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Population : 20.6m
Literacy rate : 99%
Life expectancy at birth : 80.73 yrs
Infant mortality rate : 4.51 deaths /1,000 live births
Population growth rate : 0.8%
GDP growth rate : 4%
GDP per capita : £18,939
Unemployment : 4.4%
Inflation rate : 3%
Climate : arid to semiarid; temperate in south and east; tropical in north
Time : GMT + 11 Oct – Mar daylight saving, GMT + 9
Electricity : 220v AC, 50Hz
Capital : Canberra
Currency : Australian Dollar - (Aus $/£ : 2.05 as of 03/06/08)
Language : English
Tourist site: http://www.australia.com
Government (visa): www.immi.gov.au
Up-to-date information on backpacking and working in Australia, including hostels, tour companies, jobs, car dealers and more can be found at http://www.backpackaround.com.au.
With a surface area covering 1,720,000 sq km Australia's 20 or so million residents enjoy room to swing a possum. Put this into perspective by comparing this figure with the 13-14 million residents of the London Metropolitan area sharing living space of only 1,600 sq km and you can see why Aussies are a friendly bunch. The east coast is most populous and has been since the British landed in 1770 and promptly established a penal colony (most Aussies do not being reminded of this). The beach odyssey begins at tropical Cape York and stretches all the way down to temperate Cape Howe in the south, with white sands, turquoise seas and die hard surfers lying in the waves, pretty much ubiquitous. Large areas of the coast is National Park boasting jungle, lakes and amazing trekking as you sink into the country's unique and unmissable flora and fauna. With the exception of Perth and Darwin all of Australia's major cities are nestled along the east of the vast continent.
Relatively free from the complex and deeply entrenched social classes of the United Kingdom the most widely accepted tenet underpinning Australian society is a sense of egalitarianism – even international visiting females can find themselves being called 'mate'! This enforces comradery and can help explain why physical team sports, both playing and viewing from an arm chair, are such an obsession to Aussies. Maybe even going as far as explaining the basis for a strong undercurrent of republican desire to remove Elizabeth II as monarch. Whilst the Aussies pride themselves with sitting at the pinnacle of cricket, rugby, swimming, beach volley ball (!) and probably a range of other sports, having any dominance in literature, music or television appears less significant. Considering books, cds and dvds are approximately twice the price as they are in the UK this may not be surprising, or perhaps they prefer the outdoor life given the far superior climate.
Despite a major investment in the Sydney Opera House, a stage worthy or any international star, 'high culture' seems to be of scant importance to the average Aussie with classical artists generally following an exodus to Europe. On a popular level, aside from Rolf Harris and Dame Edna, contributions to programming culture are somewhat limited to the rather dubious merits of Neighbours and Home and Away. These were soap operas in which most of us marvelled at how it was possible for a cleaner to live next door to a doctor, how no one at all smoked or drank and how it was always, always sunny down under. Musically, most of us remember that 1980s groups INXS and Crowded House were Australian and in more contemporary terms, Kylie Minogue remains a great dame in the global gay community.
Any visitor to Australia cannot fail to notice the Aussie love of abbreviating English to what can often appear a form of baby language. 'O' is the ending of choice with some bizarre bastardisations of the English language being used such as, bizzo (business) , avo (avocado), ambo (ambulance driver), garbo (garbage collector), doco (documentary), even place names have their endings slashed to an 'O', eg. Darlo (Darlinghurst in Sydney) and Freo (Freemantle in Western Australia). Whether the Queen's English is generally considered formal and stuffy or it is a collective attempt to differentiate Australia from the former home country it is difficult to say. One Pakistani doctor working in Queensland was rather confused by a patient's explanation of how he came to have cuts and bruises on his arms and knees; 'I had a stack on my pushy' (I had an accident on my bicycle).
The absence of the marketing guru in Australia is worthy of note and is endearing when one considers the huge sums of money harnessing manipulative brain power in order to build the 'must have' brands in Europe's late capitalist culture. Instead, ad breaks are reminiscent of 1970s cinema ads with marketeers shouting 'crazy price' messages over a non moving amateur photograph on the screen.
To be an Aboriginal Australian is a vastly different experience. Historically speaking, relations with the newly arrived white man have been chequered to say the least. The arrival of the English colonialists in 1788, in a matter of weeks, led to over half of the indigenous population being annihilated by the onslaught of the Western diseases, to which they held no resistance. Relations soured from early Aboriginal offers of help to the exhausted explorers to the routine exploitation of the indigenous peoples by the dominant colonialists establishing farming and mining and there is much evidence of extreme cruelty practised by the settlers. Shockingly, as late as the early 20th century white colonialists would even shoot aboriginals for sport.
To this day the Aboriginals are culturally fragile*. Only 2.6% of the modern Australian community is of Aboriginal descent and despite the original preference to concentrate themselves along the Murray River in South East Australia the relatively inhospitable Northern Territory now contains the highest number of Aboriginals - as many of the land rights successfully reclaimed in the courts are situated here. To the visitor it is difficult to not feel saddened by evidence of the alcoholism, violence and social fragmentation of the aboriginal people which is all too visible in many public areas and it must not be forgotten that many are busy leading a 'normal' nine to five existence away from the public eye. In Febuary 2008 Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, formally apologised to the indigenous population for the stolen generations of state sponsored cruelty hoping to establish a launch pad for a new period of reconciliation and cooperation.
Whilst 60% of the Australian population live in the mainland state capital cities of Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth and Adelaide the true pioneering spirit of Australia is probably found outside the cities and suburbs. There are not many countries where a 1 metre high wedge tailed eagle can be spotted feeding on road kill 'roo just 45 minutes out of town. Harrowing as the extent of the mainly kangaroo road kill can be on the highways it does sustain a vibrant population of birds of prey.
The first British explorers battled the hostile desert conditions in search of water, a rare commodity in the outback and a drive through the vast and unpopulated Aussie back yard certainly highlights their bravery and endurance, perhaps nowhere more so, than the often dry and rather aptly named Lake Disappointment in the Simpson Desert in Western Australia. The terrain changes are incredibly vivid. Six foot red termite mounds, bush fire burn off, spinifex clumps, dust tornadoes, wandering emus, camels, kangaroos and escaped cows all against a back drop of a sky so huge and infinite it can give the impression of driving within a photograph.
Australians know the value of their unique and beautiful flora and fauna and there is already many systems in place to protect it. Going forward there are still many threats. The Australians must combat challenges from climate change (the ozone layer is most depleted over the continent) a drawn out period of drought has been devastating and management of coastal areas, in particularly the Great Barrier Reef, where intensive tourism has become a threat, is a difficult task. Indeed, dive operators on the most popular of the Great Barrier Reef's dive sites regularly move pontoons to avoid slicks of suntan lotion! The introduction of alien species in the shape of rabbits, wild pigs, foxes, feral cats and cane toads has also presented a tough challenge as the carnivorous invaders prey on the native marsupial population of Bandicoots, Quolls, Bilbys as well as chomping the grass and forcing indigenous species to relocate.
*The Aboriginal cultural heritage is widely considered to be the oldest culture in the world – estimated to be approximately 50,000 years in age - when it is thought the Aboriginal people descended down from Papua New Guinea and Indonesia. Despite the diversity in languages between the tribes the crux of the Aboriginal orally passed culture involves a spirituality based on the earth and a belief in the 'Dream Time'. Aboriginals believe in two juxtaposed forms of time and activity occurring on two alternative planes of daily objective activity and an infinite, all encompassing and fundamentally true body of time known as the Dream Time. Underpinning belief systems regarding creation, social mores and value systems, the 'Dreaming' is the effective religion of the Aboriginal people. Each 'dreaming' is based on an animal. For instance, the Anangu tribe, the guardians of the well known national icon Uluru (Ayer's Rock) in the Kata Tjuta National Park, recorded the journeys and challenges of the Mala (Rufous Hare-Wallaby) and the Kuniya (Woma Python). A non written culture the symbols and meanings painted by aboriginals have not changed in centuries and nowadays, Aboriginal art is produced using traditional materials and methods, constituting a progressive and vibrant force helping often depressed communities.
Nestling in Port Jackson harbour, just inside the New South Wales Coast, Sydney was the original British colony on the Australian continent, established in 1788. To this day it remains the most populous city in Australia, housing approximately 4.4 million inhabitants. Dedicated hydrophiles, the premium residential areas and tourism drags are packed along the harbour and ocean strips, although some notable exceptions, such as the Blue Mountain National Park, can draw you from the coast.
Enjoying long spells of dusk to dawn sunshine over the summer months Sydneysiders spend their leisure time ploughing up and down 50 metre salt water swimming pools, 'ripping up the surf' at one of the many appealing beaches or sipping cold beers whilst topping up a tan. Yacht spinnakers billow on Saturday afternoons throughout the harbour dodging the ferry to the ever popular Manly beach, brimming with locals and tourists alike.
Sports and personal fitness figure large in the Sydney psyche whether watching or partaking and its a tough task to spend a day without being overtaken by a fleet of determined joggers. The city is home to 9 out of the 16 teams in the National Rugby League and should you have access to a television it is difficult to avoid long drawn out sport discussions, often occupying far more screen time than the global news.
Perceiving itself as one of the most sophisticated of the Australian cities 'Sexy Sydney' offers a vibrant bistro and boutique style culture in which one can be 'seen'. Locals and their coiffured canines chitchat over lattes and there is plentiful 'fine dining' on offer, much of which has an Asian eclectic bent, due to the large number of immigrants living here. Good honest Aussie tucker and beer is also easily found, although the size of the beer glasses, known as schooners, will disappoint. Steak and pies are the main stay of pub nosh with pie fillings ranging from Kangaroo and bushberry to a more familiar chicken and mushroom.
Kings Cross is the main backpacker strip. Teeming with cheap eateries, bars and internet cafes it is also home to the seedier side of Sydney in the shape of drugs and prostitution but the glamourous neighbourhoods of Potts Point and Woolloomooloo (an Aboriginal word meaning 'place of plenty') are brief strolls away should you wish to escape for a while. The swanky Blue Hotel at the wharf in Woolloomooloo is worth a wander - local star, Russell Crowe has a $14 million waterside appartment here. One side of the wharf bobs with super yachts and the other home to the Australian navy. Further North is the imaginatively named Oxford Street which runs between the Central Business District and Bondi Junction - launch pad for the world famous Bondi Beach.
The Botanical Gardens are a lucious well tended strip of land covering 109 hectares (270 acres) on the edge of the harbour oozing flora and fauna. Stroll through to visit the near by Opera House in the Benelong District, or simply read a book and ogle the wildlife. The showstoppers are probably the 'flying fox' fruit bats. Cackling colonies hang from trees squabbling over branch space before making a giant gothic swoop over the city as dusk falls. Thirty or fourty cheeky sulphur crested cockatoos also entertain with aerobatic displays accompanied by a raucous screeching. Eels populate the ponds and the bizarrely shaped Australian Ibis is a popular local pecking the soil with its hooked beak.
Sydney Opera House
Designed by Danish Architect Jorn Utzon and Ove Arup & Partners the Opera House is an expressionist modern design. Created from concrete shells the structure rests on 588 concrete piers 25 metres sub sea level. An icon of both Sydney and Australia it was finally completed in 1973 costing approximately $92 million, almost twice the original budget. Utzon resigned half way through the project stating he believed cost pressures were impinging up on the purity of the design. To this day controversy reigns regarding problems with the acoustics and critics of the project still describe the venue as an 'architectural tragedy'.
Sydney Harbour Bridge
Colloquially known as the 'coat hanger', the Harbour Bridge connects the Central Business District and the North Shore. It is the world's widest long span bridge measuring 48.8 m (151.3ft). Amazingly, in view of the fact Australia now provides around 45% of the world's steel making iron ore, 79% of the steel used in the bridge's arch design, was sourced from Middlesborough in the UK. Just below 52,000 tonnes of bridge are held together by the 6 metre hand driven rivets imported from the Park Bridge Iron Works in Lancashire , UK. Two sets of granite and concrete pylons guard each ends of the bridge's arch, sitting 89 m (276ft) high. Surprisingly these pillars hold no structural purpose and serve merely to allay public concern over the bridge's safety. Finally opened in 1932 the Sydney Harbour Bridge cost a final sum of £10,057,170.7s 9d and 16 workers' lives.
Unless from NZ Visas are required however UK nationals (and some others) can easily get tourist or 12 month working holiday visas.
No compulsory shots here. But be aware of heat exhaustion (drink lots of water) and sun burn.
Gap Year Programmes
Map and statistics taken from the CIA World Fact Book.