The lowdown on Down Under…
Australia: a sun-kissed land of intermittent spectacular and pristine beauty, with lots of incredibly boring bits in between. The wildlife of Australia is so unique that doubtful 19th century scientists dismissed as hoaxes some of the animal corpses sent back to England by pioneering explorers. The kangaroo and koala are now instantly recognized the world over but sadly that’s about as much as most people know about one of the most fascinating countries in the world.
Originally a dumping ground for England’s criminals, Australia grew up sheltering under the wings of the British Empire. In 1901 the six colonies that made up Australia joined in a federation, forming the Commonwealth of Australia. There was no violent revolution, just a peaceful vote in which the majority of the colonies decided they wanted to hook up with each other. Since then Australia has grown up slightly unsure of its own identity, trying to figure out whether it is American (Australians worship celebrities and watch American television religiously) or English (you buy ‘fish and chips’ and school children wear uniforms even in public schools)
Australia is now comprised of six states, two mainland and numerous offshore territories. The states squabble constantly under the watchful eye of the Federal Government, although like all naughty children very rarely get away with anything.
Despite the popular image of Australians as rugged, outdoorsy types, the majority of Australians live in the major cities along the densely-populated east coast and work in a boring office somewhere. The typical Aussie likes to think of himself as a rugged, outdoorsy type, however, and will probably try to impress you with his knowledge of four-wheel driving, saving drowning tourists from rip tides and emergency medical treatment in the event of snakebite.
The easy-going, affectionately sardonic image of Australians is generally true, however, especially in country areas. Australians are a friendly people, always willing to help a stranger even if it means going out of their way.
The common unifier for most Australians is sport. As Dame Edna, the alter-ego of an Australian comedian, once said, Australians are so good at sport because they have a ‘total absence of any kind of intellectual distraction.’ Australia, with a population of 20 million, has been disproportionately successful in the sporting arena. Cricket is the national sport while the real aggression gets taken out in rugby and the incredibly violent Australian Rules Football – which to the traveler will seem to have no rules at all.
Mass immigration after World War II saw Australia become a multicultural country with a diverse cuisine and burgeoning arts culture. Many restaurants in Melbourne and Sydney are every bit as good – and expensive – as those in New York or Paris. Australian artists have started dynasties, with artists’ children becoming successful in their own right. Australia is even giving the United States a run for its money in the film industry with stars like Nicole Kidman, Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe and Geoffrey Rush now world famous.
While many Australians have prospered in such a peaceful country, the indigenous Aborigines have had a rough time of it. They were initially either a) shot or, b) forced to assimilate, and for seventy years after Federation, Aborigines were omitted from the Constitution. Landmark legal decisions during the 1980s and 1990s strengthened Aboriginal rights, however many Aboriginals still live in abject poverty on reservations.
But most people travel to Australia for its unique natural beauty. There are few nations in the world that can boast such geographic diversity: tropical rainforests, scorching deserts, alpine highlands and island paradises welcome Australians and visitors alike. Many creatures live only on this island-continent and Australia has more dangerous animals than a swagman can swing his billy at [ Swagman = vagabond or tramp, and billy = the pot a swagman boils his tea in], meriting it the classification as one of the world’s 17 megadiverse countries.
Northern Australia is sparsely populated and full of eccentric characters who are either insane or slightly strange, depending on who you ask. The east coast is home to picturesque beaches, towns, cities and people who live in the suburbs, while the large expanse to the west is where Australia’s heart beats: the red soil, molten gold sun and hardy wildlife.
Backpackers swarm to Australia on working holidays. Others entertain life-long dreams to see Australian wildlife in its natural environment, while the Paris Hiltons of the world visit the chic, sophisticated and sexy cities of Sydney and the Gold Coast.
Australia might once have been a dumping ground for convicts, but now everyone is welcome. Grab a VB** (only clueless foreigners drink Fosters), sit down and read about a country that needs to attract a constant stream of tourists to feed its deadly wildlife.
[Victoria Bitter, a popular beer in all Australian states. The beer an Australian drinks is often a reflection of the state he or she comes from. Queensland = XXXX (‘Four-Ex’).
New South Wales = Tooheys.
Victoria = Victoria Bitter.
Tasmania = Cascade (in the southern part of Tasmania) or Boags (in the northern part of Tasmania).
South Australia = Coopers.
Western Australia = Swan.]