Aboriginal Culture & History
Aboriginal culture has evolved over thousands of years with strong links between the spiritual, economic and social lives of the people. This heritage has been kept alive from one generation to the next by the passing of knowledge and skills through rituals, art, cultural material and language. From the cities to the bush, there are opportunities to get up close with Australia’s Indigenous people and learn from a way of life that has existed for over 50,000 years.
Cathy Craigie is a Gamilaori/Anaiwon woman from northern New South Wales. She is a freelance writer and cultural consultant and has extensive experience in Aboriginal affairs.
Indigenous Australians originally had an oral tradition, and language has played an important role in preserving Aboriginal cultures. Today there is a national movement to revive Aboriginal languages and a strong Aboriginal art sector; traditional knowledge is being used in science, natural resource management and government programs. Aboriginal culture has never been static, and continues to evolve with the changing times and environment. New technologies and media are now used to tell Aboriginal stories, and cultural tourism ventures, through which visitors can experience the perspectives of Indigenous peoples, have been established. You can learn about ancestral beings at particular natural landmarks, look at rock art that is thousands of years old, taste traditional foods or attend an Aboriginal festival or performance.
Government support for cultural programs is sporadic and depends on the political climate at the time. However, Aboriginal people are determined to maintain their links with the past and to also use their cultural knowledge to shape a better future.
Aboriginal culture views humans as part of the ecology, not separate from it. Everything is connected – a whole environment that sustains the spiritual, economic and cultural lives of the people. In turn, Aboriginal people have sustained the land over thousands of years, through knowledge passed on in ceremonies, rituals, songs and stories. Land is intrinsically connected to identity and spirituality; all land in Australia is reflected in Aboriginal lore, but particular places may be significant for religious and cultural beliefs. Some well-known sites are the Three Sisters in the Blue Mountains, and Warreen Cave in Tasmania, which has artefacts dated around 40,000 years old.
Sacred sites can be parts of rocks, hills, trees or water and are associated with an ancestral being or an event that occurred. Often these sites are part of a Dreaming story and link people across areas. The ranges around Alice Springs are part of the caterpillar Dreaming, with many sites including Akeyulerre (Billy Goat Hill), Atnelkentyarliweke (Anzac Hill) and rock paintings at Emily Gap. The most well known are Uluru (Ayers Rock) and Kata Tjuta (The Olgas), which is the home of the snake Wanambi – his breath is the wind that blows through the gorge. Pirla Warna Warna, a significant site in the Tanami Desert for Warlpiri people, is 270 miles northwest of Alice Springs (NT) and is where several Walpiri Dreaming stories meet.
Cultural tours to Aboriginal sites can provide opportunities to learn about plants and animals, hunting and fishing, bush food or dance.
Please note that many Indigenous sites are protected by law and are not to be disturbed in any way.
Aboriginal art has impacted the Australian cultural landscape and is now showcased at national and international events and celebrated as a significant part of Australian culture. It still retains the role of passing on knowledge, but today is also important for economic, educational and political reasons. Art has been used to raise awareness of issues such as health and has been a primary tool for the reconciliation process in Australia. In many Indigenous communities art has become a major source of employment and income.
Although there is no word in indigenous Australian languages for ‘art’, visual imagery is a fundamental part of Aboriginal culture and life: a connection between the past, present and future, and between Indigenous people and their traditional homelands. The earliest forms of Indigenous visual cultural expression were rock carvings (petroglyphs), paintings on rock galleries, body painting and ground designs, with the earliest engraved designs known to exist dating back at least 40,000 years – perhaps older.
Rock art is the oldest form of human art: Indigenous rock art stretches back thousands of years and is found in every state of Australia. For Aboriginal people, rock art is a direct link with life before Europeans. The art and the process of making it are part of songs, stories and customs that connect the people to the land. There are a number of different styles of rock art across Australia. These include engravings in sandstone, and stencils, prints and drawings in rock shelters. Aboriginal people created rock art for several reasons, including as part of a ritual or ceremony and to record events.
Some of the oldest examples of engravings can be found in the Pilbara in Western Australia (WA) and in Olary in South Australia (SA), where there's an engraving of a crocodile – quite amazing as crocodiles are not found in this part of Australia. Rock art in the Kimberley (WA) rock art focuses on the Wandjina, the ancestral creation spirits. All national parks surrounding Sydney have rock engravings and are easily accessed and viewed. At Gariwerd (The Grampians) in Victoria, there are hand prints and hand stencils. There's also the Wangaar-Wuri painted rock art sites near Cooktown in Queensland.
In the Northern Territory (NT), many of the rock art sites have patterns and symbols that appear in paintings, carvings and other cultural material. Kakadu National Park has over 5000 recorded sites, but many more are thought to exist across the Arnhem Land Escarpment, some of which are over 20,000 years old. There's even a depiction of a thylacine (Tasmanian tiger). World Heritage–listed Kakadu is internationally recognised for its cultural significance.
In central Australia, rock paintings still have religious significance. Here, Aboriginal people continue to retouch the art as part of ritual and to connect them to stories. In most other areas, people no longer paint rock images, but instead work on bark, paper and canvas.
If you visit rock-art sites, please do not touch or damage the art, and respect the sites and the surrounding areas.
The contemporary Indigenous art industry started in a tiny community called Papunya (NT) in central Australia. It was occupied by residents from several language groups who had been displaced from their traditional lands. In 1971 an art teacher at Papunya school encouraged painting and some senior men took an interest. This started the process of transferring sand and body drawings onto modern mediums and the ‘dot and circle’ style of contemporary painting began. The emergence of dot paintings is one of the most important movements in 20th-century Australian art, and the Papunya Tula artists became a model for other Aboriginal communities.
The National Gallery of Australia in Canberra has a fantastic collection, but contemporary Aboriginal art can also be viewed at any public art gallery or in one of the many independent galleries dealing in Aboriginal work. Contemporary artists work in all media and Aboriginal art has appeared on unconventional surfaces such as a BMW car and a Qantas plane. The central desert area is still a hub for Aboriginal art and Alice Springs is one of the best places to see and buy art. Cairns is another hot spot for innovative Aboriginal art.
If you are buying art, make sure that provenance of the work is included. This tells the artist’s name, the community and language group they come from and the story of the work. If it is an authentic work, all proceeds will go back to the artist. Australia has a resale royalty scheme.
Music has always been a vital part of Aboriginal culture. Songs were important for teaching and passing on knowledge, and musical instruments were often used in healing, ceremonies and rituals. The most well-known instrument is the yidaki (didgeridoo), which was traditionally played in northern Australia, and only by men. Other instruments included clapsticks, rattles and boomerangs; in southern Australia, animal skins were stretched across the lap to make a drumming sound.
This rich musical heritage continues today with a strong contemporary music industry. Like other art forms, Aboriginal music has developed into a fusion of new ideas and styles mixed with strong cultural identity. Contemporary artists such as Dan Sultan and Jessica Mauboy have crossed over successfully into the mainstream, winning major music awards and seen regularly on popular programs and at major music festivals. Aboriginal radio is the best and most accessible way to hear Aboriginal music.
Dance and theatre are a vital part of Aboriginal culture. Traditional styles varied from one nation to the next; imitation of animals, birds and the elements is common across all nations, but arm, leg and body movements differed greatly. Ceremonial or ritual dances, often telling stories to pass on knowledge, were highly structured and were distinct from the social dancing at corroborees (Aboriginal gatherings). Like other Indigenous art forms, dance has adapted to the modern world, with contemporary dance groups bringing a modern interpretation to traditional forms. The most well-known dance company is the internationally acclaimed Bangarra Dance Theatre.
Theatre also draws on the storytelling tradition, where drama and dance came together in ceremonies or corroborees, and this still occurs in many contemporary productions. Today, Australia has a thriving Aboriginal theatre industry and many Indigenous actors and writers work in or collaborate with mainstream productions. There are two major Aboriginal theatre companies – Ilbijerri (www.ilbijerri.com.au) in Melbourne and Yirra Yakin (www.yirrayaakin.com.au) in Perth – as well as several mainstream companies that specialise in Aboriginal stories and have had successful productions in Australia and overseas.
TV, Radio & Film
Aboriginal people have developed an extensive media network of radio, print and television services. There are over 120 Aboriginal radio stations and programs operating across Australia – in cities, rural areas and remote communities. Program formats differ from location to location: some broadcast only in Aboriginal languages or cater to specific music tastes. From its base in Brisbane, The National Indigenous Radio Service (NIRS; www.nirs.org.au) broadcasts four radio channels of Aboriginal content via satellite and over the internet. There's also Radio Larrikia (www.radiolarrakia.org) in Darwin (NT) and Koori Radio (www.kooriradio.com) in Sydney.
There's a thriving Aboriginal film industry and in recent years feature films such as The Sapphires, Bran Nue Day, Samson and Delilah and Putuparri and the Rainmakers have had mainstream success. Since the first Aboriginal television channel, NITV (www.nitv.org.au), was launched in 2007, there has been an increase in the number of filmmakers wanting to tell their stories.
History of Aboriginal Australia
Before the coming of Europeans, culture was the common link for Indigenous peoples across Australia – through the many aspects common to all the Aboriginal nations they were able to interact with each other. In postcolonial Australia it is also the shared history that binds Aboriginal people.
Many academics believe Indigenous Australians came here from somewhere else, with scientific evidence placing them on the continent at least 40,000 to 60,000 years ago. Aboriginal people, however, believe they have always inhabited the land.
At the time of European contact the Aboriginal population was grouped into 300 or more different nations, with distinct languages and land boundaries. Most Aboriginal people did not have permanent shelters but moved within their territory and followed seasonal patterns of animal migration and plant availability. The diversity of landscapes in Australia meant that each nation varied in their lifestyles; although they were distinct cultural groups, there were also many common elements, and each nation had several clans or family groups who were responsible for looking after specific areas. For thousands of years Aboriginal people lived within a complex kinship system that tied them to the natural environment. From the desert to the sea Aboriginal people shaped their lives according to their environments and developed different skills and a wide body of knowledge on their territory.
The effects of colonisation started immediately after the Europeans arrived. It began with the appropriation of land and water resources and an epidemic of diseases – smallpox killed around half of the Indigeneous people who were native to Sydney Harbour. A period of resistance occurred as Aboriginal people fought back to retain their land and way of life; as violence and massacres swept the country, many were pushed away from their traditional lands. Over a century, the Aboriginal population was decimated by 90%.
By the late 1800s most of the fertile land had been taken and most Indigenous Australians were living in poverty on the fringes of settlements or on land unsuitable for settlement. Aboriginal people had to adapt to the new culture, but had few to no rights. Employment opportunities were scarce and most worked as labourers or domestic staff. This cultural and economic disadvantage has continued to the present day, and even though successive government policies and programs have been implemented to assist Aboriginal people, most have had little effect on improving lives.
Rights & Reconciliation
The relationship between Indigenous Australians and other Australians hasn’t always been an easy one. Over the years several systematic policies have been put in place, but these have often had underlying and often conflicting motives that include control over the land, decimating the population, protection, assimilation, self-determination and self-management.
The history of forced resettlement, removal of children, and the loss of land and culture can never be erased, even with governments addressing some of the issues. Current policies focus on ‘closing the gap’ and better delivery of essential services to improve lives, but there is still great disparity between Indigenous Australians and the rest of the population, including lower standards of education, employment, health and living conditions; high incarceration and suicide rates; and a lower life expectancy.
Throughout all of this, Aboriginal people have managed to maintain their identity and link to country and culture. Although there is a growing recognition and acceptance of Indigenous Australians' place in this country, there is still a long way to go. Aboriginal people have no real political or economic wealth, but their struggle for legal and cultural rights continues today and is always at the forefront of politics. Any gains for Aboriginal people have been hard-won and initiated by Aboriginal communities themselves.
Feature: The Stolen Generations
When Australia became a Federation in 1901, a government policy known as the ‘White Australia policy’ was put in place. It was implemented mainly to restrict non-white immigration to Australia, but the policy also had a huge impact on Indigenous Australians. Assimilation into the broader society was encouraged by all sectors of government, with the intent to eventually 'fade out' the Aboriginal race. A policy of forcibly removing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families was official from 1909 to 1969, although the practice happened both before and after those years. Although accurate numbers will never be known, it is estimated that around 100,000 Indigenous children – or one in three – were taken from their families.
A government agency, the Aborigines Protection Board, was set up to manage the policy, and had the power to remove children from families without consent, not even needing a court order. Many children never saw their families again; those who did manage to find their way home often found it difficult to maintain relationships. They became known as the Stolen Generations.
In the 1990s the Australian Human Rights Commission held an inquiry into the practice of removing Aboriginal children. Bringing Them Home, a nearly 700-page report that was tabled in parliament in May 1997, told of the devastating impact these policies had had on the children and their families. Government bureaus, church missions and welfare agencies all took part in the forced removal, and sexual and physical abuse and cruelty was found to be common in many of the institutions where children were placed. Today many of the Stolen Generations still suffer trauma associated with their early lives.
On 13 February 2008 Kevin Rudd, then prime minister of Australia, offered a national apology to the Stolen Generations. For many Indigenous people it was the start of a national healing process, and today there are many organisations working with the survivors of the Stolen Generations to bring healing and, in some cases, to seek compensation.
To learn more about the Stolen Generations and its impact upon countless Indigenous lives, the film Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002) and Archie Roach's classic song 'Took the Children Away' are good places to start.
Feature: The Importance of Storytelling
Indigenous Australians historically had an oral culture, so storytelling was an important way to learn. Stories gave meaning to life and were used to teach the messages of the spirit ancestors. Although beliefs and cultural practices vary according to region and language groups, there is a common world-view that these ancestors created the land, the sea and all living things. This is often referred to as the Dreaming.
Through stories, the knowledge and beliefs are passed on from one generation to another, setting out the community's social mores and recording events from the past. Today artists have continued this tradition with new media such as film and literature. The first published Indigenous Australian was David Unaipon (1872–1967), a Ngarrindjeri man from South Australia who was a writer, a scientist and an advocate for his people, and the author of Aboriginal Legends (1927) and Native Legends (1929) – you can see Unaipon's portrait on the $50 note.
Other early published writers were Oodgeroo Noonuccal, Kevin Gilbert and Jack Davis. Contemporary writers of note include Alexis Wright, Kim Scott, Anita Heiss and Ali Cobby Eckerman. Award-winning novels to read are Kim Scott’s Deadman Dancing (2010) and Benang (1999); Alexis Wright’s Carpentaria (2006); and Ali Cobby Eckerman’s Little Bit Long Time (2009) and Ruby Moonlight (2012).
Anthony Martin Fernando, the first Aboriginal activist to campaign internationally against racial discrimination in Australia, is arrested for protesting outside Australia House in London.
- 26 January 1938
To mark the 150th anniversary of the arrival of the British, the Aborigines Progressive Association holds a meeting in Australia Hall in Sydney called ‘A Day of Mourning and Protest’.
- 15 August 1963
A bark petition is presented to the House of Representatives from the people of Yirrikala in the Northern Territory, objecting to mining on their land, which the federal government had approved without consultation.
- 27 May 1967
A federal referendum allows the Commonwealth to make laws on Aboriginal issues and include them in the national census, giving Indigenous Australians the same citizen rights as other Australians.
- 12 July 1971
The Aboriginal flag first flies on National Aborigines Day in Adelaide. Designed by central Australian man Harold Thomas, the flag has become a unifying symbol of identity for Aboriginal people.
- 26 January 1972
The Aboriginal Tent Embassy is set up on the lawns of Parliament House in Canberra to oppose the treatment of Indigenous people and the government’s recent rejection of a proposal for Aboriginal Land Rights.
- 10 August 1987
A Royal Commission investigates the high number of Aboriginal deaths in police custody and prisons. Aboriginal people are still over-represented in the criminal system today.
- 3 June 1992
The previous legal concept of terra nullius is overturned by the Australian High Court in its landmark decision in the Mabo case, which declares that Australia was occupied before the British settlement.
- 26 January 1988
As Australia celebrates its bicentenary, over 40,000 Aboriginal people and their supporters march in Sydney to mark the 200-year anniversary of invasion.
- 28 May 2000
Over 300,000 people walk together across Sydney Harbour Bridge to highlight the need for reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.
- 21 June 2007
The federal government suspends the Racial Discrimination Act to implement a large-scale intervention – the Northern Territory Emergency Response – to address alleged child abuse in NT Aboriginal communities.
- 13 February 2008
Prime Minister Kevin Rudd makes a national apology to Aboriginal people for the forced removal of their children and the injustices that occurred.
- 10 July 2010
Aboriginal leader Yagan is put to rest in a Perth park bearing his name. He was murdered in 1833 and his head sent to England. Aboriginal people have campaigned for decades to repatriate their people’s remains.
- 22 January 2015
A Barngarla native-title claim over a vast section of South Australia's Eyre Peninsula is upheld in the Federal Court.
Sidebar: Local Histories of Aboriginal Australia
- First Footprints (2013), Scott Cane
- An Intruder's Guide to East Arnhem Land (2001), Andrew McMillan
- A Handful of Sand (2016), Charlie Ward
- Craft for a Dry Lake (2000), Kim Mahood
- King Brown Country (2010), Russell Skelton
Sidebar: Indigenous Tours
RT Tours (www.rttoursaustralia.com.au) is an Aboriginal-owned tour company in central Australia. They offer day tours based around Indigenous bush foods and longer tours with Indigenous guides.
Sidebar: Indigenous News
The Koori Mail (www.koorimail.com) is an Aboriginal-owned national newspaper, published twice a month. Set up by several Aboriginal communities in 1991 to give a voice to Indigenous Australians, it provides news and information on politics, sport and social and cultural life from communities across Australia. It can be found at some newsagents.
Sidebar: Alternative Australia Day
Yabun (www.yabun.org.au), held every year on Australia Day (26 January) in Sydney's Victoria Park, is a free festival celebrating the survival of Aboriginal cultures. The cultural program includes music, dance, visual arts and crafts, storytelling, politics and games.
Sidebar: Koori Culture
Aboriginal art is much more than dot paintings, dancing and didgeridoo – it's a living and dynamic culture, and a great way to engage with Indigenous Australians. Koori Heritage Trust (www.koorieheritagetrust.com) is a one-stop shop for Victorian Aboriginal culture.
Sidebar: Papunya & Parliament House
In the 1980s acclaimed Papunya Tula artists were invited to submit work for the new Parliament House in Canberra. Michael Nelson Jagamarra’s Possum and Wallaby Dreaming is embedded in the mosaic forecourt.
Sidebar: Balgo Art
Warlayirti Arts (www.balgoart.org.au) in Balgo, WA, is a successful Aboriginal art collective and supports artists from seven language groups. Balgo art started in the 1970s with canvas and paint introduced by missionaries and is now internationally acclaimed. Visitors are welcome but you must enquire in advance to arrange permits.
Sidebar: Cairns Indigenous Art
The Cairns Indigenous Art Fair (www.ciaf.com.au) has over 300 Aboriginal artists showcasing work over three days. Held in August, the fair attracts thousand of visitors and is a great opportunity to see and purchase some of the best art in the country.
Sidebar: Dr G Yunupingu
Described by Rolling Stone magazine as ‘Australia’s Most Important Voice’, sight-impaired singer Dr G Yunupingu sang in his Yolngu language from Arnhem Land. His angelic voice told of identity, connecting with land and community. Gurrumul entranced Australian and overseas audiences with multi-awarded albums: Gurrumul (2008) and Rrakala (2011) and The Gospel Album (2015). He died in 2017 aged 46.
When Europeans first saw a corroborree they described it as a ‘bush opera’. These festive social events combined music, dance and drama performances with body art. One of the first recorded corroborees was in 1791 at Bennelong Point, now rather appropriately the site of the Sydney Opera House.
Sidebar: Indigenous TV
After many years of lobbying by Indigenous Australians to have their language and culture reflected in the media, NITV (www.nitv.org.au) hit the airwaves in 2007. It broadcasts via the free-to-air TV channel SBS, with news, views and current affairs, as well as programs for children, documentaries and sports programs.
Sidebar: The Dawes Diary
For an insight into the early days of British settlement and interaction with Aboriginal Australians, check the notebooks of William Dawes, officer of the First Fleet from 1787–88. These diaries – which are accessible online at www.williamdawes.org – contain the first recorded words and phrases of an Aboriginal language and relate aspects of traditional life, which he learned under the tutelage of a young Aboriginal woman named Patyegarang.
Sidebar: Indigenous Literature
The Macquarie PEN Anthology of Aboriginal Literature (www.macquariepenanthology.com.au) offers over 200 years of Aboriginal culture, history and life. It starts with Bennelong’s letter in 1796 and includes works from some of Indigenous Australia’s best writers.
Sidebar: Australia Day?
Australia Day is celebrated on 26 January in recognition of British settlement, but for many Australians (both Indigenous and otherwise) it's known as Invasion Day, Survival Day or Day of Mourning.
Sidebar: Torres Strait Islanders
Aboriginal society is a diverse group of several hundred sovereign nations. Torres Strait Islanders are a Melanesian people with a separate culture from that of Aboriginal Australians, though they have a shared history. Together, these two groups form Australia’s Indigenous peoples.
Indigenous Cultures & Identities
Australia's plants and animals are just about the closest things to alien life on earth. That's because Australia has been isolated from the other continents for a very long time: around 80 million years. Unlike those on other habitable continents that have been linked by land bridges, Australia's birds, mammals, reptiles and plants have taken their own separate and very different evolutionary journey. The result today is the world's most distinct natural realm − and one of the most diverse.
Professor Tim Flannery is a scientist, explorer, activist, writer and the chief councillor of the independent Climate Council. He was a professor of science at Macquarie University in Sydney until 2013 and is currently a professorial fellow at Melbourne University. He was named Australian of the Year in 2007. He has written several award-winning books, including The Future Eaters, Throwim Way Leg (an account of his work as a biologist in New Guinea) and The Weather Makers.
A Unique Environment
The first naturalists to investigate Australia were astonished by what they found. Here the swans were black − to Europeans this was a metaphor for the impossible − and mammals such as the platypus and echidna were discovered to lay eggs. It really was an upside-down world, where many of the larger animals hopped and where each year the trees shed their bark rather than their leaves.
If you are visiting Australia for a short time, you might need to go out of your way to experience some of the richness of the environment. That's because Australia is a subtle place, and some of the natural environment − especially around the cities − has been damaged or replaced by trees and creatures from Europe. Places like Sydney, however, have preserved extraordinary fragments of their original environment that are relatively easy to access. Before you enjoy them though, it's worthwhile understanding the basics about how nature operates in Australia. This is important because there's nowhere like Australia, and once you have an insight into its origins and natural rhythms, you will appreciate the place so much more.
There are two important factors that go a long way towards explaining nature in Australia: its soils and its climate. Both are unique.
In most parts of the world outside the wet tropics, life responds to the rhythm of the seasons − summer to winter, or wet to dry. Most of Australia experiences seasons − sometimes severe ones − yet life does not respond solely to them. This can clearly be seen by the fact that although there's plenty of snow and cold country in Australia, there are almost no trees that shed their leaves in winter, nor do many Australian animals hibernate. Instead there is a far more potent climatic force that Australian life must obey: El Niño.
El Niño is a complex climatic pattern that can cause major weather shifts around the South Pacific. The cycle of flood and drought that El Niño brings to Australia is profound. Our rivers − even the mighty Murray River, which is the nation's largest and runs through the southeast − can be miles wide one year, yet you can literally step over its flow the next. This is the power of El Niño, and its effect, when combined with Australia's poor soils, manifests itself compellingly.
Soils & Geology
In recent geological times, on other continents, processes such as volcanism, mountain building and glacial activity have been busy creating new soil. Just think of the glacier-derived soils of North America, north Asia and Europe. The rich soils of India and parts of South America were made by rivers eroding mountains, while Java in Indonesia owes its extraordinary richness to volcanoes.
All of these soil-forming processes have been almost absent from Australia in more recent times. Only volcanoes have made a contribution, and they cover less than 2% of the continent's land area. In fact, for the last 90 million years, beginning deep in the age of dinosaurs, Australia has been geologically comatose. It was too flat, warm and dry to attract glaciers, its crust too ancient and thick to be punctured by volcanoes or folded into mountains. Look at Uluru and Kata Tjuta. They are the stumps of mountains that 350 million years ago were the height of the Andes. Yet for hundreds of millions of years they've been nothing but nubs.
Under such conditions no new soil is created and the old soil is leached of all its goodness by the rain, and is blown and washed away. Even if just 30cm of rain falls each year, that adds up to a column of water 30 million kilometres high passing through the soil over 100 million years, and that can do a great deal of leaching! Almost all of Australia's mountain ranges are more than 90 million years old, so you will see a lot of sand here, and a lot of country where the rocky 'bones' of the land are sticking up through the soil. It is an old, infertile landscape and life in Australia has been adapting to these conditions for aeons.
Current Environmental Issues
Headlining the environmental issues facing Australia's fragile landscape at present are climate change, water scarcity, nuclear energy and uranium mining. All are interconnected. For Australia, the warmer temperatures resulting from climate change spell disaster to an already fragile landscape. A 2°C climb in average temperatures on the globe's driest continent will result in an even drier southern half of the country and greater water scarcity. Scientists also agree that hotter and drier conditions will exacerbate bushfire conditions and increase cyclone intensity.
Australia is a heavy greenhouse-gas emitter because it relies on coal and other fossil fuels for its energy supplies. The most prominent and also contentious alternative energy source is nuclear power, which creates less greenhouse gases and relies on uranium, in which Australia is rich. But the radioactive waste created by nuclear power stations can take thousands of years to become harmless. Moreover, uranium is a finite energy source (as opposed to even cleaner and also renewable energy sources such as solar and wind power) – and even if Australia were to establish sufficient nuclear power stations now to make a real reduction in coal-dependency, it would be years before the environmental and economic benefits were realised.
Uranium mining also produces polarised opinions. Because countries around the world are also looking to nuclear energy, Australia finds itself in a position to increase exports of one of its top-dollar resources. But uranium mining in Australia has been met with fierce opposition, not only because the product is a core ingredient of nuclear weapons, but also because much of Australia's uranium supplies sit beneath sacred Indigenous land. Supporters of increased uranium mining and export suggest that the best way to police the use of uranium is to manage its entire life cycle: that is, to sell the raw product to international buyers, and then charge a fee to accept the waste and dispose of it. Both major political parties consider an expansion of Australia's uranium export industry to be inevitable for economic reasons.
Malaise of the Murray-Darling
The Murray-Darling Basin is Australia's largest river system, flowing through Queensland, NSW, the ACT, Victoria then SA, covering an area of 1.05 million sq km − roughly 14% of Australia. Aside from quenching around a third of the country's agricultural and urban thirsts, it also irrigates precious rainforests, wetlands, subtropical areas and scorched arid lands.
But drought, irrigation and climate change have depleted Murray-Darling flows. Wetland areas around the Darling River that used to flood every five years are now likely to do so every 25 years, and prolific species are threatened with extinction. That the entire system will become too salty and unusable is a very real danger.
Rains and widespread flooding across eastern Australia since 2010 (especially 2011) have increased flows, but finding the delicate balance between agricultural and environmental water allocations continues to cause political and social turmoil across five states and territories.
The European colonisation of Australia, commencing in 1788, heralded a period of catastrophic environmental upheaval. The result today is that Australians are struggling with some of the most severe environmental problems to be found anywhere in the world. It may seem strange that a population of just 24 million, living in a continent the size of the USA (minus Alaska), could inflict such damage on its environment, but Australia's long isolation, its fragile soils and difficult climate have made it particularly vulnerable to human-induced change.
Environmental damage has been inflicted in several ways, some of the most important being the introduction of pest species, destruction of forests, overstocking range lands and interference with water flows.
Beginning with the escape of domestic cats into the Australian bush shortly after 1788, a plethora of vermin − from foxes to wild camels and cane toads − have run wild in Australia, causing extinctions in the native fauna. One out of every 10 native mammals living in Australia prior to European colonisation is now extinct, and many more are highly endangered. Extinctions have also affected native plants, birds and amphibians.
The destruction of forests has also had an effect on the environment. Most of Australia's rainforests have suffered clearing, while conservationists fight with loggers over the fate of the last unprotected stands of 'old growth'.
Many Australian range lands have been chronically overstocked for more than a century, the result being the extreme vulnerability of both soils and rural economies to Australia's drought and flood cycle, as well as the extinction of many native species. The development of agriculture has involved land clearance and the provision of irrigation; again the effect has been profound. Clearing of the diverse and spectacular plant communities of the Western Australia wheat belt began just a century ago, yet today up to one-third of that country is degraded by salination of the soils.
Just 1.5% of Australia's land surface provides over 95% of its agricultural yield, and much of this land lies in the irrigated regions of the Murray-Darling Basin. This is Australia's agricultural heartland, yet it too is under severe threat from salting of soils and rivers. Irrigation water penetrates into the sediments laid down in an ancient sea, carrying salt into the catchments and fields. The Snowy River in New South Wales and Victoria also faces a battle for survival.
Despite the enormity of the biological crisis engulfing Australia, governments and the community have been slow to respond. It was in the 1980s that coordinated action began to take place, but not until the ’90s that major steps were taken. The establishment of Landcare, an organisation enabling people to effectively address local environmental issues, and the expenditure of over $2 billion through the federal government program 'Caring for our Country' have been important national initiatives. Yet so difficult are some of the issues the nation faces that, as yet, little has been achieved in terms of halting the destructive processes.
So severe are Australia's environmental problems that it will take a revolution before they can be overcome, for sustainable practices need to be implemented in every arena of life − from farms to suburbs and city centres. Renewable energy, sustainable agriculture and water use lie at the heart of these changes, and Australians are only now developing the road map to sustainability that they so desperately need if they are to have a long-term future on the continent.
The introduction of animals from other countries in the last 200 years has contributed significantly to the fragmentation of ecosystems and the extinction of native animals in Australia. Introduced species include foxes, rabbits, cats, pigs, goats, donkeys, horses, camels, starlings, sparrows, cane toads, mosquitofish and carp. They each bring a unique suite of problems as they carve out a niche for themselves in their new environment – some as predators of native animals, others as competitors for the limited resources of food, water and shelter.
By one estimate, there are 15 million feral cats alone in Australia and the Australian Wildlife Conservancy warns that each cat could be eating five native animals every night (which would be 75 million across the continent per day!). While other scientists warn that these figures are too high – one recent study put the number of feral cats in Australia at closer to 2.3 million – no one argues that feral animals are an existential threat to Australia's native wildlife.
The AWC currently runs at least eight wildlife sanctuaries in Northern Territory and South Australia. Some of these sanctuaries are vast and some are fenced to keep out feral animals once they have been eradicated within the fenced areas. By then being able to restore ecosystems and, in some cases, reintroduce native mammal species, AWC hopes to repopulate parts of the Outback with species that haven't been seen in decades. One such sanctuary which you can visit is Pungalina – Seven Emu Wildlife Sanctuary, up on the Gulf of Carpentaria, east of Borroloola.
Fauna & Flora
Australia's wildlife and plant species are as diverse as they are perfectly adapted to the country's soils and climate.
Australia has 898 recorded bird species, although an estimated 165 of these are considered to be vagrants, with only a handful of sightings (or occasionally even one!) recorded. Nearly half of all Australian birds are not found anywhere else on earth. A 2014 study by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), warned that as many as 10% of Australia's birds could become extinct by the end of the century.
Relatively few of Australia's birds are seasonal breeders, and few migrate – instead, they breed when the rain comes. A large percentage are nomads, following the rain across the breadth of the continent.
So challenging are conditions in Australia that its birds have developed some extraordinary habits. Kookaburras, magpies and blue wrens (to name just a few) have developed a breeding system called 'helpers at the nest'. The helpers are the young adult birds of previous broods, which stay with their parents to help bring up the new chicks. Just why they should do this was a mystery until it was realised that conditions in Australia can be so harsh that more than two adult birds are needed to feed the nestlings. This pattern of breeding is very rare in places like Asia, Europe and North America, but it is common in many Australian birds.
Australia's plants can be irresistibly fascinating. If you happen to be in the Perth area in spring it's well worth taking a wildflower tour. The best flowers grow on the arid and monotonous sand plains, and the blaze of colour produced by the kangaroo paws, banksias and similar native plants can be dizzying. The sheer variety of flowers is amazing, with 4000 species crowded into the southwestern corner of the continent. This diversity of prolific flowering plants has long puzzled botanists. Again, Australia's poor soils seem to be the cause. The sand plain is about the poorest soil in Australia − it's almost pure quartz. This prevents any single fast-growing species from dominating. Instead, thousands of specialist plant species have learned to find a narrow niche and so coexist. Some live at the foot of the metre-high sand dunes, some on top, some on an east-facing slope, some on the west and so on. Their flowers need to be striking in order to attract pollinators, for nutrients are so lacking in this sandy world that even insects such as bees are rare.
If you do get to walk the wildflower regions of the southwest, keep your eyes open for the sundews. Australia is the centre of diversity for these beautiful, carnivorous plants. They've given up on the soil supplying their nutritional needs and have turned instead to trapping insects with the sweet globs of moisture on their leaves, and digesting them to obtain nitrogen and phosphorus.
If you are very lucky, you might see a honey possum. This tiny marsupial is an enigma. Somehow it gets all of its dietary requirements from nectar and pollen, and in the southwest there are always enough flowers around for it to survive. But no one knows why the males need sperm larger even than those of the blue whale, or why their testes are so massive. Were humans as well endowed, men would be walking around with the equivalent of a 4kg bag of potatoes between their legs!
Of all the continents, Australia has the worst record on the extinction of mammals, with an estimated 27 mammal species having become extinct since European settlement in 1788. And things aren't getting any better. The comprehensive 2014 Action Plan for Australian Mammals found that 55 Australian land-mammal species face a serious threat of extinction.
Australia is, of course, famous as the home of the kangaroo (aka just plain 'roo') and other marsupials. Unless you visit a wildlife park, such creatures are not easy to see, as most are nocturnal. Their lifestyles, however, are exquisitely attuned to Australia's harsh conditions. Have you ever wondered why kangaroos, alone among the world's larger mammals, hop? It turns out that hopping is the most efficient way of getting about at medium speeds. This is because the energy of the bounce is stored in the tendons of the legs − much like in a pogo stick − while the intestines bounce up and down like a piston, emptying and filling the lungs without needing to activate the chest muscles. When you travel long distances to find meagre feed, such efficiency is a must.
Marsupials are so energy-efficient that they need to eat one-fifth less food than equivalent-sized placental mammals (everything from bats to rats, whales and ourselves). But some marsupials have taken energy efficiency much further. If you visit a wildlife park or zoo, you might notice that faraway look in a koala's eyes. It seems as if nobody is home − and this, in fact, is near the truth.
Several years ago biologists announced that koalas are the only living creatures that have brains that don't fit their skulls. Instead they have a shrivelled walnut of a brain that rattles around in a fluid-filled cranium. Other researchers have contested this finding, however, pointing out that the brains of the koalas examined for the study may have shrunk because these organs are so soft. Whether soft-brained or empty-headed, there is no doubt that the koala is not the Einstein of the animal world, and we now believe that it has sacrificed its brain to energy efficiency – brains cost a lot to run. Koalas eat gum leaves, which are so toxic that they use 20% of their energy just detoxifying this food. This leaves little energy for the brain, but fortunately living in the treetops – where there are so few predators – means that they can get by with few wits at all.
Whaling, a driving economic force across much of southern Australia from the time of colonisation, was finally banned in Australia in 1979. The main species on the end of the harpoon were humpback, blue, southern right and sperm whales, which were culled in huge numbers in traditional breeding grounds such as Sydney Harbour, the Western Australia coast around Albany and Hobart's Derwent River estuary. The industry remained profitable until the mid-1800s, before drastically depleted whale numbers, the lure of inland gold rushes and the emergence of petrol as an alternative fuel started to have an impact.
Over recent years (and much to locals' delight), whales have made cautious returns to both Sydney Harbour and the Derwent River. Ironically, whale watching has emerged as a lucrative tourist activity in migratory hot spots such as Head of Bight in South Australia, Warrnambool in Victoria, Hervey Bay in Queensland and out on the ocean beyond Sydney Harbour.
The peculiar constraints of the Australian environment have not made everything as dumb as the koala. The koala's nearest relative, the wombat (of which there are three species), has a large brain for a marsupial. These creatures live in complex burrows and can weigh up to 35kg, making them the largest herbivorous burrowers on earth. Because their burrows are effectively air-conditioned, they have the neat trick of turning down their metabolic activity when they are in residence. One physiologist, who studied wombats' thyroid hormones, found that biological activity ceased to such an extent in sleeping wombats that, from a hormonal point of view, they appeared to be dead!
Wombats can remain underground for a week at a time, and can get by on just one-third of the food needed by a sheep of equivalent size. One day, perhaps, efficiency-minded farmers will keep wombats instead of sheep; at the moment, however, that isn't possible – the largest of the wombat species, the northern hairy-nose, is one of the world's rarest creatures, with only around 196 surviving in a remote nature reserve in central Queensland.
Among the more common marsupials you might catch a glimpse of in the national parks around Australia's major cities are the species of antechinus. These nocturnal, rat-sized creatures lead an extraordinary life. The males live for just 11 months, the first 10 of which consist of a concentrated burst of eating and growing. The day comes when their minds turn to sex, and in the antechinus this becomes an obsession. As they embark on their quest for females they forget to eat and sleep. By the end of August − just two weeks after they reach 'puberty' − every male is dead, exhausted by sex and by carrying around swollen testes.
Two unique monotremes (egg-laying mammals) live in Australia: the bumbling echidna, something akin to a hedgehog; and the platypus, a bit like an otter, with webbed feet and a duck-like bill. Echidnas are common along bushland trails, but platypuses are elusive, and only seen at dawn and dusk in quiet rivers and streams.
One thing you will see lots of in Australia are reptiles. Snakes are abundant, and they include some of the most venomous species known. Where the opportunities to feed are few and far between, it's best not to give your prey a second chance, hence the potent venom. Snakes will usually leave you alone if you don't fool with them. Observe, back quietly away and don't panic, and most of the time you'll be OK.
Some visitors mistake lizards for snakes, and indeed some Australian lizards look bizarre. One of the more abundant is the sleepy lizard. These creatures, which are found in the southern arid region, look like animated pine cones. They are the Australian equivalent of tortoises, and are harmless. Other lizards are much larger. Unless you visit the Indonesian island of Komodo you will not see a larger lizard than the desert-dwelling perentie. These creatures, with their leopardlike blotches, can grow to more than 2m long, and are efficient predators of introduced rabbits, feral cats and the like.
Feeling right at home in Kakadu National Park, the saltwater crocodile is the world's largest living reptile − old males can reach an intimidating 6m long.
Shark-phobia ruining your trip to the beach? Despite media hype spurred by five deaths in 2014, Australia has averaged just one shark-attack fatality per year since 1791. There are about 370 shark species in the world's oceans − around 160 of these swim through Australian waters. Of these, only a few pose any threat to humans: the usual suspects are oceanic white tip, great white, tiger and bull sharks.
It follows that where there are more people, there are more shark attacks. New South Wales, and Sydney in particular, have a bad reputation. Attacks in Sydney peaked between 1920 and 1940, but since shark-net installation began in 1937 there's only been one fatality (1963), and dorsal-fin sightings are rare enough to make the nightly news. Realistically, you're more likely to get hit by a bus – so get wet and enjoy yourself!
National & State Parks
Australia has more than 500 national parks − nonurban protected wilderness areas of environmental or natural importance. Each state defines and runs its own national parks, but the principle is the same throughout Australia. National parks include rainforests, vast tracts of empty outback, strips of coastal dune land and rugged mountain ranges.
Public access is encouraged as long as safety and conservation regulations are observed. In all parks you're asked to do nothing to damage or alter the natural environment. Camping grounds (often with toilets and showers), walking tracks and information centres are often provided for visitors. In most national parks there are restrictions on bringing in pets.
State parks and state forests are owned by state governments and have fewer regulations. Although state forests can be logged, they are often recreational areas with camping grounds, walking trails and signposted forest drives. Some permit horses and dogs.
Ten Good Reasons to Visit a National Park
Best time to visit
Mar–Apr & Oct–Nov
wetlands of international importance, evocative dunes, lagoons, freshwater soaks, ephemeral lakes, water birds and pelicans
canoeing, fishing, swimming, walking, 4WDing
Freycinet National Park (Tasmania)
Best time to visit
gorgeous beaches, rocky peaks, stunning Wineglass Bay
bushwalking, swimming, canoeing, kayaking, fishing, camping, wildlife watching
Girringun National Park (Queensland)
Best time to visit
Wallaman Falls (at their fullest Nov–Feb), dense rainforest, endangered cassowaries, open ridges, deep gullies and creeks
camping, bushwalking, overnight hikes, wildlife watching
Grampians National Park (Victoria)
Best time to visit
wide-open vistas, dense forests, abundant native flora and fauna, waterfalls
bushwalking, sightseeing, rock climbing, abseiling, camping
Innes National Park (SA)
Best time to visit
spectacular coastal scenery, turquoise waters, sheer cliffs, intimate sandy coves, prolific wildlife
bushwalking, surfing, fishing, reef diving
Kakadu National Park (NT)
Best time to visit
Australia's largest national park, World Heritage-listed landscapes, rock-art sites, diverse habitats
Aboriginal tours, amazing bushwalks, bird watching, 4WDing, camping
Karijini National Park (WA)
Best time to visit
impressive gorges, tumbling waterfalls, sublime natural swimming pools carved from rocks, magical views of four gorges from Oxers Lookout
rigorous but breathtaking walks, splendid swimming opportunities
Kosciuszko National Park (NSW)
Best time to visit
Australia's highest mountain, snowfields in winter, wildflowers in January
skiing, snowboarding, bushwalking, mountain biking, canoeing, white-water rafting, abseiling
Mungo National Park (NSW)
Best time to visit
remote and pristine outback territory, dry Lake Mungo, massive sand dunes, Aboriginal heritage
award-winning eco-tours, 4WDing
Moreton Island National Park (Queensland)
Best time to visit
freshwater lagoons, towering sand dunes, wildflowers, ruins, sandy beaches, Tangalooma Wrecks off Flinders Reef
superb coastal walks, snorkelling, scuba diving
For those intrigued by the diversity of tropical rainforests, Queensland's World Heritage Sites are well worth visiting. Birds of paradise, cassowaries and a variety of other birds can be seen by day, while at night you can search for tree-kangaroos (yes, some kinds of kangaroo do live in the treetops). In your nocturnal wanderings you are highly likely to see curious possums, some of which look like skunks, and other marsupials that are restricted to a small area of northeast Queensland.
Australia's deserts are a real hit-and-miss affair as far as wildlife is concerned. If you're visiting in a drought year, all you might see are dusty plains, the odd mob of kangaroos and emus, and a few struggling trees. Return after big rains, however, and you'll encounter something close to a Garden of Eden. Fields of white and gold daisies stretch endlessly into the distance. The salt lakes fill with fresh water, and millions of water birds − pelicans, stilts, shags and gulls − can be seen feeding on the superabundant fish and insect life of the waters. It all seems like a mirage, and like a mirage it will vanish as the land dries out, only to spring to life again in a few years or a decade's time.
For a more reliable birdwatching spectacular, Kakadu is worth a look, especially towards the end of the dry season around November.
The largest creatures found in the Australian region are marine mammals such as whales and seals, and there is no better place to see them than South Australia. During springtime southern right whales crowd into the head of the Great Australian Bight, which is home to more kinds of marine creatures than anywhere else on earth. You can readily observe them near the remote Aboriginal community of Yalata as they mate, frolic and suckle their young. Kangaroo Island, south of Adelaide, is a fantastic place to see seals and sea lions. There are well-developed visitor centres to facilitate the viewing of wildlife, and nightly penguin parades occur at some places where the adult blue penguins make their nest burrows. Kangaroo Island's beaches are magical places, where you're able to stroll among fabulous shells, whale bones and even jewel-like leafy sea dragons amid the sea wrack.
The fantastic diversity of Queensland's Great Barrier Reef is legendary, and a boat trip out to the reef from Cairns or Port Douglas is unforgettable.
Some regions of Australia offer unique opportunities to see wildlife, and one of the most fruitful is Tasmania. The island is jam-packed with wallabies, wombats and possums, principally because foxes, which have decimated marsupial populations on the mainland, were slow to reach the island state – the first fox was found in Tasmania only as recently as 2001!
The island is also home to its eponymous Tasmanian devil. They're common on the island, and in some national parks you can watch them tear apart road-killed wombats. Their squabbling is fearsome, their shrieks ear-splitting – it's the nearest thing Australia can offer to experiencing a lion kill on the Masai Mara. Unfortunately, Tassie devil populations are being decimated by devil facial tumour disease (DFTD). Conservation projects, including establishing a disease-free population on Tasmania's Maria Island, and scientific projects aimed at building a vaccine, have offered hope that the devil may be saved, but the species remains classified as endangered.
Where to See...
For more on the best places to see Australia's mammals, get a hold of the excellent The Complete Guide to Finding the Mammals of Australia (2015) by David Andrew. It has a state-by-state rundown of the best places to see various species, as well as a species-by-species overview.
- Bombala River (Southeastern NSW)
- New England National Park (NSW)
- Kangaroo Island (SA)
- Eungella National Park (Queensland)
- Latrobe (Tasmania)
- Fraser Island (Queensland)
- Kakadu National Park (NT)
- Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park (NT)
- The Kimberley Region (WA)
- Pungalina – Seven Emu Wildlife Sanctuary (NT)
- Cradle Mountain – Lake St Clair National Park (Tasmania)
- Wilsons Promontory National Park (Victoria)
- Kangaroo Valley (NSW)
- Kosciuszko National Park (NSW)
- Eden (NSW)
- Warrnambool (Victoria)
- Albany (WA)
- Dampier Peninsula (WA)
- Victor Harbor (SA)
- Ceduna (SA)
- Cobourg Peninsula (NT)
- Kakadu National Park (NT)
- Mary River National Park (NT)
- Daintree River (Queensland)
- Anglesea Golf Club (Victoria)
- Grampians (Victoria)
- Hattah-Kulkyne National Park (Victoria)
- Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park (NT)
- West MacDonnell Ranges (NT)
- Weston Park (Canberra)
- Namadgi National Park (ACT)
- Great Ocean Road & Cape Otway (Victoria)
- Phillip Island (Victoria)
- French Island (Victoria)
- Gunnedah (NSW)
- Port Macquarie (NSW)
- Lismore (Queensland)
- Noosa National Park (Queensland)
- Greater Brisbane (Queensland)
Feature: Parrots: Good News & Bad
Australia has more than fifty parrot species. Some, like the Australian galah, the sulphur-crested cockatoo and the long- and short-billed corellas, are abundant to the point of being a pest for farmers in remote communities.
And yet, it was a parrot – the paradise parrot, last seen in the 1920s – that is widely recognised to be the first bird species to have fallen extinct on the Australian mainland. A likely candidate to follow in its footsteps is the orange-bellied parrot, which migrates between southern Victoria and southwestern Tasmania. With its numbers in the wild down to just fourteen birds as of late 2016, it appears that their greatest hope may lie in captive-breeding programs, such as at Healesville Sanctuary just outside Melbourne.
At the same time, another parrot has come back from the dead. Until recently, the night parrot was thought to be extinct, having last been seen around the same time as the paradise parrot in the 1920s. A handful of possible sightings in the decades that followed came to nothing, until two dead specimens were found in far southwestern Queensland in 1990 and 2006. Finally, in 2013 ornithologist John Young discovered a small population of night parrots in the Queensland Outback. Intensive conservation efforts are currently underway to save the species.
Feature: Wild Sydney
If your Australian visit extends only as far as Sydney, don't give up on seeing Australian nature. The sandstone area extending for 150km around Sydney is one of the most diverse and spectacular regions in Australia. In springtime, beautiful red waratahs abound in the region's parks, while the woody pear (a relative of the waratah) that so confounded the early colonists can also be seen, alongside more than 1500 other species of flowering plants.
Even in a Sydney backyard you're likely to see more reptile species (mostly skinks) than can be found in all of Great Britain − so keep an eye out!
Feature: Environment & Conservation Groups
- The Australian Conservation Foundation is Australia's largest nongovernment organisation involved in protecting the environment.
- Bush Heritage Australia and Australian Wildlife Conservancy allow people to donate funds and time to conserving native species.
- Want to get your hands dirty? Conservation Volunteers Australia is a nonprofit organisation focusing on practical conservation projects such as tree planting, walking-track construction, and flora and fauna surveys.
- Ecotourism Australia has an accreditation system for environmentally friendly and sustainable tourism in Australia, and lists ecofriendly tours, accommodation and attractions by state.
- The Wilderness Society focuses on protection of wilderness and forests.
Sidebar: Aussie Monoliths
Uluru (Ayers Rock) is often thought to be the world's largest monolith, but in fact it only takes second prize. The biggest is Burringurrah (Mt Augustus) in Western Australia, which is 2½ times the size of Uluru.
Sidebar: Conservation NGOs
Sidebar: Mammal Field Guide
There are numerous guides to Aussie mammals on the market, but some are more suited to your reference library than your suitcase. One excellent exception is A Field Guide to the Mammals of Australia (3rd ed, 2011) by Peter Menkhorst and Frank Knight, with just enough detail, maps and fine illustrations.
Sidebar: Birdlife Australia
Birdlife Australia (www.birdlife.org.au) is the nation's peak birding body; it organises birding excursions and publishes a regular newsletter. Watch its website for updates on unusual sightings.
Sidebar: Bird Field Guides
The Field Guide to the Birds of Australia (9th ed, 2012) by Graham Pizzey and Frank Knight, is our pick of the birding field guides. Another essential resource is The Complete Guide to Finding the Birds of Australia (2011) by Richard Thomas and others, with some really specific recommendations on where to find elusive species.
Sidebar: Great Barrier Reef
In 2016, Unesco warned that the Great Barrier Reef may be placed on its Danger List, which covers those sites considered at risk unless action is taken. Bleaching of the coral, caused by a combination of climate change and increased human activity in the area, is considered the most serious risk to the future of the reef. For more on its beauty and vulnerability, watch the BBC's Great Barrier Reef (narrated by Sir David Attenborough) or visit www.attenboroughsreef.com.
Sidebar: World Heritage Register
Some of Australia's most beautiful national parks and important sites are included on the World Heritage Register (http://whc.unesco.org), a UN register of natural and cultural places deemed to be universally significant.
Sidebar: Museum Wildlife
The website of the Australian Museum (www.australianmuseum.net.au) holds a wealth of info on Australia's animal life from the Cretaceous period till now. Kids can get stuck into online games, fact files and movies.
Australia has seen some devastating bushfires in recent times: the 'Black Saturday' fires in Victoria in 2009 claimed 173 lives, while in 2013 fires in Tasmania killed a firefighter and destroyed hundreds of buildings. The 2015 Adelaide Hills (SA) fires burned 125 sq km and dozens of houses and outbuildings; bushfires along Victoria's Great Ocean Road the same year consumed over 100 homes, and fires wiped out the small NSW village of Uarbry in early 2017.
Sidebar: How Many Beaches?
The Coastal Studies Unit at the University of Sydney has deemed there to be an astonishing 10,685 beaches in Australia! (They define a beach as a stretch of sand that's more than 20m long and remains dry at high tide.)
Sidebar: Walk Among Australia's Tallest Timber
- Valley of the Giants (WA)
- Tahune Airwalk (Tasmania)
- Otway Fly (Victoria)
- Illawarra Fly Tree Top Walk (NSW)
Sidebar: World Heritage Wonders
- Great Barrier Reef (Queensland)
- South West Wilderness (Tasmania)
- Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park (NT)
- Kakadu National Park (NT)
Sidebar: Official Floral Emblems
- Common heath (Victoria)
- Cooktown orchid (Queensland)
- Red and green kangaroo paw (WA)
- Royal bluebell (ACT)
- Tasmanian blue gum (Tasmania)
- Sturt's desert pea (SA)
- Sturt's desert rose (NT)
- Waratah (NSW)
Food & Wine
In a decade not so long ago, Australians proudly survived on a diet of 'meat and three veg'. Fine fare was a Sunday roast, and lasagne or croissants were considered exotic. Not any more. These days Australian gastronomy is keen to break rules, backed up by award-winning wines, world-class coffee, an organic revolution in the importance of fresh produce and a booming craft beer scene.
Cafes & Coffee
Coffee has become an Australian addiction. There are Italian-style espresso machines in virtually every cafe, boutique roasters are all the rage and, in urban areas, the qualified barista is ever present (there are even barista-staffed cafes attached to petrol stations).
Sydney and Melbourne, the two cities arguing it out for bragging rights as Australia's coffee capital, have given rise to a whole generation of coffee snobs. The cafe scene in Melbourne is particularly hipster; the best way to immerse yourself in it is by wandering the city centre's cafe-lined laneways. You'll also find decent places in the other big cities and towns, and there's now a sporting chance of good coffee in many rural areas.
Cafes in Australia generally serve good-value food: they're usually more casual than restaurants and you can get a decent meal for around $20, although many only open for breakfast and lunch. Children are usually more than welcome.
Eating with the Locals
Most Aussies eat cereal, toast and/or fruit for breakfast, often extending to bacon and eggs on weekends, washed down with tea and coffee. They generally favour sandwiches, salads and sushi for lunch, and then eat anything and everything in the evening.
The iconic Australian barbecue (BBQ or 'barbie') is a near-mandatory cultural experience. In summer locals invite their friends around at dinnertime and fire up the barbie, grilling burgers, sausages ('snags'), steaks, seafood, and vegie, meat or seafood skewers. If you're invited to a BBQ, bring some meat and cold beer. Year-round the BBQ is wheeled out at weekends for quick-fire lunches. There are plenty of free electric or gas BBQs in parks around the country, too – a terrific traveller-friendly option.
Food: When, Where & How
- Budget eating venues usually offer main courses for under $15; midrange mains are generally between $15 and $30; and top-end venues charge over $30.
- Cafes serve breakfasts from around 8am on weekends – a bit earlier on weekdays – and close around 5pm.
- Pubs and bars usually open around lunchtime and continue till at least 10pm – later from Thursday to Saturday. Pubs usually serve food from noon to 2pm and 6pm to 8pm.
- Restaurants generally open around noon for lunch, 6pm for dinner. Australians usually eat lunch shortly after noon; dinner bookings are usually made between 7pm and 8pm, though in big cities some restaurants stay open past 10pm.
- Vegetarian eateries and vegetarian selections in nonveg places (including vegan and gluten-free menu choices) are common in large cities. Rural Australia continues its dedication to meat.
- Smoking is banned in cafes, restaurants, clubs, pubs and an increasing number of city malls.
A restaurant meal in Australia is a relaxed affair. You'll probably order within 15 minutes and see the first course (called a starter or entrée) 15 minutes later. The main course will arrive about half an hour after that. Even at the finest restaurants a jacket is not required (but certainly isn't frowned upon).
If a restaurant is BYO, you can bring your own alcohol. If it also sells alcohol, you can usually only bring your own bottled wine (no beer or cask or box wine) and a corkage charge is added to your bill. The cost is either per person or per bottle, and can be up to $20 per bottle in fine-dining places (do the sums in advance: you'll often be better off buying from the restaurant, even with their inflated prices).
Fresh Local Food
Australia is huge (similar in size to continental USA), and it varies so much in climate – from the tropical north to the temperate south – that at any time of the year there's an enormous array of produce on offer. Fruit is a fine example. In summer, kitchen bowls overflow with nectarines, peaches and cherries, and mangoes are so plentiful that Queenslanders get sick of them. The Murray River hinterland gives rise to orchards of citrus fruits, grapes and melons. Tasmania's cold climate makes its strawberries and stone fruits sublime. The tomatoes and olives of South Australia (SA) are the nation's best. Local supermarkets stock the pick of the bunch.
Seafood is always freshest close to the source; on this big island it's plentiful. Oysters are popular – connoisseurs prize Sydney rock oysters, a species that actually lives right along the New South Wales (NSW) coast; excellent oysters are grown in seven different regions in SA, such as Coffin Bay; and Tasmania is known for its Pacific oysters. Australia's southernmost state is also celebrated for its trout, salmon and abalone.
An odd-sounding delicacy from these waters is 'bugs' − shovel-nosed lobsters without a lobster's price tag (try the Balmain and Moreton Bay varieties). Marron are prehistoric-looking freshwater crayfish from Western Australia (WA), with a subtle taste that's not always enhanced by the heavy dressings that seem popular. Prawns in Australia are incredible, particularly the school prawns or the eastern king (Yamba) prawns found along the northern New South Wales (NSW) coast. You can sample countless wild fish species, including prized barramundi from the Northern Territory (NT), but even fish that are considered run-of-the-mill (such as snapper, trevally and whiting) taste fabulous when simply barbecued.
There's a growing boutique cheese movement across the country's dairy regions – Tasmania alone now produces 50 cheese varieties.
Bush Tucker: Australian Native Foods
There are around 350 food plants that are native to the Australian bush. Bush foods provide a real taste of the Australian landscape. There are the dried fruits and lean meats of the desert; shellfish and fish of the coast; alpine berries and mountain peppers of the high country; and citrus flavours, fruits and herbs of the rainforests.
This cuisine is based on Indigenous Australians' expert understanding of the environment, founded in cultural knowledge handed down over generations. Years of trial and error have ensured a rich appreciation of these foods and mastery of their preparation.
The harvesting of bush foods for commercial return has been occurring for about 30 years. In central Australia it is mainly carried out by middle-aged and senior Aboriginal women. Here and in other regions, bush meats (such as kangaroo, emu and crocodile), fish (such as barramundi), and bush fruits (including desert raisins, quandongs, riberries, and Kakadu plums) are seasonally hunted and gathered for personal enjoyment, as well as to supply local, national and international markets.
Janelle White is an applied anthropologist, currently completing a PhD on Aboriginal people's involvement in a variety of desert-based bush produce industries, including bush foods, bush medicines and bush jewellery. She splits her time between Adelaide, and the land 200km northwest of Alice Springs.
Mod Oz (Modern Australian)
The phrase Modern Australian (Mod Oz) has been coined to classify contemporary Australian cuisine: a melange of East and West; a swirl of Atlantic and Pacific Rim; a flourish of authentic French and Italian.
Immigration has been the key to this culinary concoction. An influx of immigrants since WWII, from Europe, Asia, the Middle East and Africa, introduced new ingredients and new ways to use staples. Vietnamese, Japanese, Fijian − no matter where it's from, there are expat communities and interested locals keen to cook and eat it. You'll find Jamaicans using Scotch bonnet peppers and Tunisians making tajine.
As the Australian appetite for diversity and invention grows, so does the food culture surrounding it. Cookbooks and foodie magazines are bestsellers and Australian celebrity chefs − highly sought overseas − reflect Australia's multiculturalism in their backgrounds and dishes. Cooking TV shows, both competitions and foodie travel documentaries, have become mandatory nightly viewing.
If all this sounds overwhelming, never fear. The range of food in Australia is a true asset. You'll find that dishes are characterised by bold and interesting flavours and fresh ingredients. All palates are catered for: the chilli-metre spans gentle to extreme, seafood is plentiful, meats are full-flavoured, and vegetarian needs are considered (especially in the cities).
Pubs & Drinking
You're in the right country if you're in need of a drink. Long recognised as some of the finest in the world, Australian wines are one of the nation's top exports. As the public develops a more sophisticated palate, local craft beers are rising to the occasion. There's a growing wealth of microbrewed flavours and varieties on offer, challenging the nation's entrenched predilection for mass-produced lager. If you're into whisky, head to Tasmania: there are a dozen distillers there now, bottling-up superb single malts and racking up international awards.
Most Australian beers have an alcohol content between 3.5% and 5.5%, less than European beers but more than most in North America. Light beers contain under 3% alcohol and are a good choice if you have to drive (as long as you don't drink twice as much).
The terminology used to order beer varies state by state. In NSW you ask for a schooner (425mL) if you're thirsty and a middy (285mL) if you're not quite so dry. In Victoria the 285mL measure is called a pot; in Tasmania it's called a 10-ounce. Pints can either be 425mL or 568mL, depending on where you are. Mostly you can just ask for a beer and see what turns up.
'Shouting' is a revered custom where people drinking together take turns to pay for a round of drinks. At a toast, everyone should touch glasses and look each other in the eye as they clink − failure to do so is purported to result in seven years' bad sex (whether you believe that or not, why not make eye contact just in case...?).
Pub meals (often referred to as counter meals) are usually hefty and a good value: standards such as sausages and mashed potatoes or chicken schnitzel and salad go for $15 to $30.
A competitively priced place to eat is at a club – Returned and Services League (RSL) or Surf Life Saving clubs are solid bets. Order at the kitchen, take a number and wait until it's called out over the counter or intercom. You pick up the meal yourself, saving the restaurant on staffing costs and you on your total bill.
All Australian states and mainland territories (except tropical and desert Northern Territory) sustain wine industries, some almost 200 years old. Many wineries have tastings for free or a small fee, often redeemable if you buy a bottle. Although plenty of good wine comes from big wineries with economies of scale on their side, the most interesting wines are often made by small producers. The following rundown should give you a head start.
New South Wales & the Australian Capital Territory
Dating from the 1820s, the Hunter Valley is Australia's oldest wine region. The Lower Hunter is known for shiraz and unwooded semillon. Upper Hunter wineries specialise in cabernet sauvignon and shiraz, with forays into verdelho and chardonnay. Further inland are award-winning wineries at Griffith, Mudgee and Orange. In the ACT, Canberra's surrounds also have a growing number of excellent wineries.
High-altitude Stanthorpe and Ballandean in the southeast are the centres of the Queensland wine industry, though you'll find a few cellar doors at Tamborine Mountain in the Gold Coast hinterland.
South Australia's wine industry is a global giant, as a visit to the National Wine Centre of Australia in Adelaide will attest. Cabernet sauvignon from Coonawarra, riesling from the Clare Valley, sauvignon blanc from the Adelaide Hills and shiraz from the Barossa Valley and McLaren Vale are bliss in a bottle.
Try the Pipers River region and the Tamar Valley in the north, and explore the burgeoning wine industry in the Coal River Valley around Richmond near Hobart. Cool-climate drops are the name of the game here: especially pinot noir, sauvignon blanc and sparkling whites (our favourite is the 'Méthode Tasmanoise' made by Jansz).
Victoria has more than 500 wineries. The Yarra Valley produces excellent chardonnay and pinot noir, as does the Mornington Peninsula; both can be done as day trips from Melbourne. Wineries around Rutherglen produce champion fortified wines as well as shiraz and durif.
Margaret River in the southwest is synonymous with superb cabernets and chardonnays. Among old-growth forest, Pemberton wineries produce cabernet sauvignon, merlot, pinot noir, sauvignon blanc and shiraz. The south coast's Mt Barker is another budding wine region.
In the big cities, street vending is on the rise – coffee carts have been joined by vans selling tacos, burritos, baked potatoes, kebabs, burgers and more. Elsewhere around the cities you'll find fast-food chains, gourmet sandwich bars, food courts in shopping centres and market halls, bakeries, and sushi, noodle and salad bars. Beyond the big smoke the options are more limited and traditional, such as milk bars (known as delis in SA and WA) – these corner stores often serve old-fashioned hamburgers (with bacon, egg, pineapple and beetroot) and other takeaway foods.
There are more than a million Aussies with Italian heritage: it follows that pizza is (arguably) the most popular Australian fast food. Most home-delivered pizzas are of the American style (thick and with lots of toppings) rather than Italian style. However, thin, Neapolitan-style pizza cooked in a wood-fired oven can increasingly be found, even in country towns.
Fish and chips are still hugely popular, the fish is most often a form of shark (often called flake; don't worry, it's delicious), either grilled or dipped in batter and fried.
If you're at a rugby league or Aussie rules football match, downing a beer and a meat pie is as compulsory as wearing your team's colours and yelling loudly from the stands.
Sidebar: Top Food Festivals
- Taste of Tasmania (Hobart, Tasmania)
- Melbourne Food & Wine Festival (Melbourne, Victoria)
- Clare Valley Gourmet Weekend (Clare Valley, SA)
- Margaret River Gourmet Escape (WA)
- Oysterfest (Ceduna, SA)
- Tunarama Festival (Port Lincoln, SA)
Sidebar: Tipping in Australia
Tipping is not mandatory in Australia, but is appreciated if the food is great and service comes with a smile. Around 10% is the norm (or perhaps more if your kids have gone crazy and trashed the dining room).
Sidebar: Dinner Party Etiquette
Etiquette hint: if you're invited to someone's house for dinner, always take a gift (even if the host tries to dissuade you): a bottle of wine, a six-pack of beer, some flowers or a box of chocolates.
Sidebar: Food Magazines
Delicious is a monthly magazine published by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) listing recipes, restaurant reviews, food and wine trends, and foodie-related travel articles. Australian Gourmet Traveller (www.gourmettraveller.com.au) is another fine magazine.
Sidebar: Ordering Seafood
Australians consume more than 200,000 tonnes of seafood per year. Along the coast, fish-and-chip shops often get their seafood straight from the local fishing boats; ask the cook what's frozen (ie from elsewhere) and what's not.
Vegemite: you'll either love it or hate it. For reference, Barack Obama diplomatically called it 'horrible'. It's certainly an acquired taste, but Australians consume more than 22 million jars of the stuff every year. And they're particularly pleased that ownership of this national icon recently returned to Australian hands for the first time since 1928.
Sidebar: World's Best Whisky
In 2014, Sullivan's Cove (www.sullivanscove.com), a Tasmanian distillery, stunned the whisky world by winning the prize for the world's best single malt for its French Oak Cask variety.
Whether they're filling stadiums, glued to a pub's big screen or on the couch in front of the TV, Australians invest heavily in sport – both fiscally and emotionally. The federal government kicks in more than $300 million every year − enough for Australia to hold its own against formidable international sporting opponents. Fuelled as it is by numerous stories of international success, however, it's the passion of the ordinary Aussie for sport that truly defines the country's sporting life.
Australian Rules Football
Australia's most attended sport, and one of the two most watched, is Australian Rules football (aka 'footy' or 'Aussie rules'). While traditionally embedded in Victorian state culture and identity, the Australian Football League (AFL; www.afl.com.au) has gradually expanded its popularity into all states, including rugby-dominated New South Wales and Queensland; South Australia and Western Australia needed no encouragement and have long been die-hard footy states. Long kicks, high marks and brutal collisions whip crowds into frenzies: the roar of 50,000-plus fans yelling 'Baaalll!!!' upsets dogs in suburban backyards for miles around.
The season runs from late March to September; tickets can usually be purchased online or at the stadiums on the day for all but the biggest games. In September, it all culminates in the AFL Grand Final at Melbourne's MCG stadium, one of Australia's most-watched sporting events. But footy is an obsession across the nation, and even in remote communities, it seems like the whole world stops whenever there's a big game on – the Tiwi Grand Final in March, on the Tiwi Islands off Darwin (and about as far away from Melbourne as you can get in Australia), is one memorable example.
Australian Rules Football has always had a firm following among female sports fans, but the participatory side of things has always been a male realm. In early 2017, the Women's AFL (www.afl.com.au/womens) finally got underway. The eight-team league kicked off with a sell-out match between Carlton and Collingwood (with a decisive victory by Carlton) – the capacity 24,000 crowd that turned up forced a rethink of future venues. Games are shorter (quarters last for 15 minutes) and the two teams have 16 instead of 18 players. However, for many the question lingers: why did it take so long for a women's league to happen?
The Aussies dominated both international test and one-day cricket for much of the 2000s, holding the number-one world ranking for most of the decade. But the subsequent retirement of once-in-a-lifetime players like Shane Warne, Adam Gilchrist, Ricky Ponting and the Waugh brothers sent the team into an extended rebuilding phase. Only now is the team returning to a level of success to which the viewing public has become accustomed, although world domination is no longer assured.
The pinnacle of Australian cricket is the biennial test series played between Australia and England, known as 'The Ashes'. The unofficial Ashes trophy is a tiny terracotta urn containing the ashen remnants of an 1882 cricket bail (the perfect Australian BBQ conversation opener: ask a local what a 'bail' is). Series losses in 2009, 2011 and 2013 to the arch-enemy caused nationwide misery. Redemption came in 2014, when Australia won back the Ashes 5–0, only the third clean-sweep in Ashes history, but the pendulum shifted back in 2015 when England won a tight series 3–2. The next series is due to take place in the 2017–18 Australian summer.
Take the time to watch a match if you never have – such tactical cut-and-thrust, such nuance, such grace...! Despite the Australian cricket team's bad rep for 'sledging' (verbally dressing down one's opponent on the field), cricket is still a gentleman's game. Test cricket lasts for up to five days(!), while shorter versions of the game – one-day internationals or T20 – are probably a more accessible (and less boring) introduction.
Australians love to bet on the horses. There are racecourses all around the country and local holidays for racing carnivals in Victoria, Tasmania and South Australia.
Australia's biggest race – the 'race that stops a nation' – is the Melbourne Cup, which occurs on the first Tuesday in November. The most famous Melbourne Cup winner was the New Zealand–born Phar Lap, who won in 1930 before dying of a mystery illness (suspected arsenic poisoning) in America; his stuffed hide is now a prize exhibit in the Melbourne Museum. The British-bred (but Australian-trained) Makybe Diva is a more recent star, winning three cups in a row before retiring in 2005.
Australia's most important metropolitan racing carnivals include:
- Spring Racing Carnival, Melbourne
- Sydney Autumn Racing Carnival
- Queensland Winter Racing Carnival, Brisbane
- Darwin Cup Carnival
- Perth Cup
Country race meetings can also be a wonderful day out, and they can be far more accessible than the larger city carnivals. Our favourites include:
The National Rugby League (NRL; www.nrl.com.au) is the most popular football code north of the Murray River, the season highlight being the annual State of Origin series between NSW and Queensland. To witness an NRL game is to appreciate all of Newton's laws of motion – it's bone-crunching!
The national rugby union team, the Wallabies, won the Rugby World Cup in 1991 and 1999 and was runner-up in 2003 (to England) and 2015 (to eternal rivals New Zealand).
Teams from Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Japan and Argentina compete in the super-popular Super 15s (www.superxv.com) competition, which includes five Australian teams: the Waratahs (Sydney), the Reds (Brisbane), the Brumbies (Australian Capital Territory, aka ACT), the Force (Perth) and the Rebels (Melbourne).
Australia's national soccer team, the Socceroos, qualified for the 2006, 2010 and 2014 FIFA World Cups after a long history of almost-but-not-quite getting there. Results were mixed, but pride in the national team is sky-high (and actually reached the stratosphere when the Socceroos won the Asian Cup in 2015).
The national A-League (www.a-league.com.au) competition, with nine teams from around Australia and one from New Zealand, has enjoyed increased popularity in recent years, successfully luring a few big-name international players to bolster the home-grown talent pool.
Australia has been synonymous with surfing ever since the Beach Boys effused about 'Australia's Narrabeen', one of Sydney's northern beaches, in Surfin' USA. Other surfing hot spots such as Bells Beach, Margaret River, the Pass at Byron Bay, the heavy-breaking Shipstern Bluff in Tasmania and Burleigh Heads on the Gold Coast also resonate with international wave addicts. Iron Man and Surf Lifesaving competitions are also held on beaches around the country, attracting dedicated fans to the sand.
More than a few Australian surfers have attained 'World Champion' status. In the men's competition, legendary surfers include Mark Richards, Tom Carroll, Joel Parkinson and 2013 champ Mick Fanning. On the women's side, iconic Aussie surfers include Wendy Botha, seven-time champion Layne Beachley and 2014 champ (and six-time winner) Stephanie Gilmore.
Australia: girt by sea and pock-marked with pools – its population can swim. Australia's greatest female swimmer, Dawn Fraser, known simply as 'our Dawn', won the 100m freestyle gold at three successive Olympics (1956−64), plus the 4x100m freestyle relay in 1956. Australia's greatest male swimmer, Ian Thorpe (known as Thorpie or the Thorpedo), retired in 2006 at age 24, with five Olympic golds swinging from his neck. Since then, Australia's reputation as a nation of swimming world champions has taken a battering with disappointing performances at both the 2012 London and 2016 Rio Olympics.
Every January in Melbourne, the Australian Open attracts more people to Australia than any other sporting event. Get to a game there if you can.
The men's competition was last won by an Australian, Mark Edmondson, back in 1976. After an era dominated by the gentlemanly Pat Rafter (who won the US Open in 1997 and 1998) and the gutsy Lleyton Hewitt (who won the US Open in 2001 and Wimbledon a year later), Australia's male tennis fraternity doesn't quite know what to make of the mercurial and talented enfants terribles, Nick Kyrgios and Bernard Tomic.
In the women's game, Australian Sam Stosur won the US Open in 2011 and has been hovering in the top-20 player rankings ever since.
Sidebar: Footy or Football?
'Footy' in Australia can mean a number of things. In NSW and Queensland it's rugby league; everywhere else it's Australian Rules football. Just to confuse you, 'football' can also mean soccer – the national governing body for soccer is called the Football Federation of Australia.
Sidebar: Cricket's Big Bash
Australia's T20 Big Bash League (www.bigbash.com.au), the 20-over form of cricket, is gaining ground on the traditional five-day and one-day formats. Fast, flashy and laced with pyrotechnics, it's thin on erudition but makes for a fun night out.
Sidebar: Rural Races
A Racetrack Somewhere (2016) is a fascinating documentary journey around some of Australia's best country race meetings, including Birdsville, King Island, Warrnambool, Kangaroo Island and Darwin.