The Aussie’s are undeniably a cheerful, easy-going and obliging lot. Maybe it’s because they are a relatively young nation (they became a Republic in 2001, snipping their last ties with Britain) and they come from humble origins. White settlers were British prisoners sent into exile in Australia, after they lost America as a dumping ground for undesirables. As one tour guide explained, “There is a felon in every family”, but they were largely petty thieves.
There is a reason Australia, the sixth largest continent was chosen by Britain for banishment of undesirables. It is for the most part a vast desert — only 5% of the land is habitable and 80% of its people live in the principal cities of Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, Canberra and Brisbane. The rest, called “The Outback,” is the most dry, flat, dessicated, infertile and climactically aggressive land of all the continents.
Because of its island isolation, 80% of all of the plants and animals that live in Australia live nowhere else, so it teems with exotic species. They have
“The Outback,” is the most dry, flat, dessicated, infertile and
climactically aggressive land of all the continents.
the largest living thing on earth, the Great Barrier Reef, and the largest monolith, Uluru rock. They also have more things that will kill you than anywhere else, including poisonous snakes, spiders, box jellyfish, octopi, stonefish and a deadly variety of tick.
Uluru, or Ayers Rock, is a massive sandstone monolith in the
heart of the Northern Territory’s Red Centre desert, 450km
from the nearest large town, Alice Springs.
So naturally it appeals to the adventurous, outdoorsperson such as me! I visited for a month with daughter Kate in 2009, before she headed off for a career with the U.S. Foreign Service.
Sydney is set next to miles of ocean coastline, sandy surf beaches and numerous national parks. It seems everyone is just a step away from the outdoors with business suits sporting backpacks and bicyclists rendezvousing at the Opera House.
One of Sydney’s many breathtakingly beautiful beaches.
Long term immigration has led to Sydney’s reputation as one of the most culturally and ethnically diverse cities in Australia and the world. The city is also home to the Sydney Opera House and the Sydney Harbour Bridge, two of the most iconic structures on the planet. The economy was booming when we visited, and the Asian locals told how they came to Australia to take advantage of the much more lucrative wages and high demand for educated workers.
Two hours from Sydney lie the Blue Mountains, so named because the foliage and sunlight yields a unique blue aura to the surroundings. These mountains are a World Heritage Site which offers dramatic vistas over several hours of serious bushwhacking.
One of the many hiking trails in the Blue Mountains, a World Heritage Site.
From Sydney we flew to Cairns, rented a car and headed north to Daintree Rain Forest and Cape Tribulation, lush and wild places with the occasional B&B and solitary Youth Hostel. We also booked a snorkeling trip to the Great Barrier Reef, which lives up to its reputation as teeming with exotic underwater fauna and flora. Unfortunately, the seas were fairly rough on our short excursion, but well worth the breathtaking sights.
The Daintree Rainforest has 700 species of plants and animals found nowhere else on Earth. They include the bull kauri conifer (the largest in the world), cycads which are evergreen trees that can live 1000 years, tiny tree kangaroos and the cassowary, a colorful flightless bird that can attack when provoked. We hired a guide for a day for a wonderful nature trek.
The locals are innovative in capturing tourist attention and dollars. One fellow offered ‘night hikes’ to see sleeping birds, owls, spiders and geckos. Another couple cultivated an orchard of exotic native fruits. They would host “fruit tastings” for a fee, with full botanical information on each fruit. Some were delicious and others were weird. They also sell ice cream concoctions with the tastiest fruits. A double dip so to speak.
From Cairns we flew to Alice Springs to go on a 3 day outback camping safari tour which included Kings Canyon, Uluru and the Olgas. Before we departed we ate a “bush” meal of emu, camel and kangaroo at a local restaurant. Interesting once, but I wouldn’t repeat the experience.
Alice Springs was the only place where we saw a small population of Aboriginals, who generally congregated in a small park distant from the city center. A curious ethnic group, they arrived 60,000 years ago overseas from Indonesia and successfully adapted to all parts of the inhospitable geography. They are the oldest continuously maintained culture in the world, but also white Australia’s greatest social failure. Genocide and disease killed off large portions in the 1800’s up until 1928 with the last murder. Until the 1960’s the state had custody of all Aboriginal children and sought to put them in foster homes or institutions so they would better adapt to a white world. They weren’t included in the census until 1967, and Civil Rights did not come until 1976.
By all measures of social dysfunction such as unemployment, suicide, and imprisonment, Aborigines are from twice to 20 times as bad off as the general population. When we were there, Australia was celebrating national “Sorry Day” to apologize to their natives, and the museums were showcasing Aboriginal painters as one way to compensate. They now constitute only 2.5% of the total Australian population.
The outback camping safari was a working trip—each day we drove to a new location, hiked for 5 hours, gathered firewood, cooked our own meals, enjoyed the occasional makeshift shower and bunked in sleeping bags around the campfire. Feral camels abound in the Outback as they were brought over to help build the railroad. The surplus is now exported to Middle Eastern countries. Our excursion was characterized by lots of sand, brush and kangaroos and few roads.
The most fascinating site was Uluru, a bornbardt or weather resistant rock left standing for 100 million years, when all else was worn away. It is 6 miles in circumference and is especially noted for changing color in different lights, particularly crimson at dawn and dusk. Spectacular!!
From Alice Springs we flew to Melbourne. Melbourne is Australia’s cultural capital, with Victorian architecture, extensive shopping, museums, galleries, theatres, and large parks and gardens. Its 4-million residents are both multicultural and sports-mad. Sports include Australian Football game (variation of soccer), rugby, cricket, golf, Melbourne Cup tennis and Grand Prix Formula One racing. We did a one day tour of the coast to see spectacular beach rock formations, before we headed back to Sydney for the end of our sojourn.
Australia is a truly immense country with fascinating sights and endless stories. We loved it! If you are thinking of going, I highly recommend Bill Bryson’s book, “In a Sunburnt Country” from which I have liberally borrowed many of the interesting facts cited here. I also recommend two movies: “Tracks” about a young woman who traveled with her camels and dog 1700 miles across the Australian desert and “Rabbitproof Fence” about two young girls who escape from a white institution to return to their Aboriginal homeland.