7 Great Misconceptions About Australia

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As an Australian, I'm greeted with open arms whenever I go overseas. It's great to be liked"¦ but though I hate to admit it, there are a few things people get wrong about us. I'm afraid I don't have a pet kangaroo, I don't live on a wide-open Outback farm, I don't eat copious amounts of Vegemite, and I don't greet everyone by saying "G'day, mate." Some Aussies do those things, I'll admit, but most of us don't. While I'm here, I should clear up a few other misconceptions"¦

1. Captain Cook discovered Australia

Captain James Cook (who was actually a Lieutenant at the time) is famous for discovering Australia in 1770. He claimed the land for England, which duly sent the first white settlers 18 years later. But many other explorers saw Australia well before Cook's time. Archaeological evidence suggests that the Chinese discovered the land in the 15th century. Dutch explorer Dirk Hartog visited Australia in 1616, and was possibly the first European to recognize it as a new land. In 1688, William Dampier became the first Englishman to set foot on Australia, recording the sight of a "large hopping animal" in his journal. Of course, the true discoverers of the land were the Australian Aborigines, who "“ despite being properly called "native Australians" "“ probably hailed from Asia. They have only been living in Australia for tens of thousands of years.

2. Qantas never crashed

QantasRemember the scene in Rain Man when Raymond (Dustin Hoffman) refuses to travel on any airline except Qantas, claiming that "Qantas never crashed"? If you saw it as an in-flight movie, you probably don't remember that scene, because it was edited out on most airlines. (Except one... but you could probably figure that out.)

The movie has long been a source of pride (and no doubt, good business) for Qantas. Still, while Australia's national airline does have an impressive safety record, it is not perfect. And that perfect record was marred very early on in the company's history. In Queensland in 1927, a passenger flight ended tragically, killing all three people aboard. Altogether, 80 people have died in Qantas crashes, though the last fatal crash was way back in 1951. Perhaps Raymond meant that the airline has never had any fatal jet airliner crashes. All of their crashes were in small aircraft.

3. All Aussies live on the land

The image of the bronzed, rugged, Outback-dwelling bushman, as seen in the "Crocodile" Dundee movies (and more recently, Hugh Jackman's robust hero in the film Australia), is not as common as you might assume. Despite the size of the Outback (1.2 million square miles), only one percent of Australians actually live there. (As so much of the Outback is arid land, it couldn't really sustain many others.) Aussies are really rather urbanized. Half of Australia's 21 million people live in the five largest cities, with a third of all Aussies living in the metropolises of Sydney and Melbourne. Very, very few Australians eat grubs, wrestle crocodiles, or hypnotize wild animals.

4. The dangers of Australian snakes

Australia is notorious for dangerous snakes and spiders. This is partly due to a government campaign, a few years ago, to scare away prospective refugees with tales of terrible wildlife. (The campaign might have backfired, as potential tourists also decided to avoid the place!) But while it does have many venomous critters, they have killed very few people. Bushwalkers might be at risk, but if you're visiting a city (or even a country town), you can breathe easy. It is true, however, that Australia has the world's most venomous snake. The inland taipan (or fierce snake) has enough venom to kill 100 grown men. So how many people has it killed? Er"¦ none. Thanks to antivenom treatment and its own shyness (it would rather slither away quietly than stay and fight), it's been strangely harmless.

5. Saving the Brits at Gallipoli

No military battle stirs as much sentiment in Australia as the Gallipoli campaign, an ill-fated (and poorly organized) World War I offensive on the Turkish coast that killed thousands of soldiers. Though Aussies salute the heroism of their soldiers, many believe they were used as decoys to save the cowardly British officers. This legend was boosted by Gallipoli (1981), an early Mel Gibson film, which was a huge hit in Australia. In this film, Aussie soldiers die in battle while British officers stay safely in their tents, calmly drinking tea. The truth is that, during the real Gallipoli attack, the English had even more casualties than the Aussies.

The Australian cavalry, meanwhile, was commanded by Australian officers (as you might expect), not British ones. The movie implied otherwise, making it appear that it was callous British officers who sent the young Aussies to their deaths. Actually, the movie never says that the officers are British, but it does give them very strong British accents. (In fairness, perhaps the movie wasn't as historically inaccurate as it sounded. Back in World War I, it was not unusual for well-educated, affluent Australians to sound frightfully British "“ and as you might imagine, many of them became military officers.)

6. Kangaroos are brilliant

skippyPeople around the world believe that kangaroos, one of Australia's national animals, are highly intelligent, and can be trained to unlock doors, open safes, guide lost people through bushland, control helicopters, even tinker on the piano. Why do they think that? Blame the television series Skippy, which premiered in 1967, and was soon shown in 100 countries (a world record at the time) by over 300 million people. Even kids in the Eastern Bloc (where American series were banned) adored the adventures of a heroic kangaroo that (in the spirit of Lassie, Flipper and other clever TV animals) could save the day every week. The only Western nation to turn down Skippy was Sweden, which was afraid that the series gave "a misleading impression of an animal's ability."

Alas, the Swedes were right. As kangaroos are impossible to train, Skippy was played by 14 lookalikes. Before each scene, one kangaroo was kept in a hessian bag, so that she (Skippy was a girl) could emerge, dazed, to stand still and film for a few minutes before nonchalantly hopping away. Her dexterity, allowing her to open doors and pick up objects, was the work of fake paws, operated by puppeteers.

7. Koalas are bears

koalaKoalas are not bears. In fact, they are not even distantly related. Like kangaroos and Tasmanian devils, they are marsupials (carrying their young in pouches). Perhaps the only thing they have in common with bears is their propensity for sleep "“ but even bears couldn't possibly match them in this. Each day, the average adult koala spends about fourteen hours sleeping, five hours resting, roughly five hours eating and four minutes traveling (climbing further up their tree). Of course, this lifestyle doesn't require much energy, and as they eat mainly Eucalyptus leaves, they don't exactly have a high-energy diet. While they don't like to be disturbed, they wouldn't attack with the ferocity of a bear.

September 25, 2009 - 11:26am
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