Australia is truly a land of two halves. There is nature in all its diversity — from the vast outback to ancient rainforest, from the coral reef to the desert; and then there are the great international cities, from Sydney’s Harbour Bridge to Melbourne’s coffee culture, where multi-cultural Aussies work and play in the Lucky Country.
It’s also the land of opportunity, with golden-haired surfers riding the waves on white-sand beaches, a rich mining industry and a great standard of living; but it also has a dark history of oppression, resulting in racism and inequality that still pervades the country.
In this episode, I explain my complex relationship with Australia, what I learned from living there for five years, and why I had to leave. It’s hard to encompass such a vast place but I also include some thoughts on where to visit, what to eat and how to navigate some of the Aussie cultural differences.
Australia gave me escape — for a while. Travels in the outback.
The dark side of the Lucky Country
Australia changed my mindset around what I could achieve
Australia taught me about home
Other aspects of culture, food, and drink Down Under
- Recommended books
(1) Australia gave me escape — for a while
I fell in love with the idea of Australia when I watched The Thorn Birds TV mini-series in the mid-1980s and later read the book by Colleen McCulloch. It gave me visions of the vast outback, so different from my urban living and the green rolling hills of the southwest of England. The fires that destroyed the land, threatened the ranch, killing all in its path — and of course, Father Ralph de Bricassart, the attractive priest — but that’s another story!
In 2000, when I found myself burned out as an IT consultant in London, those visions of the Outback returned and I decided to go to Australia. Surely, I would find escape on the other side of the world?
I was sick from working too hard, drinking too much and living a life that made me into someone I didn’t want to be. I craved silence and space. I wanted to escape to a wide-open sky and a vast ocean. I wanted to be alone and find myself again.
I flew into Perth and learned to scuba dive (covered in episode 8) and traveled north through Western Australia to Darwin, then down through the Northern Territory to Alice Springs over a period of months.
I traveled alone and camped at Exmouth on the edge of Ningaloo Reef where I snorkeled with whale sharks.
From my journal:
“I’m adrift at the moment, part of no one and nothing. All is empty, waiting to be filled again. I want to stretch the boundaries of loneliness. I am solitary here with the wind and the overcast sky. The rustle of yellow palms, dry from the sun, the blowing of my gas flame and the cicadas. The smell of jacaranda overlaid with BBQ smoke and the haze of mosquito coils. Tomorrow I will rise with the sun and be in the blue again.”'I want to stretch the boundaries of loneliness.'Click To Tweet
From Exmouth, I headed north in a small group tour to Broome and on to the beehive rocks of the Bungle Bungles (Purnululu National Park) and then further to Darwin in the Northern Territory, staying at sheep stations and outback ranches along the way. I remember swimming in waterholes keeping an eye out for freshies, the distinctive markings on the scribbly gum trees, and a wild peacock at a truck stop, incongruous as it picked out scraps of Mrs. Mac’s meat pies thrown from the road trains on their journey across the vast country. It’s a long way to the Top End!
Darwin was wild. It had an edge, a feeling that something was about to kick off, or maybe it’s just that I had emerged from what felt like weeks in the middle of nowhere. I was 25 and looking for company, if you know what I mean.
The summer up there is called suicide season because it’s so hot that’s what you feel like doing. They have incredible electrical storms and full moon beach parties on Mindil Beach overlooking the Timor Sea. I almost stayed in Darwin, it touched a primitive chord, but I was running out of money with so much more to see.
“This is a town that prides itself upon its frontier manners, its horse-rug flavour, its traditions of bludgeon, horn and hoof, the weird animal life that leaps and wallows about it, kangaroo to buffalo, crocodile to dingo. Never did a town greet its visitors more boisterously. Never did the beer flow quite so fast. Nowhere is the traveller treated with such an easy, lolloping, happy-go-lucky, careless and gregarious courtesy.” Jan Morris, On Darwin from A Writer’s World.
The Northern Territory is my favorite place in Australia because it really is so different from anywhere else. It has the red earth of the outback and ancient rock paintings from Aboriginal ancestors. I visited Manyallaluk Aboriginal community and painted my skin with the red ochre of the earth. They probably thought I was mad but it meant something to me.
I recommend Kakadu National Park where we slept on the top of the van to stay out of reach of the salties (saltwater crocodiles), kayaking Katherine Gorge, and sleeping in swag out in the desert near Uluru and Kata Tjuta.
I lay under the big sky I had dreamed of with the stars of the Southern Cross above, a vast open space where I felt insignificant on the face of the earth and reveled in that feeling. I could really do anything and who would care? That was freedom, at least for a while, and the deep red of the earth is still my favorite color.
Watching dawn over the gigantic red rock of Uluru can be special if you can avoid the many tourists, but I particularly enjoyed walking around the rock in the quiet during the day. It felt special and I poured out water as an offering to the spirits there. I also bought a mulga-wood snake which I have here in my office. It became my totem animal after an encounter with a python at a reptile sanctuary and I learned of the Waugyl, the Rainbow Snake, or creation serpent, a Dreamtime creature known in the south-west of Australia and misunderstood by the early missionaries.
But escape from the real world is only ever temporary, especially with a depleted bank account, so after Alice, I headed to Sydney for a few months during the 2000 Olympics and worked on an IT help desk. I lived in Glebe, which is a great place for food and I could walk to the center of town. Sydney is one of the great international cities of the world, and my love of architecture and culture was sated by the Opera House and walking around The Rocks and Darling Harbour.
It was magical during the Olympics. I learned why mass sporting events are so powerful, and I sang along with Advance Australia Fair and Vanessa Amorosi, Absolutely Everybody. I cheered Cathy Freeman and Ian Thorpe – the Thorpedo – and drummed along with the crowd at Bondi Beach volleyball. I walked the cliffs to Manly and hiked at the Blue Mountains.
I enjoyed everything the city had to offer, but as great as Sydney is, it’s the same as any city — my life became work, drinking, casual relationships — and I found myself in the same situation as I had in London.“Wherever you go, there you are.” Jon Kabat-ZinnClick To Tweet
Once again, my solution was to resign and leave.
I headed to Far North Queensland, to the ancient Daintree Rainforest and then traveled down the east coast, scuba diving on the Great Barrier Reef, white water rafting on the Tully River, and sailing in the Whitsundays.
I flew to New Zealand in December 2000 with the intention of returning home to England when my money ran out. But it was over a decade before I moved back for good — a story for another episode!
Books that evoke the landscape of outback Australia and give a sense of its dangers:
The Thorn Birds – Colleen McCullough. In the rugged Australian Outback, three generations of Clearys live through joy and sadness, bitter defeat and magnificent triumph – driven by their dreams, sustained by remarkable strength of character… and torn by dark passions, violence and a scandalous family legacy of forbidden love.
The Lost Man – Jane Harper. A rancher is found dead in the outback, one of three brothers. But he knew the dangers of the outback, so what happened to him and why?
The Songlines – Bruce Chatwin. Set in the desolate lands of the Australian Outback, The Songlines tells the story of Chatwin’s search for the source and meaning of the ancient “dreaming tracks” of the Aborigines—the labyrinth of invisible pathways by which their ancestors “sang” the world into existence. This was one of the books that drove me to Australia. I am still a little in love with Bruce 30 years after his death.
Tracks – Robyn Davidson. Memoir of Davidson’s perilous journey across 1,700 miles of hostile Australian desert to the sea with only four camels and a dog for company. Enduring sweltering heat, fending off poisonous snakes and lecherous men, chasing her camels when they get skittish and nursing them when they are injured, Davidson emerges as an extraordinarily courageous heroine driven by a love of Australia’s landscape, an empathy for its indigenous people, and a willingness to cast away the trappings of her former identity.
Breath – Tim Winton. On the wild, lonely coast of Western Australia, two thrill-seeking teenage boys fall under the spell of a veteran big-wave surfer named Sando. Their mentor urges them into a regiment of danger and challenge, and the boys test themselves and each other on storm swells and over shark-haunted reefs.
For some great shots of the Outback and historical Darwin, watch Australia with Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman.
(2) The dark side of the Lucky Country
“Australia was not built by kindness, nor even by idealism. Convicts, not pilgrims, were its Fathers.” Jan Morris on Sydney from A Writer’s World
Before I arrived in Perth, I understood that some Australians were descendants of the early convicts and settlers from Great Britain in the 18th century, and many more immigrants from all over the world in the years since. It is a diverse, multi-cultural modern country.
But I didn’t know much about the Australian Aboriginal people, one of the oldest continuous civilizations on earth. I certainly didn’t know what the British had done to them until I arrived in Perth and went to the Museum of Western Australia, and I didn’t realize the level of inequality that still exists today in terms of health and standards of living.
In 2017, The Guardian published a map of massacres committed by the colonial British, the “untold history of Australia painted in blood.”
In the early 1900s, the British removed children — known as the Stolen Generation — from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander parents and raised them in Christian missions and foster homes. They deliberately tried to ‘breed out’ black skin and a race they considered ‘inferior.’
At the closing ceremony of the Sydney Olympics in 2000, the band Midnight Oil sang their protest song Beds are Burning while wearing black tops saying ‘sorry’ but it was 2008 when Australian Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, apologized for ‘past mistreatment,’ to the Stolen Generation, “this blemished chapter in our nation’s history.”
There is a shadow side to every culture and it is certainly not a feature of Australia alone, but if you travel there, realize that there is another story, another perspective from a people who have a longer history on the land. What is considered to be progress, settlement and civilization to some Western minds could be thought of as invasion, subjugation, and dispossession to others. Reflect on the differences that still exist despite Sorry Day, and be aware of the racism that still runs through the country.
You can help by supporting Aboriginal and indigenous businesses and settlements and listen to stories from other perspectives.
For books that reflect on this period, try The Secret River by Kate Grenville, a historical novel about the settlement of Australia by ex-convicts and the inevitable violence of clashing civilizations.
Tommo and Hawk by Bryce Courtenay features two brothers, separated in childhood but finding each other again to experience the early years of the colonies. One of its devastating scenes still sticks in my memory years later.
Carpentaria by Alexis Wright. In the sparsely populated northern Queensland town of Desperance, battle lines have been drawn in the disputes among the powerful Phantom family of the Westend Pricklebush, Joseph Midnight’s renegade Eastend mob, and the white officials of neighboring towns. Trapped between politics and principle, past and present, the indigenous tribes fight to protect their natural resources, sacred sites, and, above all, their people. Steeped in myth and magical realism, Wright’s hypnotic storytelling exposes the heartbreaking realities of Aboriginal life.
Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence – Doris Pilkington / Nugi Garimara. This extraordinary story of courage and faith is based on the actual experiences of three girls who fled from the repressive life of Moore River Native Settlement, following along the rabbit-proof fence back to their homelands
(3) Australia changed my mindset around what I could achieve
English people have a sense of hierarchy that is ingrained in our culture and I feel it as part of my very soul. It is about class and money and privilege and it’s hard to explain, but you feel it if you live here for a while. When I attended The University of Oxford, I became aware that although I walked among other students, I would never quite be like them because I came from a different class. I talked about it in episode 12 about my experiences at Oxford and that sense of class and what is appropriate is wound deep within me.
But that sense of class is almost completely missing in Australia, at least as a white, educated, English-speaking woman. It’s almost the other way around. They have this thing called ‘tall poppy syndrome’ which is more about pulling people down if they think too much of themselves.
This attitude of giving something a ‘fair go’ helped me redefine myself at a time when I needed it the most. I hated my IT job, I wanted to write, but when I looked at the way the publishing industry worked, it just didn’t suit my need for independence and my business sense. If I had tried to write in those early years in the UK, I know I couldn’t have escaped the expectations of an industry that has an ingrained class attitude.
But I was in Oz, and I learned from Australian entrepreneurs about what was possible. I started writing my first book when I lived in Brisbane, and the ‘can-do’ attitude of the Aussies spurred me on to become an independent creator, one of the rising Maker movement who choose to use the Internet to sell direct to customers.
I started my own publishing company, The Creative Penn, in 2008 and three years later, I quit my consulting job to make a living with my writing. I couldn’t have done it without the Aussie irreverent attitude. You want to do something, well, get on with it, mate!
In England, I would have been too stifled by expectation and the way things have always been done. So I will be forever grateful to Australia for giving me the ability to break out of my own British cultural stereotypes.
(4) Australia taught me about home
When I worked in Sydney in 2000, I was offered the chance to be sponsored for citizenship by the company I worked for, and later in 2010, I attended my husband’s Australian citizenship ceremony. It is a great country but it never felt like my home — however, it did teach me what I didn’t want and in that way, helped me to find home again.
Many English people dream of moving to Australia with visions of beaches and ocean, but English people don’t know what to do with constant sunshine and heat. We are conditioned to go outside and enjoy the sun if it’s out, so I found Brisbane in particular very tiring because I had to resist the urge to go outside all the time. The sun is fierce, even in winter up in Queensland.
I also craved gentle rain and grey skies, which may seem odd, but there’s something cultural about the weather and how it makes you feel. I still write to the sound of rain and thunderstorms. I could never relax when it was sunny out, and yet, walking in Queensland was difficult because it was too hot and humid.
Plus, you couldn’t even sit on the ground to eat lunch — really, this is a tip. You can sit and eat a sandwich on the ground in the UK and the most damage you’ll get is a wet bottom. Our ants are very small and friendly. But ants in Queensland will come and bite you and it will sting a lot. Don’t sit on the ground!
From my journal:
“Everything here is always in primary colors. I miss the rain. I miss the contrast of the seasons. I cannot be where it is forever hot and sunny. It doesn’t suit my character. I need change and difference.”
There are no gentle parts to Australia.
It is harsh by nature and temperament. It is bigger in every sense, including the weather. I lived in Brisbane during the floods of 2010 when the floodwaters covered an area larger than France and Germany combined [Reuters]. Jonathan was away at a conference in Canberra and I was due to go and join him after work one weekend. We were all evacuated from the center of Brisbane city as the dam burst up-river and the waters rose. Back home later that evening, I filled the bath and lots of containers with fresh water, listening to the sounds of helicopters overhead.
Then the lights went out.
I decided to try and get out of town early, and drove to the airport by a circuitous route, turning around when I met floodwaters and eventually made it. As I flew out of Brisbane, I looked down at the floods stretching off into the distance. 90 towns and over 200,000 people affected with 33 deaths attributed to those floods. This weather (and the bugs) is why the Queenslander houses are so popular, built on stilts to keep them up high and verandahs and opposite doors to let the air flow around.
At the other end of the weather spectrum, we were in Melbourne for a friend’s wedding in 2009 on what became known as Black Saturday. We stepped outside the hotel less than a kilometer from the center of town, a walk we would easily do in normal conditions. But the air was like a furnace and we quickly felt ill from the heat even though we wore hats and covered our skin. We walked in the shadows of buildings and found refuge in the aquarium near the penguin enclosure to cool down.
Over that weekend, thousands of homes were destroyed and 164 people died in the bush fires, with more dying later from injuries. I have only been in that level of heat once before, in Luxor, Egypt, and I have never forgotten how it feels — like your brain is going to boil and your body is on the edge of shutting down.
Australia is well-known for its many venomous snakes, spiders, crocs and other wildlife, but that won’t be what kills you Down Under. The weather might well be, so take it seriously.
I also struggled with the lack of walking in the urban environment. It’s not just the weather, it’s how big the country is and how spread out the cities are. Australia is more like the USA, it’s designed for people with cars. Whereas the UK and New Zealand are more walker-friendly.
I also love architecture and in the UK, I live surrounded by deep history and layers of culture. In most cities here, I can go to museums and art galleries and bookshops and I can fill my mind and my imagination. My fiction is mostly rooted in European history and as I started to write in Brisbane, I realized that I couldn’t create for long living there. I needed to fill the creative well and that meant coming back to the place that inspires me the most.
So in 2011, we moved back from Brisbane to London, and that will be a future episode.
(5) Other aspects of Australia
My experience of Australia is complicated. I arrived as a tourist, and I absolutely loved Western Australia and the Northern Territory in particular. I would urge you to visit those areas if you travel Down Under. These are the places I would visit again — Exmouth for Ningaloo Reef, Darwin and Kakadu National Park, Kings Canyon and Uluru, Kata-Tjuta National Park — as well as Far North Queensland and the Daintree Rainforest. I never made it to Tasmania, but it’s still on my list to hike there and dive the giant kelp forests.
I also lived and worked in Australia — in Sydney, Melbourne, and Brisbane, so I experienced life as a resident. You can have a fantastic standard of living — but if you’re not a beach person, and I’m not, then the cities are like any other international cities these days. You can work, shop, eat, play but it’s a long way to travel to Australia, so make sure you go to the places that are truly different as well.
Australians are far more laid back than Brits or Americans. Fair warning, they swear a lot in casual conversation, but it’s not inappropriate in their culture. For example, the use of ‘bloody’ is normal, “This beer’s bloody good, mate.” Aussies laugh at themselves and take the piss out of each other — and banter is part of life. Try not to take offense!
“There is no better way of life in the world than that of the Australian. I firmly believe this. The grumbling, growling, cursing, profane, laughing, beer drinking, abusive, loyal-to-his-mates Australian is one of the few free men left on this earth. He fears no one, crawls to no one, bludges on no one, and acknowledges no master.” ― John O’Grady
Here are some other words and phrases that might help you:
Thongs – flip flops. Footwear not underwear
Smoko – Smoking break. Part of the work culture that usually involves going to get more coffee
Stubby – bottle of beer
Stubby holder – an insulated sleeve that keeps beer cool
Bogan – in Britain, this is the same as a chav. Also could be a redneck in the US.
Feral – wilder than a bogan
Bottle-O – place to buy alcohol, often drive in to get a crate or two
Chook – chicken
Manchester – sheets and linen, always confused me as it is a town in England
Swag – waterproof bag with sleeping roll, super comfy, for sleeping out under the stars
Esky – cooler for food and drinks
Hard yakka – hard work
No worries – It’s okay, it’s alright, it’s fine. I still use this phrase a lot.
Watch these classic films to get an idea of Australian culture: Muriel’s Wedding, The Castle, and The Adventures of Priscilla: Queen of the Desert.
Eating and drinking
You are spoiled for choice down under with incredible fresh produce, seafood, and meat. You can throw another shrimp on the barbie … but you could also enjoy kangaroo, which is lean like venison and very tasty. Try barramundi if you like fish, and get a look at how big they are in one of the aquariums or fishing at the Top End. TimTams are a must for your sugar fix.
You can drink well too with world-class vineyards in areas like the Barossa Valley and the Adelaide Hills, plus there’s a huge beer culture. VB, Tooheys, and XXXX (pronounced four ex) are some classic lagers, but there are also a lot of local craft beers.
Aussies are early risers and you can usually get an excellent brunch. Melbourne is famous for its coffee culture, but to be honest, you can get good coffee pretty much everywhere, along with a slice of excellent banana bread, my breakfast addiction.
Books around culture:
The Slap – Christos Tsiolkas. When a man slaps another couple’s child at a neighborhood barbecue in multicultural Melbourne, the event sends unforeseeable shock waves through the lives of all who are witness to it. Told from the points of view of eight people who were present, The Slap shows how a single action can change the way people think about how they live, what they want, and what they believe forever. It also covers the aspects of race that underlie modern Australia.
Down Under: Travels from a Sunburned Country – Bill Bryson. It is the driest, flattest, hottest, most desiccated, infertile and climatically aggressive of all the inhabited continents and still Australia teems with life – a large portion of it quite deadly. In fact, Australia has more things that can kill you in a very nasty way than anywhere else. Ignoring such dangers – and yet curiously obsessed by them – Bill Bryson journeyed to Australia and promptly fell in love with the country. And who can blame him? The people are cheerful, extrovert, quick-witted and unfailingly obliging: their cities are safe and clean and nearly always built on water; the food is excellent; the beer is cold and the sun nearly always shines. Life doesn’t get much better than this…
In conclusion, my years in Australia shaped my life in ways that I’m only recognizing years later. I went there in 2000 to escape the city, but what it really gave me was an independent attitude, a jump start into a new career that perhaps I wouldn’t have found without living down under.
Australia was never my home, but it’s a fantastic place to visit — especially if you make the effort to go beyond the cities to the desert and the ocean. Happy travels!