The Sunburnt Country


I love a sunburnt country,
A land of sweeping plains,
Of rugged mountain ranges,
Of drought and flooding rains.

Thank you Dorothea. Very nice, very pretty though I suspect that you never suffered the mind-numbing tedium of playing I-spy while on the road from Brisbane to Melbourne 22 hours of desperation, finding synonyms for ‘eucalypt.’


There is an unassailable belief among Australians as prevalent as the myths of egalitarianism, tolerance and David Koch being entertaining that we live on a continent of unsurpassed wonder, beauty and extremes.

But it’s not. It’s 7.7 million square kilometres of scrub interrupted by a rock. A pretty impressive rock to be fair, but a rock nonetheless.

Where are the fjords? The spluttering volcanoes? The cities paralysed by heat in December and snowdrifts in May? Where do you chase the sun all day across a dusty lunar landscape just to lose it behind an ice-covered escarpment at sunset?

Australia is the most disappointing continent on the planet well, in the bottom two if you include Antarctica, which at the moment is at least having the decency to break up and spread itself all over the Southern Ocean.

In his excellent article ‘British Rules,’ in the current edition of The Monthly, Gideon Haigh quotes Charles Darwin describing Australia as ‘too great and ambitious for affection, yet not great enough for respect.’

Darwin was one of that great generation of Englishmen who became famous for floating around, bumping into things and reporting the bleeding obvious back to a public keen to hear how un-British the outside world is.

A 19th Century Bill Bryson of sorts.

Thanks to Sharyn Raggett

Darwin joined the HMS Beagle after failing to find a respectable job at home. His position as ‘gentleman’s friend’ was the equivalent of being the entertainment officer on a P&O cruise when stocks of rum and wanton Tahitian women waned he’d entertain the officers with rousing stories of the habitats of mockingbirds.

Despite five years travelling the southern seas, Darwin’s world resiliently remained one of croquet lawns and elevenses. On seeing Sydney for the first time, he records his first impulse as wanting ‘ to congratulate myself that I was born an Englishman.’

But it didn’t last. Darwin quickly grew to despise Australia. His tour included Sydney (‘t he climate is splendid but to my mind its charms are lost by the uninviting aspect of the country’), inland NSW (‘the uniformity of the vegetation is the most remarkable feature so wearisome to the traveller’s eye’), Hobart (‘ It stands at the base of Mount Wellington, a mountain 3100 feet high, but of little picturesque beauty’) and King George Sound in WA (‘we did not during our voyage pass a more dull and uninteresting time’).

Darwin farewelled Australia declaring that ‘nothing but rather sharp necessity should compel me to emigrate.’ It must have been a surprise to the naturalist when his shipmate, John Clements Wickham, decided to name the northern harbour after him.

We should be grateful. If the local charms had seduced the great man he may not have been arsed to write The Origin of Species, and we’d all have to take Barnaby Joyce seriously.

It would be easy to dismiss the observations of the 27-year-old Darwin except that he was right. While it’s undeniable that there are places of heart-stopping beauty in Australia, on a square-kilometre-to-thrill ratio, the continent fails to deliver.

The 2600 kilometres of the Barrier Reef, while extraordinary, don’t match the wonders, beauty and diversity of the unlikely road trip from the white cliffs of Dover to Murmansk in the Arctic Circle, or the journey from the mosquito ridden tropical lowlands of the Mekong Delta to the Tibetan capital of Lhasa perched 3500 metres above sea level.

It is hardly surprising, though, that a nation that is willing to believe that a few stray rocks off the coast is a natural wonder, or that a rodent that hops validates our place in the world, is also the place that is willing to accept The Glasshouse as satire, Guy Sebastian as a musician and John Howard as a Prime Minister.

As all Australians know, excellence is for sport otherwise you’re just showing off.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.