<<< More 'Opinionated Traveller' stories
2 May 2001 19:13:51
Australia is a funny place.
Not a great start I know but bear with me.
Australians don't have the bubbly, exhausting enthusiasm of the Yanks. Nor do we have the stuffy formality of the Brits. Nor the passion of Hispanic cultures, the arrogance of the French, the pedantic efficiency of the Germans or the obsequious impenetrability of the Japanese. (Anyone I haven't offended yet?)
The usual Aussie, at home or on holiday, is described as "laid-back", casual.
It's as if the absence of a dominant characteristic defines an Australian. If you were too much one thing or another you just wouldn't be an Aussie at heart.
"She'll be right mate!" is the unofficial watchword of the true-blue Australian. You'll also hear variations in the form "No Worries" and a few others : e.g. Wife left you? Lost your job? The dog died? She'll be right mate, no worries... it's not worth getting upset. No matter how bad the situation, how much has gone wrong or how awful you feel - she'll be right mate!
The country lends itself to a kind of apathy; it's a big, wide, uncaring land. From coast to coast the dominant geography is a huge stretch of unremarkable red-brown scrub, known as "the bush". But the sentiment encompasses more than apathy. It's also a kind of hopeless optimism, the pioneer spirit, do-or-die, something... but perhaps it doesn't bear too much scrutiny?
It is what it is. Experience it for yourself.
There is space in Australia. In the outback, the distance between towns is so huge that you could drop a couple of European countries into it without anyone noticing. The countries of Western Europe would fit into my home state alone. Australia is the sixth largest country in the world at 7.6 million square kilometres but this is divided up between only 20 million people. The immeasurable geographic space adds up to an equally enormous personal space. People respect one and another, to a large extent.
This doesn't mean we don't have our share of unhappiness, dissent and injustice. Anyone with knowledge of Australian history can point to the awful acts visited upon our indigenous population by well meaning, small minded, Anglo-Saxon Christians. From 1900 to 1969 something like 100,000 aboriginal children were torn from their families, to be raised as good Christians. It devastated their culture.
And other injustices are still perpetrated today, I'm sure. However, I would like to think that Australian society is less rigid, less socially stratified and less steeped in complicated social etiquette than most 'older' societies. For example, an American travel guide on Australia once commented that on "no account should a lone male get into the back of a taxi." This is absolutely true. In Australia if you ride in the back of a taxi it means that you think you're too good to talk to the driver, too important.
Australian's don't like "tall poppys" - people that think they're better than the rest of us (Alan Bond was a tall poppy - see what happened to him!). But that doesn't mean we don't like high-achievers. Paradoxically our champion sportsmen and women and top business leaders can become cult heroes. But only if they don't lose contact with their ordinary roots. If they rise to positions of power and 'lord it' over the rest of us, they are cut down quicker than a lone roo in front of a road-train.
Tip number 1 - treat everyone as your equal because they'll be treating you that way (the nice flip side is that they don't treat you like 'another damn tourist' [this does not apply to shop assistants in the QVB in Sydney]).
The bush holds a special place in Australia's heart and in its collective consciousness.
But Australia is not all bush.
Australia is not bush any more than Britain is rolling green hills or America is sprawling golden prairies. Australia has forests, rain-forests, mountains, gorges, rivers and stunning cities. It has Sydney Harbour, Tasmania's Cradle Mountain, the Barrier Reef, Ningaloo Reef, Kakadu and the Snowy Mountains.
But of course, that isn't what I think of as 'real' Australia. If you want to feel Australia you have to go to that vast stretch of baking, horizontal land that starts at about Dubbo and finishes somewhere around Kalgoorlie. The landscape is wide and open and the blue skies go on forever. It's no wonder the aborigines had the concept of a dream-time, with that much space for your thoughts, it would be hard not to dream.
To experience that emptiness, just get in a car and drive right-to-left, or if you prefer, left-to-right across the map. The trip across the bottom of Australia, across the Nullarbor, is a special kind of road trip. Three days from Adelaide to Perth (two if you've a death wish and a fast car) on a road as straight as a die. Roadhouses every 200 to 300 kilometres and no population to speak of. The landscape is unremarkable but not desolate and the people friendly, if a little odd.
Every Australian should do it. Every visitor should do it.
It might be a wide brown land but we Aussies know exactly where we want to live and it 'aint in the bush. Nearly 95% of Australia's twenty million people cluster in a thin strip running around the extreme coast. All of the major cities are within 10km of the open ocean. Beach culture is hardwired into the Australian psyche. Everyone grows up with the beach in their lives. I've even known families who live hundreds of miles inland but make regular pilgrimages to the coast, just so the kids can "go for a paddle".
Australia's love affair with the beach is not the decadent, lazy love affair that you see in the Costa Brava or the Costa del Sol. It's more of an aggressive, steamy wrestling match. Australians 'down the beach' indulge in all manner of pursuits from surfing to sailing to a barbie to the all important beach cricket, a close relative of backyard cricket. Beaches become less of a clinic for injections of vitamin D than an extension of public space.
But our relationship with the beach is tainted by our climate. We have a sizeable hole in the ozone layer and a population with a large heritage of pale skinned immigrants. This means that Australia has one of the highest rates of skin cancer in the world. A ruthless public education campaign has educated us of this fact and we now live in perpetual fear of the sun. But it hasn't dampened our love affair with the golden sands... don't worry... she'll be right mate.
Australia has never been domesticated.
Unlike Western Europe or North America, Australia is still a wild land. In order to make it to maturity Australians must learn to dodge bushfires, snakes, spiders, jelly-fish, crocodiles, poisonous octopi and New Zealanders.But this is really a romantic image. The quantities of venomous animals aren't that much of a threat. I've only ever seen a couple of poisonous snakes, a couple of dozen spiders, one octopus and the odd bushfire in my life. I also only know of one person that has been bitten by a snake - but then she goes around sticking her hand under rocks looking for frogs so it's her own damn fault - and she didn't die, so it's okay. Australia is really a very safe place. Honestly.
Tip number 2 - don't stick your hand under anything that a frog might hide under. This applies to rocks, fallen trees, televisions sets, newspapers and letter boxes (and remember, there's always a Redback spider under the toilet seat).
This is another reason for the phlegmatic character of the average Australian. If you've made it through twenty or thirty odd years of being hunted by everything that walks, crawls or swims you'd be pretty laid back about things like drowning in the bath or being run over by a number nine bus.
Australian culture is a strange beast. Eclectic is probably the best word for it.
It evolved from an Anglo-Saxon basis in the early colonial years through waves of migrants from places as disparate as Greece, Macedonia and Italy to China, Thailand and Malaysia. It has suffered from its share of political stupidity over the years but as the world has come of age, so has Australia.
Petty squabbles and racism have given way to a more hopeful, multicultural environment. Yes, racism still exists as it does everywhere, and yes there is still a vast gulf between indigenous people and the immigrants but sensible, constructive work is being undertaken to address the problems. There is hope.
One cloud on this rosy horizon (which got more airtime than it deserved) was the extreme right wing party, One Nation. It surprised everyone by winning a few seats at the national elections some years ago but its now lost most of its gains and is a spent force. It was the bottom end of the bell curve, rejecting a multicultural Australia. But a multicultural Australia is what we have.
And multi-culturalism is one of the best features of Australia. Oft quoted and slightly flippant statistics include the facts that Melbourne has the largest Greek population in the world outside of Athens and that Perth has more Chinese restaurants per head than any other city in the world. Whether or not either of these was ever or is still true I don't know but it's a nice thought to have. Australia's strengths really do come from its diversities.
Arguably the jewel in the crown and Australia's largest city.
Sydney is a beautiful city, perched on the shores of its own harbour and tourist attractions include the Harbour bridge, the Sydney Opera House, Manly & Bondi beaches and all the debris from the Olympic games. Other attractions include any of the beaches other than Manly or Bondi (Balmoral, Cronulla, Palm, Freshie, Dee Why etc), ferry rides on the harbour, Taronga Park Zoo and the outstanding lifestyle. But, it is the most international and consequently the least Australian of all the cities.
Features of New South Wales include the Blue Mountains (so called for the blue haze the eucalypt forests produce over the mountains), the Hunter valley wine growing region and the mining town of Broken Hill.
The next biggest city in Australia with a truly multicultural composition and an age old rivalry with Sydney. Where Sydney claims to have the big attractions, Melbourne claims to have the culture and lifestyle.
Tourist attractions include the Melbourne cup (horse race), the Crown Casino, the Grand Prix and trams. Other attractions include the Melbourne Arts Centre, the restaurant and cafe strip on Lygon street and Queen Victoria Markets. Attractions of the state include the Great Ocean Road and Twelve Apostles, the Grampians and the rock climbing mecca of the Arapiles.
Not, in my humble opinion, the most awe-inspiring of Australian cities but set in a fantastic location on Australia's north-eastern coast. Undergoing major growth in recent years as people flee north from Sydney or Melbourne.
Attractions of Brisbane include the Conrad casino, cane toads and bad drivers. Attractions of Queensland include Fraser Island, the Glass House mountains, the Great Barrier reef and nearby island playground of the Whitsundays, the tropical north and the fabulous Daintree rainforest. One premier "attraction" of Queensland is the Gold Coast which is almost exactly like (and as attractive as) the concrete jungles of the Costa del Sol. Not true Australian beach territory and you take your life in your hands if you go there during 'schoolies' week.
Without a doubt, in my completely prejudiced opinion, the most beautiful city in Australia.
Attractions, tourist or otherwise, include the Swan River, King's Park, Fremantle, the lifestyle and the never-ending beaches. Attractions of Western Australia include the Margaret river wine growing region and surfing mecca, Rottnest island, the vast inland spaces around mining towns like Kalgoorlie, the gorges of the north west and, you guessed it, the endless beaches.
Perth suffers (or benefits depending on your point of view) from being the most remote capital city in the world. It is two days drive from the next nearest Australian city in Adelaide and four hours by plane to Sydney or Melbourne.
"Perth is the biggest country town in the world trying to be a city. The most isolated country town in the world, trying desperately to hit the big time. Desert on one side, sea on the other. Philistine fairground. There's something nesting here, something horrible waiting. Ambition." - from Cloudstreet by Tim Winton, one of my favourite authors and a fellow Perthian.
Featuring no beaches what-so-ever this, I'm sorry to say, is my least favourite of all Australian cities. The custom built Australian capital is halfway between Sydney and Melbourne and features no water features other than Lake Burly-Griffin. It is also one of the coldest cities in Australia during the winter, again knocking some points off my enjoyment scale. Attractions include the magnificent Parliament House building (where kangaroos graze on the lawns), the Snowy mountains and the Australian National Gallery. I wouldn't recommend getting stuck in Canberra on a Friday night with nothing to do - unless you are a foreign diplomat with a limousine they can take you somewhere interesting, like Melbourne for example.
Nestled away from mainland Australia on the south coast of the island state, Hobart is a historic Australian city. The nearby Port Arthur was one of colonial Australia's first penal settlements and still illustrates what it might have been like to be an exported convict. Other attractions within Tasmania include the unspoilt wilderness around the Cradle Mountain National Park and, as I remember from a trip when I was twelve, the unsurpassed seafood.
Wilderness features highly on the Northern Territory's list of attractions with the World Heritage listed Kakadu and Litchfield National Parks and Katherine Gorges being the main attraction. Others include Alice Springs and Uluru (Ayers Rock), the Olgas (mountains) and crocodile feeding tours specially designed for American tourists. The sunsets are pretty good as well.
The quiet southern capital of Australia's central state is a cultural haven in a rather dry countryside. Adelaide's attractions include the annual Fringe Festival, the National Aboriginal Cultural Institute and the botanic gardens. South Australian attractions include the Barossa and Claire valleys (wine growing), the tiny ethnic German town of Hahndorf and the vast stretches of the treeless Nullarbor plain.
Tip Number 3 - make sure you've got time to see everything. It's a big place.
If I had to put together a must see list for Australia it would probably go something like this : pet a kangaroo; climb the Sydney Harbour bridge; learn to surf; see Uluru, the Snowy's, Kakadu and the Daintree; drive across the Nullarbor and around the Great Ocean Road; eat Spanish in Sydney, Italian in Melbourne, Japanese in Perth and Thai in Adelaide; dive on the Great Barrier and Ningaloo reefs, hike Cradle Mountain and sail the Whitsundays; drink cabernet in the Hunter, shiraz in the Barossa and semillion in Margaret River; walk the Miracle Mile in Karijini; dance in Sydney's mardi-gras, climb the Arapiles and see a corroboree. After that stop by Fremantle or Watson's Bay for a beer in the sunshine.