Thursday, May 3, 2007

Today's Aussie Lesson

May 4 2007

Here's your Australia lesson.

Australia is roughly the size of the US, but with only 1.8 million people (compared with 300 million in the US). It had its fabulous gold rushes in the mid to late 1800's, and it's still a continent of vast wealth - gold, opals (which I've surprisingly observed are rather expensive), pearls, iron, silver, lead, zinc, copper, coal, diamonds - the Argyle Diamond Mine in Western Australia is one of the world's largest producers, supplying 1/3 of the world's diamonds, including almost all of the world's ultra rare pink diamonds. I always like to reflect on the brilliant marketing scheme that convinced people that the diamond was a precious treasure and was equated with love. It is just another pretty sparkly stone, after all...

While jokes are made about Australia being made up of convicts, that is indeed the case of the first white settlements. When America declared its independence from England in 1776, that meant an end to shipping convicts from England to the southern part of America, so they looked to Australia. That would take care of the backlog of English prisoners, and colonize Australia at the same time that the French were expanding their influence. So, in 1788, the first fleet of 778 convicts, and 250 soldiers and officials landed in New South Wales. The original colony was established around Sydney, with others starting up in other states (all except for South Australia). In total, over 80 years some 160,000 convicts were sent to Australia, where conditions were miserable.

Th Aborigines are descendents of the first human arrivals some 50,000 to 120,000 years ago. I haven't yet read much of their history, but expect there are some parallels, in history and today, with the native American Indians and the invading white settlers.

Australia is very flat. There are just a few mountain ranges, in Western Australia and South Australia, and the main Great Dividing Range in the far east from Queensland in the north, through New South Wales into Victoria in the south. The Snowy Mountains are down south near where I was, as is Australia's highest peak, Mt Kosciuszko at 7317 feet. Then there are the monoliths such as Uluru (Ayers Rock) in the Northern Territories - the famous red landmark of Australia - a sacred rock to the Aborigines.

The Great Barrier Reef, 1300 miles of coral reefs off Queensland's coast, is a World Heritage Site, and is one of the 7 natural wonders of the world.

Most of Australia's mammals are marsupials - the mother has a pouch on her belly or back - and the most familiar fauna of Australia would probably be the kangaroo and the koala. Ask any local, and they'll probably say the kangaroo is a pest, like I think of our deer where I live in the summer. there are too many and they're a great traffic hazard on the roads, especially the highways, especially at night. The koala are rare to see in the wild (hard to spot is more like it, as they blend in with the trees well).

Australia has some of the world's deadliest snakes (guess I won't be picking up snakes just to touch here) and several poisonous spiders (great!); there's fresh and saltwater crocodiles, and I've already mentioned some of the things you dno't want to encounter in the water on the beaches - jellyfish, stone fish, octopus.

I've seen and HEARD a lot of the parrot species down south; here at Toft's there aren't as many parrots, but lots of noisy, naughty crows (they click and cluck, and growl like a big cat; they sound like they are saying "Yea," and "Oh," and "Wow," and then they have a low converation, then say "Oh, ah, ah," very wisely), the ubiquitous deafening magpies, boisterous plovers, vociferous kookaburras (which have woken me several times early in the morning), and a very piercing bell bird (getting my drift?). On a ride in the forest, we passed through one spot of maybe 100 yards where this surround-sound (really, like a movie theatre of speakers all around us) of ear-splitting short DINGs were popping like raindrops all around, up in the trees. I kept my eyes up as we walked through this area - it had to be birds - but didn't see one little movement or anything. Someone later told me they were bell birds. I don't think there were any other animal in the area because it must drive them crazy!

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