Australian school children are taught that in 1770 James Cook sailed his mighty ship, the HMS Endeavour, half way ’round the world, discovered Australia and planted the Union Jack, claiming the land for Great Britain.
Never mind that Cook wasn’t actually captain of the Endeavor, or that the ship’s primary mission was to measure, from Tahiti, Venus’s transit across the sun and assist European astronomers in calculating Earth’s distance from it. Or that the Portuguese had visited two hundred years earlier, even leaving behind a couple of cannons.
Or that in 1642 Dutch captain Abel Tasman popped into Tasmania in the south, just before heading on to discover New Zealand (where half his crew were regretably devoured by Maori cannibals.)
History, as is so often the case, has been tidied up and re-packaged, and most Aussies will look at you askance if you suggest anything other than the generally accepted version of events. (Of course, one earns the same scorn by questioning Vegemite, a foul paste made from yeast extract that Australian children, poor babies, eat like peanut butter. It’s all a matter of perspective.)
Never mind also that the newly discovered continent had actually been inhabited for nearly 60,000 years. The pervading practice of the day when finding something new was to shout “Mine!” and sort out the details later.
Cook described Terra Australis Incognita (Latin for “the unknown land of the South”) as lush, green and abundant with life, an account so absolutely accepted in London that, 17 years later, the British government dispatched eleven ships carrying 1,500 people on a one-way junket to colonize Australia.
That squadron, reveretially referred to now as “The First Fleet,” was not exactly a Carnival cruise. In fact, the First Fleet, revered or not, was a convoy of prison ships, packed to the gunwales with excess victims from the Britain’s overcrowded prisons and over-active judicial system. (Well, over-active if you were poor).
British authorities, in an effort to cleanse undesirables from the homeland, sentenced them to seven years of fighting for existence on this isolated continent. They, of course, made no provision for a return to jolly ole England after the seven-year term, so this was usually a life sentence, but one happily accepted, since the alternative was a slow and painful death back home. (British statute books were chock-a-block full of capital offenses in the 1700s and 1800s. There were 222 crimes for which you would be hanged, boiled or burned to death, including robbing a rabbit warren, cutting down a tree or impersonating an Egyptian.)
And you think our government is loony?
So on January 26, 1788, Captain Arthur Philip, a couple of hundred marines and their families and a collection of hapless prisoners, sailed into what is now Sydney Harbour and, although they didn’t realize it at the time, founded a nation.
How they managed to survive is a fascinating and incredible story, but one for another time. That Australia exists today is testament to their tenacity, courage and luck.
Sydney boasts one of the world’s most beautiful natural harbors, and in typical Australian fashion local government agencies have brilliantly enhanced its appeal, with additions ranging from the famed Opera House, to Luna Park (a Coney Island-like amusement park) to Cockle Bay in Darling Harbour. It was here that Captain Philip and his wards came ashore, with a handful of bricks, nails and livestock, and established Australia’s first city.
No trace remains in Darling Harbour of Captain Philips‘ original ramshackle home, the first European structure in Australia. Today Darling Harbour is lined by sleek skyscrapers, swanky restaurants and pubs, and a charming little place called Wild Life Sydney, where, it was promised, you could cozy up to a koala.
Sign me up!
No visit to Australia is complete without a little koala cuddling. I’ll never understand why my friends in Oz don’t spend at least a portion of every day doing so.
Wild Life Sydney is sort of an indoor zoo. The guide at the entrance explained that we could see a wide assortment of furry and wriggling creatures ranging from wombats to cassowaries, from massive native snakes to kangaroos, and at the end there was a place where you can pet koalas.
All I heard was blah blah blah blah, pet koalas!
Soo, being more reserved and somewhat more mature, paused in each “habitat” to admire the collection of creatures, and learn what she could about Australia’s unique agglomeration of native wild life. I feigned patience – poorly – while bouncing back and forth from one foot to the other yammering pet koalas pet koalas pet koalas pet koalas!
I think the entire facility is well done. At least it all looked impressive as we whizzed through in record time. I had a hard time getting excited about looking through glass at sleeping kangaroos with koalas waiting at the end (though the wombat passed out on his back was funny enough to make me stop for a moment and giggle.)
At last we arrived at the Koala Encounter. Wild Life organizers have correctly deduced that giddy tourists will hand over an additional wad of cash to step inside the enclosure and pose for pictures as you chum it up with the little grey bears. I did so without hesitation. I’m not even sure I heard the amount before passing over my card (it was $35. The purchase also gets you a collection of photos on disc and a post-card of you with your koala, but that’s not why you pay. Smiling next to a cuddly koala is such a uniquely Australian experience, so endearing in its pure innocence, not paying never even crosses your mind.)
To me, koalas have always borne a slight resemblance to George Washington. Soo pronounced me mildly retarded for making the observation, but look closely and I promise you’ll see it. That oddity aside, posing with them was every bit as delightful as you would imagine.
We left the wonderful Wild Life Sydney “animal adventure” and wandered next door to the Sydney Aquarium. I vaguely recall if being right pleasant, but I was on such a high from petting koalas that I scarcely paid attention. Soo finally gave up and dragged me across Pyrmont Bridge to grab a bite and a drink from one of the collection of restaurants on the harbor’s Westside.
The place was jam-packed, long queues for a table at every joint. It didn’t occur to us to wonder why as we settled in to wait on a harbor side table to open up at Hurricanes Grill. We were told the wait would be 40 minutes, but were seated in five, and almost immediately learned what all the fuss was about.
It seems city organizers, masters of turning their beautiful harbor into an adult playground, have decided to celebrate summer in Sydney (Oct – May) by lighting up the sky with fireworks every Saturday. It was beautiful, as fireworks always are, and a sensational way to end this glorious trip.
Australia is a stupendous country, beautiful and clean, with a thriving economy. Her two largest cities annually rank among the top ten most livable in the world, her people among the friendliest. (A recent Forbes survey ranked Australia as the 2nd friendliest country on earth, behind only New Zealand.)
Ask anyone who’s ever been and their eyes will glaze over as they get lost in memories, speaking longingly of their desire to return. As Russell Crowe once said, God bless America. God save the Queen. God defend New Zealand. And thank Christ for Australia!
Not bad for a one-time penal colony. Not bad at all.