“Do you come from a land downunder
Where women glow and men plunder?”
– Men at Work
If you believe that the great benefit of travel is that it floods your senses with new impressions, ideas and experiences, and enlarges the dimensions of your mind, then you must sooner or later come to the conclusion that you have to visit Australia.
The first thing you learn about Australia is that it’s strange, quirky, and highly refreshing in its novelty. Australia is more strikingly different from all the other inhabited continents than they are from each other.
You need to go no further than the wildlife to see the contrast between Australia and any other place. From its comical kangaroos and wallabies, leaping around on giant hind legs, to its duckbilled platypus, which lays eggs and refuses to conform to biologists’ definitions of a mammal, that’s Australia. It seems too improbable to really exist. And yet it does.
Australia has always gone its own way, throughout its geological and biological evolution and in the modern age with its human, cultural evolution. The Land Downunder is unlike any other place.
Continents Drifting and Colliding
The strangeness of Australia’s animal life is based on its isolation from other continents during much of its evolutionary history. The theory of continental drift says that today’s continents were previously part of a single landmass that started to break up 200 million years ago.
The theory was originated in 1912 by a German geophysicist and meteorologist named Alfred Wegener, who observed how the continents “fit together like tongue and groove.” He combined that insight with geological data that showed similar chemical signatures on coal deposits in places as remote from each other as Pennsylvania and Poland.
He figured that the continents have been drifting around the surface of the earth for hundreds of millions of years, colliding, joining together and then breaking apart again, like billiard balls moving at speeds of one inch a year, significant only on the scale of millions of years.
Geologists say South America, Africa, Australia and India broke off from Eurasia and North America around 200 million years ago, then the southern supercontinent started crumbling to pieces about 150 million years ago. Australia’s last continental connection was Antarctica. Australia’s isolation is imprinted on its animals.
Australia’s aboriginal people arrived about 70,000 years ago, either by boat or by land bridges when sea levels were lower.
Around 150 A.D. the Roman astronomer Ptolemy predicted the existence of a large landmass in the south to balance those of the north. Ptolemy named it Terra Australis Incognita – The Unknown Southland.
Sailors from China, India, Arabia, Malaya and the Pacific Islands explored the northern coast a thousand years ago, and some probably traded with the indigenous people. Europeans first set foot on the continent 400 years ago, when the Dutch explorer Willem Janszoon arrived on its west coast in 1606, which the Dutch named New Holland.
The British became interested in 1699 when the English pirate William Dampier ran onto Australia’s West Coast. Britain was looking for a place to establish a strategic outpost in the South Seas to better compete against the other colonial empires: Holland, Portugal and Spain. It was thought that an Australian colony could be a source for flax and pine for shipbuilding, as well as tea, silk, spices, tobacco and coffee.
When it was suggested that convict labor could be used to build the colony, and it could be a place to unload some of the excess prison population, the idea took hold in the mind of the home and colonial secretary, Lord Sydney, and the penal colony of Australia was born.
Their definition of criminal was broad. The English criminal code classified not only thieves, muggers and forgers as criminals, but also scavengers and gypsies, and “harlots,” defined as “lewd and immoral women,” which included any unmarried women who cohabited with a man.
Children were put to work at age 6 and many worked 15-hour days chained to machines till they passed out from exhaustion. Working conditions were so bad that prison lost its power as a deterrent. Crime flourished and England’s prisons were being overrun. A penal colony at the most remote part of the planet could help relieve the pressure. Britain established its colony at Botany Bay in 1788.
One of my first trips abroad was to Australia, and looking back I think it changed the course of my life. Visiting Australia expanded my capacity to imagine what my life could be. The broadening of my horizons enhanced my worldview from that point forward.
I was lucky. When an opportunity came for me to travel to Australia I grabbed it as fast as you could blink. And because of its extreme remoteness, just knowing how much distance I had surmounted to get there was empowering.
I traveled to the Northern Territory, Australia’s Top End, where it juts farthest into the tropics and it was extremely hot. I went to a beach off the city of Darwin where no one was swimming because of stinging jellyfish and sharks.
I explored the wilderness regions of Kakadu National Park and Arnhem Land and was exposed to an endless stream of things I had never even thought of. The skies were clearer than any I had ever seen. You could bend down and drink from a stream water as pure as you could find anywhere. Someone in my group who had traveled extensively in Africa said that it was more remote than anywhere he had ever been.
It was a mind blower to look at an image painted on rock by a human being 50,000 years ago and to understand what it portrayed.
I learned of wild crocodiles among the billabongs where we were that could grow to 30 feet in length and run at speeds up to 20 miles an hour for short distances. Luckily our guide knew how to keep our distance from them. By the time you see them they are well aware of you and they are ambush hunters.
A pilot of a small plane took us on a joyride among the mountains and it was one of the most exhilarating adventures of my life. It seemed to strip me of all fear. Everything was fascinating and new, even the insects were amazing. The dry, sandy smell of the air seemed to stir primeval memories.
The trip concluded in Sydney, which could easily be mistaken for other major cities of Europe, America or Canada. I wandered the streets of the city, randomly exploring its pathways, and decided to see a movie that was playing, Immortal Beloved, about Beethoven. The film opened with a eulogy at Beethoven’s funeral, and within moments there were tears streaming down my face.
Certainly the words of the poet who wrote the eulogy were powerful, but I doubt I would have been as moved if the Australian Outback had not sensitized me and expanded my capacities for experience. I believe that all of my life since then has been enhanced from it.
Charles Darwin visited Australia during his Voyage of the Beagle, and the novelty of its wildlife set him on a path of thinking that led eventually to his theory of natural selection. Seeing animals in the same ecological niches as animals of the north, but yet so different made him wonder. How could one Creator come up with such different solutions to the same problems? “There must be two distinct creators at work,” he wrote in his diary.
Eventually he figured out what forces were shaping the animals he observed, and when he presented his ideas it changed the world.
I hope your trip is as earth-changing for you as his was for him.
Your humble reporter,
A. Colin Treadwell