Over the moon about down under

02 November 2006

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 sport.

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 cafes.

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 Tasmania.


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