Australian culture is founded on stories of battlers, bushrangers and brave soldiers. Of sporting heroes, working heroes and plucky migrants. It's all about a fair go, the great outdoors and a healthy helping of irony. Today Australia also defines itself by its Aboriginal heritage, vibrant mix of cultures, innovative ideas and a thriving arts scene.
Aboriginal culture: a rich and timeless tradition
The Dreamtime is the sacred 'time before time' of the world's creation. According to Aboriginal belief, totemic spirit ancestors emerged from the earth and descended from the sky to awaken a dark and silent world. They created the sun, moon and stars, forged mountains, rivers, trees and waterholes and changed into human and animal forms. Spirit ancestors connect this ancient past with the present and future through every aspect of Aboriginal culture. Rock art, craft and bark painting reveal Dreamtime stories, mark territory and record history, while songs tell of Dreamtime journeys, verbally mapping water sources and other essential landmarks. Their special lyrics have been passed down virtually unchanged for at least 50,000 years, and are often accompanied by clapsticks or the deep throb of the didgeridoo. Similarly, traditional dances reveal creation myths, enact the deeds of Dreamtime heroes and even recent historical events.
Colonial myths: battlers, bushrangers and brave soldiers
Australians believe in mateship and a 'fair go' and have a strong affection for the underdog or 'battler'. These values stem from convicts and early colonialists who struggled against a harsh and unfamiliar land and often unjust authority. Australia's most famous bushranger Ned Kelly protested against the poverty and injustice of a British class system shipped here along with the convicts. This flawed hero's fight for 'justice and liberty' and 'innocent people' has been embraced as part of the national culture and inspired countless books and movies. On the goldfields of the mid-1850s, diggers were portrayed in stories and songs as romantic heroes, larrikins and villains who embraced democracy. The bloody 1854 Eureka Stockade, where Victorian miners rose up against an authoritarian licensing system, came to symbolise a triumph of social equality. Later, during World War I, the courageous ANZAC soldiers who served in Gallipoli gave new meaning to the term 'tough Aussie'.
Australian English: speaking 'Strine'
Australians have a unique colloquial language, coined 'strine' by linguist Alastair Morrison (imagine saying Australian with your teeth gritted to keep out the flies) in 1966. This combines many long lost cockney and Irish sayings of the early convicts with words from Aboriginal languages. We often abbreviate words and then add an 'o' or 'ie' on the end as in 'bring your cossie to the barbie this arvo'. We also like reverse nicknames, calling people with red hair 'bluey', saying 'snowy' to someone with dark hair, and tagging 'lofty' to someone who is small in stature. We tend to flatten our vowels and end sentences with a slightly upward inflection.
Sporting heroes: the glory of green and gold
It's no secret that Australians are sports mad. With more than 120 national and thousands of local, regional and state sporting organisations, it's estimated that six-and-a-half million people in Australia are registered sport participants. Not bad from a population of just over 21 million! The number one watched sport in Australia is Australian Rules Football (AFL) with its high kicks and balletic leaps, while the brute force and tackling tactics of National Rugby League (NRL) reign supreme in New South Wales and Queensland. Australia's national Rugby Union team, the Wallabies play on the international circuit and in the Bledisloe Cup, part of a Tri Nations tournament with South Africa. Australia is a nation of swimmers and Olympic medals attest to our performance in the pool. All summer we watch the Australian cricket team in their whites and in January, we flick channels to see the tennis Australian Open. Held in Melbourne, this attracts more people to Australia than any other sporting event. Football is a growth sport, we draw world-class surfers for the Bells Beach Surf Classic and on Boxing Day crowds gather to watch the boats sail out of Sydney Harbour for the Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race. On the first Tuesday in November, the nation stops for the famous horse race, the Melbourne Cup while and in March rev heads converge in Melbourne for the Formula One Grand Prix. The list of sports we love goes on, and if in doubt about the rules just ask a passionate punter.
An outdoor lifestyle: beach and barbeques
With more than 80 per cent of Australians living within 50 kilometres of the coast, the beach has become an integral part of our famous laid-back lifestyle. From Saturday morning surf-club training for young 'nippers' to a game of beach cricket after a barbeque, we love life on our sandy shores. We jostle for a spot on packed city beaches, relax at popular holiday spots and drive to secret, secluded beaches in coastal national parks. We go to the beach to enjoy the sun and surf or to sail, parasail, fish, snorkel, scuba dive and beach comb. It's where we socialise and play sport, relax and enjoy romance. It's also the site for celebration. On New Year's Eve, revellers dance in the sand and watch fireworks at Manly and Bondi beaches in Sydney and Glenelg in Adelaide. Many beaches host citizenship ceremonies on Australia Day and on Christmas Day up to 40,000 international visitors converge on Bondi Beach wearing Santa hats and swimming costumes. Australia's most famous beaches - Bondi and Manly in Sydney, St Kilda in Melbourne, Surfers Paradise on the Queensland Gold Coast, Cottesloe in Perth and Glenelg in Adelaide - attract locals as well as international tourists.
Multiculturalism: diverse food, festivals and faith
Since 1945 more than six million people from across the world have come to Australia to live. Today, more than 20 per cent of Australians are foreign born and more than 40 per cent are of mixed cultural origin. In our homes we speak 226 languages -after English, the most popular are Italian, Greek, Cantonese and Arabic. Our rich cultural diversity is reflected in our food, which embraces most of the world's cuisines and artfully fuses quite a few of them. You'll find European flavours, the tantalising spices of Asia, Africa and the Middle East and bush tucker from our backyard on offer everywhere from street stalls to five star restaurants. Tuck into Thai takeaway, dine out on perfect Italian pasta, do tapas in our city's Spanish strips and feast on dumplings in Chinatown. You can also embrace our melting pot of cultures in the many colourful festivals. See samba and capoeira at Bondi's Brazilian South American festival, dance behind the dragon parade during Chinese New Year or stroll through streets transformed into a lively piazza during the annual Italian celebrations. As a nation, we embrace a rainbow of religious belief and you'll find Catholic and Anglican churches, Hindu, Sikh and Buddhist temples, mosques and synagogues lining our streets.
Australian innovations: from the Hills Hoist to Penicillin
Australia's unique geography and relative isolation has made it a fertile ground for new ideas. In 1879, Australians developed a way for ice to be manufactured artificially, allowing us to export meat to Great Britain on refrigerated ships. In 1906, the surf lifesaving reel was designed so lifesavers could reach distressed swimmers with a rope attached to their vests. In 1929, Alfred Traeger built a pedal-powered radio as the communications for the Royal Flying Doctor Service.
Australians were also responsible for more everyday inventions such as notepads (1902), aspirin (1915), the pacemaker (1926), penicillin (1940) the Hills Hoist clothesline (1946), the plastic disposable syringe (1949), the wine cask (1965), the bionic ear (1978), dual-flush toilet flush (1980), anti-counterfeiting technology for banknotes (1992) and long-wearing contact lenses (1999).
Long before European colonisation, the Aboriginal people were already leading the world. They invented the aerodynamic boomerang and a type of spear thrower called the woomera. They were also the first society to use ground edges on stone cutting tools and the first to use stone tools to grind seeds, everyday tools which were developed only much later by other societies.
Culture cravings: theatre, film, books and visual art
From theatre to literature, Australians have a quiet love affair with the arts. We flock to the movies and our attendance at galleries and performing arts is almost double that for all football codes. Our cities play host to a huge array of cutting-edge cultural festivals, and offer music, theatre and dance performances and art exhibitions every day of the week. See traditional Aboriginal dance performance by the Bangarra Dance Theatre, throw yourself into the WOMADelaide international music festival in Adelaide and soak up theatre, ballet, opera and painting in Brisbane's huge cultural centre on South Bank. In smaller towns you can catch performances by local musicians and see hand-made art and craft.
Aboriginal people dream on a timeless continent
Australia's Aboriginal people were thought to have arrived here by boat from South East Asia during the last Ice Age, at least 50,000 years ago. At the time of European discovery and settlement, up to one million Aboriginal people lived across the continent as hunters and gatherers. They were scattered in 300 clans and spoke 250 languages and 700 dialects. Each clan had a spiritual connection with a specific piece of land. However, they also travelled widely to trade, find water and seasonal produce and for ritual and totemic gatherings.
Despite the diversity of their homelands -from outback deserts and tropical rainforests to snow-capped mountains - all Aboriginal people share a belief in the timeless, magical realm of the Dreamtime. According to Aboriginal myth, totemic spirit ancestors forged all aspects of life during the Dreamtime of the world's creation. These spirit ancestors continue to connect natural phenomena, as well as past, present and future through every aspect of Aboriginal culture.
Britain arrives and brings its convicts
A number of European explorers sailed the coast of Australia, then known as New Holland, in the 17th century. However it wasn't until 1770 that Captain James Cook chartered the east coast and claimed it for Britain. The new outpost was put to use as a penal colony and on 26 January 1788, the First Fleet of 11 ships carrying 1,500 people - half of them convicts - arrived in Sydney Harbour. Until penal transportation ended in 1868, 160,000 men and women came to Australia as convicts.
While free settlers began to flow in from the early 1790s, life for prisoners was harsh. Women were outnumbered five to one and lived under constant threat of sexual exploitation. Male re-offenders were brutally flogged and could be hung for crimes as petty as stealing. The Aboriginal people displaced by the new settlement suffered even more. The dispossession of land and illness and death from introduced diseases disrupted traditional lifestyles and practices.
Squatters push across the continent
By the 1820s, many soldiers, officers and emancipated convicts had turned land they received from the government into flourishing farms. News of Australia's cheap land and bountiful work was bringing more and more boatloads of adventurous migrants from Britain. Settlers or 'squatters' began to move deeper into Aboriginal territories - often with a gun - in search of pasture and water for their stock.
In 1825, a party of soldiers and convicts settled in the territory of the Yuggera people, close to modern-day Brisbane. Perth was settled by English gentlemen in 1829, and 1835 a squatter sailed to Port Phillip Bay and chose the location for Melbourne. At the same time a private British company, proud to have no convict links, settled Adelaide in South Australia.
Gold fever brings wealth, migrants and rebellion
Gold was discovered in New South Wales and central Victoria in 1851, luring thousands of young men and some adventurous young women from the colonies. They were joined by boat loads of prospectors from China and a chaotic carnival of entertainers, publicans, illicit liquor-sellers, prostitutes and quacks from across the world. In Victoria, the British governor's attempts to impose order - a monthly licence and heavy-handed troopers - led to the bloody anti-authoritarian struggle of the Eureka stockade in 1854. Despite the violence on the goldfields, the wealth from gold and wool brought immense investment to Melbourne and Sydney and by the 1880s they were stylish modern cities.
Australia becomes a nation
Australia's six states became a nation under a single constitution on 1 January 1901. Today Australia is home to people from more than 200 countries.
Australians go to war
The First World War had a devastating effect on Australia. There were less than 3 million men in 1914, yet almost 400,000 of them volunteered to fight in the war. An estimated 60,000 died and tens of thousands were wounded. In reaction to the grief, the 1920s was a whirlwind of new cars and cinemas, American jazz and movies and fervour for the British Empire. When the Great Depression hit in 1929, social and economic divisions widened and many Australian financial institutions failed. Sport was the national distraction and sporting heroes such as the racehorse Phar Lap and cricketer Donald Bradman gained near-mythical status.
During the Second World War, Australian forces made a significant contribution to the Allied victory in Europe, Asia and the Pacific. The generation that fought in the war and survived came out of it with a sense of pride in Australia's capabilities.
New Australians arrive to a post-war boom
After the war ended in 1945, hundreds of thousands of migrants from across Europe and the Middle East arrived in Australia, many finding jobs in the booming manufacturing sector. Many of the women who took factory jobs while the men were at war continued to work during peacetime.
Australia's economy grew throughout the 1950s with major nation-building projects such as the Snowy Mountains Hydroelectric Scheme in the mountains near Canberra. International demand grew for Australia's major exports of metals, wools, meat and wheat and suburban Australia also prospered. The rate of home ownership rose dramatically from barely 40 per cent in 1947 to more than 70 per cent by the 1960s.
Australia loosens up
Like many other countries, Australia was swept up in the revolutionary atmosphere of the 1960s. Australia's new ethnic diversity, increasing independence from Britain and popular resistance to the Vietnam War all contributed to an atmosphere of political, economic and social change. In 1967, Australians voted overwhelmingly 'yes' in a national referendum to let the federal government make laws on behalf of Aboriginal Australians and include them in future censuses. The result was the culmination of a strong reform campaign by both Aboriginal and white Australians.
In 1972, the Australian Labor Party under the idealistic leadership of lawyer Gough Whitlam was elected to power, ending the post-war domination of the Liberal and Country Party coalition. Over the next three years, his new government ended conscription, abolished university fees and introduced free universal health care. It abandoned the White Australia policy, embraced multiculturalism and introduced no-fault divorce and equal pay for women. However by 1975, inflation and scandal led to the Governor-General dismissing the government. In the subsequent general election, the Labor Party suffered a major defeat and the Liberal-National Coalition ruled until 1983.
Since the 1970s
Between 1983 and 1996, the Hawke-Keating Labor governments introduced a number of economic reforms, such as deregulating the banking system and floating the Australian dollar. In 1996 a Coalition Government led by John Howard won the general election and was re-elected in 1998, 2001 and 2004. The Liberal-National Coalition Government enacted several reforms, including changes in the taxation and industrial relations systems. In 2007 the Labor Party led by Kevin Rudd was elected with an agenda to reform Australia's industrial relations system, climate change policies, and health and education sectors.
Aboriginal people of Australia have a rich, living culture stretching back at least 50,000 years. Get a snapshot of the diverse experiences on offer when you immerse yourself in Aboriginal Australia.
Discover places steeped in Aboriginal history in the Northern Territory. Visit Australia's Red Centre and walk around the base of Uluru with an Anangu guide. Browse Aboriginal art in Alice Springs, where the Arrernte people have lived for 20,000 years. Learn about Dreamtime myths in the intricate rock art galleries of World Heritage-listed Kakadu National Park
The ancient art of Kakadu
In amongst the wetlands, wildlife and rugged gorges, World Heritage-listed Kakadu National Park holds one of the highest concentrated areas of rock art in the world. As many as 5,000 Aboriginal sites have been found here, including rock art, shelters, stone tools, grindstones and ceremonial ochre. This detailed, dramatic record of life in Kakadu stretches back more than 50,000 years - from the first evidence of human occupation to the arrival of Europeans.
Australia's cultural attractions
From national monuments to boutique galleries and open-air festivals, Australia's cities have a rich and thriving creative culture. Attend a full-scale performance at Sydney's iconic Opera House and discover Canberra's treasure trove of national attractions. Contrast epic exhibitions with laneway art in Melbourne, home to the national opera and ballet companies. Soak up Aboriginal and European culture along Adelaide's North Terrace and browse Aboriginal art or celebrate at an outdoor festival in Darwin. Explore Brisbane's sprawling cultural spaces, from the Queensland Cultural Centre to the futuristic Powerhouse. See a play in Australia's oldest theatre in Hobart and amble from Perth's galleries and museums to Fremantle's seaside art strip.
Australia's heritage attractions
Connect to Australia's history, from ancient Aboriginal traditions through to convict and colonial eras. Learn about Sydney's traditional owners and see the colony's beginnings in historic sites stretching from the harbour to Parramatta. Check out Melbourne's grand gold boom architecture and dine, wine and shop in Brisbane's heritage-listed buildings. See Aboriginal and colonial art in Adelaide, near the historic German village of Hahndorf. Trace the Aboriginal lineage of Kings Park in Perth and walk with the ghosts of convicts, whalers and sailors in Hobart. Read Australia's first constitution in Canberra and learn about Darwin's dramatic World War II history
Australia has some of the world's most distinctive and diverse natural environments, with unique wildlife, and spectacular landscapes, including many national parks and World Heritage Areas.
In these areas you can get up close to our native plants and animals, explore wide open spaces and discover ancient rainforests on the fringe of modern cities. You can also climb snow-capped mountains and swim in some of the most pristine water environments on earth.
Ningaloo Reef & Shark Bay, Western Australia
World Heritage-listed Ningaloo Reef is the largest fringing reef in the world. It is one of most reliable places in the world to view and swim with gentle whale sharks, the world's largest fish. They arrive shortly after the mass coral spawning in March each year.
Shark Bay's clear turquoise waters are home to humpback whales, turtles, dolphins and manta rays. See living relatives of the earth's earliest life-forms at Hamelin Pool and walk on one of the world's few beaches made entirely of tiny shells. Spend your day with the friendly dolphins of Monkey Mia which come to the beach to be hand-fed each day.
Kakadu National Park, Northern Territory
World Heritage-listed Kakadu National Park is Australia's largest national park, an area so vast it is divided into seven distinct regions, and has six different seasons. The Aboriginal history of the Kakadu region spans more than 40000 years. Rugged soaring escarpments give way to forest woodlands, lush wetlands and open savannah plains. You'll see millions of migratory birds in the wetlands and crocodiles sunbathing on the banks of the rivers. Swim under massive waterfalls, walk through sandstone galleries of ancient rock art or cruise the scenic billabong teeming with wildlife. It is also one of the best places to go fishing in Australia.
Kangaroo Island, SA
Kangaroo Island, Australia's third largest island, is located just 15 kilometres off the South Australian mainland. More than a third of the island is preserved as Conservation or National Parks. The island has five significant Wilderness Protection Areas. On its wild coastline, buffeted by the Southern Ocean, you will find abundant Australian wildlife in their natural habitat.
In the deserts, beaches and forests of this landscape, see sea-lions laze at Seal Bay and little penguins waddling to shore in Penneshaw and Kingscote. More than 7000 fur-seals can be seen playing in and around the natural formation of Admirals Arch in Flinders Chase National Park, where the aptly-named Remarkable Rocks change colour throughout the day.
At Vivonne Bay, officially declared Australia's Best Beach by Sydney University researchers, you can surf, fish, snorkel with rare leafy sea-dragons, swim with dolphins or dive the shipwrecks at D'estrees Bay. Go sand surfing in the giant dunes of Little Sahara.
Tasmania's isolation from the mainland has ensured the survival of many plants, animals and birds that you won't find anywhere else in Australia. Forty per cent of the state is protected as national parks and reserves, with much of it unchanged for more than 60 million years. The Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage area stretches for more than 1.38 million hectares and is one of the last true wilderness regions on Earth. From the rugged alpine peaks and dense rainforests in the north to the island's remote southern tip, Tasmania has more than 2000 kilometres of world-class walking tracks including the famous Overland Track.
Great Barrier Reef, QLD
The marine wonderland of the Great Barrier Reef is an explosion of colour and biodiversity that stretches for more than 2500 kilometres off the Queensland coast. It's both the world's biggest World Heritage Area and biggest coral reef system, and the biggest thing made out of living creatures on earth. It is formed of more than 3000 individual reefs and 900 coral cays and continental islands. These create a web of life for more than 1500 species of fish, one third of the world's soft corals, 600 species of starfish and sea urchins, six species of endangered marine turtles and more than 30 species of whales and dolphins.
Blue Mountains, NSW
The blue-hazed beauty, golden sandstone escarpments, dramatic cliffs and deep canyons of the Blue Mountains are just a 90-minute drive from Sydney. As well as a million hectares of World Heritage-listed wilderness, here you'll find the world's rarest tree, the prehistoric Wollemi Pine. There is also more than 400 different kinds of unique Australian animals such as the spotted-tail quoll, yellow-bellied glider, and the long-nosed potoroo. One of the best ways to take it all in is on the Greater Blue Mountains Drive, a 1200 kilometre touring journey that links 18 different 'discovery trails' - each one unique.
Straddling New South Wales, Victoria and the Australian Capital Territory, the Alps has uniquely Australian alpine vistas and year-round opportunities for outdoor adventure. Here you can climb Mount Kosciuszko, Australia's highest peak, or go hiking or biking through wildflower-cloaked slopes. Kayak and go white-water rafting on clear glacial lakes and rivers, or take a horseback adventure over the high plains in summer. In winter, go downhill or cross country skiing. You can trek through three states and seven national parks on the epic 650 kilometre Australian Alps Walking Track or do one or two day walks of shorter sections of the trail.
Phillip Island, Victoria
Every day at dusk, Summerland Beach in the Phillip Island Nature Park, just 90 minutes from Melbourne, comes alive with thousands of little penguins. The wild ocean beaches, sheltered bays, blowholes and caves are also home to koalas, abundant bird life and fur seals. Join a wildlife cruise to see the colony of 16000 Australian fur seals at Seal Rocks, one of the largest colonies in Australia, and spot koalas among the treetops at the Koala Conservation Centre. The Nobbies is a magnificent headland on the south-western tip of Phillip Island where you can absorb the stunning coastal views and thundering blowhole at lookout points set amongst natural sea bird gardens. Catch a wave against the backdrop of ancient pink granite at Cape Woolamai, one of Victoria's most popular surfing beaches and bird-spotting hotspots. Phillip Island forms part of the Churchill Island Marine National Park which is listed under the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands of International Importance. Two island circuit tracks offer magnificent views across Western Port Bay and views to Tortoise Head and French Island.