The world’s largest island and smallest continent covers an area of almost three million square miles, with nearly 23,000 miles of coastline. Australia is the size of the USA (without Alaska), or 25 times the size of the UK.
Its population, though, numbers just 20 million – which is not much more than Greater London. Most people tend to avoid the arid desert of the interior, with the majority of people living within 12 miles of the ocean and on the south-east side of the continent.
Australia is the most urbanised country in the world, with more than 85 per cent of Aussies living in a town or city. A whopping 40 per cent inhabit the eastern state capitals of Melbourne and Sydney.
Aborigines called this continent home for many thousands of years before anyone from the outside world knocked on the door. Ask most people who first called round for tea and they’ll answer that it was Captain Cook. But he was in fact last in a rather long line of intrepid seamen who had been sniffing around the mysterious southern continent for more than 200 years.
The Portuguese were probably the first Europeans to sight the coast of Australia during sea voyages in the first half of the 16th century. During the early 1600s some Dutch sailors felt brave enough to land on Cape York and a few spots on the west coast, but decided the weather wasn’t up to much and sailed back to Jakarta. In 1642 they sent a guy called Abel Tasman, who charted the coast from Cape York west to the Great Australian Bight and discovered a little island he named Van Dieman’s Land – now Tasmania – but bafflingly failed to discover the east coast.
Forty years later the first Pom, William Dampier, made a few explorations from Shark Bay on the west coast, and agreed with the Dutch that the whole place wasn’t really much cop.
And so it was that more than 70 years later, in 1770, our friend Captain Cook finally turns up, discovers the elusive east coast, decides it’s actually quite nice, and claims the whole place for Britain. The inhabitants didn’t get a say in the matter.
Up until then, Britain had been sending its prisoners over to America, but the War of Independence bought that scheme to a halt. Faced with the prospect of actually having to keep convicts in the country, someone had the idea of shipping them all to this wonderful new colony and in January 1788, the first fleet arrived in Botany Bay.
Unfortunately they didn’t find it to be quite as hospitable as Cook had described, but after a bit of scouting around the area, they discovered Port Jackson, a little to the north, and so the colony of Sydney was started.
The first years were incredibly hard, and starvation was never far away. But by the early 1800s, Sydney had become a flourishing trading post. More people were coming over on their own free will rather than at his majesty’s pleasure, especially after gold was discovered in the 1850s. The first half of the 19th century also saw many expeditions to discover and colonise the rest of the continent. These expeditions met with varying degrees of success, but Perth was settled in 1829, and the first overland expedition reached Darwin in 1862.
By the 1890s most people wanted to bring the different colonies together as one big country, and federation was announced on 1 January, 1901. For many years afterwards, Australia was still very much a British colony, but as the century progressed it became its own country. The republican movement became very vocal in the 1990s, and in 1999 there was a referendum to decide whether the Queen should be replaced as head of state by an Australian president. The republicans were narrowly defeated and it is unlikely that the subject will be re-visited until the current conservative government has left office.
The states and the government
Canberra is Australia’s purpose-built capital. The city was established in 1908 to house the Federal Parliament after arch-rivals Sydney and Melbourne contested the right to be the capital city. Australia is divided into six states and two territories:
Australia has a similar system of government to the UK, with a two-tier parliament and a representative of the monarchy acting as head of state. The Federal Government is responsible for the national economy, immigration and defence, while the states/territories decide on certain matters like health, education and transport. Laws differ from state to state and what will cop you a courtroom appearance (and criminal record) in one state, may be waived in another. For example, the minimum driving age is 18 years in Victoria but it’s 17 years in Western Australia.
Australia is divided into three time zones. Eastern Standard Time (EST) covers Queensland, New South Wales, Australian Capital Territory, Victoria and Tasmania, and is nine hours ahead of Greenwich Mean Time (GMT). Central Standard Time (CST) operates in South Australia and the Northern Territory and is nine-and-a-half hours ahead of GMT. Western Standard Time (WST) operates in Western Australia and is eight hours ahead of GMT, two hours behind EST and one-and-a-half hours behind CST. In summer it becomes really confusing, because not all states operate daylight saving (summer time). In Queensland, WA and the NT, they don’t “do” daylight saving. The other states advance their clocks by one hour from October to March each year. Unfortunately, they don’t all change at the same time.
And don’t forget British Summer time is one hour AHEAD of GMT from April-October. If we were you, though, ignore all this crap and ask someone what the time is when you get off the plane.
Culture and the people
Most people asked to describe an “average” Aussie would probably summon up an image of an outback battler, with corks in his hat, a beer in his hand, and a “no worries mate, she’ll be right” attitude. This stereotype is increasingly outdated as Australia becomes more and more multicultural and urbanised. In the years after the Second World War, migrants came primarily from southern Europe, but since the 1960s there has been a huge influx of people from South-East Asia and China. It is estimated that one in four of the population is a migrant or a child of a migrant.
Don’t expect a white Christmas in Sydney or Melbourne. It’s usually spent lazing by the beachwith an ice-cold drink in hand. Officially, summer starts in December, autumn in March, winter in June and spring in September – although it’s usually only cold and rainy from the months of June to August.
Another thing to remember is that northern Australia is hot and humid (tropical climate) and the further south you go, the colder and greener it becomes. The only places it gets cold enough to snow are in the Snowy Mountains of New South Wales, the Alps of north-east Victoria, (both of which have a snow season with good skiing) and in Tasmania.
The centre of the continent is arid – hot and dry during the day and cold at night. In the far northern parts of Australia there are only two seasons – the Dry (May to October) and the Wet (November to April). Cyclones tend to hit northern Australia from November to April.
Sunbaking and swimming
The sun is a powerful beast in Australia and made even stronger by the critically thin ozone layer. To avoid the risk of getting skin cancer remember to always “slip, slop, slap” (slip on a shirt, slop on some sunscreen and slap on a hat).
Swimming is something of a national pastime, but check with the locals first, as some beaches in the north in summer can become full of deadly box jellyfish.
Also be aware of the fact that the ocean around Australia is a seriously dangerous one, and many people drown every year after being caught in rips (strong offshore undercurrents). To stay safe, avoid going for a dip on non-patrolled beaches, and always swim between the flags.
Other than rips and jellyfish, there’s not a lot to worry about. Oh, apart from crocodiles and sharks. Shark attacks are exceptionally rare. As for crocs, obey warning signs in northern areas and she’ll be right, mate.
While you’re travelling around Australia, be sure to pick up TNT Magazine, out every week. We cover all the big events of the week in the capital cities, and have plenty of interesting features on everything from wine tasting to diving on the Great Barrier Reef. We also have news and sport from home, plus jobs and accommodation.
May 11th, 2007