Peace & Quiet
Discovery and Settlement
For centuries man believed in the existence of some great southern landmass, but it was not until the 17th century that European seafarers sighted Australia's western coast. Then, in 1770, James Cook discovered the continent's east coast, and eighteen years later the first reluctant 'settlers' - British convicts and soldiers - arrived to disrupt the isolated existence of the Aboriginal people who had lived here for over 50,000 years.
From its unpromising convict beginnings, Australia has developed into a wealthy and politically stable nation of over 19 million people. Since the early days of dependence on Britain, the national self-esteem has grown decade by decade for the past 200 or so years, and Australia successfully showcased its confidence and vibrancy to the world at the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games.
Although proud of its pioneering history and Outback traditions, this is the world's most urbanised society, with 88 per cent of the population living in towns and cities. Most of these settlements are around the coast - far away from the vast and inhospitable interior that takes up a large percentage of the continent's area.
Australia - variously known as `Down Under', `Oz', and the `best address on earth' - is vast: approximately 24 times the size of the British Isles and as big as continental USA (without Alaska). The terrain and climate obviously vary considerably, but overall the weather is warm and sunny, and the scenery varies from interesting to magnificent.
This benign climate has undoubtedly affected the Australian character, best described as egalitarian and relaxed. Aussies are friendly and laid-back, and visitors from everywhere are welcomed enthusiastically. This is a successfully multicultural nation where, despite some intolerance towards Aborigines in particular, people of European, Asian, Arabic, Pacific Island and other origins live together in relative harmony.
Visitors should remember that Australia is enormous - it is over 4,000km from Sydney to Perth - so unless you have months to spare, select your destinations carefully.