The first inhabitants of Australia were the Aborigines, who migrated there at least 40,000 years ago from Southeast Asia. There may have been between a half million to a million Aborigines at the time of European settlement; today about 350,000 live in Australia. .
Dutch, Portuguese, and Spanish ships sighted Australia in the 17th century; the Dutch landed at the Gulf of Carpentaria in 1606. In 1616 the territory became known as New Holland. The British arrived in 1688, but it was not until Captain James Cook’s voyage in 1770 that Great Britain claimed possession of the vast island, calling it New South Wales. A British penal colony was set up at Port Jackson (what is now Sydney) in 1788, and about 161,000 transported English convicts were settled there until the system was suspended in 1839.
Free settlers and former prisoners established six colonies: New South Wales (1786), Tasmania (then Van Diemen’s Land) (1825), Western Australia (1829), South Australia (1834), Victoria (1851), and Queensland (1859). Various gold rushes attracted settlers, as did the mining of other minerals. The six colonies became states and in 1901 federated into the Commonwealth of Australia with a constitution that incorporated British parliamentary and U.S. federal traditions.
The continent of Australia, with the island state of Tasmania, is approximately equal in area to the United States (excluding Alaska and Hawaii). Mountain ranges run from north to south along the east coast, reaching their highest point in Mount Kosciusko (7,308 ft; 2,228 m). The western half of the continent is occupied by a desert plateau that rises into barren, rolling hills near the west coast. The Great Barrier Reef, extending about 1,245 mi (2,000 km), lies along the northeast coast. The island of Tasmania (26,178 sq mi; 67,800 sq km) is off the southeast coast.
While many people think that Sydney is the capital of Australia, the actual capital is the inland city of Canberra. Home to government, several of our Aussie friends describe Canberra as the “town that fun forgot” and we can’t help but agree. Fortunately, Sydney is the cultural and economic epicenter of the country and it is truly one of the world’s great cities. It is easy to spend a week exploring this friendly hospitable city before heading north top fish.
Our main area of interest is the Queensland Territory, in the far north east of the country. North east Queensland is where the Great Barrier Reef is located. Because of its size, there is significant variation in climate across the state. Low rainfall and hot summers are typical for the inland west, a monsoonal ‘wet’ season in the far north, and warm temperate conditions along the coastal strip. This region is an outdoor lover’s dream, with more things to do and places to go than one could possibly do in a lifetime.