THE LANDS Down Under, and in particular, Australia are very much the focus of attention these days. The Olympics are about to begin and all eyes will be looking south to the country which is a continent.
While the city of Sydney will most certainly be the focal point, the whole country deserves a great deal of interest. It is sparsely populated, with most of the population living in the major cities and along the more hospitable coastlines. Rich in natural resources, it is the envy of the over populated areas of the world and a land that has prospered through immigration. Its population, while primarily of European origin, has seen a recent flood of migrants from all parts of the world, people who have brought new life and diversity to a rather conservative heritage.
For the traveller, Australia is a huge land with tremendous contrasts. From the tropical north of Queensland to the harsh environment of the interior, from the beautiful harbour and towering skyscrapers of Sydney to the never ending stretches of the Outback, from the sparkling white sands of Queensland’s beaches to the endless stretches of rich red soil, this is a land that few can truly imagine until they have the opportunity to see it for themselves.
For most Canadians the environment in Australia comes as a real shock. We live in a green land with seemingly endless forests and vast areas rich with lakes and rivers. Most of us live in big cities or in areas where water and good farm land is readily available. In Australia, once you move outside the major urban centres, you discover a land of extremes, where temperatures can easily climb to 40 and beyond, where droughts can last for six or seven years or torrential storms can leave water a metre deep across vast tracks of the Outback. But it is in the Outback where we see the real Australia and meet the real Australians, a hardy people who are more than friendly. For the most part, they have a hard life struggling against an environment that can wreak havoc on the best made plans of man. Rural Australians often open their arms and their homes to visitors, accepting house guests for short or long stays.
The cities of Australia are wonderfully modern, clean and safe. Sydney, set on the probably the most beautiful harbour in the world, is just one example. The city centre, while a mass of towering glass and steel, is surrounded by water and park lands. The focal point of the city is the harbour, the striking Harbour Bridge, which visitors can now climb, and Australia’s most famous landmark, the Opera House, with its “sails” blowing in the breezes. Nearby is the delightful Rocks area, the area which was first settled and which today is full of unique shops, restaurants and street markets. Just around the corner is the new Darling Harbour complex, an exciting recreational area reached by monorail which comes to life each evening with restaurants, pubs and music.
One of Australia’s greatest natural wonders stretches one thousand miles along the Queensland coast, the Great Barrier Reef. No visit to Australia is complete without spending at least one day visiting this vast underwater garden that has taken thousands of years to grow. While you can visit the reef in a number of areas and by various means, Cairns is the usual and easy gateway. From this one-time farming community in the far north of Queensland, there are numerous day trips to different parts of the reef that offer the visitor the chance to see the reef in various ways, be it in a glass bottom boat, a semi-submarine or, best of all, by swimming, either with a mask and fins (snorkelling) or the ultimate experience of scuba diving. Because the salt water is buoyant, even poor swimmers can enjoy a paddle in the water with a mask and this is by far the best way to see the rich colours of the reef and the many varieties of fish.
Cairns also offers the visitor various ways to experience the Rainforest. The old Kuranda Railway winds its way first through sugar cane fields and then slowly climbs up the through the Barren Gorge and the dense forest en route to Kuranda on the heights of the Atherton Tableland. Once there you can visit areas of the forest and can then take the new cablecar ride back to the coast, skimming just above the many colours and trees of the forest.
Deep in the heart of Australia can be found another of its most famous landmarks, the largest monolith in the world, Ayers Rock. Rising from the surrounding desert, the rock is like a red beacon and there is little wonder that it was and is considered a sacred place by the nomadic Aboriginals. There is no way to describe the experience of the changing colours of the Rock, contrasted against the startling blues of the sky or the feeling as you stroll up the chasm in the neighbouring Olgas, studying the textures. A few hours away is the frontier town of Alice Springs, home of the Flying Doctor Service, and a town surrounded by stations covering thousands of acres.
Australia’s fauna are startling reminders of the uniqueness of this land, whether it be the various forms of the kangaroo, the duck-billed platypus (which few visitors will ever see in the wild), the not so cuddly koala, the crocodiles of the tropical north or any of the hundreds of varieties of colourful birds, many of which are found naturally only on this continent. Most of these animals, while not easy to find in the wild, can be seen in reserves in any of the major centres. In rural Australia, it is usually possible to see kangaroos in the wild.
No journey Down Under is complete without visiting Australia’s closest neighbour, the islands of New Zealand. The startling contrasts between these lands extends far beyond their contrasting sizes. Consisting of three small islands, New Zealand extends from the sub-tropical Northland, with its beautiful Bay of Islands to the magnificent Southern Alps, capped by Mount Cook, the Cloud Piercer, which is almost twice the height of the highest point in Australia. This is a land of lush dairy farms, active volcanoes, temperate rainforests, fjords, deserts, English cities, sparkling beaches, thermal mud pools and much more.