[an error occurred while processing this directive]
Traveling down under is like visiting a quirky uncle: He speaks your language, plus he has an unbelievable backyard and some wild-looking pets you aren't supposed to feed.
Traditionally, travelers have confined themselves to Australia's sun-kissed East Coast and the Great Barrier Reef; in recent years, adventurous wanderers have discovered the rugged Red Center, the tropical Top End, and the sandy West Coast.
Nearby New Zealand, with its wealth of terrain (rivers, fjords, the Southern Alps) and national addiction to adrenaline sports, has also become a must-stop on the circuit. So head south: Uncle Oz is waiting.
All prices in U.S. dollars
Road to the Reefs Circuit
Unless you want to hop on and off planes, focus on Australia's East Coast backpacker trail, moving from temperate Sydney to tropical Cairns.
Begin by taking the Greyhound Pioneer Bus (www.greyhound.com.au) 16 hours north to Byron Bay, a longtime tramper favorite for its laid-back feel and curling waves (Byron Surf Shop; +61 2 6685 7536). After a three-hour bus ride to Brisbane, catch an overnight bus for your longest leg (19 hours), to Airlie Beach, the launching point for trips to the reefs and sparkling waters of Whitsunday Islands National Park.
Don't shell out for an Airlie resortsleep under the stars in uninhabited Whitsunday. Cid Harbor has several campgrounds with snorkeling right offshore (www.epa.qld.gov.au).
From Airlie, bus ten hours to Cairns, the base for snorkeling and diving in the outer Great Barrier Reef (Seastar II; +61 7 4033 0333). Raft on the Tully River (R 'n' R Rafting; www.raft.com.au) before flying back to Sydney. Kiwi Quickie Circuit
Your best bet to see New Zealand in two weeks? Travel overland from Auckland down the North Island, sampling Maori culture, before delving into the spectacular South Island.
Fly into Auckland, then choose your transportation. For maximum freedom, rent a car (www.apexrentals.co.nz). Otherwise, take the InterCity bus (www.intercitycoach.co.nz). First stop is Rotorua (four hours) for geysers, hot springs, rushing rivers, and Maori art galleries and workshops.
Kaituna Cascades (www.kaituna cascades.co.nz) runs tandem kayak trips with a pro down the Kaituna River and over a Grade V waterfall. From Rotorua, take the bus eight hours to Wellington and catch the ferry to the South Island (two and a half hours).
Now get to Nelson (two hours by bus) and the golden beaches of Abel Tasman National Park (www.abeltasman.co.nz). Backpack or spend a few quiet days kayaking the coastal waters and camping on beaches accessible only by sea; Southern Exposure (www.southern-exposure.co.nz) has guided tours and rentals.
A daylong bus ride along the rugged West Coast takes you to Fox Glacier, a good place to overnight and get a glimpse of the ice sheet. The next morning, hop back on the bus and enjoy stunning views of the Southern Alps on your final eight-hour leg, to Queenstown, the country's adventure capital; linger there a few days. Try river surfing on the Kawarau; Serious Fun River Surfing (+64 3 442 5262) supplies the body boards and instruction. TWO-MONTH ITINERARIES
The 50-50 Circuit
Split your time evenly between Oz (exploring the outback and diving the reef) and New Zealand (backpacking one of its famed tracks).
Take the overnight train from Sydney to Adelaide, then on to the outback town of Alice Springs. A visit to iconic Ayers Rock is essential, but backpacking a stretch of the Larapinta Trail in the nearby Macdonnell Ranges gives a better feel for the Red Center (Trek Larapinta; www.treklarapinta.com.au).
From Alice, fly to Cairns and wander the Road to the Reefs route (see above) in reverse. Then fly to Auckland to pick up the Kiwi Quickie circuit (see above) to Queenstown. Spend a few additional days, then head south to Fiordland National Park, an alpine tramping center, best hiked between October and April. Avoid the busy Milford Track; backpack the Kepler, sleeping in the shadows of snowy peaks. Reservations are required (Department of Conservation; www.doc.govt.nz).
Return to Queenstown for flights to Auckland and home. Bottom to Top Circuit
To really experience Australia, spend six weeks there, giving yourself time to explore the country's remote Top End. Take the train from Sydney to Alice Springs. After backpacking the Larapinta Trail, tour the Royal Flying Doctor Service (www.rfds.org.au), a center for medics who fly into remote outback towns to treat the sick and injured.
Then catch the overnight bus to Darwin, a frontier town and a great place to organize expeditions into the outback. A camping trip in Kakadu National Park (www.ea.gov.au/parks/kakadu) is a must.
Getting around is tough without a car, so hook up with an outfitter in Darwin; Aussie Overlanders (www.aussieoverlanders.com) offers a range of trips. Take in Ubirr and its amazingly well-preserved ancient Aboriginal rock paintings, hike to waterfalls, and cruise through a billabong teeming with crocs.
From Darwin, fly to Cairns, and then follow the coast south to Sydney. Conclude with the two-week New Zealand itinerary. ONE-YEAR ITINERARY
The classic way to explore Australia is to circumnavigate it on four wheelsa serious adventure. In Sydney, buy an SUV (a scheme less loony than it soundswww.travellers-autobarn.com.au guarantees buybacks) and equip it with extra gas and water cans. Strap surfboards on top and hit the road in June.
Go up the East Coast, timing it so you'll arrive in Cairns in August, which will give you three months to explore the wilderness beaches of the Cape York Peninsula and the Aboriginal rock art of the Top End, also famous for 12-foot [3.7-meter] crocs.
By November, head down to Perth. After surfing at Margaret River, amble back to Sydney, making detours to Ayers Rock, Alice Springs, and Tasmania for its bushwalking. Then it's off to New Zealand for a bicycle tour. Begin in Auckland and head west to the Coromandel Peninsula, then south through Rotorua and Wellington to the South Island.
From Nelson, pedal down the West Coast to Queenstown, then back north to Christchurch. Consider visiting the South Island in winter (June to August); snow rarely hits the road, but up on the slopes the skiing is great.
Central America >>