Famously, Australians like their sports, especially spectator sports like cricket, Aussie Rules football, rugby (league or union), tennis or racing, be it horse, camel or cockroach. No matter what it is, it’ll draw a crowd – with thousands more watching on TV – and a crowd means a party. Even unpromising-sounding activities such as surf lifesaving and yacht racing (the start of the Sydney-to-Hobart race just after Christmas is a massive social event) are hugely popular.
The football (footy) season in Australia lasts from March to September, and comes in two varieties. Football as most of the world knows it is “soccer” to differentiate it from Australian Rules footy, which in the 1950s was considered the game “real Australians” played. Soccer’s A-League competition (a-league.com.au), with eleven teams from Australia and New Zealand, is about commitment rather than the slick skills of top European leagues. The best players invariably play overseas but unite for Australia’s national team, the Socceroos, whose never-say-die performances in recent World Cups have modestly boosted interest in the sport.
Australian Rules (“Aussie Rules”) football dominates Victoria, Tasmania, South Australia and Western Australia. It’s an anarchic, no-holds-barred, eighteen-a-side brawl, most closely related to Gaelic football. The ball can be propelled by any means necessary, and the fact that players aren’t sent off for misconduct ensures a lively, skilful and, above all, gladiatorial confrontation. The aim is to get a ball similar to that used in rugby or American football through central uprights for a goal (six points). There are four twenty-minute quarters, though the clock is stopped each time the ball is out of play, so quarters can go on for longer. Despite the violence on the pitch (or perhaps because of it), Aussie Rules fans tend to be well-behaved, with a high proportion of women and children in crowds. It’s also worth noting that fans aren’t segregated at matches. Victoria has traditionally been the home of the game with ten out of the sixteen AFL clubs, and an all-Victorian Grand Final held in Sept usually warrants a sell-out crowd at the MCG.
In New South Wales and Queensland, Rugby League attracts the fanatics, especially for the hard-fought State of Origin matches. The thirteen-a-side game is one at which Australians excel – national team the Kangaroos were World Champions every year from 1975 to 2008 – despite having a relatively small professional league. Rugby League is huge in Sydney and the majority of the sixteen NRL teams are based there. One consequence of mass-media promotion of the sport has been the loss of some traditional inner-city clubs through mergers. Many people also resent the way in which this one-time bastion of working-class culture has been co-opted by pay TV.
Rugby Union is very much a minority interest domestically. However, the introduction of a Super 12 competition, involving teams from Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, has generated greater interest in what was an elitist sport, and the national team, the Wallabies, are hugely popular. The league and union rugby season runs from April to September.
Cricket is played from October to March, and is a great spectator sport – for the crowd, the sunshine and the beer as much as the play. Every state is involved, and the three- or four-day Sheffield Shield matches of the interstate series are interspersed with one-day games and internationals, as well as full five-day international test matches.
The international competition that still arouses greatest interest is the biennial series (the next competition is in 2015) between Australia and England – The Ashes. Having been around for 130 years, this is perhaps the oldest sporting rivalry between nations. The “trophy” dates from 1882, when an Australian touring side defeated England at the Oval in South London by seven runs, and the Sporting Times was moved to run a mock obituary for the death of English cricket. A set of bails was cremated, then preserved in a funerary urn. This never actually leaves Lord’s cricket ground in London – what’s up for grabs is a crystal glass replica and prestige. In 2006, Australia took the Ashes back down under after demolishing England in the first series whitewash since 1920. The Poms got their revenge in 2011 by walloping Australia on their home turf, their first win on Australian soil since the mid-1980s and the only one in which a team has won three Tests by innings margins. They won again in 2013. The rivalry is far from dead.
The cities are fun, but if Australia is about anything it is its great outdoors: the vast and remote wilderness of the bush, the Outback, and thousands of kilometres of unspoilt coastline. With one of the world’s best adventure playgrounds in the backyard it’s no wonder that Aussies participate in a huge range of outdoor pursuits – hiking, surfing, diving, fishing, even skiing – especially in the national parks that cover the country. The best sources of information are local tourist visitor centres, which publicize what’s available in their area: from detailed maps of national parks with walking trails, swimming holes and activities to specialist tour operators. You’ll find tour operators providing just about any activity you can think of, usually with all gear supplied. If you want to go it alone, plenty of places will rent or sell you equipment. Either way, check your insurance cover beforehand.
Be aware, too, that the Australian interior does not suffer fools – every year tourists die here by underestimating the harshness of the environment – and the coast conceals dangers, too: sunstroke and dehydration are risks everywhere, and riptides, currents and large waves can be fatal on exposed coasts. In remote regions, isolation and lack of surface water compromise energetic outdoor activities such as bushwalking or mountain biking, which for novices are better practised in the cooler and more populated south.
Beach culture is hardwired into the Aussie mentality and with around ninety percent of the population living within two hours of the beach, Australians have found countless ways of getting in, on or under the water.
In the century since Hawaiian legend Duke Kahanamoku paddled out at North Sydney’s Freshwater Beach to demonstrate the wave-riding of his homeland, Australians have made surfing their own, thanks to world-class waves on all coastlines except the north. Forget any impressions of surfing as the counterculture activity of beach bums, however – in Australia it is a mainstream sport where the standard is high and the mentality is territorial; cliquey at best, aggressive at worst. Learners, therefore, should familiarize themselves with a lesson or two at resorts such as Byron Bay first, and keep clear of the pack. Similarly, beginners should seek advice if they hire gear and always select breaks patrolled by lifeguards.
Sailing is also hugely popular. Prime destinations are Queensland’s Whitsunday Islands, a concentrated dose of azure sea and white powder beaches, and also Sydney Harbour and Western Australia’s Fremantle and Coral Bay. Tourist sailing trips are a fixture in Sydney; in WA, check at local visitor information centres or ask at local yacht clubs.
For many, what lies underwater is reason alone to visit Australia. A huge draw for divers, the Great Barrier Reef is the world’s largest living organism, a kaleidoscope of coral and tropical fish – the dilemma is which bit of its 2000km to visit, and whether to go with a liveaboard dive school or day-trip. Far less commercial is the superb Ningaloo Marine Park in WA. The proximity of the continental shelf provides for sublime snorkelling straight off the beach – if you want to swim with whale sharks, the gentle giants of the deep, this is your place.
Bushwalking in Australia means self-sufficient hikes, from a day to a week or more. You’ll find trails marked in almost every national park, as well as local bushwalking clubs and dedicated bushwalk tour operators.
Given the harshness of the environment, it’s impossible to stress enough that you must be properly equipped for all conditions you may encounter. Carry a proper walking map, know the trail markers, and stay on the route. Ideally, let someone know where you’re going and confirm your safe return – many park rangers insist on it for overnight walks, which may require registration.
The essentials, even for a short walk, are adequate clothing, including a wide-brimmed hat, enough food (with extra in case of problems) and, above all, plenty of water. Other useful items include a torch, matches or lighter, penknife, sunblock, insect repellent, a fuel stove, toilet paper (often with a trowel to bury it), a first-aid kit and a whistle or mirror to attract attention.
Most long-distance tracks are in the south, with Tasmania’s wilderness being the draw for many; particularly fabulous are the 80km Overland Track and the South Coast Track. By 2014 or 2015 the Three Capes Walk around the Tasman Peninsula may have opened. On the mainland, the Blue Mountains, a two-hour train ride from Sydney, the Snowy Mountains further south, and Victoria’s spectacular Grampians are all popular regions for longer, marked walks.
South Australia’s Flinders Ranges, 300km north of Adelaide, are accessible along the Heysen Trail from the Fleurieu Peninsula, the walk into the 1000m-high natural basin of Wilpena Pound being the highlight. In temperate southwestern WA, the 960km Bibbulmun Track is an old Aboriginal trail through the region’s giant eucalypt forests, from Albany to Kalamunda near Perth, while the 220km Larapinta Trail runs along the McDonnell Ranges west of Alice Springs. Queensland’s rainforested coastal strip offers plenty more opportunities for walks, including the Lamington area in the south, and around northern Atherton Tablelands and Hinchinbrook Island.
Australia’s wilderness is an ideal venue for extended off-road driving and motorbiking, although permission may be needed to cross station- and Aboriginal-owned lands, and the fragile desert ecology should be respected at all times. Northern Queensland’s Cape York and WA’s Kimberley are the most adventurous destinations, 4WD-accessible in the dry season only. The great Outback tracks pushed out by explorers or drovers, such as the Warburton Road and Sandover Highway and the Tanami, Birdsville and Oodnadatta tracks, are actually two-wheel driveable in dry conditions, but can be hard on poorly prepared vehicles. Getting right to the tip of Queensland’s 800km-long Cape York Peninsula will definitely require a 4WD or trail bike, while the Kimberley’s notoriously corrugated Gibb River Road in WA is also popular in the Dry.
Alice Springs’ wide-open spaces make it the country’s hot-air-ballooning capital and also the main base for camel treks into the surrounding desert.
More regular riding, on horseback, is offered all over the country – anything from a gentle hour at walking pace to a serious cattle roundup. Cycling and mountain biking are tremendously popular, too, and a good way of getting around resorts; many hostels rent bikes, and we’ve listed other outlets throughout the Guide.
Finally, you may not associate Australia with skiing, but there’s plenty of it in the 1500m-high Australian Alps on the border of Victoria and New South Wales, based around the winter resorts of Thredbo, Perisher, Falls Creek and Mount Hotham, usually from late June until the end of September.