Saturday, June 2, 2012


So, we’ve come to the land down under. It’s the land of kangaroos, koalas, wombats, Tasmanian devils, dingos, emus, and the outback.  It's the land of Steve Irwin, the didgeridoo, "G'day, mate!" and shrimp on the barbie. It’s one of the world’s largest islands, located in the South Pacific (also called Oceanea). Australian culture is a fusion of many different cultures, as diverse and unique as it’s flora and fauna.

The island itself is just slightly smaller than the contiguous United States. The vast majority of the people live on the southern and eastern coast.  Much of the western and northern parts consist of the Outback: a desert-like, sparse, arid area, an area of much tourism and mining.  There are still some Aboriginal (the original people to live on the island) communities in the Outback as well as other towns and cities, where because of the sparseness and distance between these communities, school is taught over the radio. This area is home to the famed Ayres Rock, also called “Uluru” by the local indigenous people. Australia in recent years has dealt with many severe droughts and damages from wildfires.

Outside of the Outback, the other major ecotourism hotspot is the Great Barrier Reef, located off of the northeastern coast.  It’s one of the world’s largest coral reefs (which is actually a living being, not a rock like it looks like). It’s also home to many fish and sea life that depend on it. Climate change, pollution, and fishing are threats to the area, as well as certain other animals and sea life that loom over this delicate environment.

Australia was officially claimed as a British colony by Captain Cook, even though the Dutch were actually the first Europeans there. The British turned the island into a penal colony, where they sent prisoners to do manual labor under extremely harsh conditions as punishment. Many died of hunger or disease, some were shot trying to escape, and some just died from having a life sentence.

While most of the people there are of English and Irish descent and speak English, there is no official language in Australia.  The word Australia itself comes from the Latin word for “southern.”

To the chagrin of many Americans, the capital isn’t Sydney or Melbourne.  It’s Canberra, a city with a population of around 358,000 – roughly a little smaller than Arlington, Texas.  Ironically, the area chosen for the capital city was strategically located between Sydney and Melbourne, the two largest cities, and is unusual in the fact that it’s a planned city (like Brazil’s capital city, Brasilia).  The name Canberra is often contributed to being from one of the local indigenous languages, Kambera, meaning “meeting place.” An appropriate name for the center of government, I think. An alternate version is that it was derived from the Anglicized form of the local word “nganbira” (or “nganbra”) which roughly means a woman’s cleavage (worded better as the “hollow between a woman’s breasts”). It was actually referring to the fact that the city was placed in the flood plane between two nearby mountains. I don’t think I’ll ever think of the city the same now.

But the country on a whole is fairly developed, with access to clean water and sanitation, even in the rural areas. Literacy rates are at around 99%. Australians will also be happy to know that they also have the 9th longest average life expectancy, averaging at almost 82 years. (Side note: they’ve updated these stats for 2012 figures, and earlier, I think I had noted that Andorra was at 4th, but now it’s at 6th.)

Because of Australia’s history and ties to the U.K. and its proximity to Asia, its culture is a blend of all of these cultures. You’ll find this British-Asian traditions seeping into all aspects of its culture, from the arts to its cuisine. It’s as diverse as countries like the United States, the U.K., or Brazil. And I think I’m gonna have fun with it this week.

Up next: Holidays and Celebrations

Wikipedia: “Australia” “Canberra” “List of US cities by population” “Great Barrier Reef” “Outback”
CIA World Factbook: Australia
Y-Axis Australia Blog

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