AUSTRALIA is a big country. Covering an area of 2.9 million square miles,
it’s about as large as the entire European continent or the United States. Put
another way, fly out of Sydney on the east coast, and seven hours later you’ll
still be in Australian airspace.
For such an enormous country, the population is barely 20 million. Ninety
per cent of Australians live in the coastal cities; a third in either Sydney or
Melbourne. Australians are extravagant with their space, building large
detached houses and allowing their cities to sprawl.
Australia was inhabited 40,000 years ago by Aborigines, but the country was
settled by the British in 1788, and has since evolved from an inhospitable
colonial outpost into an independent nation.
Successive waves of immigration over the last 50 years mean that
contemporary Australia is decidedly multicultural: in 1947, only ten per cent
of the population was born overseas, almost all of them in Britain or Ireland;
by 2000, first-generation immigrants made up a quarter of the population, only
10 per cent of whom came from Britain, and 39 per cent arriving from
non-English speaking countries, predominantly in Asia. Today, the Aborigines
account for only around one per cent of the population.
When we lived in Melbourne for seven months during 1999-2000, our stay was
punctuated by a number of events that seemed to highlight different aspects of
modern Australia. Just as we arrived, Australians voted to reject the proposed
move from a Commonwealth to a Republic. Opinion was markedly divided
between the older generation (a number of whom, even third-generation,
surprised us by talking of Britain as “home”) and the young, many of whom were
left frustrated by the result of the vote.
Then came Australia’s Millennium moment, when the dazzling fireworks
exploding over Sydney Harbour were beamed across the world while most of Europe
was still eating lunch on New Year’s Eve. Finally, there were the spectacularly
successful Olympics, the perfect celebration of the Australian obsession with
Australians are relaxed and friendly, have a lot of barbecues, drink a fair
bit, and generally know how to have a good time. The beaches are beautiful and
the weather’s great. There are about 100 million sheep in the country, and a
whole host of dangerous spiders, snakes, crocodiles and jellyfish.
On the other hand, we met many Australians who were only too eager to shed
their reputation for beer-drinking and surfing. Culturally, it seems, Australia
hovers uncertainly between respect and affection for its European heritage, and
a desire to establish a distinctive identity of its own.
YET EVEN the briefest visit “down under” reveals how much more there is to
Australia than the stereotypes. We went back last summer for the first time
since our return to the UK in 2000, to see old friends, revisit some favourite
places, and to try to explore some more of the big country.
As it was August, we met the dry season in the tropical north, and the
skiing season in the south. From London we flew into Darwin, the capital of the
Northern Territory, much of which is owned by the Aboriginal people, and is
open to visitors only by permit.
The vast Northern Territory covers thousands of acres of outback and, 900
miles down the Stuart Highway, the iconic red monolith of Uluru (formerly known
as Ayers Rock) in the “Red Centre”. We, though, confined ourselves to three
spectacular national parks in the top end: Kakadu, Litchfield and Katherine.
We had already decided that after a 20-hour flight, a little local knowledge
would be welcome, particularly given the dirt roads and the prevalence of
crocodiles, and so we joined a small camping tour in an off-road vehicle.
The area is famous for its outstanding scenic beauty and the insights it
offers into Aboriginal culture. At Kakadu, we climbed the Ubirr Rock to view
one of Australia’s finest rock paintings, some of which are 20,000 years old.
At Katherine, we canoed through a breathtaking gorge of red sandstone cliffs;
at Litchfield, we saw giant magnetic termite mounds, so called because they
point north in the termites’ attempts to keep cool by angling the thinnest part
of the mound towards the sun. Throughout the trip, we swam in refreshing
waterholes and under spectacular waterfalls. We saw crocodiles, both the savage
Estuarine and the smaller, less dangerous freshwater variety.
After a week, we left 30 degree heat in Darwin for chilly Melbourne. For
cultural insight, you really need to see a game of Australian Rules
Football. Otherwise, you could visit the new National Gallery in Federation
Square, shop at the huge Victoria Market, or mooch about the city’s wonderful
Further afield, a visit to the National Wool Museum at Geelong or to the
goldfields centre at Sovereign Hill both offer a fascinating insight into the
shaping of Australian history. If you have time, drive along the Great Ocean
Road, west of the city, which offers one of the world’s great scenic drives,
culminating in the dramatic monoliths known as the Twelve Apostles.
The last leg of our trip was a week in the utterly beautiful Northern
Queensland, where you can stand on the beach where Captain Cook was stranded,
with the rainforest behind you and the Great Barrier Reef ahead.
We flew to Cairns and took a minibus up to Port Douglas, an hour’s drive
north. We had last been to Port Douglas five years ago, when it was a quiet
resort; now it’s positively bustling, and we were glad that our self-catering
accommoda-tion (found on the web) was slightly out-of-town.
But it still provides an ideal spot for an unforgettable snorkelling or
diving trip out to the Reef, exploring Daintree National Park, or visiting the
Rainforest Habitat centre for a superb presentation of the Australia’s unique
bird and wildlife.
Next time, we’ll head for Uluru, perhaps, or take the magnificent
Indian-Pacific train east to west, from Sydney to Perth. Or maybe we’ll visit
pearl-fishing country in remote Broome, on the north-west coast, or cycle round