by Philip Mathews & Reg Morrison

Background image: The distinctive "beehives" of the Bungle Bungle Range in the Purnululu National Park of Western Australia, a sandstone range formed 400 million years ago from layered sediments washed into a rift valley and subsequently eroded into these remarkable symmetrical striated domes.

Terra Australis Incognita. For centuries a great unknown southland was presumed to exist to counterbalance the mass of the then known world, largely in the northern hemisphere. If it did not, so thinkers reasoned, the earth would surely wobble on its axis. Though its size and precise whereabouts remained unknown, romantics evoked a southern paradise. In the end, European discovery was by chance.

The Spanish nearly found it in 1606 when Luis de Torres sailed through the straits that are named for him. A decade later, the Dutch spotted the west coast while plotting a quicker route across the Indian Ocean to the spices of the East Indies (Indonesia). The first Englishmen to sight it took their discovery to the grave, when the Tryall foundered on west coast reefs in 1622. By 1642, the bold Dutchman Abel Tasman had ventured as far as the south coast of Tasmania and, in 1688-9, English buccaneer explorer William Dampier landed in the northwest of the continent long enough to form a sour impression.

The breadth of the continent remained a mystery until 1770, when the bluff-bowed Endeavour of 93 feet closed on the east coast of Australia. Her master, the brilliant British navigator Captain James Cook, had been conducting a scientific expedition in the south Pacific, but among his orders was an instruction to find Terra Incognita and claim it, or any useful part, for the Crown.

Cook landed at Botany Bay with the influential botanist Joseph Banks, who made the first serious record of the flora, fauna and native people of Australia, which was to have unimagined consequences. Cook then headed north, charting the coast as he went, and claiming eastern Australia for Britain, naming it New South Wales.

The Aborigines first arrived from southern Asia between 50,000 and 84,000 years ago, long before rising sea levels isolated them by flooding land bridges in the northern archipelagos. Their history is lost in time, though we know that Australia had a more inviting climate and bigger game before the last ice age, some 20,000 years ago, which desiccated the continent to its recognisable state.

By the time the British arrived there were at least 300,000 Aborigines scattered across the continent in loosely knit groups, speaking 300 languages and many more dialects. Nomadic hunter-gatherers of primitive technology, they used fire cleverly, not just to flush out game, but to regenerate bushlands. Permanent dwellings were extremely rare and perfunctory, and they used no beasts of burden. Herds or crops were unknown. The only animal they kept was the Dingo, or wild dog, believed to have arrived in the last 5,000 years.

There were neither chiefs nor temples. Their culture was in the hands and minds of tribal elders, and a mystical belief system known as the Dreaming, which bound them and all creatures to the land. The only records, however, were living memory and rock paintings. Like moving shadows in their vast landscape, they prevailed in even the harshest regions with astonishing bushcraft, particularly the desert dwellers.

Only Cook among those earliest seafarers envied their freedom from materialism. Yet their nomadic ways and the absence of a leadership with which to treaty--unlike the structured Maori nation in New Zealand--led to the absurd assumption at law that the continent was Terra Nullius (uninhabited), which was to render the Aborigines landless in their own landscape for more than 200 years.

When the American colonies won their independence, British convicts could no longer be transported there as indentured labour. Soon prison hulks, commissioned to relieve overflowing British jails, were groaning at the gunwales, fed inexorably by a legal system with some 100 crimes punishable by death, including property crimes. Britain needed a penal colony and the influential Banks lobbied for Botany Bay. A strategic presence on the southern continent seemed propitious too, Dutch and French intentions ever a concern.

The First Fleet was assembled by Captain Arthur Phillip, a man of admirable leadership, who was to be the colony's first governor. The 11 vessels included two warships, six convict transports and three store ships. The full complement of some 1,400 men, women and children, included about 800 convicts, of whom 192 were women, the balance being sailors, marines and their families.

After a grueling 15,000 nautical mile voyage of 250 days, Phillip had reason for satisfaction. When the fleet limped into Botany Bay on January 18 and 20, 1788, no ship had been lost and the 48 deaths en route were modest by prevailing standards. But bitter disappointment followed. Botany Bay was hopelessly barren: sandy soil, lifeless grassland, and mangrove flats, and the only spring a trickle.

Cook had noted a promising entrance flanked by forbidding cliffs some 11 sea miles north, which he had named Port Jackson but not approached. Thus it fell to the desperate Phillip, reconnoitering in a cutter, to discover not only the best natural harbour on the continent within days of his bitter landfall, but "the finest in the world in which a thousand sail of the line may ride in the most perfect security." Better known today as Sydney Harbour, few could quibble with Phillip's first impression. In Sydney Cove he found a deep water landing, a reliable spring, and hope.

Phillip's resentful felons and their reluctant military jailers were utterly ill-equipped to pioneer any land, let alone one so brutally alien to them. Hardwood eucalypts blunted saws and broke axes. Meagre soils were unyielding to scattered grain, and livestock disappeared into the bush or were speared. They found no obvious bush food to supplement their diet (80 per cent of Australia's 28,000 plant species have never been found elsewhere). Kookaburras "laughed" rather than sang, kangaroos hopped rather than galloped. Sharks lurked in the harbour, and snakes ashore. Those who strayed into the bush risked a lingering death from thirst or sudden death by spearing. The colony began to starve.

Though frail, Phillip had the steel for his task. He dispatched a ship for stores, placed the colony on subsistence rations, and sent out bands to fish and hunt. He reduced the mouths to feed by sending his biggest ship to establish a secondary colony at Norfolk Island, 900 nautical miles northeast.

In time, the relief ship returned (having circled the clobe), Norfolk Island became self-sufficient, and when fertile flats were found upriver at Parramatta, he granted small acreages to convicts who had served their time. These "Emancipated" farmers worked with new-found will. Gradually the prospect of starvation receded.

Phillip also extended his hand to the Aborigines, as was his brief from the British Government, punishing convicts with Aboriginal blood on their hands. But the two cultures shared nothing but competition for land and game. Skirmishes and killings by both sides escalated a conflict that was ultimately settled by disease. Corpses began to appear in numbers around the harbour. The Aborigines of this region, with no resistance to European diseases, were doomed.

Paradoxically, the European settlement gradually grew more robust. When Phillip's tour of duty ended in 1792, the first free immigrants were on their way. The most distant migration in history had begun.

Australia today is a wealthy independent nation astride an island continent about the size of the U.S., minus Alaska. Its population of almost 20 million is growing at about one per cent, though not in the interior. Indeed, Australia is one of the most urban of nations, with more than 85 per cent living in coastal cities, the vast majority in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane, in the eastern States. Australia has always felt uneasy about its vast emptiness, with neighbouring Asia so densely populated. Yet the comparison is flawed. This is a parched, flat land of thin soils, one third of which is desert and more is semi-desert. Only the antarctic is drier. The only substantial mainland river system, the Murray-Darling, which flows through the eastern region, is already strained. It supports a third of Australia's agriculture production, including half its sheep and crops and a quarter of the beef and dairy herds. Vast pastoral areas of the hinterland depend entirely on artesian (underground) water. A sustainable population and portable water are problematic national issues yet to be resolved.

Nevertheless, Australians became so skilled at farming light, arid soils, on a necessarily vast scale--more than 460 million hectares or 1,138 million acres at present--that they created one of the world's significant food bowls. The nation's fortunes "rode on the sheep's back" for generations, but it also profits from its now highly-diversified crops and herds.

The rural sector employs only 420,000 people, yet the gross value of agricultural production, despite periodic droughts, exceeds $25,000 million, primarily for export.

The clamorous Gold Rush of the 1850s exposed the most spectacular of the continent's mineral riches, but substantial reserves of iron ore, zinc, copper, bauxite (alumina), and uranium, among many others, followed. Minerals are the biggest contributor to non-rural exports, which exceed $57,000 million. Vast reserves of natural gas, coal, and more limited oilfields help reinforce the strong economy.

The success of Australia's primary industries had an unforeseen cost. More than half of Australia's native forests have been cleared since first settlement, a major cause of salination and erosion. Forests now cover only five per cent of the continent, though a wiser Australia is struggling to redress this with huge replanting programmes, if some believe this falls short of the task.

Australia's native animal species include an estimated 2,240 marsupials, of which 48 species are kangaroo-like animals, 540 birds, 530 reptiles, the bats and dingoes, and the most bizarre of them all, two monotremes--the duck-billed platypus and the spiny echidna--the only animals on earth to lay eggs and suckle their young.

Few Australian animals pose any threat to man, though the first settlers' fears were not entirely irrational. The fierce snake, the taipan and the tiger snake are among the most venomous anywhere, and sharks still loom large in the Australian nightmare. Of 350 species in Australian waters, the tiger shark and the white pointer are the most feared. Yet less than 200 of some 500 attacks since first settlement have been fatal. Australians are more likely to be killed by lightning or a bee sting. Saltwater crocodiles of the northern regions are certainly dangerous, as are the near invisible box jellyfish. Yet introduced animals are a much more tangible threat. The rabbit, cane toad and carp all reached plague proportions largely because there were no native predators to stop them. Feral pigs, cats and foxes have also wreaked havoc amongst vulnerable native wildlife.

Australians enjoy relative comfort. Generally kind weather and an outdoors lifestyle has helped, as has security and political stability. Their egalitarian outlook has blurred class distinctions and the tolerance implicit in the Australian "fair go" has forged a remarkably homogenous though immigrant nation, in which 20 per cent of today's population were born overseas. A century of nationhood, declared in 1901, has eased the tether of their European origins. Australians are now self-assured in their geographic isolation, more conscious of their region and more imbedded in their unique landscape.

Text © Hugh Lauter Levin Associates. All rights reserved.