Australia - Facts and Factoids

  • Australia is the smallest inhabited continent of the seven continents.
  • Australia can also be considered the largest island in the world, though sometimes it is deemed a continent rather than an island.
  • Australia is divided into six states (Southern Australia, Western Australia, New South Wales, Queensland, Victoria and Tasmania) and two self-governing territories: Northern Territory and Australian Capital Territory (which is around Canberra, the capital city).
  • Australia is the oldest, flattest, and driest inhabited continent, with the least fertile soils. A staggering two thirds of the country consists of desert landscape - referred to as 'outback'. Though it also has tropical rainforests in the north-east, and mountain ranges in the south-east.
  • And the stunning Great Barrier Reef off Eastern Australia is the biggest coral reef in the world.

What is the History of Australia?

Indigenous Australians have inhabited the continent for approximately 65,000 years. European maritime exploration of Australia began in the early 17th century. Dutch explorers came first. In 1770, Australia's eastern half was mapped by Captain Cook , who landed at Botany Bay to claim the area for Great Britain. After the loss of its American colonies in 1783, the British Government needed a new penal colony. They sent the First Fleet, under the command of Captain Arthur Phillip, to establish one in Sydney Cove, Port Jackson, on 26 January 1788, (A date which later became Australia's National Day.)

The remainder of the continent was mapped by Matthew Flinders, on HMS Reliance. He was assisted by George Bass after whom the straits north of Tasmania were named) an they famously made use of two small boats called Tom Thumb I and II. Flinders was captured by the French at Mauritius on his way home and held prisoner for six years.

Other penal colonies, in other regions followed and explorers like Burkes and Wills began to explore Australia's inner realms. There was voluntary settlement running alongside this, much expanded during the gold rushes in the 1850s and beyond. An additional five self-governing crown colonies were established. On 1 January 1901, all six colonies federated, forming the Commonwealth of Australia. (Australia's official title).

Abel Tasman named the region New Holland, but the British changed this to Terra Australis, which means 'Southern Land' and the formal Latin was adapted by explorer Matthew Flinders. It was he, and his contemporaneous explorers, who coined the term 'Down Under', in reference to Australia and New Zealand.. Australia is, of course also known widely as "Oz", but its also been called, "the Great Southern Land", "the Lucky Country", "the Sunburnt Country", and "the Wide Brown Land".

What is There to See in Australia?

I'm not sure where to start. Australia is such a great country to visit. The people are friendly and every time I have visited I have made good friends. The scenery is stunning. Australia is justly world famous for its natural wonders and wide open spaces, its beaches, deserts, "the bush", and "the Outback". The beaches are amongst the best in the world, as is the snorkelling.

Australian cities are comfortable, at times chic, at other times fascinatingly historic and there's some amazing food.

I have visited:

Adelaide

Petra has flown in to join me in Adelaide where I've arrived from Tasmania. I have to get myself up to Darwin for my flight to East Timor and the Ghan seemed the obvious way to do it. The centre of Adelaide is very different to my first trip thirty years ago. It’s gone high rise and modern.

Why is the Ghan called the Ghan?

Ghan is short for Afghan. The original Adelaide to Darwin train was called the Afghan Express, because of the Asian cameleers who supported the engineering endeavour. They were collectively known as Afghans, even though many came from Pakistan, Persia and India. The first part of the railway, from Port Augusta, near Adelaide, was begun in 1878, but not extended to Alice Springs until 1926. The extension through to Darwin didn't begin until this century, facilitating trade links to Darwin and thus Asia and opening up tourism opportunities.

Today’s train is (I imagine) very different from the original. It runs weekly in each direction and we have extremely well fitted out single cabins, in what looks like an almost new carriage. The storage is cunningly contrived to make good use of every inch of very compact space. It’s certainly infinitely superior to the offerings on Amtrak. So is the food - and there’s unlimited access to soft drinks and alcohol. Which probably explains why the ticket is so expensive.

Our scheduled travelling time, including excursions, is 53 hours 15 minutes. And we are travelling 1,851 miles on what is now described as one of the world's great passenger trains.

The Ghan Across Southern Territory

The train rolls peacefully along, past wind farms, salt pans and the Flinders Ranges. As with Amtrak, however, there are plenty of halts in railway sidings.

It’s the outback sunrise experience this morning: bonfires, bacon and egg sliders and a view of the sun, a huge fiery ball bursting over the low bush.

From then on it's red dirt and low green terrain. The train manager attempts to make things more exciting. 'The Northern Territory sign is ahead, get your cameras ready'. It’s so unprepossessing I almost miss it. The iron man sculpture that is promoted as the next attraction is even more diminutive. But the outback scenery, the squat acacia and the quavery ghost gums more aesthetically pleasing than the man made art, is a relaxing backdrop. It’s a good chance to recharge batteries (mine this time) and chat to fellow passengers. These are nearly all retired Aussies, (think Norfolk Island) for the most part extremely sociable. Australia is definitely one of the friendliest countries in the world.

Alice Springs

I was in Alice Springs thirty years ago too. I’ve retained a soft spot for the name ever since reading Nevil Shute’s novel, when I was eleven. First stop is John Flynn's Grave Historical Reserve. He was a Presbyterian minister who founded the Royal Flying Doctor Service. The site is marked by a boulder stolen from an aboriginal sacred site.

This afternoon, I’m heading out to the McDonnell Ranges for a walk at Simpsons Gap. Long pants and covered shoes are obligatory. They don’t want the punters getting bitten by snakes. The sky is azure, the ridges fiery red, the dusky rock wallabies peer down at us from the heights and the bus driver plays a didgeridoo.

Nitmiluk Gorge (Katherine Gorge)

One of the very elderly passengers has gone AWOL this morning. The crew are walking through the winding corridors calling out ’Donald?’ and looking anxious. He can’t have got off. All the doors are locked.

The landscape is now golden rather than red. There are more trees, though they’re spindly and interspersed with minaret-like termite mounds. Today’s excursion takes us to Katherine Gorge, on the edge of Kakadu Park, where we embark on two cruises on a pair of the thirteen gorges, walking between the different boats. The scenery here is splendid, with wonderful reflections on the still waters of the Katherine River, especially the pools between the gorges. The escarpment towers above us and (relatively) friendly freshwater crocodiles bask on rocks. Any of the much less amenable salties that are discovered are transported to reserves. (They put out red plastic decoys and look for teeth marks.)

One of the attendants tells me that Donald was discovered in the platinum class area. The more affluent amongst us have a separate dining car, which we thought was locked off, (we couldn’t get in) but Donald managed to find his way through and was hogging a table and enjoying a superior breakfast.

The Ghan is undoubtedly a comfortable train, but it’s more of an excursion experience than a train ride. We seem to have slept through most of the terrain. Perhaps there isn’t anything else to see? We're decanted at Darwin and I prepare for my early flight to East Timor.

The Great Ocean Road

I've flown to Melbourne from Niue via Auckland. And The Great Ocean Road is one of those scenic wonders of the world that’s been on my bucket list for some time. So, I’ve decided to squeeze it into this trip on a one (very long) day bus tour.

The passengers on my ‘small’ (20 passengers) bus option are a polyglot bunch. Qataris, Filipinos, Indians, Latvians, Brazilians, Spanish, Romanian, no Australians and one American. The American, CJ, is a young, good looking black guy on a round the world trip. He has laudable ambitions to make round the world travel more accessible to his fellow countrymen and is setting up a website. He’s an intelligent and thought provoking companion. He also carries my coat and bag and takes photos of me. What more could I ask for?

The scenery, along much of the 243 kilometre drive, is reminiscent of parts of the South African Garden route. Wide golden beaches, wild sprawling cliffs and the sea cascading over glistening rock steps and pavements. It’s clear why one stretch has been named the Shipwreck Coast. It must be glorious in the summer sun (though packed with traffic – there are plenty of tour buses out today in the depths of winter) but today’s clouds add superbly to the brooding atmosphere.

The road was built as a World War One memorial (it’s the longest memorial in the world) and construction took 13 years. There’s an arch commemorating this near the entry point near Torquay (we're back in England again). This area is known for surfing and Bell's Beach is host of the annual Rip Curl Pro.

Past Apollo Bay, the route diverts from the coast into lush English style countryside: rolling hills and lambs gambolling. next, the Great Ocean Road dives into the lush Otway National Park, This is rainforest, where incredible huge tree ferns and giant eucalyptus offer a Jurassic Park experience. Our guide, Jimmy, says that these eucalyptus are known as mountain ash (confusingly, a completely different family to the European variety) and are the third tallest trees in the world. He also says Anglesey (we stop for coffee at a town of that name named after the British original) is in Ireland, so I’ll check that fact out.

Kangaroos are elusive today. I catch one hopping by out of the corner of my eye and a few bedraggled koalas peer down balefully from the treetops. (Not in the mountain ash though - they’re not keen on these as a food source).

Loch Ard Gorge

But this road is most famous for its rock formations. The first of these surround a stunning blue inlet at Loch Ard Gorge. There's a long story attached to the name. In 1878, a large clipper ship called Loch Ard ran aground on nearby Muttonbird Island. the only two survivors (out of 54) were a young sailor apprentice named Tom Pearce, and a nineteen-year-old Irish girl, Eva Carmichael, who was travelling with her family. Tom rescued Eva, and they both called for help to try and rescue others - though to no avail. Though Tom was recognised as a hero, the story doesn't have a romantic ending. Eva went back to Europe where she married an aristocrat.

The gorge did have an archway as its centre piece, but it collapsed and the two remaining rock pillars of the gorge have been named Tom and Eva. They've featured in several film sets.

The Twelve Apostles

Three minutes along the road, the other highpoint of the day is the rock formations of the once Twelve Apostles (now eight and shortly to be even fewer, as erosion progresses). This is one of those sights that gratifyingly, exceeds expectations. The heavens clearly agree, as the sun is sending shafts of light though the clouds, bathing the limestone stacks and glinting on the surf. It’s a scene straight out of a biblical epic.

Melbourne Revisited

A whizz round Melbourne this morning. The city is compact and easy to navigate; it has a comfortable buzz about it. I’ve come out on a shopping mission today and Melbourne is a great place to shop. It’s not the most photogenic of cities, but I like the spacious streets and heavy Victorian/1930s colonial architecture, of the centre. Behind, tower modern skyscrapers, purple, green and black mosaics. Sandwiched in the middle, Chinatown,with the usual dragon gates and scarlet lanterns. I purchase a brand new underwater camera, identical to the lovely Olympus Tough I have at home I brought the old broken one by mistake instead), and then set off to the landmark Queen Victoria market, aiming to eat lunch there. But Chinatown spills out into lines of bright and tempting Asian eateries, abutting the main department stores, and I’m seduced into a Japanese restaurant, where the (very fresh) sushi is indeed excellent.

Melbourne - A Foodie City

Melbourne is looking like a great foodie city. There are a huge variety of offerings, unusual and otherwise. There’s much less in the usual western fast food line and a great deal of oriental, as well as bakeries displaying a range of delights, most notably roll shaped cakes and pasties slathered with bright coatings (I’m not sure what of) that I’ve never seen before.

What's an UGG Boot?

The market has even more to offer. But I’m seduced again, this time into purchasing a pair of UGG boots. I’ve been worrying that Tasmania, my next stop, will be uncomfortably cold and I’ve only got trainers with me, wet (and very smelly) from Niue. These UGGs are proper Australian ones, not the Chinese made American ones, which are at least double the price. UGG is simply a generic word for sheepskin boots here, a stall holder spends a good half hour explaining to me. I check up on the internet when I get back. Wikipedia confirms what he said. It also states that the average Australian wears them as slippers and wouldn’t be seen dead on the street with them on, as they’re deemed to be ‘daggy’.

I walk back to my hotel surveying footwear as I go. There’s not an UGG in sight, not so much as  a tall boot. The footwear of choice is a trainer or heavy ankle boots (DM style). Nearly everyone has several inches of bare calf below their trousers.

Next stop Tasmania

Arrival in Sydney, Australia

I was on a Round the World trip to Australia and New Zealand. It was my first really big trip and I was very naive. Flying in from Hong Kong I arrived first in Sydney. I had booked a cheap hotel in Kings Cross and found out why it was such a good deal when I got there. I knew nothing about Kings Cross (it’s the red light district area) and when I arrived a guy was standing in the doorway wearing a leather mini and a blonde wig. So, I got take-away and stuck a chair under the door handle.

I was crippled with jet lag and when I found myself down by the iconic Opera House and Botanic Gardens the next day it was dusk and I was very muzzy headed. I walked back across Victoria Park and only later discovered this was a big no-no for single females.

Sydney, Largest City in Australia, for the Moment

Sydney needs little introduction. It's one of the most visited cities in the world famous for its Opera House and the Sydney Harbour Bridge (the Coathanger). Kingsford Smith Airport is one of the world's oldest continually operating airports. Sydney is also famous for hosting major international sporting events such as the 2000 Summer Olympics.

Sydney is the capital city of the state of New South Wales, and the most populous city in both Australia and Oceania.(though it vies with rival Melbourne for that title which has switched between the two cities.) The metropolis, (all 658 suburbs) ,includes Sydney Harbour and extends over 40 miles, towards the Blue Mountains to the west, Hawkesbury to the north, the Royal National Park to the south and Macarthur to the south-west. Sydney is known as 'The Emerald City' (Sydney is where people go expecting their dreams to be fulfilled only to end up with superficial substitutes and broken dreams) or the 'Harbour City'.(A little more obvious).

Up the Sydney Tower for views of what was purported to be the largest natural harbour in the world.( It may have lost its title recently due to some land reclamation) and a boat tour of the harbour stopping off at Bondi Beach, probably the most famous of many. The boats leave from Darling Harbour and just off to one side the heart of old Sydney and The Victorian Quarter - The Rocks. Other must sees are the aquarium and the mono rail that runs that way.

Sydney was founded as a British penal colony in 1788, the first European settlement in Australia. After World War II, Sydney experienced mass migration and by 2021 over 40 per cent of the population was born overseas.

Adelaide

Next stop, Adelaide to stay with friend Jenny. Her spare room had a water bed. Weird. She had only just commenced her one year teaching exchange job in Australia , so I pottered round the city while she was working. Adelaide is the capital of South Australia, name dafter Queen Adelaide. this was the only freely settled colony in Australia. This is a properly planned city - designed by the first Surveyor-General of South Australia, Colonel William Light. "Light's Vision" (also the name of a statue of him on Montefiore Hill), arranged Adelaide in a grid, with five squares in the Adelaide city centre and a ring of parks, known as the Adelaide Parklands, surrounding it. This is where I find the museums, art gallery, botanical gardens and the Mini Opera House. It was chic and easy, bo-ho shops. A place you could live I thought.

With Jenny to Cleland Wildlife Park to see the koalas, so soft... though I was rewarded by a pellet down my dress as part of my cuddle. We drive round the Barossa Valley, sample the wines and sail up the Murray River in a paddle steamer. I buy a koala toy with hat bobbing corks. It sings Waltzing Matilda. How could you not?.

Kangaroo Island

I also took a bus trip south to overnight on Kangaroo Island. There are plenty of nature reserves, a lot of seals and a few kangaroos. Penneshaw, right next to the ferry terminal is home to a colony of little penguins – also known as fairy or blue penguins. It's cold and dark and I can't easily work out how to get around the island. I can just make the little penguins out - I'm sure they are shivering in the bushes. One of the must sees is the Cape du Couedic Lighthouse above the boardwalk that leads to the Remarkable Rocks.

The Red Centre of Australia

Then, to Alice Springs for a bus trip to Ayers Rock. Alice Springs, with a population of around 25,000, is the third-largest town in the Northern Territory of Australia. It's just about in the centre of Australia, equidistant from Adelaide and Darwin. It's on a dry river bed surrounded by several deserts, so the region is dubbed The Red Centre. The town was called Stuart until 1933, when it was renamed after the wife of the telegraph pioneer Sir Charles Todd. It's usually known affectionately as Alice of course and a draw to me because of the Neville Shute's novel A Town like Alice. Though I remember the parts of the story set in war time Malaysia much more clearly.

There's little of note except for the gorges, the school, where it's all done by radio and the flying doctors.

Ayers Rock (Uluru)

The drive to Ayers Rock takes all day (it's 450 kilometres) and we stop for English scones, jam and cream once on each leg - the scones were enormous. Strange the things you remember.

Uluru, or Ayers Rock, is a massive sandstone monolith thought to have started forming around 550 million years ago. It’s part of Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park. The Kata Tjuta are 36 red-rock domes known as “The Olgas”. Ayers Rock was stunning in its rich glowing redness, with never to be forgotten views of the rock and the neighbouring bulbous Olgas from a helicopter. My first flight in one.

In those days there was a steady procession of climbers scrambling up the almost vertical face of the rock. It was surprisingly windy at the top, threatening to topple those who had made the ascent. Nowadays, climbing is not allowed at all, in deference to the native peoples who venerate the site.

Darwin and The Top End of Australia

Next stop Darwin and Kakadu. Darwin is the capital of Northern Territory, centre of the so called Top End of Australia and home to most of the residents of the territory. It is thoroughly tropical, a link with Asia and the smallest, wettest, and most northerly of the Australian capital cities. The sailors of The Beagle named the area Port Darwin, after their former shipmate, when they called there. The city has been almost entirely rebuilt four times, after cyclones in 1897, 1937 and 1974 and Japanese air raids during World War II,

My best memory of Darwin - unexpectedly small - was making an impromptu visit to the feeding of the fishes in the harbour. Crowds gather at high tide to lob handfuls of bread into the sea, which is almost instantly churning with huge fish who fight for the scraps. The most common attendees: milkfish, mullet, catfish, bream, batfish and barramundi.

Kakadu National Park

Kakadu is a park and World Heritage site 100 miles south of Darwin. It's probably most famous as the setting for the film Crocodile Dundee. But it is wonderfully memorable. Beautiful lakes, (I dived in, forgetting I still had my sunglasses on and my Oakleys sank to the bottom). The Aboriginal rock art was incredible. Best of all, this definitely was atmospheric, a trip up the remarkable Yellow Water Billabong, in a flat bottomed boat to see the crocodiles, buffalo and jabirus.

Cairns and The Barrier Reef

Cairns for an extraordinarily memorable day out on the Great Barrier Reef in a catamaran. My first proper snorkelling experience. I was so excited I forgot to come in for lunch. And it was seafood. Cairns is very much a seaside Come and Kiss Me Quick type of place. But I managed to acquire a taste for Fosters while I was there. I’ve never been one for bitter beer.

Port Daintree and Kuranda

Side trips up to Port Daintree. Where the rainforest meets the ocean and there are huge salties in the river. And the Kuranda Scenic Railway from Cairns ascending the Great Dividing Range to Kuranda at the top, in the Atherton Tablelands. 15 tunnels and over 37 bridges.

New Zealand next.

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