground dug-outs to avoid the 37-degree daytime summer temperatures. You too can abandon the van for the night to sleep in one, or simply visit one of many underground shops and attractions, such as Crocodile Harry’s or the Serbian Orthodox Church.
The town’s roughness contrasts with the opulence that has been its very inspiration ever since opals were first unearthed by a couple of hopelessly lost gold miners. In case you were wondering, black opal of the red-fire variety with a harlequin pattern attracts the highest price.
6. REMARKABLE ROCKS, SA
The Remarkable Rocks present a less obvious choice from the long list of medium-sized Aussie rock formations. They earn their place by combining the precarious balance of the Karlu Karlu (Devils Marbles) with the orange lichens of the Bay of Fires.
Placed at the top of a cliff overlooking the sea in Flinders Chase National Park on the glorious Kangaroo Island, the Remarkable Rocks have their location going for them — severe bushfire damage notwithstanding.
Their surreal, sometimes wafer-thin shapes describe lines that are fluid like water, which comes as a surprise in a medium as solid as rock. As is only right, the most remarkable of all is shaped like a wave itself.
7. RIVERSLEIGH WORLD HERITAGE SITE, QLD
If dinosaurs still exist, this is almost certainly where they’re hiding.
Located near the border of Queensland and the NT is our version of Jurassic Park, filled with fascinating fossils that date back 15–25 million years.
The World Heritage Riversleigh Fossil Fields span thousands of hectares, but Site D is the pièce de résistance with its bony remains of flightless birds, crocs, fish, and pythons dating back to the glory days of Gondwanaland.
Don’t expect to walk away with a T-rex shin bone over your shoulder — fossicking is illegal.
Like most of our outback oddities, this remarkable representation of mammal evolution is best seen as part of an epic inland road trip, given its location more than 1000km from the East Coast.
8. NORTHERN TERRITORY REGATTAS, NT
Oddities rely not only on place, but timing. The Henley on Todd Regatta on the sandy bed of the dry Todd River in Alice Springs abandons sails and outboards for good ol’ bipedal projection, as runners hold custom-made boat frames and work their legs overtime. The 60-year-old Aussie festival culminates in huge pirate ships firing flour bombs at each other. Nice.
The Darwin Lions Beer Can Regatta attracts a similar crowd of curiosity seekers. Originally designed to clear beer cans from the streets, it has become a sport in its own right, with all the attendant triumphs and tragedies.
9. PARONELLA PARK, QLD
You might think your van has all the bells and whistles, but not even the best manufacturers have figured out a way to option on a private garden, elaborate grand staircase, or tennis court.
In 1913, José Paronella arrived from Spain and decided he was going to one-up everybody else’s plain-Jane vision of the white picket fence. He took up 13 acres encompassing Mena Creek Falls and built an impressive stone castle amongst the forest.
If you were to take off a blindfold and find yourself here, you’d wonder if you’d stumbled upon a misty, moss-coated temple in the depths of South America.
Rest assured, there are no booby traps, aside from the entrance fee — but your ticket entitles you to free camping!
10. BUNGLE BUNGLES, WA
Nature’s oversized apiary, the Bungle Bungles, are a world-leading World-Heritage example of karst sandstone beehive domes.
Patterned with black stripes and painted in the richest of ochre colours, the staggering formations are different from ground level or from height, in sun or in shade. Visitors to Purnululu National Park can walk among these giants, edging through narrow chasms or chancing upon wide openings roomy enough for the world’s biggest brass band.
Attractions within the site (such as Cathedral Gorge and Echidna Chasm) make for a layered experience, but beware, access is off-limits during the wet season.
11. LAKE HILLIER, WA
You wouldn’t read about it: a pink salt-lake within a few steps of the big blue, separated only by a narrow band of sand.
Like an experiment-gone-wrong escaped from the darkest, most experimental corners of the Dulux laboratory, the tones of Lake Hillier can only draw comparison with the artificial, having no corollary in nature. Microalgae dunaliella salina is to thank for the spectacle.
The lake compares with Lake MacDonnell and Hutt Lagoon, but being on Middle Island in Cape Arid National Park, it’s slightly better situated than the one below Melbourne’s Westgate Bridge.
12. LAKE BALLARD, WA
Expansive salt-lakes are strange enough but try installing the nation’s largest outdoor gallery on one and the oddness notch cranks up to unprecedented levels.
Antony Gormley’s Inside Australia consists of 51 black steel figures, apparently modelled on local residents, spread over a patch of the 20km by 50km surface.
From the free campsite you can walk out and experience the silence that settles over everything when the surface no longer crunches underfoot. As Gormley himself said about this Goldfields’ natural attraction, standing on its cusp is like “being on the lip of the edge of the world.”
13. UNDARA LAVA TUBES, QLD
Australia ranks low in the volcanic action stakes, so it’s a welcome surprise that one of the lengthiest lava tube cave systems on Earth resides here. Undara, an Indigenous word meaning 'long way,' is a fitting title for tubes caused by hundreds of kilometres of lava flow. Your FitBit better brace itself for some punishment!
The volcano last exploded 190,000 years ago, at which point 23 billion cubic litres of lava ran rampant. As it flowed, the top layer chilled off and formed a crust, while the molten magma hollowed out the underground tunnels seen today.
Access is only via guided tour, but there’s something undeniably mystical about the dimly lit archways. Draped in vines and hosting owls and bats, they dish up an unparalleled sense of the unknown.
14. WALLS OF CHINA, NSW
Another oddity for fans of the moon (and Mars for that matter), Mungo National Park features its very own Walls of China — albeit less structurally sound than the real thing.
The so-called ‘lunettes’ are seemingly fragile clay structures that have resulted from centuries of wind and rain. They rise gradually from the dunes before tapering sharply towards their peaks. Ridges branch into finer and finer divisions down their sides like a Himalayan range in miniature.
They are best viewed in the evenings when the folds are swathed in shadow and the sun picks out the ridge-tips in a lightning-like pattern. Later still, during the afterglow, they seem to hold the light and display a sublime depth of colour.
15. GREAT AUSTRALIAN BIGHT, SA AND WA
The Nullarbor is often described as a long, boring drive over an equally long, boring plain, but those seeking a bit of dramatic topography only need to take a sideroad to the coast to get their fix.
The Great Australian Bight barely needs introduction. A key player in a recent oil-exploration controversy and a poster-boy for Australian tourism, the Bight has pulled through unscathed. Its dramatic drop-off from the flat plain to the ocean below reveals a towering face of cliff. Caused by an ancient continental rift, it's our very own Dover.
The drama of that ancient parting remains on show and the seasonal migration of whales adds to the experience. The dramatic sand dunes at nearby Fowlers Bay may not be on the level of Mount Tempest or the Big Drift, but they benefit from close association with the brilliant Bight.