There were numerous early European explorers to Australia, among them Willem Janszoon, the Dutchman generally credited with being the first outsider to land on Australian soil (doing so in 1606), and his compatriot Abel Tasman, who in 1642 discovered the large island off Australia’s southern coast – hence its modern name, Tasmania.
It was Captain James Cook, however, who landed at Botany Bay in 1770 and changed the fate of the land forever. When he and his men stepped onto Australian shores, they encountered an Aboriginal way of life that went back some 40,000 years.
The first governor, Arthur Phillip, was ordered to encourage a positive relationship with the indigenous locals, although a mixture of disease, malice and mutual suspicion meant this was over-optimistic. The first settlers treated the Aboriginal population with appalling brutality, which gave way to racist policies from subsequent administrations. Tensions still exist between mainstream Australia and the guardians of the Aboriginal way of life.
While the native way of life was being strained, the island’s new settlers were putting down firm roots. A British colony had been established not long after Cook’s arrival, and by 1868 (recognising the powerful crime deterrent afforded by penal transportation) London had sent more than 160,000 convicts to Australia.
By this time there had also been the mass arrival of free settlers and speculators, many of them pouring into the country in the gold rush of the 1850s. It led to significant economic expansion. By the 1880s the majority of people in the colony had been born and raised in Australia, which in turn was creating a deeper sense of nationalism. The Commonwealth of Australia came into being in 1901.
The nation was deeply involved and affected by both world wars and the Great Depression, but it continued to develop into a modern, versatile nation and grew as both a domestic and international power. Racial reconciliation was given a boost in 2008 when government issued a formal apology to the indigenous population for the past.
Australia remains a constitutional monarchy, with Queen Elizabeth II as its present monarch. The country saw its first ever female prime minister in 2010, when Labor’s Julia Gillard won a narrow election victory. Her rule lasted three years, before a political merry-go-round then saw Labor’s Kevin Rudd, the Liberal Party’s Tony Abbott and current prime minister Malcolm Turnbull all have stints in power before 2015 was up.
Australia’s great coastline covers 59,736km (37,119 miles); the country is lapped by the Arafura and Timor Seas to the north, the Coral and Tasman Seas of the South Pacific to the east, the Southern Ocean to the south, and the Indian Ocean to the west.
Most of the population has settled along the eastern and southeastern coastal strip, with the notable exception of Perth, one of the most remote cities in the world, on the west coast. Australia is the smallest continent (and the largest island) in the world, and terrain ranges from baking red desert to lush green rainforest, and from world-renowned surfing beaches to snow-clad mountains.
It’s partly the extreme diversity of different landscapes that makes Australia such a great travel proposition, in fact – there aren’t many countries that can offer natural features as richly eclectic as Uluru, the Great Ocean Road and the Great Barrier Reef.
In the east lies the Great Dividing Range; there are rainforests in the far northeast (mainly in Queensland); the southeast is a huge fertile plain; and further to the north lays the enormous Great Barrier Reef: a 2,000km (1,200-mile) strip of coral that covers a total area of 345,000 sq km (133,000 sq miles).