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Australia is massive, and very sparsely peopled: in size it rivals the USA, yet its population is just over eighteen million - little more than that of the Netherlands. This is an ancient land, and often looks it: in places, it's the most eroded, denuded and driest of continents, with much of central and western Australia - the bulk of the country - overwhelmingly arid and flat. In contrast, its cities - most of which were founded as recently as the mid-nineteenth century - express a youthful energy.
The most memorable scenery is in the Outback, the vast desert in the interior of the country west of the Great Dividing Range. Here, vivid blue skies, cinnamon-red earth, deserted gorges and other striking geological features as well as bizarre wildlife comprise a unique ecology - one that has played host to the oldest surviving human culture for at least fifty thousand years.
The harshness of the interior has forced modern Australia to become a coastal country. Most of the population lives within 20km of the ocean, occupying a suburban, southeastern arc extending from southern Queensland to Adelaide. These urban Australians celebrate the typical New World values of material self-improvement through hard work and hard play, with an easy-going vitality that visitors, especially Europeans, often find refreshingly hedonistic. A sunny climate also contributes to this exuberance, with an outdoor life in which a thriving beach culture and the congenial backyard "barbie" are central.
While visitors might eventually find this Home and Away lifestyle rather prosaic, there are opportunities - particularly in the Northern Territory - to gain some experience of Australia's indigenous peoples and their culture, through visiting ancient art sites, taking tours and, less easily, making personal contact. Many Aboriginal people - especially in central Australia - have managed to maintain their traditional way of life (albeit with some modern accoutrements), speaking their own languages and living according to their law (the tjukurpa). Conversely, most Aboriginal people you'll come across in country towns and cities are victims of what is scathingly referred to as "welfare colonialism" - a disempowering system in which, supported by dole cheques and other subsidies, they often fall prey to a destructive cycle of poverty, ill-health and alcoholism. There's still a long way to go before black and white people in Australia can exist on genuinely equal terms.
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