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Australia has more cultural and natural treasures than is fair to many other countries. It also, fortunately, has the wealth and resolve to protect them as best it can. Eighteen sites across the country, including two offshore territories in sub-Antarctic waters, have been World Heritage listed.

Tasmanian Wilderness

Harsh glacial action over millions of years has put the wild in the Tasmanian Wilderness. Remote and subject to extreme weather, this vast World Heritage area—it covers a fifth of Australia's island state—protects one of the few expanses of temperate rain forest on Earth. Here, too, are stunning landforms fashioned by complex geology, diverse habitats for flora and fauna found nowhere else, and evidence of tens of thousands of years of Aboriginal occupation. Angling, white-water rafting, and hiking national park walking trails, most of which are suited only to experienced hikers, are some favorite activities in the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area.

Fraser Island

Remnant rain forest, shifting sand dunes, and half of the world's perched lakes (lakes that are isolated above the groundwater table by rock or organic material) contributed to Fraser Island's World Heritage listing in 1992. The largest sand island on Earth, Fraser lies just off Queensland's coast, about 200 km (124 miles) north of Brisbane. This exquisite island is both ecologically precious and extremely popular for soft-adventure holidays—a sometimes problematic combination. Fraser's dingo population is one of Australia's purest, but be aware that visitors have had fatal interactions with these wild dogs. Humpback whales frequent Fraser's west-coast waters June to November, and the spring tailor fish run lures anglers to the island's wilder ocean shore. Four-wheel-drives barrel along the 122-km (76-mile) ocean beach, which is Fraser Island's unofficial main highway.

Sydney Opera House

One of Australia's recent World Heritage properties is the country's most recognizable building. A realization of visionary design and 20th-century technological innovation, the Sydney Opera House was listed in 2007 as a masterpiece of human creative genius. It is also a structure of extraordinary beauty. Danish architect Jorn Utzon's interlocking vaulted "shells" appear to hover like wind-filled sails on their Sydney Harbour promontory. Floodlighting at night increases the sense of movement.

Awarded the project in 1957 by an international jury, Jorn Utzon never saw his creation finished. Utzon resigned and left Australia in 1966, amid funding controversies and political change, and his architectural sculpture was completed by others. Familiar to people around the world, the Sydney Opera House is a world-class performing arts venue.

Greater Blue Mountains Area

Sunlight refracting off a mist of eucalyptus oil gives the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney, their distinctive hue. The variety of eucalypts (commonly called gum trees) across this mountain range's varied habitats was integral to its World Heritage listing. The 1.03 million hectares of sandstone country encompasses the Blue Mountains National Park. Ninety-one varieties of eucalypts grow here. So, too, do significant numbers of rare species and "living fossils" such as the Wollemi pine, which was discovered in 1994.

Great Barrier Reef

While its name suggests otherwise, Australia's most famous World Heritage site is not a single reef. The 2,600-km-long (1,616-mile-long) Great Barrier Reef is actually the world's largest collection of reefs. This fragile natural wonder contains 400 types of coral and 1,500 fish species of every size and almost every conceivable color combination. The giant clam, with its voluptuous purple, green, or blue mantle (algae dictate the color) is one of the 4,000 mollusks the reef supports.

Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park

What you see projecting from the sandy plains of Australia's Red Centre is just the tip, but this majestic monolith still packs a physical and spiritual punch well above its weight. Uluru (also called Ayers Rock) and Kata Tjuta, the seemingly sculpted rock domes clustered 55 km (34 miles) to the west, are deeply significant to the park's traditional owners, the Anangu Aboriginal people.

The Anangu ask visitors not to climb Uluru. Some controversy continues, however, about whether this is because the climb is the traditional route of the ancestral Mala men or because the Anangu think the ascent is just too dangerous. At least 35 people have died on the steep, exposed climb. Independent walks, ranger-guided walks, and Anangu-guided walks (fees apply) offer fascinating cultural perspectives of Uluru and Kata Tjuta from the ground.

Wet Tropics of Queensland

Verdant and ancient, the Wet Tropics of Queensland are the hothouse of Australian flora and fauna. Three thousand plant species, hundreds of mammal types, and over half the country's recorded birds inhabit the tangled rain forests north, south, and west of Cairns, on Australia's far northeastern coast. The remarkable tree kangaroo and the green possum are found only in this World Heritage area. Reptile residents of the Wet Tropics vary in size from inches-long geckos to 7-meter-long (23-foot-long) amethystine pythons. A shorter but considerably meaner local is the estuarine crocodile, or salty as it is commonly called.

Purnululu National Park

Geological history is written large across this World Heritage site in Australia's northwest Kimberley region. Twenty million years of erosion and weathering have deeply dissected the Bungle Bungle Range into banded, beehive-shape sandstone towers. Other examples of cone karst in sandstone, as this remarkable phenomenon is called, are found around the world. None of these sites rival Purnululu for the diversity, size, and grandeur of formations.

Purnululu means sandstone in the Kija Aboriginal language, and spectacularly sculpted sandstone is the highlight of the park. Hard-edged gorges softened by fan palms separate the orange-and-black striped towers, however. Wild budgerigars are among the 100-plus bird species in the park. Wallabies, too, are sometimes spotted among the rocks.

Kakadu National Park

X-ray paintings of barramundi, long-necked turtles, and other animals festoon the main gallery at Ubirr Rock in Kakadu National Park. This menu-in-ocher is one of more than 5,000 art sites in the park that collectively date back 20,000 years. Archaeologists have put human habitation at twice that long. Ongoing and uninterrupted connection with Top End Aboriginal peoples was a key factor in Kakadu's World Heritage listing. So were the park's diverse habitats. Estuarine crocodiles prowl the Alligator River. Red-billed jabiru, Australia's only stork, stroll the flood plains. Waterfalls cannon off the Arnhem Land escarpment. Nowhere else in Australia are cultural and ecological significance so richly intertwined.

Updated: 2014-04-21

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