Australia is both an island country and a continent, lying between the Pacific and Indian Oceans. Its varied landscapes include a hot, dry center (known as the outback), tropical rainforests, snow-capped mountains, and beautiful beaches. New Zealand lies about 930 miles (1,500 km) southeast of Australia. On the North Island there are forests, volcanoes, and hot springs. South Island is more mountainous, with glaciers, fjords, and lakes.
Outdoor sports are a large part of the Australian lifestyle. The majority of Australians live near the coast, where the sunny climate, sandy beaches, and warm water make sailing, swimming, surfing, and diving popular activities. Australians also enjoy spectator sports, and their tennis players and cricket and rugby teams all enjoy great international success.
Australia has a diverse, multicultural society. Many people are of European origin, but the population also includes people from China, Indonesia, and Vietnam. Australia’s oldest inhabitants are the Aboriginal people who settled here over 40,000 years ago.
Many of the animals in Australia are found nowhere else in the world. Marsupial mammals, such as kangaroos, koalas, and wombats, and egg-laying mammals, such as the duck-billed platypus, are unique to this country. These creatures evolved here because they were isolated by vast oceans for 30 million years.
The giant block of red sandstone named Uluru, meaning “great pebble,” stands in the middle of Australia’s desert. The rock is held sacred by the Aboriginals of this region and features in their beliefs about the creation of the world.
Each year, thousands of tourists visit the Great Barrier Reef, causing damage and pollution to what is the largest coral reef in the world. The fragile reef lies off the northeast coast of Australia, and is home to a huge variety of underwater life. Constructed by tiny creatures over thousands of years, the reef is also threatened by infestations of the crown of thorns starfish, which devours large areas of coral in a day.
New Zealand’s damp climate and rich pasture make sheep farming the country’s biggest industry. With over 44 million sheep (about 11 sheep for every person), wool and lamb are major exports. Australia is the world’s chief wool-producing country. Its 120 million sheep are raised on huge farms called stations, where farmers use light aircraft to patrol up to 5,600 sq miles (15,000 sq km) of land.
New Zealand was uninhabited until the Maori people came to settle from Pacific islands over 1,000 years ago. Later in the 19th century, European settlers arrived in the country. In recent years, there has been an influx of non-Maori Polynesians and Melanesians, adding to this multicultural society. Today, Maoris—the original inhabitants—make up about 12 percent of New Zealand’s total population.
Nearly 13 percent of New Zealand’s land lies inside national parks. The rugged mountains, huge glaciers, lakes, fjords, and forests are ideal for hiking, sailing, white-water rafting, and other outdoor pursuits. The spectacular scenery also includes active volcanoes, spouting geysers, and boiling mud pools.
Capital city: Canberra
Area: 2,967,893 sq miles (7,686,850 sq km)
Population: 19.5 million
Official language: English
Major religions: Roman Catholic and Anglican
Currency: Australian dollar