Don’t laugh. This sketchy map is pretty much how I viewed Australia until I came to live here. It’s defining features? The big red sandy bit in the middle and the country’s incredibly deadly wildlife – snakes, sharks, spiders, poisonous jellyfish and man-eating crocodiles. Its culture? Cricket and beaches. Beer and barbies. Crocodile Dundee and Kylie Minogue.
Of course, it is more, much more than that. Its vast, open spaces are mind expanding. Its wildlife is unique and diverse. Its indigenous culture ancient and mysterious. Its written history, short, brutal and at times full of despair. Turn off the beaten track and you begin to dig beneath the surface of modern Australia.
That’s why when we leave the green, pleasant land of Victoria and head north, we will steer inland, away from the major roads. We will visit monuments to early settlers, old woolsheds, opal fields and outback cattle yards. We will see the sobering effects of drought and enjoy the mateship of a country pub. We will cross rivers, some running, some dry, as we make our way slowly northward to the tropical wilderness where the deadly predators still roam.
Off the highway, we may begin to understand a culture that celebrates heroic failures more vigorously than stoic survivors. The tragic loss of the Gallipolli landings? Honoured as a defining national event. Bourke and Wills, the explorers who never came back? Recognised by a bronze statue in the centre of Melbourne and better known than any who lived to tell the tale.
Modern Australia is a country built by victory over extreme adversity. Off the beaten track, the human struggle to live on this harsh, parched continent is more apparent. Think back through history. The urban poor of the British Isles, transported as convicts to a far off land, lacked the most basic agricultural skills to scrape a living from the land. They almost starved. New settlers, seeking gold or escaping political discrimination were little better equipped. Tragedy was commonplace in the early days of modern Australia. But still they came, looking for a better life. Hoping to win against the odds.
Perhaps that’s why we celebrate the battler, the man or woman who will take risks and have a go, no matter the consequences.
Travelling inland we will hear their stories and see the land as they would have seen it. Away from the hubbub of 21st century coastal city life, if we listen carefully we may catch the melody of their songs on the wind.
There is much more to Australia than its travel brochure reputation suggests. Dig beneath the surface, leave the highway for a dirt track and discover another country.