Day by Day Itinerary

Small Groups: Never more than 10-16 travelers—guaranteed!

Travel to Australia to uncover some of the continent's best-kept secrets and even get a unique perspective on familiar landmarks in an OAT small group. Delve into the remote Daintree Rainforest habitats. Snorkel or swim at the Great Barrier Reef. Explore the caves and waterholes of Ayers Rock. Feel the pulse of Australia's cultural centers—Melbourne, Adelaide, Sydney—and meet the people whose lives have been shaped by this magnificent continent. Join us, and discover Ultimate Australia.

Melbourne Sydney Expand All
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    Fly from the U.S. to Melbourne, Australia.

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    You continue your flight from Los Angeles to Melbourne, losing one day en route as you cross the International Date Line. You regain this day when you fly back to the U.S. at the end of the trip.

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    Explore the Queen Victoria Market in Melbourne

    Your Australia travel begins as an OAT representative greets you at the Melbourne airport and transfers with you to our hotel. After an orientation walk with your Trip Leader and travelers who chose to take our Tasmania: Australia's Natural Heritage pre-trip extension, you’ll have the afternoon free here in enticing Melbourne, the capital of Australia’s “Garden State” of Victoria. You can relax, visit local shops, or find your own ways to interact with the locals, who are not known for being shy.

    Tonight’s Welcome Dinner at a local restaurant is a great chance for you to mingle with your travel companions.

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    We have breakfast at the hotel and then begin our explorations of Melbourne’s highlights. Our first stop is the eerie corridors and dark cells of the Old Melbourne Gaol. Here, we’ll enjoy an exclusive tour uniquely structured for our small group.

    We’ll explore the narrow hallways and cramped cells, some which contain the death masks of the 135 unfortunate convicts who were hanged here, including the infamous bushranger (a bandit or criminal who hid in the bush and led a predatory life) Ned Kelly—Australia’s most notorious criminal. Many researchers and visitors also believe this site to be haunted by the troubled souls who were jailed here, so watch out for any unusual occurrences!

    We tour central Melbourne to feel the pulse of the city. We pass by the State Houses of Parliament, which served as the Australian national seat of government for a time. Nearby, we see St. Patrick’s Cathedral, one of the city’s most imposing churches. We then have the option of walking in the city’s fine Botanic Gardens, a splendid example of 19th-century English landscaping.

    At the end of the tour, you may have the opportunity to visit the Queen Victoria Market (if open) or return back to the hotel. This leaves you free for the afternoon to eat lunch where you choose and explore the city further on your own. Melbourne is a lovely city of broad boulevards, green parks, and Victorian architecture whose growth in the late 19th century was fueled by a gold rush. Public trams running on rails criss-cross the city, as distinctive a symbol of Melbourne as cable cars are of San Francisco. If you do decide to ride the trams, please remember to use caution when getting on and off the cars. They are a fantastic, romantic way to see the city, but mind the steps!

    Take a boat ride on the Yarra River from Princes Walk, or hop a tram to the suburb of Fitzroy and stroll along lively Brunswick Street with local artists and musicians. Cross the Yarra to Southbank to shop and dine. Stroll more of Melbourne’s magnificent parks, like Flagstaff Gardens, Carlton Gardens, and the King’s Domain, or simply relax if you wish.

    This evening, dinner is on your own.

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    Today, you are free to explore Melbourne at your leisure. Relax at your hotel or in one of the area's green parks, stroll the charming local shops that line the broad boulevards, or sample the area's culinary delights. You can explore more of Melbourne by hopping on the public tram.

    Or, join us on an optional Kangaroos & Koalas in the Wild tour. Accompanied by an experienced nature guide, we'll visit a national park in the nearby Western Plains outside Melbourne to study Australia's famous marsupials in their natural habitat. We'll witness throngs of Eastern Gray Kangaroos bounding by and encounter koalas lounging in trees. And as we get to know the wildlife, we'll also have the chance to help remove boneseed, a weed that impedes koala movement throughout the bush. A picnic lunch is included.

    Dinner tonight is on your own.

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    Explore Adelaide while touring South Australia

    Enjoy an early breakfast and then transfer to the Melbourne airport for the flight to Adelaide. We arrive in Adelaide mid-morning and enjoy some sightseeing, followed by an included lunch.

    Adelaide, the capital of the state of South Australia, is in a great location sandwiched between the Lofty Mountains and the Southern Ocean. After arrival, we visit Cleland Wildlife Park, where we have the opportunity to see endangered species and encounter some of Australia's most noted wildlife, including kangaroos, koalas, and friendly wallabies.

    From there, we embark on a tour of Adelaide, a city of wonderful views enhanced by its setting between green hills and the waters of the Gulf of St. Vincent. Named for Queen Adelaide, the wife of the British King William IV, the city was settled around 1836 by free people and not by convicts—as was so much of Australia. Adelaide was one of the first planned cities of the time, designed by Colonel William Light in a neat grid pattern interspersed with town squares. That grid pattern still holds, making the streets of Adelaide's central district well-defined and easy to navigate.

    We have a lovely view of Adelaide from Light's Vision, the site of a statue erected in honor of Colonel William Light, the city's designer. Then it is on to North Terrace, a cultural center with galleries, museums, and the Botanic Gardens.

    Tonight we'll experience genuine Aussie hospitality during a Home-Hosted Dinner with a local family.

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    After a discussion this morning on issues the Aboriginal and indigenous people of Australia face today, the rest of the day will be spent at leisure to explore Adelaide on your own. Tonight, dinner is on your own to enjoy at one of the many fabulous restaurants in town.

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    After breakfast, we fly from Adelaide to Alice Springs, arriving before noon. After checking in to our hotel, we enjoy a tour of "the Alice."

    First we pay a visit to the Royal Flying Doctor Service, a uniquely Outback entity that uses aircraft to provide medical care to settlements scattered hundreds of miles apart. Then we'll visit The Old Telegraph Station, which marks the European settlement of Alice Springs at the inception of the Overland Telegraph Line, which was established in 1872 to relay messages between Adelaide and Darwin.

    Tonight, enjoy a casual dinner of Australian cuisine with “bush tucker” influences in Alice Springs. It's an opportunity to taste some unique regional dishes of the “Land Down Under.”

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    Today, relax over breakfast at the hotel and enjoy a morning at leisure.

    Or, perhaps you'll join us for an optional half-day tour to experience parts of the Outback not normally seen by tourists. On guided walks of Alice Springs Desert Park, we'll explore an array of native plant, animal, and bird species, and discover the deep spiritual and cultural connection the Aboriginal people have to the land.

    This afternoon, we'll visit the School of Air, a unique educational group that teaches about 140 children living in remote Outback communities. This service provides vital interaction and tutoring for the children of Central Australia, primarily through computer, video, phone, and fax.

    The remainder of your afternoon is free for you to explore Alice Springs.

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    This morning we rise to enjoy breakfast before departing for our journey to Uluru. Early European settlers named it Ayers Rock, but it is called Uluru by the Anangu Aboriginal people who serve as its spiritual caretakers. We stop for lunch and visit Curtin Springs Station for a talk about the life on an authentic outback cattle station before we arrive at Uluru in the late afternoon. After a brief stop at our hotel, we proceed directly to the rock itself.

    In spite of—perhaps even in defiance of—the negative effects of European settlement, some 50,000 years of Australian Aboriginal culture and spirit have strongly endured in art, dance, and music. Uluru is the most fitting symbol of that endurance.

    Watching the sun as it sets on Uluru, it's vividly clear just why the local Anangu people attach paramount spiritual significance to it. As the Outback sun descends on the monolith (whose red/orange hue shifts fluidly throughout the day) the rock seems to glow eerily, as if lit from within. It's almost impossible not to feel the ancient spirit of Uluru. A mystical life force? Perhaps. But the Anangu also consider the Uluru a literal giver of life, attracting animals in abundance to its water hole and providing shelter and firewood to visitors. All in a rugged place one might freely describe as "the middle of nowhere."

    During our stay, we'll get a more personal view of Aboriginal life and culture past and present as we explore the Uluru-Kata Tjuta Cultural Center. After our two days in the Northern Territory, we’ll surely have a more profound appreciation for a heritage that runs deep in this land and all of Australia. Much of the area around Uluru is open for public visitation, but parts of this site are still so powerfully sacred to the Anangu that they remain off-limits.

    At sunset, we'll gather for a traditional toast as the last daylight paints the massive monolith of Uluru into a kaleidoscope of colors. Dinner will be on your own this evening.

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    If you wish, you can rise early this morning to revisit Uluru in the light of dawn, which is also dramatic at sunset but seen by far fewer travelers. As we walk near the base of the massive sandstone, we can see the diverse rock formations and the sculpted effects of millions of years of erosion by rain and wind. It is the centerpiece of Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, which also includes the spectacular rock formations nearby called the Kata Tjuta. Afterwards, you may take an optional scenic helicopter flight over Uluru and the Kata Tjuta.

    We transfer to the airport for our flight to Cairns. Lunch is on your own. We arrive in Cairns in the early evening and transfer to Port Douglas. After checking into our hotel, dinner is on your own.

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    Following breakfast, we make a full-day excursion to the Great Barrier Reef. We board our catamaran and sail to the Outer Reef, where all the natural magnificence of the Reef is yours to explore. We linger for most of the day, having lunch onboard.

    Possibly the best description of the Great Barrier Reef we've ever heard comes down to five simple words: “the world's largest living thing.” Its nomination for World Heritage status stated, “The Reef supports the most diverse ecosystem known to man ... an ecosystem which has evolved over millions of years.”

    But even facts like these can only hint at the sheer immensity and awesome beauty of the Reef. Our first peek, through diving masks or a glass-bottom boat, will bring into view its otherworldly character. It's a true sensory explosion, an azure scene of non-stop activity. We'll witness brilliant tropical fish darting about amid sea fans and anemones swaying with the waves. You may well feel as if you've dropped into a scene from the animated movie Finding Nemo. But no computer could generate such a spectacle. And it's all mere inches from the water's surface.

    There's no one “right” way to explore the Reef, so we'll be given a choice. You can swim or snorkel among the fish and wide array of corals, as the boat moors at a pontoon that is surrounded by reef. Or, if you wish to observe this spectacular underwater world without submerging yourself, you can view parts of the reef from a semi-submersible vessel. An experienced guide will point out the astonishing tropical fish and giant clams here. There is also an underwater viewing platform under the pontoon that gives you a unique view of this astounding landscape under the sea. However you do it, you are in a prime spot to experience the nature of the largest coral reef in the world.

    After sailing back to shore, we return to our hotel in Port Douglas for an included dinner.

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    After breakfast at our lodge, we begin exploring Daintree Rainforest—another Australian natural wonder—with a half-day of varied activities.

    We tend to think of the Amazon as the granddaddy of all rain forests. But at a mere ten million years old, the Amazon is really a grandchild to the Daintree Rainforest. This Australian national park is a unique ecological gem—it is the only place on Earth where the forests are much as they were 100 million years ago. In a riot of moist greenery much like this, the very first species of flowering plants bloomed while dinosaurs were still alive.

    Daintree is like a botanical Jurassic Park, hosting plant species so primitive they scarcely differ from their prehistoric ancestors. And while these forests were the point of origin for the world's flowering plants, many species here appear no place else.

    The lush, dense landscape is but one component of the Wet Tropics World Heritage area of Australia. This region comprises just one-thousandth of the continent's land, yet hosts an impressive range of Australia's native species. A full 40 percent of its plant species can be found here, as well as a quarter of its reptiles, a fifth of its birds, and a third of its marsupials and frogs.

    Taking this into account, one can understand the commitment of the activists (or "greenies") who waged a campaign in the 1980s to prevent the construction of an access road here. Their efforts resulted in the area being granted a protected status.

    We experience Daintree Rainforest from several perspectives while we're here. First, we take a guided walk through a dazzling rain forest inhabited by snakes, cassowaries, goanna lizards, and some of the most unusual vegetation on the planet. Then we board a boat for an hour-long nature cruise to observe the natural world found in the waters and along the banks of Coopers Creek, followed by an included lunch.

    This natural treasure has been protected as part of the 3,000-square-mile Wet Tropics World Heritage Area since 1988. Surrounded by the unmistakable air of primeval and sensual beauty, make sure to take a moment to reflect on the agelessness of Daintree and the efforts made to keep it that way.

    Tonight, enjoy dinner at the hotel.

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    We rise early for breakfast before we make our way to the Cairns airport for our flight to Sydney. We arrive in Sydney in the early evening and transfer to our hotel, where we will enjoy an orientation walk, followed by dinner at a local restaurant.

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    This morning we drive through Sydney's eastern suburbs, a modern fashion center boasting 19th-century architecture and interesting sightseeing, including the famous Mrs. Macquarie's Chair and Bondi Beach. We then get a magnificent view of Sydney Harbour Bridge from Circular Quay, home to one of Australia's most famous icons, the Opera House.

    Your Trip Leader will then take you on a walking tour of the historic Rocks District. "The Rocks" boasts some of the oldest buildings in Sydney. Some of the original European settlers camped here amidst the rocks of the sandstone ridges, giving rise to the area's name. Because many of the first Europeans to arrive were exiled convicts, part of this area's history was (to put it mildly) unusually colorful. Imagine a Wild West-like collection of bars and houses of ill repute where drunken brawls were common! Today, this is a safe place that invites visitors to stroll its cobblestone lanes and take refreshment in its tea rooms.

    Later, we board our watercraft and cruise around Sydney Harbour, taking in striking views of the city skyline as we blend into the perpetual bustle of water-borne activity.

    We continue our discoveries with a guided tour of the Sydney Opera House, whose distinctive architecture has made it the city's signature attraction. This visually spectacular performance facility boasts four auditoriums that host symphony concerts and theater as well as opera.

    This evening you are free for relaxation or further independent exploration of Sydney's many facets. Ask your Trip Leader for suggestions or discover for yourself an interesting spot for dinner on your own this evening.

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    You have a full day at leisure. You can relax, visit local shops, or return to the seashore to visit any of the several beaches that are accessible by public transportation. Tonight, we’ll enjoy a Farewell Dinner at a local restaurant.

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    • Meals included:

    After breakfast, transfer to the airport for your flight home. Or, fly to Auckland, if you’ve chosen our New Zealand post-trip extension.


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Questions and Answers

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Questions and Answers

Want to know more about one of our adventures? Now, when you post a question, travelers who have been on that trip can provide you with an honest, unbiased answer based on their experience—providing you with a true insider’s perspective.

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Weather & Regional

Before you travel, we encourage you to learn about the region of the world you'll discover on this trip. From weather and currency information to details on population, geography, and local history, you'll find a comprehensive introduction to your destinations below.  Visit our “What to Know” page to find information about the level of activity to expect, vaccination information resources, and visa requirements specific to this vacation.

Currency Cheat Sheet: Submit

What to Know

For more detailed information about this trip, download our Travel Handbook below. This document covers a wide range of information on specific areas of your trip, from passport, visa, and medical requirements; to the currencies of the countries you’ll visit and the types of electrical outlets you’ll encounter. This handbook is written expressly for this itinerary. For your convenience, we've highlighted our travelers' most common areas of interest on this page.

Download the Travel Handbook

What to Expect


  • 6 locations in 15 days with one 1-night stay
  • International flights from Los Angeles to Melbourne depart around midnight, losing one day en route as you cross the International Date Line, regained on the return trip, and internal flights that require early wake-ups
  • Airport transfers in Melbourne and Sydney may take more than 1 hour

Physical requirements

  • Not appropriate for travelers using wheelchairs, walkers, or other mobility aids
  • You must be able to walk 2-3 miles unassisted and participate in 4-6 hours of physical activities each day
  • Some walks will be in areas with high heat or humidity
  • Agility and balance are required for embarking catamaran and cruise boats


  • Daytime temperatures range from 60-100°F
  • The tropical regions in northern Australia are warm and humid
  • In the desert Outback, temperatures can exceed 100°F during the day, and drop dramatically at night


  • We’ll travel over city streets on foot, as well as wildlife sanctuary paths, sandy beaches, and rugged Outback trails


  • Travel by 19-passenger minibus (no toilet onboard) and 20-350 passenger boats, including a catamaran
  • 1 overland drive 7 hours long and 4 internal flights of up to 4 hours each
  • 2 cruises of 1.5-3 hours in length, 1 full-day cruise to the Great Barrier Reef

Accommodations & Facilities

  • Hotel rooms are smaller than U.S. and offer simple amenities
  • All accommodations feature private bathrooms

Travel Documents


Your passport should meet these requirements for this itinerary:

  • It should be valid for at least 6 months after your scheduled return to the U.S.
  • It should have the recommended number of blank pages (refer to the handbook for details).
  • The blank pages must be labeled “Visas” at the top. Pages labeled “Amendments and Endorsements” are not acceptable.


U.S. citizens will need a visa (or visas) for this trip. In addition, there may be other entry requirements that also need to be met. For your convenience, we’ve included a quick reference list, organized by country:

  • Australia: Visa required.
  • New Zealand (optional post-trip extension only): No visa required.

Travelers who are booked on this adventure will be sent a complete Visa Packet— with instructions, applications, and a list of visa fees—approximately 100 days prior to their departure. (Because many countries limit the validity of their visa from the date it is issued, or have a specific time window for when you can apply, we do not recommend applying too early.)

If you are not a U.S. citizen, do not travel with a U.S. passport, or will be traveling independently before/after this trip, then your entry requirements may be different. Please check with the appropriate embassy or a visa servicing company. To contact our recommended visa servicing company, PVS International, call toll-free at 1-800-556-9990.

Vaccinations Information

For a detailed and up-to-date list of vaccinations that are recommended for this trip, please visit the CDC’s “Traveler’s Health” website. You can also refer to the handbook for details.

Before Your Trip

Before you leave on your adventure, there are at least four health-related things you should do. Please check the handbook for specifics, but for now, here’s the short list:

Step 1: Check with the CDC for their recommendations for the countries you’ll be visiting.
Step 2: Have a medical checkup with your doctor.
Step 3: Pick up any necessary medications, both prescription and over-the-counter.
Step 4: Have a dental and/or eye checkup. (Recommended, but less important than steps 1-3.)

What to Bring

In an effort to help you bring less, we offer have included checklists within the handbook, which have been compiled from suggestions by Trip Leaders and former travelers. The lists are only jumping-off points—they offer recommendations based on experience, but not requirements. You might also want to refer to the climate charts in the handbook or online weather forecasts before you pack. Refer to the handbook for details.

Insider Tips


Main Trip

  • Travelodge Hotel Docklands

    Melbourne, Australia

    This modern hotel is in the heart of Melbourne’s Central Business District, convenient to shopping, dining, and nightlife destinations. It’s a short walk to the bustling Southern Wharf Precinct and the Southern Cross transit station, connecting you to the rest of the city. Each of the 291 air-conditioned rooms comes equipped with a kitchenette, cable television, and private bath.

  • Hotel Grand Chancellor Adelaide

    Adelaide, Australia

    Located in Adelaide's West End, the city's cultural and arts district, the Hotel Grand Chancellor Adelaide is near the Art Gallery of South Australia and the Botanic Gardens. Hotel facilities include an on-site restaurant and bar, a gym, an outdoor swimming pool, and a sauna. Each of the 180 air-conditioned rooms features cable TV, telephone, coffee- and tea-making facilities, minibar, iron and ironing board, and a private bath with hair dryer.

  • Chifley Alice Springs Resort

    Alice Springs, Australia

    The Chifley Alice Springs Resort is situated on the banks of the Todd River just a short walk from the town center. Facilities include an on-site restaurant and bar and an outdoor swimming pool. Each of the 139 air-conditioned rooms features Internet access, telephone, coffee- and tea-making facilities, minibar, refrigerator, iron and ironing board, and a private bath with hair dryer.

  • Outback Pioneer Hotel

    Yulara, Australia

    We spend one night at this 167-room hotel in the small town of Yulara, just a few miles down the road from Uluru National Park. This accommodation reflects sensitivity toward the environment with its landscaped desert setting and offers a swimming pool, restaurant, and bar. Though rooms are small, each features a private bath, air-conditioning, and a minibar.

  • Pullman Port Douglas Sea Temple Resort & Spa

    Port Douglas, Australia

    The central feature of this contemporary coastal resort is a large, lagoon-style outdoor pool. Other amenities include a full-service day spa, fitness center, restaurant, poolside bar, and 18-hole golf course. Each of its 194 air-conditioned rooms features a minibar, balcony, safe, and private bath with Jacuzzi.

  • Vibe Hotel Sydney

    Sydney, Australia

    This stylish hotel is a short stroll from the city’s bustling Darling Harbour and entertainment districts. If you can resist the call of the city, you’ll find a rooftop pool and trendy bar and restaurant on-site. The hotel’s 190 air-conditioned rooms feature private bath and hair dryer, TV, minibar, telephone, and coffee- and tea-making facilities.


  • Best Western Hobart

    Hobart, Tasmania

    The Best Western Hobart is conveniently located in the city center, offering easy access to the main shopping area, Battery Point, Salamanca Place, and the Hobart waterfront.  Each of the hotel’s 140 guest rooms features a private bath with hair dryer, direct-dial phone, coffee- and tea-making facilities, iron and ironing board, and TV. The hotel also has an on-site restaurant and fitness center.

  • Best Western Plus Launceston

    Launceston, Tasmania

    The Best Western Plus Launceston is located in the city center—a very short walk to the main shopping area and near local attractions like James Boag’s Brewery, Launceston Seaport, Cataract Gorge, and Aurora Stadium. Each of the 116 guest rooms features a private bath with hair dryer, coffee- and tea-making facilities, direct-dial phone, iron and ironing board, and TV. The hotel also has an on-site restaurant and bar.

  • CityLife Auckland Hotel

    Auckland, New Zealand

    The CityLife Auckland Hotel is conveniently located in Auckland's CBD (Central Business District), close to the city’s best restaurants, bars, and attractions including the Sky Tower and Ferry Terminal. The hotel features an on-site restaurant and bar and an indoor swimming pool. Each of the air-conditioned rooms features Internet access, telephone, minibar, coffee- and tea-making facilities, iron and ironing board, and a private bath with hair dryer.

  • Mercure St. Moritz Hotel

    Queenstown, New Zealand

    Designed in the style of a grand European chalet, the 142-room Mercure St. Moritz is ideally situated in downtown Queenstown, overlooking Queenstown Bay with sweeping views of the Remarkables Mountain Range. Enjoy contemporary lodge-style rooms, all air-conditioned with minibar, fridge, TV, in-room movies, coffee- and tea-making facilities, private bath, and hair dryer. Hotel amenities also include a restaurant, bar, swimming pool, sauna, and 24-hour room service.

  • Rendezvous Studio Hotel

    Sydney, Australia | Rating: First Class

    This stylish and modern hotel is conveniently located in the heart of Sydney, within walking distance of Darling Harbour, Chinatown, and Surry Hills. Each of the 116 air-conditioned rooms features a television, hair dryer, and tea- and coffee-making facilities. In your free time, perhaps you'll relax at the rooftop pool or sample Australian fare at the onsite café.

Flight Information

Your Flight Options

Whether you choose to take just a base trip or add an optional pre- and post-trip extension, you have many options when it comes to personalizing your air—and creating the OAT adventure that’s right for you:

Purchase Flights with OAT

  • Work with our expert Air Travel Consultants to select the airline and routing you prefer
  • Upgrade to business or premium economy class
  • Customize your trip by staying overnight in a connecting city, arriving at your destination a few days early, or spending additional time in a nearby city on your own
  • Combine your choice of OAT adventures to maximize your value

Make Your Own Arrangements

  • Make your own international flight arrangements directly with the airline
  • Purchase optional airport transfers to and from your hotel
  • Extend your Land Tour-only Travel Protection Plan coverage and protect the air arrangements you make on your own—including your frequent flyer miles

OR, leave your air routing up to us and your airfare (as well as airport transfers) will be included in your final trip cost.

Estimated Flight Times

Traveling to Melbourne, and from Sydney, will involve long flights and some cities will require multiple connections. These rigors should be a consideration in planning your adventure.

The chart below provides estimated travel times from popular departure cities. Connection times are included in these estimates.

Private Departures—New for 2015

How do you arrange a Private Adventure?

It’s simple: You choose the people you travel with. You choose the departure date. You choose the size of your group. OAT does the rest.

Your lifelong memories are only a phone call away: Call us toll-free at

Group Size Additional Cost
4-6 $2200 per person
7-9 $1000 per person

Now you can reserve a Private Departure of Ultimate Australia for your exclusive group of as few as 4 travelers. Enjoy a truly special adventure—starting from only $1000 per person.

The benefits of your Private Adventure …

  • Travel in an exclusive group of friends or family members
  • Work with your Trip Leader to create unique experiences and special memories
  • Tailor the pacing of activities—spending more time doing what interests your group most at the speed that fits your comfort level
  • Enjoy the security of knowing we have regional offices nearby

This program is available on new reservations in 2015 only, and cannot be combined with any offers, including our Vacation Ambassador Referral program. The additional cost of a Private Departure is per person, on top of the departure price and varies by trip. Private Departures do not include any changes or additions to our standard itineraries. Age restrictions may apply to some itineraries and must be at least 13 years old to travel with Overseas Adventure Travel. Ask your Group Sales Team for details. Additional taxes and fees will apply. Standard Terms & Conditions apply. Every effort has been made to present this information accurately. We reserve the right to correct errors.

40,000 Years and Counting

The cultural history of Australia’s Aborigines

by Pavi Kulatunga

At the heart of Aboriginal culture is ‘Dreamtime,’ a complex network of spiritual beliefs ...

The 1974 discovery of skeletal remains in Lake Mungo—a dry lake in the Australian state of New South Wales—revolutionized the world’s understanding of Australia’s indigenous community. Testing revealed that “Mungo Man,” as the skeleton was known, was an Aboriginal ancestor who had died between 40,000 and 60,000 years previously—a remarkable time frame that proved, scientifically, that Australia’s Aborigines possess the world’s longest continuous cultural history.

Australia’s indigenous communities agree, but their reference point is spiritual, not scientific. As they see it, they’ve been inhabiting the Earth since time began—a belief reflected in the name by which these groups are known: Aborigine, derived from the Latin ab origine, means “from the beginning.”

A blanket term, “Aborigine” obscures the fact that Australia’s indigenous community is not a single, cohesive entity. Indeed, when British settlers stepped ashore in 1789, there were an estimated 350 to 750 distinct tribal groups, each with its own name, language, social customs, and traditional methods of subsistence. (Today, there are fewer than 200.)

Where spirituality and culture interweave

While each Aboriginal group has its own clan-specific rituals, there are overwhelming similarities between their core spiritual and cultural philosophies. These powerful, shared beliefs help explain why these seemingly disparate groups have been able to successfully preserve their traditions for more than 40,000 years.

At the heart of Aboriginal culture is “Dreamtime,” a complex network of spiritual beliefs in which the past, present, and future exist simultaneously. Essentially a creation mythology, Dreamtime describes how dormant spirit-ancestors living within the earth suddenly awakened and, assuming half-human, half-animal forms, gave shape to the planet, creating mountains, valleys, deserts, rivers, and forests. When their work was done, these spirits crept back inside the earth, where they remain today.

For Aborigines, then, the land is truly sacred. Australia’s mountains and rivers aren’t simply reminders of their history, but physical manifestations of the spirit-ancestors who dwell inside—making the entire continent one vast sanctuary. Yet, these culturally significant locations are largely unknown outside of the communities in whose Dreamtime lore they feature. Of the relatively few acknowledged Aboriginal sites, perhaps the best known is Uluru, or Ayers Rock, the iconic sandstone monolith that rises more than 1,200 feet from the flat desert floor of the Outback.

The legacy of Dreamtime

Instead of a written record, Aborigines have relied on oral traditions to pass along and preserve Dreamtime stories. Each group performs corroborees, or ceremonies—including initiation and bereavement rituals—to maintain its history.

Dreamtime stories are also expressed through art, particularly rock paintings and petroglyphs. The images—rendered in red ochre, white kaolin, and charcoal—typically reflect the sacred totems specific to each Aboriginal group. Some etchings, however, depict Aboriginal hunters and their prey, like goanna lizards and wallabies. While the purpose and significance of such artwork is largely unknown to outsiders, one theory is that they served as backdrops for corroborees.

In the 1970s, a new style of Aboriginal painting known as “dot art” emerged. As with rock paintings and petroglyphs, these paintings focus on the natural world, showcasing Dreamtime animals and landscapes. However, unlike earlier styles, dot art features vibrant colors and abstract designs, which are used to mask sacred images and ensure that Dreamtime secrets are not revealed. The style, similar to pointillism, involves the artist painstakingly covering a canvas with uniformly sized dots—a process generally achieved by using wooden sticks or, more traditionally, echidna quills.

Dot art paintings have become extremely popular—not only in Australia, but also in the international community. Indeed, Time magazine’s renowned art critic, Robert Hughes, declared it “the last great art movement of the 20th century.” Today, dot art paintings are displayed in museums and high-end galleries throughout the world—ensuring that the culture and history of Australia’s Aborigines will endure.  

Partner since: 2015

Supporting a World Classroom: Central Australia

By seeing how children are educated all over the world, we gain a rare understanding of different cultural values—as well as the common values that unite us all. That’s why Grand Circle Foundation supports Nyangatjatjara College in Central Australia.

Nyangatjatjara College

Partner since: 2015

Located in Central Australia, Nyangatjatjara College is the only community-based school south of Alice Springs. Its focus on extracurricular activities serves to enhance students' skills and confidence, and engage them in practical learning. Grand Circle Foundation has partnered with faculty to help support the woodworking program, wherein students learn the craft inside and out—from collecting wood and operating lathes, to turning and finishing polished pieces. In this region, woodworking is a marketable skill: punus—or decorated woodworks, like animal carvings—are highly sought-after items.

School in session:

January 27-April 10, April 27-July 3, July 20-September 25, October 12-December 17; closed periodically throughout the year for national holidays

Gifts to bring if you're visiting:

  • A book for the school library
  • A book for the science lab
  • Postcards from your home city
  • Sports equipment

Alan and Harriet Lewis founded Grand Circle Foundation in 1992 as a means of giving back to the world we travel. Because they donate an annually determined amount of revenue from our trips, we consider each one of our travelers as a partner in the Foundation’s work around the world. To date, the Foundation has pledged or donated more than $97 million in support of 300 different organizations—including 60 villages and nearly 100 schools that lie in the paths of our journeys.

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