A u s t r a l i a

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Introduction to Australia

Most people harbour a particular image of Australia, such as the Opera House or Ayers Rock, yet these famous icons do scant justice to the richness of Australia's natural treasures and its cultural diversity. Australia offers a wealth of travel experiences, from the drama of the outback and the spectacle of the Great Barrier Reef to the cosmopolitanism of Sydney and arguably the best beaches in the world. Australia is an enormous country, and visitors expecting to see an opera in Sydney one night and meet Crocodile Dundee the next will have to re-think their grasp of geography. It is this sheer vastness, and the friction between the ancient land steeped in Aboriginal lore and the New World culture being heaped upon it, which gives Australia much of its character.

Facts at a Glance

Full country name: Commonwealth of Australia
Area: 7,682,300 sq km
Population: 18,090,000 (growth rate 1.4%)
Capital city: Canberra (pop: 311,000)
People: 94% European descent, 4% Asian, 1.5% Aboriginal
Languages: English, Aboriginal languages (plus Italian, Greek and numerous other European and Asian languages)
Religion: 75% Christian, 1% Muslim, 1% Buddhist, 0.5% Jewish
Government: Independent member of the British Commonwealth
Prime Minister: John Howard
Governor-General: Sir William Deane


Australia is a vast island continent situated south of Indonesia and Papua New Guinea between the Pacific and Indian oceans. The world's sixth largest country, Australia measures some 4000km east to west and 3200km north to south. Much of the interior of the country is flat, barren and extremely sparsely populated. The bulk of the population lives on the narrow, fertile eastern coastal plain and on the south-eastern coast. The continent-long Great Dividing Range runs north-south down the eastern seaboard, separating the coastal plain from the drier inland areas. The Great Barrier Reef lies between 50-300km offshore and extends 2000km from the Torres Strait to Gladstone.


Australia's original inhabitants, known as Australian Aborigines, have the longest continuous cultural history in the world, with origins dating back to the last Ice age. Although mystery and debate shroud many aspects of Australian prehistory, it is generally accepted that the first humans travelled across the sea from Indonesia about 70,000 years ago. The first visitors, called 'Robust' by archaeologists because of their heavy-boned physique, were followed 20,000 years later by the more slender 'Gracile' people, the ancestors of Australian Aborigines.

Europeans began to encroach on Australia in the 16th century: Portuguese navigators were followed by Dutch explorers and the enterprising English pirate William Dampier. Captain James Cook sailed the entire length of the eastern coast in 1770, stopping at Botany Bay on the way. After rounding Cape York, he claimed the continent for the British and named it New South Wales.

In 1779, Joseph Banks (a naturalist on Cook's voyage) suggested that Britain could solve overcrowding problems in its prisons by transporting convicts to New South Wales. In 1787, the First Fleet set sail for Botany Bay under the command of Captain Arthur Philip, who was to become the colony's first governor. The fleet comprised 11 ships, 750 male and female convicts, four companies of marines and supplies for two years. Philip arrived in Botany Bay on 26 January 1788, but soon moved north to Sydney Cove, where there was better land and water. For the new arrivals, New South Wales was a harsh and horrible place, and the threat of starvation hung over the colony for at least 16 years.

Free settlers began to be attracted to Australia over the next decades, but it was the discovery of gold in the 1850s that changed the face of the colony. The huge influx of migrants and several large finds boosted the economy and irrevocably changed the colonial social structures. Aborigines were ruthlessly pushed off their tribal lands as new settlers took up land for farming or mining. The Industrial Revolution in England required plenty of raw materials, and Australia's agricultural and mineral resources expanded to meet the demand.

Australia became a nation when federation of the separate colonies took place on 1 January 1901 (although many of the legal and cultural ties with England remained). Australian troops fought alongside the British in the Boer War, WW I and WW II. However, the USA's role in protecting Australia from Japanese invasion during WW II marked the beginning of a shift in allegiance. Australia subsequently followed the USA into both the Korean and Vietnam wars in Asia.

Post WW II immigration brought a flood of European immigrants, many of them non-British. The immigrants have since made an enormous contribution to the country, enlivening its culture and broadening its vision. In the 1980s, Australia accepted large numbers of Asian refugees, especially from Vietnam. Socially and economically, Australia is still trying to come to terms with its place in Asia. Issues of the day include republicanism, universal acceptance of the Native Title Act passed in 1993 and the alarming rise of a racist right-wing party called One Nation. Unfortunately, many Aborigines continue to live in deplorable conditions.


Australia is a multicultural society. Until WW II, Australians were predominantly of British and Irish descent, but that has changed dramatically. Large immigrations from Greece, Italy, Yugoslavia, Lebanon and Turkey followed the war and have been supplemented by more recent influxes of immigrants from Asia. There are also about 230,000 Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders. Many Australians speak Italian, Greek, Lebanese, Vietnamese or Turkish as a first language. English-speaking Australians are liable to use a hotchpotch of indigenous slang and shortened words that often makes their speech impenetrable.

Australia has a rich artistic heritage and a vibrant contemporary art scene. Aboriginal rock carvings and paintings date back at least 30,000 years. European settlers began to produce distinctively Australian art forms towards the end of the 19th century. Australia's mid-20th century artists were world figures (Sidney Nolan, Arthur Boyd, Patrick White) and its modern practitioners have excelled in painting (Brett Whiteley, Fred Williams), literature (Peter Carey, Thomas Keneally), opera (Joan Sutherland), film (Peter Weir, Bruce Beresford, George Miller, Gillian Armstrong), acting (Mel Gibson, Nicole Kidman) comedy (Barry Humphries), dance (Graeme Murphy, Paul Mercurio) and popular music (Nick Cave, INXS, Midnight Oil, silverchair). Modern Aboriginal art has undergone a revival in the last decade as Aboriginal artists have explored ways to both preserve their ancient values and share them with a wider community.

Sport is the Australian religion and Aussies are worldbeaters in cricket, rugby league, rugby union, swimming and cycling. Other popular sports are basketball, yachting, soccer and Aussie Rules - a unique Australian sport, similar to Gaelic football. The Olympic Games will be held in Sydney in 2000.


Christmas is part of the long summer school vacation and during December and January you can be forgiven for thinking that half of Australia is on holiday. This is when accommodation is almost always booked out. National holidays peculiar to Australia include Australia Day (January 26), which celebrates the arrival of the First Fleet, and Anzac Day (25 April), which commemorates the landing of Australian and New Zealand armed forces at Gallipoli in 1915.

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