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New South Wales


When Lieutenant (later Captain) James Cook stumbled across Australia he sailed up the east coast, landed at Botany Bay and named the area New South Wales (it’s actually a mystery as to why Cook chose this appellation, although the general assumption is that the area must have reminded him of Wales, despite the lack of leeks and male-voice choirs). Cook was met warily by the local people when he went ashore; as he noted in his journal, ‘All they seemed to want was for us to be gone’.

But in 1788 the English were back to stay. Under the command of naval Captain Arthur Phillip, the motley ‘First Fleet’ numbered 751 ragtag convicts and children, and around 250 soldiers, officials and their wives. The date of the landing was 26 January, an occasion that is celebrated each year as a public holiday, known as Australia Day. The fact that a national holiday commemorates the arrival of a party of prisoners may seem inglorious – but it helps explain both the egalitarianism and the sense of irony that sometimes accompany expressions of nationalism in Australia.

By the early 1800s Sydney was a bustling port. A space in the bush had been cleared for vegetable gardens, new houses, warehouses and streets – and windmills seemed to occupy the top of every hill. In 1809 the British government dispatched Governor Macquarie to enforce the rule of law, and he transformed Sydney into a well-planned colony, graced by fine civic architecture.

By the 1830s the general layout of NSW was understood, and the Blue Mountains had been penetrated. In addition the Lachlan, Macquarie, Murrumbidgee and Darling Rivers had been explored.

Over the next 60 or so years, the rapid expansion of the NSW economy resulted in good wages, social mobility and increasingly strong unions; all of which fed the belief that Australia might become ‘the working man’s paradise’. But employers were anxious to keep wage costs low, and the appeal of cheap Asian or Islander labour was irresistible. Immigration was encouraged, and against this background, popular Sydney magazine the Bulletin (founded in 1880) began to champion a version of Australian nationalism which was working class, male, white and republican, a laconic, unintellectual but resourceful bushman who was independent, contemptuous of authority and loyal to his mates.

On 1 January 1901, NSW and the other colonies federated to form the nation of Australia, which remained part of the British Empire. In 1914, as citizens of the Empire, thousands of Australian men volunteered to fight in the Australian Imperial Force when WWI broke out. They did the same again during WWII, after which the Australian government embarked on a massive immigration program, attracting migrants from Britain and mainland Europe. These ‘new Australians’ had a huge impact on NSW, especially in the irrigation farms of the Riverina, in the building of the great Snowy Mountains hydroelectric scheme, in the large industrial centres and in Sydney itself. By the 1970s Australia had abolished its old policies of racial discrimination and declared itself to be a ­multicultural country.

Sydney is now a confident world city. In 2000 it welcomed the new millennium by hosting a spectacularly successful Olympic Games. But ugly race riots on Sydney’s ­Cronulla Beach in 2005 laid bare tensions between some old and new Australians. Overwhelmingly, however, the people of NSW are unerringly warm and open to travellers, and they maintain a profound and enduring culture of goodwill and good sense.

Geography & Climate

NSW can be roughly divided into the following four regions: the coastal strip; the Great Dividing Range, about 100km inland from the coast; the Blue Mountains west of Sydney; and the Snowy Mountains in the south.

West of the Great Dividing Range is farming country: dry western plains that cover two-thirds of the state. The plains fade into the barren outback in the far west, where summer temperatures can soar to over 40°C. The major rivers are the Murray and the Darling, which meander westward across the plains. As a general rule, it gets hotter the further north you go and drier the further west. In winter, the Snowy Mountains live up to their name.

Sydney has a temperate climate, rarely dropping below 10°C at night. Summer temperatures can hit 40°C, but the average summer maximum is 25°C.