Spots of Time

April 22, 2003

Will the Real Australia Please Stand Up?

A few weeks ago I received a highly amusing forwarded email, playing up the misconceptions that tourists have about Australia. According to the email, the questions were posted on an Australian Tourism Web site. Though I cannot confirm the accuracy of this claim, nor give due credit to the author of the email, I thought it would be an amusing way to share some of the popular myths about Australian culture. The answers to the questions, by the way, are all Australian.

Australia? Is That Somewhere In Europe?

As one of the last major continents to be discovered, and one of the “younger” countries on the planet, Australians have had to contend with a general lack of knowledge about their country, their culture and their geographic location.

Q: Can you send me the Vienna Boys' Choir schedule? (USA)

A: Aus-tri-a is that quaint little country bordering Ger-man-y, which is located in Euro...oh forget it. Sure, the Vienna Boys Choir plays every Tuesday night in Kings Cross. Come naked.

Confusion with other countries and places was common. A Surf Life Saver on Bondi Beach told me that during the first modern Olympics – in Greece in 1896 – Australia’s lone athlete won one of the events. During the medal presentation ceremony, he stood proudly, unaware that the AUSTRIAN flag was being raised behind him.

Q: Can you give me some information about hippo racing in Australia? (USA)

A: A-fri-ca is the big triangle shaped continent south of Europe. Aus-tra-lia is that big island in the middle of the Pacific which does not... oh forget it. Sure, the hippo racing is every Tuesday night in Kings Cross, straight after the Vienna Boys Choir performance. Come naked.

A few years back some American newspapers ran stories exposing the fact that many US students were unable to accurately place their own country on a map of the world. The news came as a shock to many parents. However, it appears that being geographically challenged isn’t just limited to American children…

Mommy, Can I Take Home a Pet Koala Bear?

Australia boasts some pretty unique wildlife, from the well-known kangaroo and koala bear to the lesser-known duck billed platypus and wombat. But all Australian wild life is not cute and cuddly. Australia is also home to some of the most poisonous snakes found anywhere in the world. One, the Inland Taipan, is considered to be the most deadly of all snakes – one bite carries enough venom to kill 100 people.

Q: Please send a list of all doctors in Australia who can dispense rattlesnake serum. (USA)

A: Rattlesnakes live in A-meri-ca, which is where YOU come from. All Australian snakes are perfectly harmless, can be safely handled and make good pets.

Prior to our first hike in Tasmania, Disco Dave, our tour guide, asked our group to gather around him so he could talk to us about snakes. As this was my first real hike I was quite interested to learn which snakes were dangerous and which ones were harmless. “There are three types of snakes in Tasmania,” Dave said. “Brown poisonous ones, green poisonous ones and black poisonous ones. Any questions?”

Q: Will I be able to see kangaroos in the street? (USA)

A: Depends how much you've been drinking.

Despite Australia’s population growth and the subsequent depletion of many of Australia’s native animals, kangaroos are still plentiful. Unlike the cows of India, however, kangaroos are not sacred animals and do not freely roam the streets – much to most tourists disappointment. Though I did once see some kangaroos on a golf course in a small town, they are not common occurrences in any of the cities – unless you happen to be looking at a dinner menu.

How Far to The Next Watering Hole?

Q: I want to walk from Perth to Sydney - can I follow the railroad tracks? (Sweden)

A: Sure, it's only three thousand miles. Take lots of water...

Distances in Australia are huge. Most people do not realize that the island of Australia is comparable in size to the United States. Travelling from Sydney to Perth is similar in distance to travelling from New York to San Francisco. And, unlike the hospitable farmlands of the United States, crossing Australia means going through some of the most desolate, uninhabited and dry land in the entire world. Many people have died attempting to cross Australia – from original explorers on horse and camel to tourists in ill-equipped cars – all jokes aside.

Q: Does it ever get windy in Australia? I have never seen it rain on TV, so how do the plants grow? (UK)

A: We import all plants fully grown and then just sit around watching them die.

I’ve been told that about 95% of Australia’s population lives within 5-10 kilometres of the ocean. And, all seven of Australia’s major cities (Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide, Perth, Darwin and Hobart) are located on the coast. Yet, I’ve also been told that it is the dry, barren centre of the country that truly captures the heart of Australia.

This past year was one of the worst droughts that Australia has ever seen. Water levels were incredibly low forcing water restrictions all over the country - even in some of the coastal cities (Melbourne being one of them). However, much of Australia receives plentiful rain – especially up north. The city of Darwin is much like the tropical cities of SE Asia – defined by its Wet and Dry time more than traditional seasons.

I Said, Do You Speaka My Language?

Most of Australia's native inhabitants, the Aborigines, were systematically killed off during early colonization of the country, much like the Native American tribes of the United States. Australia, like the United States, was mostly populated through immigrants. So, an Australian is just as likely to speak Greek, Italian, Mandarin, Thai or Japanese, as English.

Q: Will I be able to speek English most places I go? (USA)

A: Yes, but you'll have to learn it first.

Back when I was in Melbourne, I had the good fortune to meet up with Maureen Wheeler, the co-founder of Lonely Planet, the most successful guidebook series in the world. We were discussing how few Americans traveled, especially as compared with the people of other first world countries. And how, as a general rule, most Americans lacked in depth knowledge about foreign lands. I protested slightly, saying that while that might be true in some places, people from, say, the Bay Area were quite educated about the world and well traveled to boot. While Maureen agreed that Californians tended to be more well-traveled than much of the rest of the country, she did relate the following story to me, which made me realize how far we still had to go.

One of Maureen's first trips to the United States was in the early 80s, when she traveled to California to open the US offices of LP. At some point during her trip she found herself chatting with a local women who, upon finding out that Maureen came all the way from Australia, commented, “Wow, your English is really great – what language do they speak in Australia?”