I love a sunburnt country,
A land of sweeping plains,
Of ragged mountain ranges,
Of droughts and flooding rains.
I love her far horizons,
I love her jewel-sea,
Her beauty and her terror
The wide brown land for me...
, 'My Country'
Australia. It's hot. It's dry. It's an island - and it's a long way away from just about everywhere else on the globe. It's full of creatures that can kill you very easily. If you want to travel around within the country, you're probably facing a trip that will be hours long unless you can afford the luxury of flight.
There's barely an Australian who would want to live anywhere else on the planet.
This harsh land, this country of Australia which is only a little over 200 years old as far an Anglo-Saxon habitation is concerned, has become the home to millions of people, who love it despite its flaws. Who consider themselves incredibly lucky, that they can call themselves Australians. It's a land of contrasts - from the chaos of cities such as Sydney, to the vast open spaces of the Australian outback, where it can take a farmer days to travel from one side of their property to the other. From the snow covered mountains of the Snowy Mountains, to the baking sun of Australia's centre.
A country of people who will literally stop to watch a horse race on the first Tuesday in November each year, a land whose Prime Minister virtually gave the nation's workers a day off following victory in the Americas Cup in 1983.
Australians generally aren't a people who will overtly display their patriotism - it's not common to see the Australian flag waved outside of a sports ground. For years there have been calls to change the national anthem. Never make the mistake of thinking that Australians don't have a deep love of their country though.
Look for the family building castles on a white sandy beach. See the light in the eyes of a farmer standing under a tin roof, as the rain drums above his head. Watch as volunteer firefighters are given a heroes reception, following weeks straight saving lives and homes.
This is Australia
The First Australians
Well before Australia existed as the Nation we know today, it was inhabited by the Australian Aborigines. The length of time that Australia has been inhabited by humans is a matter of some conjecture - some believe it may have had human occupants for over 60,000 years. Most, however, put the time at around 40,000 years, and clear evidence exists to justify this time frame.
Australia was a very different place at that time - the shape of Australia as we know it today was radically different. The island state of Tasmania was connected to the mainland. Australia's first human inhabitants originally moved down from Asia, via New Guinea, by foot and boat. As continental drift continued, the isolation of the Aboriginal people of Australia was magnified. Faced with a lack of outside influence and culture, these people developed their own unique culture and religious belief system. Based of the family unit, the people were grouped into tribes. Members of individual tribes were all related, lead by religious leaders. The Aboriginal people had no form of government - politics played no part in Aboriginal culture.
Australia is a harsh land, and the people had to adapt to its varying climate and terrain. The Aborigines were hunter gatherers, and they lived a nomadic lifestyle through necessity. They practiced no form agriculture, so were forced to survive on whatever they could take from the land at the time. In general, the men of the tribe were the hunters, hunting Kangaroo, Emu and other small animals with weapons such as the boomerang, and spears hurled with a device known as a Woomera. The women of the tribe were responsible for gathering food such as roots, fruits and witchetty grubs. The tribe's nomadic existence was mainly based on the availability of water in the area. If water sources were becoming low - as is common in Australia - the tribe would be forced to move onto a different area.
Their culture was based on the idea of The Dreaming, a significant religious system for the Aboriginal people. It is a difficult concept to explain, and was - and is - connected to their very being. Perhaps it's best if I use the words of an Aboriginal Elder, to try to explain the concept:
The Dreaming means our identity as people. The cultural teaching and everything, that's part of our lives here, you know?… it's the understanding of what we have around us.
Merv Penrith - Elder,
The Dreaming is a term used to describe the complex connection of beliefs central to Aboriginal life - their faith, knowledge, and the beliefs they hold regarding their very creation. It is separate to The Dreamtime, which is a term used to describe a time when spirits roamed the earth, and created the lands, and their people.
Estimates on the number of inhabitants in Australia before European settlement vary greatly - between 300,000 and 1,000,000 Aborigines are believed to have lived here at this time.
European Contact, and The First Fleet
Non-Aboriginal people visited Australia first between 1500 and 1700, with Indonesian fishermen coming to the northern coast of Australia. The first European contact with the Aboriginal people occurred around 1606, when Dutchman Willem Jansz hit the Australian coast near Cape York Peninsula. Many of the early instances of contact between Aboriginal and European people were violent, conflict between the two groups occurred on numerous occasions.
It wasn't until 1770 that the most significant entry into Australia was made, by English explorer Captain James Cook. Following his discovery of the land, in 1786 the British Government decided that Australia would be used as a penal colony. On the 16th of March, 1787, the 11 ships that made up the First Fleet sailed from Portsmouth - 2 Naval vessels, 3 supply ships, and 6 ships loaded with convicts. The fleet first landed in Botany Bay between the 18th and 20th of January, 1788, however although this was Captain Cook's recommended site for a settlement, it was deemed unsuitable. A lack of fresh water, the fact that Botany Bay is open to the ocean - making it unsafe for ships - and the poor prospects for agriculture in the area lead to the decision to sail into Port Jackson - the area now famous as Sydney Harbour - on the 26th of January 1788.
The Growth of a Nation
Australia's early settlers didn't face an easy task. Faced with land that was not easy to farm - particularly when those undertaking the work are convicts, more used to criminal activities than turning soil into crops. European farming methods were found to be less than suitable for the conditions the colonists were faced with, the soil less than ideal for farming. From the outset, the colony was faced with surviving on the rationed supplies that had been brought with them. Shelter was also an issue, as the tools that had been brought on the ships were inadequate and too few for the jobs needing to be done. The wood was very hard, and the low quality tools would break.
Despite the multitude of difficulties, the colony did survive, and begin to establish itself. More suitable farming land was discovered up the Parramatta river, and although the distance from the settlement made transporting food back difficult, agriculture started to see some success.
It wasn't until the arrival of the Second Fleet, in June of 1890, that the fortunes of the struggling colony turned around. One of the ships that arrived was filled with provisions for the colony, allowing rations to be increased. More convicts arrived, and although many of them were very unhealthy and sick following the long voyage, the additional laborers helped build and improve the colony. Eventually, following the breaking of a long drought in 1791, farming was established, and food ceased to be as much of a problem.
Over the next 50 years, the colony continued to grow, through further convicts arriving, and free immigrants choosing to settle on Australia's shores. By 1840, only a small percentage of the population were convicts, and transportation of convicts stopped completely in 1842. From convict beginnings, Australia moved into the next stage of its life - this country evolving into a home for those who chose to live within these shores.
The time leading up to the turn of the century was a time of great change for Australia. Victoria and Queensland broke away from the colony of New South Wales, in 1851 and 1859 respectively. Over the century, the idea of bringing the separate state colonies together, to form a Federation is discussed regularly, although it takes a long time for this discussion to move from words, to serious action. The champion of Federation was a man called Henry Parkes. He had been calling for Federation for many years - although action is slow. By 1880, Parkes was the Premier of New South Wales, and finally serious discussion of the proposal began to happen. In 1890, the first Federation Conference was held, 1891 saw the first Draft Constitution of Australia, later modified in 1897, where it was put to the people in a referendum. The first referendum failed, however was passed at a second attempt a year later. In 1900, the Federal Constitution Bill was passed by the British Parliament.
The colonies came together to form the Federation of Australia officially on the 1st of January, 1901. Lord Houpton becomes Australia's first Governor General, and the first Prime Minister is Sir Edmund Barton. Australia as we know it up to this day is born.
Over the century following Federation, many things have changed in Australia. The population has grown to just short of twenty million, and Australia has grown into a modern country. People from all around the world have chosen to call Australia home - although the issue of multiculturalism remains a point of debate and controversy. It wasn't until 1973 that the White Australia Policy was completely abolished - people from non-Anglo-Saxon nations faced a difficult time relocating to Australia under this policy - officially named the Immigration Restriction Act - which originally came into effect in 1901. In current day Australia, immigration is again a major issue - this time through Australia's treatment of illegal refuges - often referred to as boat people in this island nation. These people, once intercepted, are placed in detention centers. Their stay in these centers can be very long indeed, and the centers themselves are located in some of the most inhospitable country imaginable, such as Woomera, Port Hedland and Baxter, near Port Hedland. Currently, there are over 1,100 people held in detention centers across the nation. Pauline Hanson capitalised on the fears of many, of a nation being overrun by immigrants, particularly Asians, to become one of the most controversial and hated politicians in Australia - of course, there were also many people who loved her, and believed in her vision for Australia. Although policies such as the White Australia Policy have been stopped, race still remains a major issue in Australia, possibly one of the most important issues the Nation is facing as it moves on into the 21st Century.
A Land of Extremes
Whether it be climate, terrain, natural disasters, or flora and fauna, Australia is the country that doesn't do anything by halves.
There are large areas of Australia that average only 100mm of rain each year, while areas of Tasmania and Queensland average over 3200mm in the same period. Average maximum temperatures range from 9oC in alpine regions, to over 36oC in northern areas of the country (remember - that's an average...). In April of 1999, a severe thunderstorm hit Sydney, and caused over 1.5 billion dollars worth of damage, with over 20,000 homes and 40,000 cars damaged or destroyed. On Christmas Day, 1974, Cyclone Tracey hit the capital of the Northern Territory, Darwin. 65 people died, and the city was virtually destroyed in a storm lasting six hours.
Of course, these are reasonably infrequent events in Australia. The country has won a reputation the world around for warm, sunny days, perfect for spending on the beach, enjoying the surf and a barbeque. Large areas of Australia have average maximum temperatures that sit in the 20's, so chances are that you won't be too cold in those areas.
Australia's terrain varies greatly - from the tropical north, to the arid heart of the land. Desert takes up huge areas of the interior of Australia, and South Australia's Nullarbor Plain is one of the flattest, driest areas imaginable. It is possible to travel along 145km of dead straight road along this plain, as well as see some of the most spectacular vantage points imaginable at those areas where the plain ends abruptly where it meets the ocean along the Great Australian Bight, great limestone cliffs towering from the ocean, to the edge of the plain above.
Contrast this with Kakadu National Park, in Australia's north. A massive area teeming with plant and animal life, large areas of the park are turned into wetlands during the monsoon season, the rivers in the area flooding, water spreading far across the land.
This area is also one of the places where you will find one of Australia's deadliest creatures - the massive Saltwater Crocodile
. Saltwater crocodiles have been found that are over 6m in length, and occasionally in Australia people are killed by these awesome beasts. Of course, Australia has built a reputation as being home to a disproportionate number of deadly creatures. Australia is lucky enough to be home to not just a few, but all ten of the World's Deadliest Snakes
. It is home to the Funnel-web Spider
, who’s bite can be fatal if not treated. Fortunately, no death has occurred since the development of an effective anti-venom
The oceans are not a lot safer - ocean waters around Australia are home to many sharks, and although shark attack is rare, several people have been killed in shark attack in recent years. Apart from sharks, the waters are home to the most deadly venomous creature in the world's oceans - the Box Jellyfish. Normally only found in warm northern waters, this creature has the capability to kill a human with ease. The Blue Ring Octopus is almost as bad - its venom has the ability to kill in minutes. Unlike the Box Jellyfish however, there is no antidote for its venom. Once you have stopped breathing, you will likely undergo hours of heart massage, keeping you alive until the venom has passed through your system, allowing your body to function for itself once again.
Of course, not all of Australia's fauna will kill you - some of it is just strange instead. Animals such as the Kangaroo, the Emu - capable of speeds of up to 50km/h - and the Platypus are always tourist draw cards. Australia's isolation provided a breeding ground for many unique species of animal, allowed to live in isolation for millions of years. Unfortunately, many of these animals are now threatened with extinction following the introduction of species such as the cat, as well as the destruction of native habitat by man. Particularly hard hit are the small marsupial species, their numbers devastated over the past centuries of Anglo-Saxon habitation in Australia.
Australia's plant life is also abundant and diverse. Over 20,000 species of plant are found in Australia, including the Wattle (Acacia) - whose bright yellow flowers are the floral emblem of Australia - Banksia trees, the Sturts Desert Pea, and the Kangaroo Paw. However the most abundant Australian plant is the gum tree. Over 1,200 eucalypt species are found in Australia, and are the main reason Australia's bushfire seasons are so dangerous. Many of Australia's plants rely on bushfire for their very survival, and their seedpods will not break open and germinate without fire. Australia's gum trees are packed with flammable Eucalyptus Oil, Candlebarks leave bark hanging in strips from their trunks and branches - once burning, they will detach, floating on the high winds that a fire generates, and create spot fires ahead of the main fire front. When it comes to sustaining their life through fire, Australia's gum trees are masters. It's difficult to argue against the health of this policy when you see burnt out areas springing back to life following a fire however - new growth is everywhere you look. Following a fire in Canberra several years back, a previously unknown species of Orchid was discovered growing - in all places, on the fringes of the National Botanical Gardens!
Cities, States and Territories
Australia is divided into six States, and two Territories. They are, along with their capital city:
New South Wales
- Capital Sydney
- Sydney is Australia's oldest and largest city. A city of incredible beauty and life, its heart wraps around Sydney Harbour
, one of the most beautiful harbours in the world. Home to internationally recognised landmarks such as the Sydney Opera House
, and the Sydney Harbour Bridge
- Capital Melbourne
- Australia's second largest city, and also the least sunny place in Australia, with on average only 5.7 hours of sunshine each day.
- Capital Brisbane
- Queensland is known as 'The Sunshine State', and the motto for many years has been 'Beautiful One Day...Perfect The Next'.
- Capital Adelaide
- Adelaide is known as 'The City of Churches', for the large number that have been built in the city. On a Sunday morning, church bells peel across the city. Suffers through extremely hot summers, with hot, dry winds bringing the heat from the desert interior of the north down over the city.
- Capital Hobart
- separated from the mainland by Bass Strait
, Tasmania is a land of rugged beauty. Much of the island is unspoiled wilderness
, and is a popular destination for bushwalkers
, if you feel that 'bushwalking' is a strange term!).
- Capital Perth
- Western Australia is Australia's largest state, by a long way. Perth is extremely remote as far as Australian Capitals go (even in a land where being in remote locations is fairly normal) - almost 3,500km lie between Sydney and Perth.
The Northern Territory
- Capital Darwin
- a state of rugged wilderness, and home to landmarks such as Uluru
, Kakadu National Park
and Kata Tjuta
(also known as The Olgas].
Australian Capital Territory
- Capital Canberra
- Canberra is Australia's National Capital, a city planned from the outset. Maligned
by many in Australia as a city of Public Servant
s, it has grown into more than simply the seat of Government. Home to many National monuments, galleries and memorials
The People of Australia
So here's the thing about Australia's people - you need to forget about all the stereotypes you've heard. Don't ever base your opinion on Crocodile Dundee, or Steve Irwin...but on the other hand, don't be surprised if you meet an Australian who seems to fit those stereotypes perfectly. Confused? Well, Australia is a land of diverse people, and no generalisation can describe the Australian psyche.
The Australian you meet in Sydney or Melbourne is likely very different to the one you meet in remote areas of the Northern Territory. The Sydneysider may remind you of city dwellers world wide - the Northern Territorian may be just like Mick Dundee.
From convict beginnings, Australians have always been a resourceful people - for many, it's the only thing guaranteeing their survival in a land that can be incredibly harsh, with the closest help hours or days away. They are on the whole a laid back people, with a reputation for friendliness. One of the defining factors of the Sydney Olympic Games was the army of volunteers, the friendly faces ready to help people find their way around, or simply give a smile and a hello - maybe even a G'Day! Although that's a word that will probably cause many Australians to cringe (particularly when said by a tourist trying to be Aussie), it's in some ways a good indicator to the Australian attitude. Good Day a bit too long? Well, let's just invent our own word for it, that's far easier to say with your mouth half closed!
Of course, with almost 20 million people calling Australia home, there's no way you can categorise the people of Australia. The people are constantly changing, multiculturalism has brought the influence of many cultures into this land, and we're now as diverse as people the world over.
And although it may make us cringe a little, I'd say many Australians have a soft spot in their heart for the leathery skinned farmer, a Blue Heeler on the back of his Ute. Covered in flies, as he checks on the sheep grazing in the paddock, under a scorching summer sun.
We've changed a lot over the past 215 years, when 11 ships sailed into Port Jackson, and built a prison for England's unwanted. We disagree as much as any other people, we don't always like the direction our country is going, or find pride in the actions of our past. Even so...you'd be hard pressed to find anyone who wasn't Proud to be Australian.
Thanks go to Gritchka, for informing me that Australia's original inhabitants had more seafaring skill than I'd originally credited them with. Frankie for pointing out some errors I should have picked up on (even if she is sadly delusional regarding our national cricket team!). Taliesin's Muse for running a teacher's eye over my words, and helping me make them that much more readable. And another noder, who's username I have sadly lost, for pointing out that my history was at one point a century out of whack. You know who you are (and i'll gladly add your name here if you get in touch again!). Thankyou all.