Australia officially known as the Commonwealth of Australia, is an Oceanian country comprising the mainland of the Australian continent, the island of Tasmania, and numerous smaller islands. It is the world’s sixth-largest country by total area. Neighbouring countries include Papua New Guinea, Indonesia and East Timor to the north; the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu to the north-east; and New Zealand to the south-east.
For about 50,000 years before the first British settlement in the late 18th century, Australia was inhabited by indigenous Australians, who spoke languages grouped into roughly 250 language groups. After the European discovery of the continent by Dutch explorers in 1606, Australia’s eastern half was claimed by Great Britain in 1770 and initially settled throughpenal transportation to the colony of New South Wales from 26 January 1788. The population grew steadily in subsequent decades; the continent was explored and an additional five self-governing crown colonies were established. On 1 January 1901, the six colonies federated, forming the Commonwealth of Australia. Since federation, Australia has maintained a stable liberal democratic political system that functions as a federal parliamentary democracy and constitutional monarchy comprising six states and several territories. The population of 24 million is highly urbanised and heavily concentrated in the eastern states and on the coast.
Australia’s landmass of 7,617,930 square kilometres (2,941,300 sq mi) is on the Indo-Australian Plate. Surrounded by the Indian and Pacific oceans, it is separated from Asia by the Arafura and Timor seas, with the Coral Sea lying off the Queensland coast, and theTasman Sea lying between Australia and New Zealand. The world’s smallest continent and sixth largest country by total area, Australia—owing to its size and isolation—is often dubbed the “island continent”, and is sometimes considered the world’s largest island. Australia has 34,218 kilometres (21,262 mi) of coastline (excluding all offshore islands), and claims an extensive Exclusive Economic Zone of 8,148,250 square kilometres (3,146,060 sq mi). This exclusive economic zone does not include the Australian Antarctic Territory. Apart from Macquarie Island, Australia lies between latitudes 9° and 44°S, and longitudes 112° and 154°E.
The Great Barrier Reef, the world’s largest coral reef, lies a short distance off the north-east coast and extends for over 2,000 kilometres (1,240 mi). Mount Augustus, claimed to be the world’s largest monolith, is located in Western Australia. At 2,228 metres (7,310 ft), Mount Kosciuszko on the Great Dividing Range is the highest mountain on the Australian mainland. Even taller are Mawson Peak (at 2,745 metres or 9,006 feet), on the remote Australian territory of Heard Island, and, in the Australian Antarctic Territory, Mount McClintock and Mount Menzies, at 3,492 metres (11,457 ft) and 3,355 metres (11,007 ft) respectively.
Australia’s size gives it a wide variety of landscapes, with tropical rainforests in the north-east, mountain ranges in the south-east, south-west and east, and dry desert in the centre. It is the flattest continent, with the oldest and least fertile soils; desert or semi-arid land commonly known as the outback makes up by far the largest portion of land. The driest inhabited continent, its annual rainfall averaged over continental area is less than 500 mm. The population density, 2.8 inhabitants per square kilometre, is among the lowest in the world, although a large proportion of the population lives along the temperate south-eastern coastline.
The climate of Australia is significantly influenced by ocean currents, including the Indian Ocean Dipole and the El Niño–Southern Oscillation, which is correlated with periodic drought, and the seasonal tropical low-pressure system that produces cyclones in northern Australia. These factors cause rainfall to vary markedly from year to year. Much of the northern part of the country has a tropical, predominantly summer-rainfall (monsoon) climate. The south-west corner of the country has a Mediterranean climate. Much of the south-east (including Tasmania) is temperate.
Although most of Australia is semi-arid or desert, it includes a diverse range of habitats from alpine heaths to tropical rainforests, and is recognised as a megadiverse country. Fungi typify that diversity; an estimated 250,000 species—of which only 5% have been described—occur in Australia. Because of the continent’s great age, extremely variable weather patterns, and long-term geographic isolation, much of Australia’s biota is unique. About 85% of flowering plants, 84% of mammals, more than 45% of birds, and 89% of in-shore, temperate-zone fish are endemic. Australia has the greatest number of reptiles of any country, with 755 species.
Australian forests are mostly made up of evergreen species, particularly eucalyptus trees in the less arid regions; wattles replace them as the dominant species in drier regions and deserts. Among well-known Australian animals are the monotremes (the platypus and echidna); a host of marsupials, including the kangaroo, koala, and wombat, and birds such as the emu and the kookaburra. Australia is home to many dangerous animals including some of the most venomous snakes in the world. The dingo was introduced by Austronesian people who traded with Indigenous Australians around 3000 BCE. Many animal and plant species became extinct soon after first human settlement, including the Australian megafauna; others have disappeared since European settlement, among them the thylacine.
In 2005, Australia had 14 World Heritage areas. These are places or areas that UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, has agreed are worthy of special protection because they represent the best examples of the world’s cultural and natural heritage. Some of these, such as Kakadu, Uluru-Kata Tjuta and Purnululu National Parks, are jointly managed by the Aboriginal traditional owners as UNESCO World Heritage areas.
National parks are located in the alps, the deserts, forests, and reefs. They preserve:
- special habitats, plants and wildlife, such as the Wollemi National Park where the dinosaur tree, the Wollemi Pine lives;
- ecosystems that exist no where else on earth such wetlands in the Yalgorup National Park in Western Australia;
- natural wonders, such as the Australian Fossil Mammal Sites in North Queensland;
- areas sacred to Australian Aboriginals such as Mutawintji National Park in western New South Wales;
- places that preserve Australia’s history since European settlement such as Flinders Chase National Park on Kangaroo Island in South Australia; and
- historical shipwreck sites, areas of importance to local Aboriginals and a wide range of flora and fauna such as Port Campbell National Park in Victoria where the natural wonders of the Great Ocean Road and the Twelve Apostles can be enjoyed.
Some examples of Australia’s diverse national parks are described below.
Royal National Park
Flinders Ranges National Park
Kosciuszko National Park
Purnululu National Park
For more information about Australia’s National Parks, check the link below: