In the English-speaking world (as well as in many other countries such as China and India), the number of continents is considered to be seven: Asia, North America, South America, Africa, Europe, Australia, and Antarctica. The division of the world into continents is arbitrary. On our bucket travel list, with our recent trip to Australia, we finally reached the ultimate goal: a visit to each of these landmasses.
Travel has been the Ultimate University. It has offered us the most condensed, wide-ranging, and deepest course in all fields of life. It has brought together theory and practice. It has alighted our curiosity, leading us to discover and delve into new fields of knowledge, from astronomy in the Atacama Desert in Chile to geology in Iceland and in Hawaii and in Argentina; from less developed societies to great civilizations. It has been the portal to new places, sensations, and events that we never knew existed. While book knowledge helped us obtain a basic understanding of subjects and categories, it was one dimensional. Travel is multidimensional: it connects the various branches of human knowledge that are held in isolated, unconnected mental compartments, into a better understanding of the connectedness of the world’s nations.
Getting to the last continent on our list, Australia, is almost as heroic as visiting the seven continents. The first hint of the difficulty is how far away it is from Pittsburgh, PA. The farthest point from our hometown on Planet Earth is actually in Western Australia (specifically Perth) at a distance of 11,380 miles. This trip at its farthest point was actually 1,000 miles short of this milestone, since we only traveled as far west as Adelaide. We flew 15 hours and 54 minutes non-stop from LAX to reach our first destination in Australia, almost all of it over water.
The Pacific Ocean, unlike the Atlantic, is strewn with inhabited islands on which several human cultures and languages have developed over the millennia. Each with its own distinct character, these islands are related culturally and geographically. These Pacific Islands are the only part of the world that do not belong to a continent. But thinking about what we were flying over in our long flight, you realized that these Pacific islands have the smallest landmass, but the largest area of water; they have the smallest population, but the greatest diversity of languages and the greatest geographical extension; they have the most isolated and distant regions, but also the most intimate and friendly. In fact, the Pacific Ocean is actually the single most important natural feature on our planet. It comprises 32 % of the Earth’s surface (it is actually 3x larger than Asia, our largest continent, and larger than all the Earth’s land area combined.) When one takes into account the fact that 70% of the Earth’s surface is covered by water, it is the Pacific that is the defining feature. It is because of the Pacific, that our “blue planet” looks blue from space. Now I know that the narrator of the Blue Planet series explains these facts in the introduction to the documentary; however, knowing and flying diagonally across the Pacific at an altitude of 40,000 feet and a speed of 500 mph for 16 hours really drives the point home. This is the difference between book learning and experience. Another known but previously unexperienced perspective from this journey is the structure of the continents in relationship to the oceans. Although Asia and America touch one another at their northernmost parts, they rapidly recede along their southern coasts. This strange movement is what forms the Pacific Ocean. The Pacific is actually delineated by the eastern coast of Asia and the western coast of the Americas. This consummate understanding of the oneness of our planet—not only the unity of its continents, but also the interdependence of the landmasses and vast bodies of water- was possible only through a change in perspective. For the first time, it actually felt that we were taking that one last, long step across Planet Earth!
Australia itself is the world’s largest island yet the smallest continent. It is the only country that covers an entire continent. It is low, flat and dry. Almost one-third of the continent is desert. It has a land area equivalent to continental USA with 16,010 miles of coastline. The total population of Australia is 25 mil-lion, with the highest density in Sydney and the south east. Indeed, 90.1% of the population is urban. Out-side of the cities, there are a lot of wide open spaces! The population density in the whole country is only 8 people per square mile. This compares to the USA (of approximately the same size) with 328 million people and a population density of 93 people per square mile.
England sent 162,000 convicts to Australia over a period of 80 years. The First Fleet arrived into Botany Bay on 1/26/1788 after a voyage of three months. This has become known as Foundation Day in Australia. An estimated 20% of Australia has convict ancestry. In Tasmania alone the figure is even higher at 75%. When we checked into our hotel in Hobart, the capital city of Tasmania, the manager had conveniently listed seven “Wrights” that could possibly be related to my husband! Why did England send convicts to Australia, over a grueling three month sea journey? Because England, until 1782, was fighting a war with its colonies across the Atlantic and after the War of Independence ended they could no longer dump their outcasts in soon-to-be America!
Despite there being so much distance separating Australia and USA, there are also many cultural similarities—language, government, education, religious beliefs. Throughout the trip, we always sensed that Australia was a more laid back, less densely populated USA. There was an instant recognition of “sameness”. Australia has come to terms with its Aboriginal communities much better than the USA. Today Aboriginal communities and local government work together to return artifacts and protect the sacredness of Aboriginal mythology. In fact, we never attended a performance where Aboriginal people were not recognized and praised.
Childhood is different in the outback where kids living on isolated farms don’t go to school or play with other kids, because the nearest house might be hundreds of miles away. To combat this isolation, teachers founded the “School of the Air.” (You can see the evolution of the school in the Visitor Center located in Alice Springs, Northern Territory) Using radio equipment owned by the Flying Doctors, the teachers took turns reading scripts over the air waves to kids aged 5 to 12 across an area 2x the size of Texas. Initially only one-way, soon students were able to talk back and ask questions. At year end, students submitted assignments, which were delivered by the air ambulance to teachers. Internet has speeded things up, but not eliminated, this process which still operates nationwide, maintaining hubs in all states, except Tasmania.
Another obscure fact about Australia is the Lark Quarry Dinosaur Stampede. Ninety-five million years ago, a herd of 150 dinosaurs stampeded in Winton, Queensland. They left a tangle of fossilized tracks which now form the world’s only evidence of a dinosaur stampede.
There are interesting linkages between these two stories. We met a woman from Winton, whose father was the one of the first opal miners in Australia. One of nine children in the deserted outback, the children spent days combing through rocks in oil barrels to find a prize opal. Her pictures alone belong in a muse-um. Isolated and poor, they attended “School of the Air.” Today, 40% of opals are found in Australia and prime specimens are becoming very difficult to locate.
Although we didn’t learn new languages, participate in unique holiday traditions, visit archeological digs, or tour historic churches and monuments, Australia did give us the opportunity to explore experience-based luxury properties. Each lodge had a signature activity that showcased the special aspects of its region—pristine natural landscapes, wildlife, indigenous heritage, nature, food and wine. It was all about delivering a sense of place to reflect the diversity and authenticity, at each lodging, of the Australian experience. To answer the question, was it worth the flight? Yes, unequivocally. We stayed at 4 of the 20 lodges now available, only 20%. There are 16 more to explore!
Here’s a sampling:
Henry James Art Hotel – Located at the harbor in Tasmania this hotel was the manufacturing location for IXL Jams, bought by the J.H. Smucker Co. in 1989. Now an art hotel featuring contemporary local art, the walls still seep jam on the warmest summer days.
Saffire – Discreetly positioned overlooking the Hazards Mountains, Freycinet Peninsula and the pristine waters of Great Oyster Bay, we were able to hike, beachcomb, encounter Tasmanian devils in a natural set-ting, and eat oysters directly from the bay (while standing in the water)!
Southern Ocean Lodge – After leaving Saffire, we drove along the Great Ocean Road to our next lodging. This retreat atop the limestone cliffs of Kangaroo Island invites a step into another world. It is a true wilderness refuge, a place teeming with indigenous species (kangaroos, koalas, wallabies, fur seals) and where the rugged coast offers some of the world’s most dramatic ocean views.
Longitude 131 – This is a desert basecamp with spectacular views of the World Heritage listed wilderness of Uluru-Kata Tjuta. We were able to connect with the ancient creation stories of the land’s traditional custodians and come face-to-face with this irresistible spot, rich in cultural heritage and history. The hues of the rocks at either sunset or sunrise were unparalleled. It was easy to embrace the beauty of the loneliness.
Even though we have now visited seven continents, it still seems that there is so much more to learn and understand. The rate of change in the world today seems almost impossible compared to what we experienced during one of our first adventure journeys in 2003 to Iceland. All of the countries that we have vis-ited in recent trips (Australia, Japan, Iceland, UK , Canada, New Zealand, South Korea and 20 others) have a health and wealth standing that exceeds that of the U.S.! (Check out the blog titled, Perception vs. Reality.)
We used to travel to “last empty places” but now telecommunications and individual cell phones are common everywhere. The world is getting smaller, healthier, wealthier and wiser. It appears as though we will have to update our travel theme (empty places are diminishing quickly), just as we hit a milestone on our travel bucket list. Stay tuned!