Table of Contents

Title Page



1: A snapshot

2: Aussie talk

3: Our clobber

4: The Aborigines

5: Aussie icons

6: Where it all began

7: Backyard playgrounds

8: The shearers

9: ‘The Man from Snowy River’

10: Big things

11: Native animals

12: Native flora

13: Our Prime Ministers

14: Our wine

15: Watering holes

16: The gamblers

17: Saturday night at the flicks

18: Fare go!

19: Our best friends

20: Cricket, football and soccer

21: Fore!

22: Aussie kulture

23: ‘Waltzing Matilda’

Back Cover Material


A British general touring the Somme battlefront in France in World War I sees an Australian slouch hat sitting on top of an ocean of thick, sticky mud. Standing safely on a line of duckboards, he orders one of his soldiers to retrieve it, but the hat is stuck rock solid. It won’t budge an inch.

Then, to their amazement, they hear a muffled Aussie voice coming from underneath the goo: ‘For gawd’s sake go easy, mate, I’ve still got the strap under me chin.’

Working feverishly to try to rescue the buried soldier, the general’s men strain and pull and tug for several minutes before the muffled voice again comes through the mud: ‘It’s no flamin’ good, mate. You’ll have to leave me here. I can’t get me bloody feet out of the stirrups...’

There’s nothing funny about war, of course, but from the first time the gung-ho young Aussie volunteers sailed overseas to the Sudan in 1885 to help fight for the king’s empire, they had a totally different outlook on life from that of their British allies. And they were pretty special people. They had left their farms and their homes and their families to tramp hundreds of miles along dusty roads to join the army and go to war, knowing there was a better than even chance they wouldn’t come back.

In fact, in the wars Australia has been involved in – all of them belonging to another country – 97,688 men and women didn’t come back. Another 222,908 were wounded. In the Iraq war in 2003, more than 2000 Australians served. No troops in combat lost their lives and most came home.

The early Aussie Diggers accepted that strict army discipline was necessary, but they were never convinced that they had to continually toe the line and spend every day shackled by rules.

They were accustomed to making their own decisions, often wrong ones, and were always ready to stand by their mates, even if it meant sticking their necks out. Like the soldier struggling to carry a wounded comrade on his back to the safety of the trenches. Rifle and machine-gun fire was everywhere. ‘Hey,’ says the wounded man. ‘How about turning around and goin’ backwards for a bit? You’re gettin’ the medal but I’m gettin’ all the bloody bullets.’

The unique Aussie sense of humour was inherited from a melting pot of previous generations – convicts, farmers, stockmen, shearers and miners from nations around the world who had pioneered the new Land Down Under. They were the ones who blazed the tracks into the inland, cleared the bush to grow the crops, mustered the stock, built the towns, performed marriages, baptised babies, wrote poetry and dreamt of riches (which most of them never saw).

Some shot and robbed each other. Others died in bushfires and floods, and some were speared by the country’s traditional owners. The Australian character is a product of all those experiences. It’s what makes Aussies firm believers in the principle of a ‘fair go’.

Australia is a nation built on adversity but balanced by a unique sense of humour, which has so many times been confused with so-called ockerism. Australian society has changed considerably since the late 1960s, when our image was as a nation of chauvinistic beer swillers, bigots and loudmouths.

We’ve come a long way since then. Some might even describe us as sophisticated now, even though we’re still unsure whether to scrap the ocker image altogether or keep it alive.

But who cares? We’re what we are. We’re what other people think of us. If visitors are confused by our lifestyle and diversity, so be it.

We’re proud of the way we live, our sporting prowess, our icons, our movie stars and our characters. This book is all about that.


A snapshot

The ‘fair go’ philosophy Australians love to promote led to a bitter battle at the Eureka gold diggings, near the Victorian town of Ballarat, on 3 December 1854, when around 300 miners stood up for their rights against 275 armed soldiers and police.

The miners, led by a bloke named Peter Lalor, were a mixture of Australians, American adventurers, Irish patriots, European exiles and supporters of English Chartism (a democratic reform movement). And although they were protected only by a log stockade and armed with long wooden sticks with pointed metal heads, they were prepared – having sworn an oath to their mates – to die for their cause in what turned out to be a brief skirmish, later described as ‘the death knell of tyranny’.

A month earlier the miners, their Southern Cross flag fluttering proudly overhead, had set up the Ballarat Reform League as a forum for their grievances, which included (among other things) being ripped off by authorities who forced them to pay 30 shillings a month for a mining licence regardless of whether or not they struck it rich, the very strict policing of the goldfields and continual harassment by troopers. The miners included a group of American revolutionaries who wanted to scrap the British connection and form the five-star Republic of Victoria.

The battle of Eureka was short-lived, but 34 miners and five soldiers lost their lives in it. Lalor was wounded, and later had an arm amputated, but went on to become a Member of the Victorian Parliament. He also refused a knighthood.

But the miners’ stand sped up the introduction of the political reforms they wanted and helped the campaign for nationhood. The vision of a republic faded, but Eureka is still a symbol of unity and its message is seen as the heart of the Australian tradition: the willingness to fight for freedom and democratic rights.

The first representative government in Australia came with the Australian Colonies Act. But by then, the States, or colonies as they were known, were already rivals and intensely jealous of each other. They had their independence, and weren’t about to give it up, so they simply carried on as usual, putting their own interests first. This resulted in separate postal systems and different policies on immigration, transport, communications, trade and tariff, which obviously confused every bugger. Even the trains had to stop at State borders because the rail lines were all of a different gauge. It was not until January 2004 that the first goods train running on a new $1.2 billion railway line between Alice Springs and Darwin completed the national rail network. The Ghan tourist train now carries passengers between Adelaide and Darwin, taking about 48 hours for the 2979 kilometre trip. The other trans-continental train, the Indian Pacific, runs between Sydney and Perth.

The working classes, people of all nationalities who had come to Australia to try their luck on the goldfields or raise a few cattle or sheep, were not satisfied with the slow growth of the colonial self-government, which was dominated by the rich and influential squatters. They wanted more, like the right to vote and secret ballots.

But it was the annoying problems of inter-colonial tariffs, as well as the need to have an army for protection and a common immigration policy that finally led to more unity. At one stage, for example, Victoria imposed a bounty on ships bringing in Chinese immigrants. The shipping companies responded by dropping them off at Robe, in South Australia, and they had to walk to the Victorian goldfields.

At this time, NSW believed in free trade. The Premier in 1888, John Robertson, referred to his southern neighbour as the ‘cabbage garden’ and once commented that ‘those bloody people across the Murray River grow the same as us but all they can do is send us bloody cabbages’.

Victoria, on the other hand, wanted to use protection to develop its own local industries, so it set up Customs houses along the Murray, the boundary between the two colonies, to collect a few bob in taxes from NSW farmers who wanted to take their produce to Victorian markets. They didn’t appreciate having to kick the tin every time they crossed the river, so they too began to push for a federation.

NSW Premier Henry Parkes, on a visit to Tenterfield, in northern NSW – this town has some claim to being the birthplace of federation – campaigned for governments to co-operate more with each other. He eventually talked the colonial premiers into getting together at a meeting, at which they agreed to hold a conference to frame a constitution for a federation. But although this was done, an economic depression in 1891 put the skids under the plan and nothing happened.

Edmund Barton, who went on to become Australia’s first Prime Minister, was another champion of federation, and in late 1892 he went to the NSW border towns of Corowa and Albury to promote the formation of federation leagues, organisations that would work towards creating a federation. One was formed at Corowa in January 1893. Its aim was to use free trade to promote the need for federation; other towns followed suit.

The Berrigan league suggested that a conference be held at Corowa of ‘citizens eager for action’, so the courthouse was booked for the day and shopkeepers and businesspeople, federation leagues, the Australian Natives Association and NSW and Victorian governments were invited. Special trains ran from Sydney and Melbourne and people arriving in Corowa were welcomed by banners declaring ‘Advance Australia’.

Victorian Premier JB Patterson made the comment: ‘When a man from Victoria is regarded [as] a foreigner in Corowa and a woman who goes to Wahgunyah on the other side of the river is treated like a smuggler, it is time some change is made...’

After a few more meetings and a lot of talk, a draft constitution was drawn up and approved by the people in referendums in 1898 and 1899. The Commonwealth of Australia was constituted by an Act of the British Parliament in July 1900, and on 17 September 1900, Queen Victoria signed a proclamation to inaugurate the Federation of Australia, which took effect from 1 January 1901.

Under the Australian Constitution, the State Governments didn’t lose their identities, and the powers the Founding Fathers took from them and gave to the new Federal Government were a compromise. Trade and commerce among the States took pride of place, and only two of the new Commonwealth’s powers – assistance to some industries by tariff or bounty and the provision of social services – went against the concept of a free-market economy. So things were up and running. Australia at last was fair dinkum about becoming a nation.

Social advances in the first few years after Federation included women getting the vote, the introduction of workers’ compensation and invalid and old-age pensions, the selection of Canberra as the site for the national capital, the installation of electric street lighting in Sydney (16 years after the country towns of Young and Tamworth had installed it), the demonstration of the first life-saving reel at Bondi Beach, and the making of Australia’s, perhaps the world’s, first full-length feature film, The Story of the Kelly Gang.

Life rolled along nicely as the nation developed, but it took one of Australia’s biggest and most tragic military losses – in 1915 at Gallipoli, a little-known peninsula on Turkey’s southern coast – to really create a national spirit. Soldiers of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps, now referred to as the Anzacs, were mowed down in their hundreds as they stormed the beaches to try to drive the Turks out of their strongholds on the hilltops.

The Australian commanders, seeing how hopeless the situation was, wanted to get out of there as fast as they could, but the British ordered them to stay put. The Anzacs fought on courageously for eight months, losing more than 10,000 soldiers, before they were finally told to pack up and leave. Some people still believe the British deliberately sent them to their maker to keep the Turks occupied while an attack was launched elsewhere, but it was more likely just another tactical stuff-up.

Anzac Day, 25 April, is now a national holiday to honour all Australians who died in wars. Street marches are held in every town and city throughout the nation, followed by services of remembrance, official luncheons and the traditional coin-tossing gambling game of two-up. There’s talk of Anzac Day becoming Australia’s national day but nothing has come of it yet. People are probably too obsessed with sport to bother.

Surveys have shown that two-fifths of Australians play some sort of sport and three-quarters of the population watch it, with the major interests being football, cricket, swimming, golf, netball, basketball and athletics. A few million punters spend their Saturdays betting on the gallopers, the harness races or the dogs. And the Melbourne Cup is the only horse race in the world that can bring a nation to a standstill.

But as well as a good deal of passive participation, Aussies have also built up an international reputation for their sporting prowess, which started with the bare-knuckled boxers of the convict days, an attraction for huge crowds on the outskirts of Sydney. Boxing was legalised in the 1870s and gloves were then required to be worn, under the Marquess of Queensberry’s rules.

The first real taste of big-time boxing didn’t come until 1908, when more than 30,000 people in Sydney watched a world heavyweight title fight between Canadian Tommy Burns and American challenger Jack Johnson. The much taller and heavier Johnson belted the ears off Burns and police were forced to stop the one-sided contest.

Les Darcy was thought by many to be the greatest fighter Australia has produced, but he copped lots of unkind criticism when he went to America in 1917 to have a crack at the world heavyweight title rather than enlist in the Army. World War I was in full swing, and thousands of young Australians were dying on the western front. Darcy, labelled a deserter at home, was also shunned by American promoters. He later died in hospital in Memphis, from infections from a mouth wound.

Denver Post journalist Otto Floto wrote that Darcy’s physical self could not repel the charge that he ran away when his country called him, and then fell victim to a sickness that would have caused him no concern had he been himself. Back in Sydney, thousands turned out at Darcy’s funeral to pay their last respects to the legend who had knocked up 46 wins from 50 bouts.

Tennis player Norman Brookes, who dominated the game for nearly 20 years, was the first Aussie to win Wimbledon, and helped take the Davis Cup off the United States in 1907. Jack Crawford was the darling of the 1930s, along with Harry Hopman, who coached 14 Davis Cup teams and fired up stars like Ken Rosewall and Lew Hoad.

Other stars of Australian tennis, Rod Laver, John Newcombe, Neale Fraser, Rod Emerson, Pat Cash and Lleyton Hewitt (in 2002) were Wimbledon winners, some of them three times. In the women’s game, Margaret Court and Evonne Goolagong (later Cawley) were the queens of Australian tennis.

Our swimmers also have an enviable reputation. Fred Lane in Paris in 1900 was the first Australian to win an Olympic gold medal, and superfish Kieren Perkins turned in one of the greatest performances seen in the pool when he stormed home to take gold in the 1500 metre freestyle event at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics after the critics had written him off. He followed that up with silver in the same event at the Sydney 2000 Olympics, and then retired. His world record lasted 7 years, until it was smashed by an amazing 7 seconds by Grant Hackett at the 2001 World Championships in Japan.

Perkins, one of the greatest distance swimmers in history, was in Japan as a TV reporter for the championships, and as he was about to board a media boat to take him to the women’s open water event, a concerned Japanese official told him to put on a lifejacket – he could fall out of the boat and drown!

Ian Thorpe is well on the way to becoming one of the greatest swimmers of all time. As a 15-year-old, he was the youngest male world record holder. At 18 he had chalked up 8 world titles and a string of records. He won a record 6 gold medals at the 2001 World Championships.

At the 2003 Australian championships, Thorpe won the 100, 200 and 400 metre freestyle events, the 200 metre individual medley, and then backed up as a member of the 4x200 metre relay to win that event as well. Little wonder they call him Thorpedo.

Being constantly compared with other great Australian swimmers like Dawn Fraser, Thorpe says his judgement day will come at the end of his career. That’s when people can make comparisons. But thank goodness he didn’t go ahead with his childhood plans to be a fireman or an astronaut.

Speedway, or dirt track racing, is an Australian invention. It began in NSW at the Maitland Agricultural Show in 1925, and 3 years later was introduced to England. In 1930 the first Australia versus England Test match took place.

Boomerang throwing and woodchopping are another two sports that originated in Australia. Boomerang throwing was an ancient Aboriginal way of killing game but is now a sport run under rules set down by the Boomerang Association of Australia. The first organised woodchopping event took place in Tasmania in 1891.

Australia’s most offbeat athlete was William King, known as The Flying Pieman. King was a schoolteacher at Sutton Forest, in the NSW southern highlands, and then a barman in Sydney before he turned his hand to making pies, which he sold on the streets, while elegantly dressed in knee-breeches and stockings, white shirt and top hat.

In September 1847 King walked 192 miles (307km) non-stop around the racecourse in the Hunter Valley town of Maitland, in 46 hours 30 minutes. Two months later, at the back of Maitland’s Fitzroy pub, he had no difficulty in walking 1000 quarter-miles in 1000 quarter-hours.

In December 1847 The Flying Pieman set himself 1 hour 30 seconds to run a mile (1.6km), walk a mile, wheel a barrow half a mile, pull a trotting gig with a woman in it for half a mile, walk half a mile backwards, pick up 50 stones and perform 50 leaps. He allowed himself 5 minutes 15 seconds rest, and did all the tasks with 45 seconds to spare.

The following month, at Dungog in northern NSW, he carried a live goat weighing 80 pounds (32kg) a mile and a half in 12 minutes. And while on a trip to Queensland, he walked from Brisbane to Ipswich, a distance of about 25 miles (40km), carrying a pole weighing 100 pounds (40kg) – and beat the mail coach by an hour. Twice he beat the mail coach from Sydney to Windsor, a distance of about 36 miles (58km).

While most of our modern-day athletes restrict themselves to the more traditional endeavours, Australians still dream up dozens of offbeat challenges. Tom Hayllar, of Sydney, walked 12,000km around Australia, starting on 1 March 1975 and finishing on 25 January 1976. He also walked from Cape Byron, on the NSW north coast, to Steep Point, in Western Australia, a distance of 5672km, in less than four months.

Marathon runner Pat Farmer completed a 14,500km run around Australia on 1 January 2000. The 191 day run, designed to draw attention to Australia’s Centenary of Federation in 2001, broke 13 world records.

Farmer had earlier run 379km non-stop across more than 1000 towering sand dunes in the Simpson Desert in blistering 55ºC (130ºF) heat from Alka Seltzer Bore to the Birdsville pub in three days, 17 hours and 38 minutes. Each day he ate 10 tins of fruit, a couple of dozen bananas and drank 30 litres of water.

Farmer describes himself as an ordinary Australian doing extraordinary things. His run was inspired by Donald Mackay, who in 1900 completed a 240 day bicycle ride around Australia to mark the coming Federation. Farmer is now a federal Member of Parliament.

In April 1983, Cliff Young, who was then 61, won the ultra-marathon 870km run from Melbourne to Sydney, covering the distance in five days, 15 hours and four minutes. Potato farmer and bachelor, Young shuffled rather than ran; his training was chasing the cows around his paddocks in gumboots. Young died in 2003.

In the small township of Mirrool, in southwest NSW, only three footballers have been able to kick a ball over the top of a wheat silo 29.8 metres high from a circle 10 metres from the base. Many others have tried, but all have failed. The first to do it was Geelong Australian Rules player Bill Brownless, who stopped there on the way to a wedding and punted the ball over the silo in bare feet.

Golfers Billy Dunk and Ted Ball planned to play the world’s longest golf hole, 1,460,800 metres. They intended to tee off at Ceduna Golf Club, in South Australia, and play across the Nullarbor Plain, finishing at the 18th at Kalgoorlie Golf Club, in Western Australia, 1461 kilometres away.

Dunk, five times Australian PGA champion, and fellow World Cup player Ball, were to hit alternate shots in the attempt to beat the par, which was 7173. The Great Australian Bight, police stations, hotels, homesteads and Aboriginal burial grounds were to be out of bounds.

A ball landing near a sleeping kangaroo, dingo, emu or snake could be lifted and dropped no nearer Kalgoorlie without penalty. The feat attracted widespread interest but never went ahead because a sponsor couldn’t be found.

Australians also love doing other strange things, like seeing how far they can push a bathtub on wheels (497km in 24 hours, as it turns out), carry a brick in one hand or throw a custard pie or rabbit trap. They’ve walked 82.9km under water, raced over 1.6km carrying a bag of potatoes, and pushed a wheelbarrow 14,500km, all in the name of achievement.

In fact, Australians have been on top of the world heap in more than 60 sporting events. Among them have been high-profile performers like Greg Norman and Karrie Webb in golf, Jack Brabham and Alan Jones in Formula One motor racing and Wayne Gardner and Mick Doohan in motorcycling, but few people know that Aussies have been world champions in many lower profile events as well – woodchopping, saddle bronc riding, windsurfing, yachting, water skiing, triathlon, ten pin bowling, squash, shooting, trampolining and underwater hockey.

Australia’s wealthiest households are typically DINKS (double income, no kids). They pay nearly four times as much tax as the average and have private health insurance although they are generally healthy. They take overseas holidays every 2 years, and when they do have kids, they send them to private schools. They eat in restaurants at least once a week and like new cars and motorbikes.

The national median weekly income is between $700 and $799 for households. A typical family in the top income range is a two-income couple with no children, both working fulltime and pulling in a combined post-tax income of around $1815 a week.

The median monthly housing loan repayment is between $800 and $999 nationally, but Sydneysiders are paying between $1200 and $1399.

Australians in the top income range spend around $170 a week on recreation and entertainment, another $170 on food and soft drinks, including $70 for restaurants and takeaways, and $30 on alcohol.

They have several credit cards, but pay off their bills in full each month to avoid having to pay interest on them. They spend about $3000 a year on a holiday, employ a cleaner who comes in once a fortnight, and hire someone to mow the lawns in summer.

The average family doesn’t do quite so well. They earn $785 a week, spend $120 on food and soft drinks, which includes $31 on restaurant and takeaway meals.

The most popular names Australians in 2003 called their girls were Emily, Jessica, Chloe, Isabella, Sarah, Sophie, Olivia, Georgia, Grace, Hannah, Ella and Emma. The most popular boys’ names were Joshua, Lachlan, Jack, Thomas, Ethan, James, Daniel, Nicholas, William, Benjamin, Matthew and Liam.

So that’s it in a nutshell. Australians, once called Cornstalks because they were generally taller and thinner than the immigrants, are a unique lot. Some of the crazy things they do are probably a sort of relief from the contrasts of everyday life: drought one day, floods the next, and bushfires the day after that.

And although today’s Aussie might be a bit rough around the edges, still a little rebellious and often wary of authority, the offbeat humour and sense of fair play and achievement are still well and truly there.