Australia has an impressive 20 UNESCO World Heritage sites, spanning from prehistoric fossils to living cultural landscapes, unspoiled rainforests with incredible conservation value, and iconic man-made structures; all forming part of our national story.
Some of the sites are instantly recognisable; for example, Sydney Opera House attracts almost 11 million visitors a year. But there’s many lesser-known national treasures in the mix, and we’ve focused here on highlighting the sites you’re less likely to know. These sites give us valuable insight into who we are both as Australians and the human species, and both the evolutionary pathways of life and the geological processes taking place on our isolated continent over the last 35 million years.
You don’t have to leave Australia to experience incredible fascinating and humbling sites, significant to nature and culture alike. And if you’re reading this from overseas, you’ll find plenty of reasons to put Australia on your bucket list!
These sites will take you on an extraordinary journey starting long before humankind, from ancient flora and fauna; to the heritage, art and culture of the First Nations; through the dark history of the Convict Sites (as Santayana said, “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”) and to Australia taking its first steps towards a global-thinking, multicultural nation where we all call Australia home.
Without further ado, let’s get started on our Australian World Heritage adventure.
Located in SA and QLD, this is a truly special national treasure: they are among the world’s 10 greatest fossil sites, an incredibly informative illustration of how Australia’s unique animal life evolved in almost total isolation from the rest of the world. Australia is the world’s most biologically distinctive continent, thanks to 35 million years of geological separation from the rest of the world; this is why (for example) there’s hardly any marsupials found outside of Australia.
As you might expect, this leads to an evolutionary story that’s quite unlike anywhere else. Riversleigh and Naracoorte have preserved this story throughout the sands of time, demonstrating how our mammals responded to climate change and human impact alike.
You’ll find the older fossils at Riversleigh, which date back from 10-30 million years ago; Naracoorte tells the more recent story (although by recent, we’re talking about up to 530 thousand years ago) through one of the world’s richest deposits of vertebrate fossils. Together, they act as a record of life spanning many millions of years, with unique mammal fossils you won’t find anywhere else, documenting great climactic changes in habitat from humid, lowland rainforest to dry eucalypt forests and woodlands, all taking place in the same two sites. Together, this forms a fascinating and insightful serial World Heritage property that opens a window into the history of life.
Want to know more? Visit Tourism Queensland’s guide to the Riversleigh World Heritage Site, and the Discover Naracoorte website.
Located in the south-west of Victoria, the Budj Bim Cultural Landscape is the only Australian World Heritage property listed exclusively for Aboriginal cultural significance. This unique place demonstrates how the Gunditjmara people worked with the natural resources and environment of the area to establish a permanent place of human society continuously over the past 30,000 years and beyond.
The last major eruption of the Budj Bim volcano (also known as Mount Eccles) is understood by Gunditjmara to be when the Ancestral Creator revealed himself, spewing lava over 50 kilometres west and south towards the sea, and dramatically altering the waterways and wetlands of the area and providing the environments necessary for the Gunditjmara to develop an extensive and complex aquaculture network.
As well as its cultural significance, the area is beautiful, with crater lake views and walks, and it’s perfect for camping, walking, mountain biking and 4WDing. Lake Surprise is 700 meters long, and teeming with aquatic and bird life. The colour of the water changes, varying from deepest blue to green, depending on the lake sediments and levels of algae that are present.
Various tours are available, helping you really understand the cultural significance of the site; check out Parks Victoria’s list of licensed tour operators for Budj Bim National Park for more info.
This serial UNESCO World Heritage Property spans 11 complementary sites across Australia, from Fremantle in WA to the West, to Kingston and Arthur's Vale on Norfolk Island to the East, the Sydney area to the north and Tasmania to the South. It’s a dark, fascinating insight into the lives of over 160 thousand men, women, and even children from the age of 9, all sent to Australia over an 80-year period starting in 1787. Each site had a specific purpose to do with punitive imprisonment and rehabilitation through forced labour; together, they form the best surviving examples of the colonial expansion of European powers through the presence and labour of convicts.
The sites tell a story of exile to the other side of the world, how a new nation was born from adversity and hardship; they offer insights into their living conditions and deprivation of freedom, as well as insight into harsh social mores about crime, punishment, and rehabilitation in Europe of the 1700s and 1800s, and into the process of colonialism by which convict settlements created large populations of European origin and their impacts on the Aboriginal population.
Australian Convict Sites offers an in-depth look into these sites and their cultural and historical significance. You can find information on the eleven sites individually at:
New South Wales
Located in the scenic Kimberley region of Western Australia, the Purnululu National Park is best-known for its iconic Bungle Bungle Ranges, hundreds of spectacular beehive-shaped cone karst sandstone rock formations that rise up to a whopping 250 metres above the surrounding flat savannah grasslands. Their black and orange banded appearance is caused by biological processes which also serve to stabilise and protect these formations, and really make them look even more like giant beehives.
They’re often featured in Australian tourism specials on TV, and have been featured in ads by Tourism Australia, but it’s interesting to note that they have only really been known to the public since 1983 after widespread media promotion; before that, the only people who knew of the Bungle Bungles were the local Aboriginal people and a few helicopter pilots, stockmen and so on. Now, these incredible gigantic “beehives” of great beauty and geological significance are one of the most iconic and striking examples of Australia’s natural heritage, and definitely belong on your World Heritage bucket list.
Located in the Far West region of NSW, Willandra Lakes is a semi-arid region spanning 2400 sq km, and is World Heritage listed for both its important natural and cultural features, which including exceptional examples of past human civilization such as the world’s oldest sites of ritual ceremony: the burial site of Mungo Man and cremation site of Mungo Woman (both dating back over 40 thousand years). Aboriginal people have lived in the Willandra Lakes Region for at least 50,000 years, and the region is of great Aboriginal cultural significance. You’ll also find the largest group of fossil human footprints in the world here: 500 fossilised footprints made by adults, teenagers and children in wet clay during the Ice Age. All together, this forms a fascinating insight into human evolution in Australia, and some of the earliest evidence of human life outside of Africa.
Willandra Lakes is also fascinating from an environmental perspective, with striking geological formations including the eroded dune system known as the Walls of China. The ancient Lakes themselves were formed over a period of 2 million years and stopped functioning as a lake ecosystem just under 19 thousand years ago; this drying process was vital to the preservation of human remains and geological processes of the area. You’ll now find several dried lake beds surrounded by a landscape of semi-arid flora such as blue bush and mallee trees. It’s fascinating to consider how different this region would have looked during the time of Mungo Man and Woman – from flowing lakes and fertile land to rugged outback landscapes.
Find out more including guided walking tours at NSW National Parks and Wildlife Services’ feature on the Willandra Lakes Region.
And make sure you get in touch with an ATAS-accredited travel agent for your dream World Heritage holiday!
Looking for more travel tips and insight to excite your imagination and get you dreaming of your next Aussie adventure? Check out our bucket-list NT adventure, our traveller’s guide to SA and Adelaide, uncover Perth’s hidden gems, and find out why Hobart is for lovers.
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