From anarchist breakaway states to subterranean mining towns, via self-declared UFO capitals, Australia isn’t short of oddball places. Here are some of the quirkier towns to look out for.
1. Wycliffe Well, Northern Territory
Australia’s Roswell, Wycliffe Well is the self-proclaimed UFO capital of the country. “UFO sightings are so common, that if you stayed up all night looking, you would be considered unlucky not to see anything, rather than lucky to see something,” claims the tourist literature.
Not convinced? Then the cheesy alien statues scattered around town are unlikely to change your mind. In fact, cynics might well wonder whether the whole alien schtick is just an elaborate ruse to encourage travellers to linger in this outback town, rather than simply filling up their cars and continuing their journeys to Alice Springs.
Those who hang around, though, are guaranteed a good glug: Wycliffe Well reportedly has one of the best beer selections in the Northern Territory.
2. Nimbin, New South Wales
To experience Nimbin at its weirdest go during May’s Mardi Gras Parade, when the town’s “Ganja Fairies” can be spotted sashaying down the street smoking spliffs. For Nimbim has the doobie-ous (geddit?) distinction of being the unofficial cannabis capital of Australia, although a recent crackdown by police is raining on that parade.
Nimbin’s love affair with grass began in the Seventies when the town hosted Aquarius Festival, a weed-fuelled gathering of students and alternative lifestyle practitioners, many of whom never left. The hippies painted Nimbin red, and other colours, injecting a bit of vim and vigour into a town reeling from the collapse of its dairy industry.
Located roughly 40 miles from Byron Bay, visitors to Nimbin can learn more about local culture at the Hemp Embassy, which campaigns tirelessly for the legalisation of the drug.
3. The Empire of Atlantium, New South Wales
No need for a map in this 185-acre micronation, which claims to be “the only country you can drive to from Australia”. Unsurprisingly, Australia disagrees and, like the UN, does not recognise the sovereignty of this breakaway state in southern New South Wales.
The Empire of Atlantium was established in 1981 as an experiment into nationhood by the self-styled monarch, Emperor George II, who regularly conducts tours of his micronation. Sights include a 13-foot pyramid, a post office and the emperor’s modest digs, Government House, which can be rented via Airbnb for about £50 a night.
The micronation claims to be “entirely independent of the Australian power, gas and water grids” and is equipped with solar lighting, composable loos and woodfired heaters. Fun things to do include hiking, swimming and birdwatching.
4. The Principality of Hutt River, Western Australia
Another middle-of-nowhere breakaway state, this time in Western Australia, the Principality of Hutt River issues its own passports, currency and stamps, but like the Empire of Atlantium is not recognised as an independent nation.
Larger than Monaco, San Marino and the Vatican, the 29-square-mile territory is located 350 miles north of Perth and was founded by “Prince Leonard”, an eccentric farmer, following a spat with the government over wheat quotas in the 1970s.
Prince Leonard passed away in February 2019 but had already abdicated to his son, “Prince Graeme”, during a ceremony in 2017. The province briefly declared war on Australia in the 1970s following a row about tax, but withdrew this declaration several days later.
The micronation’s diminutive capital, Nain, has various buildings including a post office, tea room and non-denominational chapel, which pulls in a steady stream of tourists.
5. Kalgoorlie-Boulder, Western Australia
Kalgoorlie-Boulder has an Irishman to thank for its existence. For it was County Clare-born prospector, Paddy Hannan, who struck gold there in 1889, sparking a dash to dig that pulled in prospectors from all over the world. They settled and built what has become Australia’s largest outback city.
Gold digging continues at Kalgoorlie’s so-called “Super Pit”, a gargantuan open-mouthed mine where machines chew the earth looking for shiny metal. Another legacy of the gold rush is Questa Casa, a corrugated iron brothel that claims to be Australia’s oldest working bordello.
Kalgoorlie-Boulder also has the distinction of being the teeing off point for the world’s longest golf course. The Nullarbor Links is situated along 850 miles of the Eyre Highway with an average distance of 41 miles between holes. The course was allegedly conceived by two locals – Alf Caputo and Bob Bongiorno – over a bottle of red.
6. Gwalia, Western Australia
Another get-rich-quick mining community that fell on hard times, Gwalia sprung up around the Sons of Gwalia Mine, which was believed to be the deepest gold mine in Australia in the early 1900s.
The town’s fortunes ebbed and flowed for the following 50 years with the population peaking at 1,100 odd souls. A devastating fire closed the mine for several years in the 1920s and Gwalia never fully recovered.
The mine closed for good in the 1960s and the population abandoned Gwalia overnight. A few hardy souls continue to eke out lives in the old ghost town, where a museum chronicles the boom years. Shuttered houses and rusting cars add to the eerie sense of abandonment.
7. Coober Pedy, South Australia
This middle-of-nowhere mining town is renowned for two things: opals and underground houses. The former have been mined in Coober Pedy since 1915, when a local teenager serendipitously discovered a precious stone in the rusty red earth; the latter is what the ensuing influx of miners lived in to keep cool in the scorching South Australian sun.
Coober Pedy now produces most of the world’s opal. Budding miners just need to turn up, obtain a land permit and start shovelling. Some still strike it lucky but there are reportedly fewer and fewer miners in Coober Pedy, whose population of 1,800 relies just as much on tourism as mining. Visitors can sleep in underground houses or pitch a tent in the town’s subterranean campsite.
8. Doo Town, Tasmania
All the houses in this ramshackle timber station have one thing in common: their names all contain the word “Doo”. There’s Digeri-Doo, Doo Come In, Doo Nothing, Much-A-Doo, Love Me Doo, Yabba Dabba Doo, Da Doo Ron Ron… the list goes on. The one non-conforming house is reportedly called Medway.
The Doo naming trend began in the 1940s, but there’s some debate as to which house started it, with some attributing it to Doo Little and others claiming it was Doo I, Doo Me or Doo Us. Either way the tradition lives on and now dozens of houses – as well as the town itself – contain the name Doo.
9. Sheffield, Tasmania
The Seventies were boom years for Sheffield, whose ranks were swelled by a small army of construction workers drafted in to build the nearby dams. But when the dams were finished the workers moved out, leaving Sheffield with a dwindling economy and a creaking infrastructure.
Cue some fast thinking from some bright sparks at Sheffield’s tourist bureau, who decided to pinch an idea from another down-at-heel industrial town in Canada, Chemainus, which reinvented itself as a tourist destination by painting murals everywhere.
That was in 1986. Since then more than 60 murals, depicting the town’s history and scenery, have been painted on Sheffield’s walls and buildings. The paintings entice an estimated 200,000 people to the town annually.