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Home of the Largest Living Thing on Earth
From Bill Bryson, In a Sunburnt Country

Australia

Australia is the world's sixth largest country and its largest island. It is the only island that is also a continent, and the only continent that is also a country. It was the first continent conquered from the sea, and the last. It is the only nation that began as a prison.

It is the home of the largest living thing on earth, the Great Barrier Reef, and the largest monolith, Ayers Rock, Uluru. It has more things that will kill you than anywhere else. Of the world's ten most poisonous snakes, all are Australian. Five of it's creatures—the funnel web spider, box jellyfish, blue-ringed octopus, paralysis tick, and stonefish—are the most lethal of their type in the world. This is the country where even the fluffiest of caterpillars can lay you out with a toxic nip, where seashells will not just sting you but actually sometimes go for you. Pick up an innocuous cone shell from a Queensland Beach, as innocent tourists are all too wont to do, and you will discover that the little fellow inside is not just astoundingly swift and testy but exceedingly venomous. If you are not stung or pronged to death in some unexpected manner you may be fatally chomped by sharks or crocodiles, or carried helplessly out to sea by irresistible currents, or left to stagger to an unhappy death in the baking outback. It's a tough place.

And it is old. Things once created have tended just to lie there. So many of the oldest objects ever found on earth, the most ancient rocks and fossils, the earliest animal tracks and riverbeds, the first faint signs of life itself, have come from Australia.

The world those first Englishmen found was famously inverted—its seasons back to front, its constellations upside down—and unlike anything any of them had seen before even in the near latitudes of the Pacific. Its creatures seemed to have evolved as if they had misread the manual. The most characteristic of them didn't run or lope of canter, but bounced across the landscape, like dropped balls. The continent teems with unlikely life. It contained a fish that could climb trees; a fox that flew (actually a very large bat); crustaceans so large that a grown man could climb inside their shells. Not to discuss the unlikely characteristics of the platypus, which swims like a fish, barks like a dog, stings like a scorpion, feels like the fur on a cat, hides like a shy child, reproduces like a chicken and only comes out at night. Sounds like a crazy mixed up teenager.

In short, there is no place in the world like it. There still isn't. Eighty-percent of all that live in Australia, plant and animal, exists nowhere else. More than this, it exists in abundance that seems incompatible with the harshness of the environment. Australia is the driest, flattest, hottest, most desiccated, infertile and climatically aggressive of all the inhabited continents. Only the Antarctic is more hostile to life.

This is a place so inert that even the soil is, technically speaking, a fossil. And yet it teems with life in numbers uncounted. For insects alone, scientists haven't the faintest idea whether the total number of species is 100,000 or more than twice that. As many as a third of those species remain entirely unknown to science. For spiders, the proportion rises to eighty percent.

This is a country that is at once, staggeringly empty and yet packed with stuff. Interesting stuff, ancient stuff, stuff not readily explained. Stuff yet to be found.

Trust me, this is an interesting place.

Each time you fly from North America to Australia, and without anyone asking how you feel about it, a day is taken away from you when you cross the International Date Line. You arrive in Sydney fourteen hours after you left Los Angeles, but two days ahead. For you, there is just one day gone. Lost. Where is goes exactly now one can tell. All you know is that for one twenty four hour period in the history of the earth, you appear to have no being. I find that uncanny, to say the least. But that is what Australia does to you. If you were scanning through your travel brochure and you saw a notice that said, "Passengers are advised that on some crossings twenty four loss of existence may occur," you would probably get up and make enquiries, grab a sleeve and say, "Excuse me? There is a certain metaphysical comfort in knowing that you can cease to have material form and it doesn't hurt at all." And to be fair, they do give you the day back on the return journey when you cross the date line in the opposite direction, and thereby manage somehow to arrive in Los Angeles before you left Sydney, which in its way, of course, is an even neater trick.

Every one should have the pleasure at least once in their lifetime to see the real Australia, the vast baking interior, the boundless void that lies between the coasts, the outback. Why, when people urge you to see their real country, they send you to the empty parts where almost no sane person would choose to live, but there you are. You cannot say you have seen Australia until you have crossed the outback.

Bill Bryson, In a Sunburnt Country, (C2000) pp 6-12, Broadway, Random House, ISBN 0-7679-0386-2.

   
         
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