Australia - A Cultural Perspective
Created | Updated Nov 14, 2011
Australia is a very confusing place, taking up a significant amount of the bottom half of the planet. It is recognisable from orbit because of many unusual features, including what at first looks like an enormous bite taken out of its southern edge; a wall of sheer cliffs which plunge deep into the surrounding sea. Geologists assure us that this is simply an accident of geomorphology and plate tectonics, but they still call it the 'Great Australian Bight' proving that not only are they covering up a more frightening theory, but they can't spell either.
The first of the confusing things about Australia is the status of the place. Where other landmasses and sovereign lands are classified as either continent, island, or country, Australia is considered all three. Typically, it is unique in this.
The second confusing thing about Australia are the animals. They can be divided into three categories: poisonous, odd, and sheep. Australia has a large proportion of the world's poisonous arachnids, and more than its fair share of venomous snakes - there would probably be even more snakes if the spiders didn't keep eating them! But even the spiders won't go near the sea (see below). Any visitors should be careful to check inside boots (before putting them on), under toilet seats (before sitting down) and generally everywhere else. A stick is very useful for this task.
Strangely, it tends to be the second class of animals (the odd) that are more dangerous. The creature that injures the most people each year is the common wombat. It is nearly as ridiculous as its name, and spends its life digging holes in the ground, in which it hides. During the night it comes out to eat worms and grubs.
The wombat injures people in two ways: first, the animal is indestructible. Digging holes in the hard Australian clay builds muscles that outclass Olympic weightlifters. At night, they often wander the roads. Semi-trailers (road trains) have hit them at high speed, with all nine wheels on one side, and this merely makes them very annoyed. They express this by snorting, glaring, and walking away. Alas, to smaller cars, the wombat becomes an asymmetrical high-speed launching pad, with results that can be imagined, but not adequately described.
The second way the wombat injures people relates to its burrowing behaviour. If a person happens to put their hand down a wombat hole, the wombat will feel the disturbance and think 'Ho! My hole is collapsing!' at which it will brace its muscled legs and push up against the roof of its burrow with incredible force, to prevent its collapse. Any unfortunate hand will be crushed, and attempts to withdraw will cause the wombat to simply bear down harder. The unfortunate will then bleed to death through their crushed hand as the wombat prevents them from seeking assistance. This is considered the third most embarrassing way to die1, and Australians don't talk about it much.
At this point, we would like to mention the platypus, estranged relative of the mammal, which has a duck-bill, otter's tail, webbed feet, lays eggs, detects its aquatic prey in the same way as the electric eel, and has venomous barbs attached to its hind legs, thus combining many of the 'typical' Australian animal attributes into a single improbable creature.
Last of all is the fact that the sheep, a particularly innocuous animal, outnumber the humans by an extraordinary ratio. Australians have an affinity with sheep, some would say a relationship that is a trifle worrying, and the love of this animal is expressed so strongly that a huge concrete monument has been erected to honour the animal in the city of Goulburn. Sheep are almost as important as beer to Aussies. But not quite.
The last confusing thing about Australia is the inhabitants. First, a short history: some time around 40,000 years ago, some people arrived in boats from the north. They ate all the available food, and a lot of them died. The ones that survived learned respect for the balance of nature, man's proper place in the scheme of things, and spiders. They settled in, and spent a lot of the intervening time making up strange stories.
Then, around 1770ish, Europeans arrived in boats from the north. More accurately, European convicts were sent over, with a few deranged and stupid people in charge. They tried to plant their crops in autumn (failing to take account of the reversal of the seasons when moving from the top half of the planet to the bottom), ate all their food, and a lot of them died. About then the sheep arrived, and have been treasured ever since.
It is interesting to note here that the Europeans always consider themselves vastly superior to any other race they encounter, since they can lie, cheat, steal, and litigate (marks of a civilised culture, they say) - whereas all the Aboriginals can do is happily survive being left in the middle of a vast red-hot desert, equipped with a stick.
Eventually, the new lot of people stopped being Europeans on an extended holiday and became Australians. The changes are subtle, but deep, caused by the mind-stretching expanses of nothingness and eerie quiet, where a person can sit perfectly still and look deep inside themselves to the core of their essence, their reasons for being, and the necessity of checking inside your boots every morning for fatal surprises. They also picked up the most finely-tuned sense of irony in the world, and the Aboriginal gift for making up stories. Be warned.
There is also the matter of the beaches.
Australian beaches are simply the nicest and best in the entire world. Although anyone actually venturing into the sea will have to contend with sharks, stinging jellyfish, stonefish (a fish which sits on the bottom of the sea, pretends to be a rock, and has venomous barbs sticking out of its back that will kill you just from the pain), blue-ringed octopuses (cute little things that can kill you in a second) and surfboarders. However, watching a beach sunset is worth the risk of all of these.
As a result of all this hardship, dirt, thirst, and wombats, you would expect Australians to be a dour lot. Instead, they are genial, jolly, cheerful, and always willing to share a kind word with a stranger, unless they are an American. Faced with insurmountable odds and impossible problems, they smile disarmingly, and reach for a stick. Major engineering feats have been performed with sheets of corrugated iron, string, and mud.
Alone of all the races on Earth, they seem to be free from the 'Grass is greener on the other side of the fence' syndrome, and roundly proclaim that Australia is, in fact, the other side of that fence. They call the land 'Oz', 'Godzone' (a verbal contraction of 'God's Own Country') and 'Best bloody place on earth, bar none, strewth'. The irritating thing about this is they may be right.
There are some traps for the unsuspecting traveller, though. Do not under any circumstances suggest that the beer is imperfect, unless you are comparing it to another kind of Australian beer. Do not wear a Hawaiian shirt. Religion and politics are safe topics of conversation (Australians don't care too much about either) but sport is a minefield. The only correct answer to 'So, howdya like our country, eh?' is 'Best [insert your own regional swear word here] country in the world!'.
It is very likely that, on arriving, some cheerful Australians will 'adopt' you, and on your first night will take you to a pub where Australian beer is served. Despite the obvious danger, do not refuse. It is a form of initiation rite. You will wake up late the next day with an astonishing hangover, a foul taste in your mouth, and wearing strange clothes. Your hosts will usually make sure you get home, and wave off any legal difficulties with 'It's his first time in Australia, so we took him to the pub', to which the policeman will sagely nod and close his notebook. Be sure to tell the story of these events to every other Australian you encounter, adding new embellishments at every stage, and noting how strong the beer was. Thus you will be accepted into this unique culture.
Most Australians are now urban dwellers, having discovered the primary use of electricity, which is air-conditioning and refrigerators.
Typical Australian Sayings
She'll be right.
Tips to Surviving Australia
Don't ever put your hand down a hole for any reason whatsoever.
We mean it.
The beer is stronger than you think, regardless of how strong you think it is.
Always carry a stick.
Do not attempt to use any Australian slang, unless you are a trained linguist and good in a fistfight.
Take good maps. Stopping to ask directions only works when there are people nearby.
If you leave the urban areas, carry several litres of water with you at all times, or you will die.
Even in the most embellished stories told by Australians, there is always a core of truth that it is unwise to ignore.
See also: Deserts: How to die in them, The Stick - second most useful thing ever and Poisonous and Venomous arachnids, insects, animals, trees, shrubs, fish and sheep of Australia, volumes 1 - 42.