Every year, survey takers ask Americans a lot of questions, from how much money they make to their favorite kind of car. They also ask them a lot of travel questions, including one that I find perhaps the most interesting. “If money were no object, where would you like to travel to on vacation?” For years, the number one answer has been Australia. It’s an interesting fact if you think about it; this penal colony turned Western power half a world away is where Americans dream about visiting. Not Paris, not a Caribbean island, but Australia. After three trips to the Land Down Under, and spending collectively a few months exploring the width and breadth of this massive continent-country, I can say without hesitation that those American dreams are very well founded, but it also forces the question why? What makes Australia so interesting, so much fun to visit? No offense Australia, but I would never have guessed just how great you were until I actually visited. So on the long flight home I thought about it, and came up with these ideas.
The one fact that shocks first time visitors to Australia, although it really shouldn’t, is its size. I wrote about this last year, but the country is simply massive. Roughly the same size as the United States, it’s not quite as varied geographically as we are, but it’s close. Fantastic urban centers like Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane and others; tropical beaches and rainforests in the north and northeast; vast open Outback desert and scrub-lands in the middle, beautiful coastal communities everywhere, and natural wonders along the west coast that many Australians don’t even know about. I’m certain that a lifetime could be spent exploring this massive space and still one would be left wanting.
I said this to another tourist recently who retorted, “But isn’t it just the coast with a lot of nothing in the center?” Well, sort of. It’s actually a lot more complicated than that, with nearly every state owning a stake of the bush known as the Outback, while enjoying coastlines and the rolling hills of the lands in between. True, only 23 million people call the country home, and nearly half of them live in just two cities. That means there’s a whole lot of open land and, well, nothing, to be found. But there’s a beauty in that and many surprises, as I’ve discovered.
I still haven’t really answered the question, why does Australia appeal to Americans so very much? I think it’s the innate spirit of the people, something with which we can both relate and lament to a certain degree. We perceive Australia to be a country where anything is possible, just like in the United States, but with a frontier spirit that we haven’t had in a long time. While not entirely true – standing in the middle of Kings Cross in Sydney doesn’t feel like a frontier – that spirit can indeed be found and it is a great thing to be around.
While touring the Whitsundays I met a lot of folks, most of them though had been born and raised in other parts of the country. When asked what brought them to the Whitsundays they smiled and pointed around them and said, “Isn’t it obvious?” While in Western Australia I met similarly minded folks, those who moved to the desert west to find steady jobs, and to provide opportunities for their families they couldn’t get elsewhere. I’ve also met a lot of immigrants. People have flocked to Australia for decades, just as they have to the U.S., for the same reasons – the chance at something better. I think it’s this Horatio Algeristic attitude to which we can identify the most. Success is available to those who want it and are willing to work for it. Believe it or not, this is not a global mindset, in fact it can be hard to find sometimes. But Australia and America not only possess it, but to a certain degree I think it defines both populations.
It’s as great as the postcards
I talk a lot about not traveling to see the postcard images of countries; to not be fooled by travel calendars and marketing materials all designed to make places seem as amazing as possible. But in the case of Australia, it’s actually warranted. Did you know that the Sydney Opera House is one of the most recognizable structures on the planet? It ranks up there with the pyramids and the Eiffel Tower for the number of people around the world who know what it is. That’s an impressive statistic for a disputed arts building constructed on the site of an old tram depot in the 1950s. But it’s that image, along with Sydney Harbour Bridge and Circular Quay that drive many to first contemplate a visit to Australia and for nearly everyone, those are their first experiences while in Australia. And you know what? It’s as impressive as you think it will be. Just the other day as I stood on Circular Quay and looked around I thought, not for the first time, what a remarkable sight it is to behold. Not many cities around the world have a place as special as that but it’s also just the very start of the Australian experience.
Everywhere I’ve gone in Australia, from the red dunes of Western Australia to the Great Barrier Reef in Queensland, I have been consistently surprised (no matter how much research I do) and always delighted. Sure, go to Sydney but don’t stop there. Take the time to explore as much of this mighty continent as you can, allowing yourself to be amazed and surprised just as I always am.
I fear I’ve started to gush, so I’d better stop here, but I had to share some thoughts as to why I think Australia is so very special. There are only a handful of countries around the world where I have a burning desire to visit more than once, and honestly Australia holds a permanent spot near the top of that list. Maybe it’s the people or the sights or just the je ne sais quoi of visiting, but it all adds up to something special, something that goes well beyond a normal travel experience to something both significant and transformative – a journey that changes who we are as people, instead of just providing a few days of entertainment.
What are your thoughts? What do you think makes Australia so special?