More than most other “Western” countries, Australia seizes the imagination. For most visitors its name is a shorthand for an endless summer where the living is easy; a place where the adventures are as vast as the horizons and the jokes flow as freely as the beer; a country of can-do spirit and easy friendliness. No wonder Australians call theirs the Lucky Country.
Every aspect of Australian life and culture, whether its matey attitudes or its truly great outdoors, is a product of its scale and population – or lack of it. In size, it rivals the USA, yet its population is just over 22 million, leading to one of the lowest country population densities on Earth. The energy of its contemporary culture is in contrast to a landscape that is ancient and often looks it: much of central and western Australia – the bulk of the country – is overwhelmingly arid and flat. In contrast, its cities, most founded as recently as the mid-nineteenth century, burst with a vibrant, youthful energy.
The most iconic scenery is the Outback, the vast fabled desert that spreads west of the Great Dividing Range into the country’s epic interior. Here, vivid blue skies, cinnamon-red earth, deserted gorges and geological features as bizarre as the wildlife comprise a unique ecology, one that has played host to the oldest surviving human culture for up to 70,000 years (just 10,000 years after Homo sapiens is thought to have emerged from Africa).
This harsh interior has forced modern Australia to become a coastal country. Most of the population lives within 20km of the ocean, occupying a suburban, southeastern arc that extends from southern Queensland to Adelaide. These urban Australians celebrate the typical New World values of material self-improvement through hard work and hard play, with an easy-going vitality that visitors, especially Europeans, often find refreshingly hedonistic. A sunny climate also contributes to this exuberance, with an outdoor life in which a thriving beach culture and the congenial backyard “barbie” are central.
Although visitors might eventually find this low-key, suburban lifestyle rather prosaic, there are opportunities – particularly in the Northern Territory – to experience Australia’s indigenous peoples and their culture through visiting ancient art sites, taking tours and, less easily, making personal contact. Many Aboriginal people – especially in central Australia – have managed to maintain a traditional lifestyle (albeit with modern amenities), speaking their own languages and living by their own laws. Conversely, most Aboriginal people you’ll come across in country towns and cities are victims of what is scathingly referred to as “welfare colonialism” – a disempowering consequence of dole cheques and other subsidies combined with little chance of meaningful employment, often resulting in a destructive cycle of poverty, ill health and substance abuse. There’s still a long way to go before black and white people in Australia can exist on genuinely equal terms.Read More
Aboriginal art has grown into a million-dollar industry since the first canvas dot paintings of the central deserts emerged in the 1970s. Though seemingly abstract, early canvases are said to replicate ceremonial sand paintings – temporary “maps” fleetingly revealed to depict sacred knowledge. In the tropics, figurative bark and cave paintings are less enigmatic but much older, though until recently they were ceremonially repainted. The unusual x-ray style found in the Top End details the internal structure of animals. The Northern Territory – and Alice Springs, in particular – are the best places to look.
Travelling around Australia you’ll notice that almost every town, large or small, has a war memorial dedicated to the memory of the Anzacs, the Australia and New Zealand Army Corps. When war erupted in Europe in 1914, Australia was overwhelmed by a wave of pro-British sentiment. On August 5, 1914, one day after Great Britain had declared war against Germany, the Australian prime minister summed up the feelings of his compatriots: “When the Empire is at war so Australia is at war.” On November 1, 1914, a contingent of twenty thousand enthusiastic volunteers – the Anzacs – left from the port of Albany in Western Australia to assist the mother country in her struggle.
In Europe, Turkey had entered the war on the German side in October 1914. At the beginning of 1915, military planners in London (Winston Churchill prominent among them) came up with a plan to capture the strategically important Turkish peninsula of the Dardanelles with a surprise attack near Gallipoli, thus opening the way to the Black Sea. On April 25, 1915, sixteen thousand Australian soldiers landed at dawn in a small bay flanked by steep cliffs: by nightfall, two thousand men had died in a hail of Turkish bullets from above. The plan, whose one chance of success was surprise, had been signalled by troop and ship movements long in advance; by the time it was carried out, it was already doomed to failure. Nonetheless, Allied soldiers continued to lose their lives for another eight months without ever gaining more than a foothold. In December, London finally issued the order to withdraw. Eleven thousand Australians and New Zealanders had been killed, along with as many French and three times as many British troops. The Turks lost 86,000 men.
Official Australian historiography continues to mythologize the battle for Gallipoli, elevating it to the level of a national legend on which Australian identity is founded. From this point of view, in the war’s baptism of fire, the Anzac soldiers proved themselves heroes who did the new nation proud, their loyalty and bravery evidence of how far Australia had developed. It was “the birth of a nation”, and at the same time a loss of innocence, a national rite of passage – never again would Australians so unquestioningly involve themselves in foreign ventures. Today the legend is as fiercely defended as ever, the focal point of Australian national pride, commemorated each year on April 25, Anzac Day.