by Bob Brooke
Australia is vastness, loneliness, stillness, timelessness, and an utter lack of people. In its vastness, the continent is indifferent, as if the land that existed unchanged for eons before man had set foot upon it will remain unchanged after he's gone. To many travellers, Australia is a land of mystery. As a continent-island floating in the southwestern Pacific, it has been kept apart from the rest of the world. From its Aboriginal origins, and then as a place for the British to dump their criminals, it has become a unique destination filled with wonder for the adventurous.
Here, you'll be humbled. Timelessness is within a half day's drive of its cities. Forests stretch on into the distant haze, sheer cliffs rise with their flanks covered with more trees, the spindle of a thin white waterfall tugs sideways in a strong wind, and then there's the silence. Not just silence, but the absence of manmade sounds.
The Commonwealth of Australia, a country in the Southern Hemisphere comprising the mainland of the Australian continent, the island of Tasmania, and numerous smaller islands in the Indian and Pacific Oceans, is the world's sixth-largest country. For at least 40,000 years before European settlement in the late 18th century, indigenous Australians inhabited the continent. After Dutch explorers discovered it in 1606, James Cook sailed along and mapped the east coast of Australia, which he named New South Wales and claimed for Great Britain in 1770. The British created a penal colony there in 1788. The population grew steadily in subsequent decades, as descendants of the original prisoners explored the eastern half of the continent, eventually establishing five self-governing Crown Colonies. On January 1, 1901, these five colonies plus the island of Tasmania, united to form the Commonwealth of Australia.
Australia is nature at its best and worst. In August and September, wattle blooms drench the bush in yellow. Multitudes of colorful native flowers peak out from the grasses. You'll smell the bush — hot dust and eucalyptus oil, and, after a heavy shower, the overpowering scent of wet earth. But it's only after dark that Australia's wildlife appears — wombats and wallabies and kangaroos, and koalas swinging on high from tree to tree. West of the Great Dividing Range, the land becomes drier and browner. This is the Australia of foreign perception, stretching towards the middle of the continent, where the desert begins.
But Australia isn't all desert. Coastal Queensland, with its Great Barrier Reef is lush, its luminous, shallow waters reflecting the deep blue of the sky. All along the hilly coast, lapped by enchanting inlets, are flowering trees and shrubs, and just off the coast for over 100 miles, tall tropical islands beckon you. If you're a sailor, you'll love this part of the country. And if you're a diver, you'll want to dive the reef around Cairns forever. Inland orchids and flowering vines bloom amidst the ferns of thousands of square miles of tropical mountains.
For more adventure, explore the mining towns of South Australia. Here, under a barren, stony, off-white desert lie opal mines whose dwellings lie below ground. It's hard to imagine the immense wealth that has come forth from this desolation.
The island of Tasmania remains an area that lies off the beaten path Australia. Cool breezes blow over a wild, rugged, yet beautiful landscape with clouds rising off the forested mountains in ragged curtains. In the highlands, the trees drop with lichens and mosses, their trunks mottled orange with fungus.
But for pure adventure, nothing beats the Australian outback, from Ayer's Rock to being out on the bush at night, looking up at the heavens where it's so dark you'll think far-off nebulae seem spun out of clouds.
Australia ResourcesAboriginal Australia - learn about the fascinating culture and heritage of the first Australians
Australia.com - Australia's official tourism website where you can discover why there is nothing like Australia
Australian Festivals - From New Year's celebrations on Sydney Harbour to Melbourne Cup Day, 2camels has hundreds of Australian festivals covered
Australian Formula 1 Grand Prix - held annually in March on Melbourne's Albert Park Circuit
Johno's Opals - Check out Johno's Australian opal mining blog, buy Australian opal and learn about the characters of the Austrlian opal fields
Lonely Planet Australia - the guidebook leader's take on the land Down Under
Photograph Melbourne - From the cafes of Carlton to Federation Square, hundreds of categorised photos of Melbourne