Australia is the sixth-largest country by land area. It is comparable in size to the 48 contiguous United States. Australia is bordered to the west by the Indian Ocean, and to the east by the South Pacific Ocean. The Tasman Sea lies to the southeast, separating it from New Zealand, while the Coral Sea lies to the northeast. Papua New Guinea, East Timor and Indonesia are Australia’s northern neigh bours, separated from Australia by the Arafura Sea and the Timor Sea.
Australia is highly urbanised with most of the population heavily concentrated along the eastern and south-eastern coasts. Most of the inland areas of the country are semi-arid. The most-populous states are Victoria and New South Wales, but by far the largest in land area is Western Australia.
Australia has an area of 7,682,300km² and the distances between cities and towns is easy to underestimate.
Australia has large areas that have been deforested for agricultural purposes, but many native forest areas survive in extensive national parks and other undeveloped areas. Long-term Australian concerns include salinity, pollution, loss of biodiversity, and management and conservation of coastal areas, especially the Great Barrier Reef.
As a large island a wide variation of climates are found across Australia. Most of the country receives more than 3,000°hr of sunshine a year. Generally, the north is hot and tropical, while the south tends to be sub-tropical and temperate. Most rainfall is around the coast, and much of the centre is arid and semi-arid. The daytime maximum temperatures in Darwin rarely drop below 30°C, even in winter, while night temperatures in winter usually hover around 15-20°C.. Temperatures in some southern regions can drop below freezing in winter and the Snowy Mountains in the South East experiences metres of winter snow. Parts of Tasmania have a temperature range very similar to England.
As Australia is in the southern hemisphere the winter is June-August while December-February is summer. The winter is the dry season in the tropics, and the summer is the wet. In the southern parts of the country, the seasonal temperature variation is greater. The rainfall is more evenly distributed throughout the year in the southern parts of the East Coast, while in the rest of the south beyond the Great Dividing Range, the summers are dry with the bulk of the rainfall occurring in winter.
Cities, States and Territories
Australian society is made up of people from a rich variety of cultural, ethnic, linguistic and religious backgrounds, and this is a defining feature of modern Australian society. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have inhabited Australia for tens of thousands of years. Most Australians are immigrants or the descendants of immigrants who arrived during the past two hundred years from more than 200 countries. The most commonly spoken language in Australia is English, and the most commonly practiced religion is Christianity, although foreign languages and other religions are also common.
Australia is divided into six states and two territories.
Canberra is the national capital and the centre of government. It is located approximately 290 kilometres south of Sydney in the Australian Capital Territory (ACT). Canberra lies on the ancient lands of the Indigenous Ngunnawal people, and its name is thought to mean ‘meeting place’, from the Aboriginal word ‘Kamberra’. It is home to important national institutions, including the Australian Parliament and the High Court of Australia.
New South Wales is Australia’s oldest and most populated state. It was originally settled as a penal colony on the shores of Port Jackson where the bustling capital city of Sydney now stands. More than a third of Australians live in New South Wales, and Sydney is the nation’s largest city.
Victoria is the smallest of the mainland states in size but the second most populated. Melbourne is the capital and is Australia’s second most populated city. During the gold rush of the 1850s, it became one of the world’s largest and wealthiest cities. Melbourne is sometimes referred to as the “cultural capital of Australia” and is the birthplace of Australian film, television, art, dance and music. Victorians’ enthusiasm for sport is also legendary and this is where Australian Rules football began.
Queensland is Australia’s second-largest state in size. The state capital is Brisbane, the third most populated city in Australia. Queenslanders enjoy more winter sunshine and warmth than most other Australian states and it’s perfect for all types of outdoor activities and water sports. Queensland is also home to the world famous Great Barrier Reef as well as five World Heritage listed areas.
South Australia is a state in the southern central part of the country which covers some of the most arid parts of the continent. It is the fourth largest of Australia’s states and shares its borders with all of the mainland states and the Northern Territory. The state capital is Adelaide, the fifth-largest city in Australia. South Australia has a thriving arts scene and is sometimes known as the ‘Festival State’, with more than 500 festivals taking place there every year.
At the top end of Australia lies the Northern Territory. Darwin, on the northern coast, is the capital, and Alice Springsthe principal inland town. Alice Springs is the physical heart of Australia, almost exactly at the nation’s geographical centre. The Northern Territory is home to the famous Uluru (Ayers Rock), Kata Tjuta (the Olgas) and Kakadu National Park.
Western Australia is Australia’s largest state by area. About three-quarters of the state’s population live in the capitalPerth, which is the fourth most populated city in Australia. The east of the state is mostly desert while to the west the state is bound by almost 13000 km of pristine coastline. In the 1890s gold was discovered and mining is still one of the state’s biggest industries.
Tasmania is separated from mainland Australia by Bass Strait and is the smallest state in Australia. The capital, Hobart, was founded in 1804 as a penal colony, and is Australia’s second oldest capital city after Sydney. One-fifth of Tasmania is covered by national parks and wilderness areas. It is one of the world’s most mountainous islands whose geology reflects Australia’s connection millions of years ago with Antarctica.
Australia also administers Ashmore and Cartier Islands, Christmas Island, the Cocos (or Keeling) Islands, the Coral Sea Islands, Heard and McDonald Islands, Norfolk Island and the Australian Antarctic Territory (covering 42 per cent of the Antarctic continent) as external territories.
Weather in Australia
Australia experiences temperate weather for most of the year but the climate can vary due to the size of our continent. The northern states typically experience warm weather much of the time, with the southern states experiencing cooler winters. Australia is also one of the driest continents on earth with an average annual rainfall of less than 600 millimetres. Like all countries in the southern hemisphere, Australia’s seasons are opposite to those in the northern hemisphere. December to February is summer; March to May is autumn; June to August is winter; and September to November is spring.
There are an estimated 27,700 plant species in Australia, including living fossils such as the cycad palm and the grass tree, and brilliant wildflowers such as the waratah, Sturt’s desert pea, banksia and kangaroo paws.
We also have around 2800 species of eucalypts (gum trees), and 1000 species of acacia, which we call ‘wattle’. The Golden Wattle is Australia’s floral emblem. Eucalypts make up almost 80 per cent of our forests. Acacias, melaleuca (tea tree), casuarinas (she-oaks), callitris (cypress pine), mangrove and rainforests make up the other 20 per cent.
Australia’s tallest trees can be found in the south-west of Western Australia in theValley of the Giants. Giant tuart, karri, and rich red jarrah which live for up to 500 years can be found here. The 1000 kilometre Bibbulmun Track traverses a variety of jarrah, marri, wandoo, karri and tingle forests as well as internationally significant wetlands.
The cool temperate rainforest of the World Heritage-listed Tasmanian wildernesscontains some of the oldest trees on the planet including the rare Huon Pine.
The majestic Wollemi pine is a remnant from a 200 million year-old landscape, when Australia, New Zealand and Antarctica were joined together as the supercontinent Gondwana. It was thought to have been extinct for millions of years, until rediscovered by a bushwalker in 1994. Fewer than 100 trees exist in the wild, growing in the deep rainforest gorges of the Greater Blue Mountains.
Gum trees (eucalypts) are the tree most commonly associated with Australia. They are found in areas from sub-alpine to wet coastal forests, through to temperate woodlands and the dry inland areas. The Greater Blue Mountains has the most diverse range of eucalypt species on earth. In fact, the Blue Mountains gets its name from the blue shimmer which rises into the air from the oil from the trees. In the Australian Alps, striking silver and red snow gums stand out amongst the snow-filled landscape. In South Australia’s Flinders Ranges ancient river red gums live in the dry creek beds. Koalas feed exclusively on certain species of eucalypts.
Rainforest once covered most of the ancient southern super-continent Gondwana, and there are primitive plants found in these forests that are linked to those growing more than 100 million years ago. Australia’s rainforests stretch across the country and cover every climatic type. The Daintree Rainforest in north Queensland is the oldest tropical rainforest on earth, dating back 135 million years. An extraordinary 13 different types of rainforest can be found here. The Gondwana Rainforests of South East Queensland and northern New South Wales include the most extensive areas of subtropical rainforest in the world along with cool temperate rainforest. Pockets of dry rainforest live in Western Australia’s Kimberley region. There are monsoon rainforests in Kakadu National Park and lush fern gullies in Victoria’s Otway Ranges.
Wetlands attract high numbers of migratory birds in Kakadu National Park and The UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve-listed Croajingolong National Park and Nadgee Nature Reserve in south-eastern Australia. Australia was one of the first countries to become a signatory to the Ramsar Convention for Wetlands of International Importance and the Cobourg Peninsula in the Northern Territory, was declared the world’s first Ramsar site in 1974. Australia now has 65 Ramsar sites across the country covering around 8 million hectares.
Wildflowers, including everlasting daisies, turn the arid and savanna grassland areas of Australia into carpets of colour in season. From June until September more than 12000 species of wildflower can be seen blooming across Western Australia. From late August to mid-October more than 100 varieties of wildflower can be seen on Kangaroo Island in South Australia, many unique to the island. In the Australian Alps, alpine meadows explode in masses of yellow billy buttons, pink trigger plants and silver and white snow daisies, once the snow melts.
Australia’s unique flora also includes the Proteaceae family of Banksia (bottlebrush), Grevillea and Telopea (waratah). Around 80 per cent of the plants and almost all of the Proteaceae species found in south-west Western Australia are not found anywhere else in the world. The heathlands along the Great Ocean Road in Victoria are one of the most orchid-rich sites in Australia.
Wildflowers are protected species in Australia, so don’t be tempted to pick them!
Our unique animals are one of the many reasons people visit our country. Australia has more than 378 mammal species, 828 bird species, 4000 fish species, 300 species of lizards, 140 snake species, two crocodile species and around 50 types of marine mammal.
More than 80 per cent of our plants, mammals, reptiles and frogs are unique to Australia and are found no-where else. Some of our best-known animals are the kangaroo, koala, echidna, dingo, platypus, wallaby and wombat.
Australia’s native animals can often be difficult to spot in the wild, but you are guaranteed to see them in our world-class zoos and wildlife parks across our major cities and regional areas. These include Sydney’s Taronga Zoo, the Rainforest Habitat in Port Douglas, Victoria’s Healesville Sanctuary, South Australia’s Cleland Wildlife Park and Queensland’s Australia Zoo, amongst others.
Australia doesn’t have large predatory animals, the dingo, or wild dog, is our largest carnivorous mammal. Other unique carnivorous animals include the Numbat, Quoll and Tasmanian Devil, but none of these are larger than the size of an average house cat.
Dingoes are found all across Australia, except for Tasmania. Best places to see them are Queensland’s Fraser Island, Western Australia’s Kimberley and across the deserts of the Northern Territory and South Australia. Numbats are only found in Western Australia; and apart from wildlife parks, you can only see Tasmanian Devils in the wild inTasmania. Endangered Quolls are also difficult to spot in the wild, but inhabit the wet forests of southeastern Australia and Tasmania, and a small area of northern Queensland. The bilby, a member of the bandicoot family, may be seen in Francois Peron National Park in Western Australia.
Australia has more than 140 species of marsupials, including kangaroos, wallabies, koalas, and wombats.
We have 55 different native species of kangaroos and wallabies. Kangaroos and wallabies vary greatly in size and weight, ranging from half a kilogram to 90 kilograms. The main difference between them is size — wallabies tend to be smaller. Estimates of Australia’s kangaroo population vary between 30 and 60 million. You should easily be able to see kangaroos in the wild in most rural parts of Australia. In Victoria see them in Anglesea on the Great Ocean Road and in the Grampians. Spot them in South Australia’s Kangaroo Island and Flinders Ranges. Get up close in Namadgi and Kosciuszko National Parks in the Australian Alps, in Pebbly Beach in New South Wales and Tasmania’s Maria Island. In outback regions, you will often see them as they bound across the road. Wallabies are widespread across Australia, particularly in more remote, rocky and rugged areas. Spot them in South Australia’s Flinders Ranges, Tasmania’sFreycinet National Park and in Namadgi and Kosciuszko National Parks in the Australian Alps.
The koala is everyone’s favourite, but be aware – it’s not a bear. You can spot koalas all along Australia’s temperate eastern coast. Some of their top hangouts includeTidbinbilla Nature Reserve, near Canberra; Port Stephens in New South Wales and the Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary in Queensland. Observe them in the wild on Victoria’s Phillip Island and Yanchep National Park in Western Australia.
The wombat is another creature you’ll find here – stout, burrowing animals that can weigh up to 36 kilograms. Again they are difficult to see in the wild, but some of the best places are the Blue Mountains National Park and Kosciuszko National Park in New South Wales, Wilsons Promontory in Victoria, Cradle Mountain-Lake St Clair in Tasmania, and in national parks in South Australia.
Another animal group only found in Australia is the monotremes, or egg-laying mammals. The most distinctive is the platypus, a river-dwelling animal with a bill like a duck, a furry waterproof body and webbed feet. Platypuses live in burrows which they dig into the banks of rivers. They are very shy and difficult to spot, but your best chances are in the eastern coastal areas in small streams and quiet rivers. Good places to see them are in the Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve near Canberra, on Lake Elizabeth in Victoria’s Great Otway National Park, Tasmania’s Cradle Mountain-Lake St Clair National Park and in northern New South Wales and Queensland.
The echidna, or spiny ant-eater, is another monotreme, which has a long sticky tongue and a prickly coat like a hedgehog or porcupine – so don’t try and pick one up! Kangaroo Island is one of the best places to spot them in the wild.
Of the 828 bird species listed in Australia, about half are found nowhere else. They range from tiny honeyeaters to the large, flightless emu, which stands nearly two metres tall. The best chances of seeing emus in the wild is in grasslands, sclerophyll forests and savannah woodlands.
A vast array of waterbirds, seabirds and birds dwell in our open woodlands and forests. Examples include cassowaries, black swans, fairy penguins, kookaburras, lyrebirds and currawongs. You can easily see penguins on Kangaroo Island in South Australia and Philip Island in Victoria.
The Albert’s Lyrebird can be seen in Mt Warning National Park and in the Gondwana rainforest around the Gold Coast hinterland. See the more common superb lyrebird in Dandenong Ranges and Kinglake National Parks around Melbourne and the Royal National Park and Illawarra region south of Sydney. You’ll also find them in Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve, near Canberra, Tower Hill in Victoria and a number of national parks along Australia’s east coast.
Kookaburras, best known for their hysterical, human-sounding laughter at dusk and dawn, are common, and you’ll most likely spot (or hear) them in the countryside and often in city suburbs.
The Broome Bird Observatory and Kakadu National Park are both excellent place to view many species of wetland and migratory birds.
There are 55 species of parrots in Australia, as numerous as they are colourful, including a spectacular variety of cockatoos, rosellas, lorikeets, cockatiels, parakeets and budgerigars. They 1are commonly seen in rural and urban areas.
Australia has more species of venomous snakes than any other continent, 21 of the world’s 25 deadliest in fact. But not all are poisonous; we also have some stunning pythons and tree snakes.
We are also famous for our crocodiles, both freshwater and saltwater varieties. Both the Kimberley and Kakadu National Park are excellent places to see crocodiles in their natural habitat.
There are five species of endangered sea turtles which nest and lay eggs on certain beaches in season; and eight species of freshwater turtle. Ningaloo Reef in Western Australia and Eco Beach in Broome are ideals place to see turtles.
We also have an amazing array of lizards, ‘dragons’ and goannas (monitor lizards), including the spectacular Frilled Lizard and Bearded Dragon. The Kimberley has some 178 species of reptiles with the more notable ones being the Frilled Neck Lizard and the ubiquitous ‘ta ta’ Lizard. Thorny devils can be found in desert habitats including Shark Bay, Carnarvon and Exmouth in Western Australia.
A variety of reptiles including bearded dragons, perenties and blue tongue lizards can be seen in Central Australia and Flinders Ranges in South Australia.
Our marine environments support around 4000 of the world’s 22000 types of fish, as well as 30 of the world’s 58 seagrass species. We also have the world’s largest coral reef system, the World Heritage-listed Great Barrier Reef, where there are so many species of colourful fish, including the beautiful clown fish, that you’ll need more than one visit to try and count them all. We also have around 1700 different species of coral.
Larger marine species include the migratory gentle whale shark, humpback, southern right and orca whales, the dugong, numerous dolphin species and a number of shark species. Whales can be seen along the east and west coastlines from May to November. Ningaloo Reef in Western Australia is one of the most reliable places in the world to see whale sharks and a number of operators run tours to swim with these gentle giants. Kangaroo Island is one of the best places to see Australian fur seals in the wild.