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People who have never visited Australia wonder why such a huge country has a population of just 22 million people. But the truth is, much of Australia is uninhabitable, and about 90 percent of the population lives on only 2.6 percent of the continent, mainly clustered around the coast. Climatic and physical land conditions ensure that the only relatively decent rainfall occurs along a thin strip of land around Australia’s coast. Compounding that is the fact that Australia falls victim to long droughts. Most of Australia is harsh Outback, characterized by saltbush plains, arid brown crags, shifting sand deserts, and salt-lake country. People survive where they can in this arid land because of one thing—the Great Artesian Basin. This saucer-shaped geological formation comprises about a fifth of Australia’s landmass, stretching over much of inland New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia, and the Northern Territory. Beneath it are massive underground water supplies stored during Jurassic and Cretaceous times (some 66–208 million years ago), when the area was much like the Amazon basin is today. Bore holes bring water to the surface and allow sheep, cattle, and humans a respite from the dryness.

As for the climate, as you might expect with a continent the size of Australia it can differ immensely. The average rainfall in central Australia ranges from between just 200 to 250 mm (8–10 in.) a year. Summer daytime temperatures range from between 90° and 104°F (32°–40°C). In winter, temperatures range from around 64° to 75°F (18°–24°C). Summer in the Southern Hemisphere roughly stretches from early November to the end of February, though it can be hot for a couple of months on either side of these dates, depending on where you are.

Parts of the Northern Territory and far northern Queensland are classified as tropical, and as such suffer from very wet summers—often referred to simply as “the Wet.” Flooding can be a real fact of life up here. The rest of the year is called “the Dry,” for obvious reasons.

Most of Queensland and northern New South Wales are subtropical. This means warm summers and cool winters. Sydney falls into the “temperate” zone, with generally moderate temperatures and no prolonged periods of extreme hot or cold conditions. Parts of central Victoria can get snow in winter, while the Australian Alps, which run through southern central NSW and northeastern Victoria, have good snow cover in winter.

The Queensland coast is blessed with one of the greatest natural attractions in the world. The Great Barrier Reef stretches 2,000 km (1,240 miles) from off Gladstone in Queensland to the Gulf of Papua, near Papua New Guinea. Its relatively new, not more than 8,000 years old, although many fear that rising seawater, caused by global warming, will cause its demise. As it is, the invasive Crown of Thorns starfish and a bleaching process believed to be the result of excessive nutrients flowing into the sea from Australias farming land are already causing significant damage. The Reef is covered in Chapter 7.

Australias other great natural formation is, of course, Uluru—which is sometimes (but not commonly) still called by the name Europeans gave it, Ayers Rock.

Australias Wildlife

Australia’s isolation from the rest of the world over millions of years has led to the evolution of forms of life found nowhere else. Probably the strangest of all is the platypus. This monotreme, or egg-laying marsupial, has webbed feet, a duck-like bill, and a tail like a beaver’s. It lays eggs, and the young suckle from their mother. When a specimen was first brought back to Europe, skeptical scientists insisted it was a fake—a concoction of several different animals sewn together. It is unlikely you will see this shy, nocturnal creature in the wild, but several wildlife parks have them.

Australia is also famous for kangaroos and koalas. There are 45 kinds of kangaroos and wallabies, ranging in scale from small rat-size kangaroos to the man-size red kangaroos. The koala is a fluffy marsupial (not a bear!) whose nearest relative is the wombat. It eats gum (eucalyptus) leaves and sleeps about 20 hours a day. Theres just one koala species, although those found in Victoria are much larger than those in more northern climes.

The animal youre most likely to come across in your trip is the possum, named by Captain James Cook after the North American opossum, which he thought they resembled. (In fact, they are from entirely different families of the animal kingdom.) The brush-tailed possum is commonly found in suburban gardens, including those in Sydney.

Then theres the wombat. There are four species of this bulky burrower in Australia, but the common wombat is, well, most common.

The dingo is a wild dog, varying in color from yellow to a russet red, mainly seen in the Outback. Because dingoes can breed with escaped “pet” dogs, full-blooded dingoes are becoming increasingly rare.

Commonly seen birds in Australia include the fairy penguin or Little Penguin along the coast, black swans, parrots and cockatoos, and honeyeaters.

Dangerous Natives

Snakes are common throughout Australia, but you will rarely see one. The most dangerous land snake is the taipan, which hides in the grasslands in northern Australia—one bite contains enough venom to kill up to 200 sheep. If by the remotest chance you are bitten, immediately demobilize the limb, wrapping it tightly (but not tight enough to restrict the blood flow) with a cloth or bandage, and call tel. 000 for an ambulance. Antivenin should be available at the nearest hospital.

One creature that scares the living daylights out of anyone who visits coastal Australia is the shark, particularly the great white (though these marauders of the sea are uncommon, and mostly found in colder waters, such as those off South Australia). Shark attacks are very rare, particularly when you consider how many people go swimming. Some years there are none, other years (2011, for example) there have been up to four in a year, but the average is around one a year, according to the Australian Shark Attack File kept at Sydneys Taronga Zoo. You are more likely to get hit by a car on your way to the beach than get taken by a shark. Certainly, more people drown in Australian waters than are victims of shark attack.

There are two types of crocodile in Australia: the relatively harmless freshwater croc, which grows to 3 m (10 ft.), and the dangerous estuarine (or saltwater) crocodile, which reaches 5 to 7 m (16–23 ft.). Freshwater crocs eat fish; estuarine crocs arent so picky. Never swim in or stand on the bank of any river, swamp, beach, or pool in northern Australia unless you know for certain its croc-free.

Spiders are common all over Australia, with the funnel web spider and the red-back spider being the most aggressive. Funnel webs live in holes in the ground (they spin their webs around a holes entrance) and stand on their back legs when theyre about to attack. Red-backs have a habit of resting under toilet seats and in car trunks, generally outside the main cities. Caution is a good policy.

If you go bushwalking, check your body carefully. Ticks are common, especially in eastern Australia, and can cause severe itching and fever. If you find one on you, pull it out with tweezers, taking care not to leave the head behind.

Fish to avoid are stingrays (Australian television star and crocodile hunter Steve Irwin was killed by a stingray barb through the heart), as well as porcupine fish, stonefish, and lionfish. Never touch an octopus if it has blue rings on it, or a cone shell, and be wary of the painful and sometimes deadly tentacles of the box jellyfish along the northern Queensland coast in summer. This jellyfish is responsible for more deaths in Australia than snakes, sharks, and saltwater crocodiles.

Closely related to the box jellyfish is the Irukandji, which also inhabits northern Australian waters. This deadly jellyfish is only 2.5 centimeters (1 in.) in diameter, which makes it very hard to spot in the water.

If you brush past a jellyfish, or think you have, pour vinegar over the affected site immediately—authorities leave bottles of vinegar on beaches for this purpose. Vinegar deactivates the stinging cells that havent already affected you, but doesnt affect the ones that already have. If you are in the tropics and you believe you may have been stung by a box jellyfish or an Irukandji, seek medical attention immediately.

In Sydney, you might come across “stingers,” also called “blue bottles.” These long-tentacled blue jellyfish can inflict a nasty stinging burn that can last for hours. Sometimes youll see warning signs on patrolled beaches. The best remedy if you are severely stung is to wash the affected area with fresh water and have a very hot bath or shower (preferably with someone else, just for the sympathy).

Threats to the Landscape

Australia is suffering from climate change, water shortages, and serious threats to wildlife and ecosystems. Australia is one of the highest per capita polluters in the world, thanks largely to its reliance on mining and coal-fired power generation.

Meanwhile, the Great Barrier Reef is being damaged by coral bleaching, which occurs when water temperatures rise. Corals can recover, but if the heat persists, or if bleaching happens too frequently, they can die. Nutrient-rich sediment washed out to sea from farmland doesnt help matters much, as hard-hit corals become colonized by nutrient-loving algae. The runoff can also contain pesticides and herbicides, which damage the reef further and make it more vulnerable to the introduced crown-of-thorns starfish, which likes snacking on coral.

As for Australias native animals and birds—well, history hasnt been too kind to them. At least 23 species of birds, 4 frog species, and 27 mammal species have become extinct since European settlement in Australia. Habitat destruction and introduced species have been the main causes of extinctions.

Threatened with extinction today are 19 species of fish, 15 species of frogs, 14 species of reptiles, 46 species of birds, 36 species of mammals, and 513 species of plants. Many more are classified as vulnerable.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.