Occasionally, friends ask me what is my favorite country after the United States, and for many years my automatic answer was the Pacific Islands- beautiful scenery, days full of sunshine, friendly people and my emotional investment in the islands. After my second visit to Australia in 1996 (the first on the 1972 tour), however, the land “down under” replaced the islands. An Aussie I met in London asked me why, and I explained: the Outback reminded me of my very young years in West Texas, where
the land is flat and dotted with scrub covering, the air dry and sunsets beg for cameras; the gently rolling pastures of the southeast with sheep, cattle and an occasional kangaroo wandering abut in a land of unhurried time; the clean, modern cities with their shafts of concrete, steel and glass reaching toward the sky; and most of all, the hospitable people who take pleasure in ensuring your stay is a pleasant one.
Australia’s first settlers were immigrants from Southeast Asia, some 40, 000 years ago. Through the centuries, these Australian Aborigines adapted to the Australian environment, and by the time the Dutch mariners arrived in the 17th century, had grown to a population of 300,000.
In 1770, British Captain James Cook sailed into Botany Bay, a short distance south from present-day Sydney, and claimed Australia for England. Cook had found the “Southern Continent” sea captains had spent centuries searching for. But it wasn’t until 1784 that the English found a use for England to find a place for its prisoners. The vast land of Australia, thousands of miles from home, virtually uninhabited, offered the perfect solution. On 26 January 1788, eleven English ships landed in present-day Sydney Harbor, carrying 1, 030 people, after a 252-day, 15, 000-mile voyage. In the next 80 years, 160, 000 men, women and children would be shipped in bondage to Australia.
Convicts built roads, churches and government building and worked on private farms. For them, hunger was a major problem, scurvy always a silent threat. They hated their masters and the land’s first inhabitants, the Aborigines. Their marine guards hated both, as well as the duty. Some masters were decent, some savagely brutal. The first stirrings of legal reform in England were as early as 1818, but it took another 50 years to repeal the “Transportation” law of 1597, which permitted banishment “out
of this realm”. By then, the prisoners had spent a decade on isolated Tasmania, the island off the southeastern coast of Australia.
In 1958m about 510 square miles surrounding Ayers Rock and the nearby Olgas Range, a random pile of 36 oddly shaped domes, was established as the Ayers Rock-Mount Olga National Park. Title for the parklands was transferred to the Aboriginal people in 1985, and name changed to Uluru National Park, after the tribal name for Ayers Rock. The park is administered by a board of ten people, of whom six are Aborigines.
Ayers Rock is about a mile wide and a mile and three-fifths in length, rising the 1100 feet, with its own climate on its roof, not always the same as the surrounding area below. The Aborigines have always carried the idea of religious places with them as they walked the huge continent. Their land could not be substituted by gifts of other land, and to deprive them of their land was to condemn them to spiritual death. Today, the Aborigines ask people not to climb Ayers Rock, not only on religious grounds but, also, as one park ranger told me, they feel responsible for every person who steps foot on it. So far, 28 people have died while climbing it, as the winds whip about the
path to the roof. Australia’s almost three million square miles make it the smallest continent but the sixth largest country in the world.
Australia has always been a land of immigrants: Aborigines, British, Germans, Chinese, Italians, and Greeks – over 20% of the population is foreign born. Today, Asians lead in the number of new immigrants. One article said, in today’s democratic society, a drop or more of convict’s blood in one’s past is often considered downright chic.