April 17th, 2005


Australia: The Confusing Country

by Jeremy Lee, aka Orinoco. Not by me. Not by Douglas Adams. Okay?


Australia is a very confusing place, taking up a large amount of the bottom half of the planet. It is recognisable from orbit because of many unusual features, including what at first looks like an enormous bite taken out of its southern edge; a wall of sheer cliffs which plunge deep into the surrounding sea. Geologists assure us that this is simply an accident of geomorphology and plate tectonics, but they still call it the 'Great Australian Bight' proving that not only are they covering up a more frightening theory, but they can't spell either.

The first of the confusing things about Australia is the status of the place. Where other land masses and sovereign lands are classified as either continent, island, or country, Australia is considered all three. Typically, it is unique in this.


The second confusing thing about Australia are the animals. They can be divided into three categories: poisonous, odd, and sheep. It is true that of the ten most poisonous arachnids on the planet, Australia has nine of them. Actually, it would be more accurate to say that of the nine most poisonous arachnids, Australia has all of them. However, there are curiously few snakes, possibly because the spiders have killed them all. But even the spiders won't go near the sea (see below). Any visitors should be careful to check inside boots (before putting them on) under toilet seats (before sitting down) and generally everywhere else. A stick is very useful for this task.

Strangely, it tends to be the second class of animals (the odd) that are more dangerous. The creature that injures the most people each year is the common wombat. It is nearly as ridiculous as its name, and spends its life digging holes in the ground, in which it hides. During the night it comes out to eat worms and grubs.

The wombat injures people in two ways: first, the animal is indestructible. Digging holes in the hard Australian clay builds muscles that outclass Olympic weightlifters. At night, they often wander the roads. Semi-trailers (road trains) have hit them at high speed, with all nine wheels on one side, and this merely makes them very annoyed. They express this by snorting, glaring, and walking away. Alas, to smaller cars, the wombat becomes an asymmetrical high-speed launching pad, with results that can be imagined, but not adequately described.

The second way the wombat injures people relates to its burrowing behaviour. If a person happens to put their hand down a wombat hole, the wombat will feel the disturbance and think 'Ho! My hole is collapsing!' at which it will brace its muscled legs and push up against the roof of its burrow with incredible force, to prevent its collapse. Any unfortunate hand will be crushed, and attempts to withdraw will cause the wombat to simply bear down harder. The unfortunate will then bleed to death through their crushed hand as the wombat prevents him from seeking assistance. This is considered the third most embarrassing known way to die,¹ and Australians don't talk about it much.

At this point, we would like to mention the platypus, estranged relative of the mammal, which has a duck-bill, otter's tail, webbed feet, lays eggs, detects its aquatic prey in the same way as the electric eel, and has venemous barbs attached to its hind legs, thus combining all 'typical' Australian attributes into a single improbable creature.


The last confusing thing about Australia is the inhabitants. First, a short history: some time around 40,000 years ago, some people arrived in boats from the north. They ate all the available food, and a lot of them died. The ones that survived learned respect for the balance of nature, man's proper place in the scheme of things, and spiders. They settled in, and spent a lot of the intervening time making up strange stories.

Then, around 200 years ago, Europeans arrived in boats from the north. More accurately, European convicts were sent over, with a few deranged and stupid people in charge. They tried to plant their crops in Autumn (failing to take account of the reversal of the seasons when moving from the top half of the planet to the bottom), ate all their food, and a lot of them died. About then the sheep arrived, and have been treasured ever since.

It is interesting to note here that the Europeans always consider themselves vastly superior to any other race they encounter, since they can lie, cheat, steal, and litigate (marks of a civilized culture, they say) - whereas all the Aboriginals can do is happily survive being left in the middle of a vast red-hot desert, equipped with a stick.

Eventually, the new lot of people stopped being Europeans on an extended holiday and became Australians. The changes are subtle, but deep, caused by the mind-stretching expanses of nothingness and eerie quiet, where a person can sit perfectly still and look deep inside themselves to the core of their essence, their reasons for being, and the necessity of checking inside your boots every morning for fatal surprises. They also picked up the most finely-tuned sense of irony in the world, and the Aboriginal gift for making up stories. Be warned.

And then...

There is also the matter of the beaches.

Australian beaches are simply the nicest and best in the entire world. Although anyone actually venturing into the sea will have to contend with sharks, stinging jellyfish, stonefish (a fish which sits on the bottom of the sea, pretends to be a rock, and has venomous barbs sticking out of its back that will kill you just from the pain) and surfboarders. However, watching a beach sunset is worth the risk of all of these.


As a result of all this hardship, dirt, thirst, and wombats, you would expect Australians to be a dour lot. Instead, they are genial, jolly, cheerful, and always willing to share a kind word with a stranger, unless they are an American. Faced with insurmountable odds and impossible problems, they smile disarmingly, and reach for a stick. Major engineering feats have been performed with sheets of corrugated iron, string, and mud.

Alone of all the races on earth, they seem to be free from the 'Grass is greener on the other side of the fence' syndrome, and roundly proclaim that Australia is, in fact, the other side of that fence. They call the land 'Oz', 'Godzone' (a verbal contraction of 'God's Own Country') and 'Best bloody place on earth, bar none, strewth'. The irritating thing about this is they may be right.

There are some traps for the unsuspecting traveller, though. Do not under any circumstances suggest that the beer is imperfect, unless you are comparing it to another kind of Australian beer. Do not wear a Hawaiian shirt. Religion and politics are safe topics of conversation (Australians don't care too much about either) but sport is a minefield. The only correct answer to 'So, howdya' like our country, eh?' is 'Best [insert your own regional swear word here] country in the world!'.

It is very likely that, on arriving, some cheerful Australians will 'adopt' you, and on your first night will take you to a pub where Australian beer is served. Despite the obvious danger, do not refuse. It is a form of initiation rite. You will wake up late the next day with an astonishing hangover, a foul taste in your mouth, and wearing strange clothes. Your hosts will usually make sure you get home, and wave off any legal difficulties with 'It's his first time in Australia, so we took him to the pub', to which the policeman will sagely nod and close his notebook. Be sure to tell the story of these events to every other Australian you encounter, adding new embellishments at every stage, and noting how strong the beer was. Thus you will be accepted into this unique culture.

Most Australians are now urban dewllers, having discovered the primary use of electricity, which is air-conditioning and refrigerators.

Typical Australian Sayings

  • G'Day!
  • It's better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick.
  • She'll be right.
  • And down from Kosiosco, where the pine clad ridges raise their torn and rugged battlements on high, where the air is clear is crystal, and the white stars fairly blaze at midnight in the cold and frosty sky. And where, around the overflow, the reed beds sweep and sway to the breezes, and the rolling plains are wide. The Man from Snowy River is a household word today, and the stockmen tell the story of his ride.

Tips to Surviving Australia

  • Don't ever put your hand down a hole for any reason whatsoever.
  • We mean it.
  • The beer is stronger than you think, regardless of how strong you think it is.
  • Always carry a stick.
  • Air-conditioning.
  • Do not attempt to use any Australian slang, unless you are a trained linguist and good in a fistfight.
  • Thick socks.
  • Take good maps. Stopping to ask directions only works when there are people nearby.
  • Don't swim in crocodile-infested rivers.
  • If you leave the urban areas, carry several litres of water with you at all times, or you will die. In the outback, water is life.
  • Even in the most embellished stories told by Australians, there is always a core of truth that it is unwise to ignore.

See also: Deserts: How to die in them, The Stick - second most useful thing ever and Poisonous and Venomous arachnids, insects, animals, trees, shrubs, fish and sheep of Australia, volumes 1 - 42.


The Stick is the one of most useful things in the universe. It is a communications device, firelighter, weapon, testing instrument, ceremonial device, and is the only known way to control camels. If that wasn't enough it is available in some form almost everywhere, and can be easily customised to suit the individual needs of the owner or situation.

Indeed, most modern technologies can trace their development back through history to the common stick. Writing implements (pens, pencils, charcoal, burnt sticks), nuclear weapons (missiles, cannons, guns, crossbows, arrows, sticks), skyscrapers (buildings, houses, huts, thatching, the stick), and artificial intelligence (computers, calculators, the abacus, notched sticks) are all derivatives.

Sticks range in style from the Common Stick, which is essentially a piece of dead wood which has fallen off a tree, to the crocia, the staff borne by abbots and bishops of the Eastern Rite, generally made from cypress-wood, often cased or inlaid with gold or silver. Later on the staffs were made of solid ivory, gold, silver, and enameled metal.

Such embellished Sticks are regularly tried by people who attempt to combine them with other advanced tools such as telecommunications equipment, and survival gear. They almost always return to the Common Stick once they realize the fundamental reason for sticks: disposability.

The utility of this is underestimated. For example, you can poke a stick down a dark hole or murky pool, knowing that if something grabs the other end in an iron grip and begins inexorably to pull you down into the abysmal depths, you can just let go and run away. But this is only the case if you haven't combined the functionality of your stick with your credit card, identity papers, and car keys.

Sometimes, you just need devices which can do their job completely independently of others. In this regard, the simple wooden stick is still one of the most advanced tools in the modern arsenal.


Jeremy Lee says of his penning A Confusing Country that his intent was to provide:
...a summary of important ideas that should keep a visitor to Australia alive and well... Several Tourists die every year out here, from simple mistakes that us Aussies learned long ago. ("Don't swim in crocodile-infested rivers", is a good one, as is "In the outback, water is life") I might say it in a funny way, but I'm dead serious about all of it.

Let me explain:

I've seen pictures of the Geneva countryside, a green patchwork quilt of farms and villages. I've flown over the US, and watched a completely inhabited countryside roll beneath, every square metre of land crammed with malls and gas stations and screaming Americans.

Australia isn't like that.

It's mostly empty, except for the spinifex and spiders. Americans and Europeans seem to have trouble with that concept. It just doesn't fit their worldview and gets them in trouble. For example: If you drive up through Central Queensland (say, from Brisbane to Mt Isa) you have to plan ahead for petrol. There are stretches where you'll be down to a quarter of a tank, even if you refill at every stop. If you miss the wrong one, you can be stranded literally a hundred kilometres from the nearest human being. Stupid tourists often get out and start walking, confident that the next town or some picturesque farmhouse will be just over the hill... and a week later their empty car will be found, and that is all.

Stay with the car until help arrives. If you have to, you can drink the radiator water. I am *not* kidding.

The most scary thing about Australia: The Confusing Country is that it's all true. Even the bit about the wombats. (Well... Kangaroos might actually cause more deaths in some years... the statistics are hard to come by.) It's 'True' in the sense that, if you listen to the advice, Bad Things are much less likely to happen to you. It is a VERY silly idea to stick your hand down a hole in Australia, and the Wombat was as memorable a way as I could say it. You're actually much more likely to be bitten by a snake or redback spider, but that doesn't quite have the same impact in print. (Though both are equally fatal in the flesh, so to speak) So I went with the wombat. Hand-crushing deaths are actually quite rare. But they have happened. Motor-vehicle wombat/kangaroo deaths are depressingly common, however.

I feel completely justified in saying "it's all true" because I've had quite a few emails - from Australians to US exchange students to Englishmen who came on holiday - who tracked the article back to me saying (and I quote) "It's all true! Every last word!".
These articles are reproduced to have it all in one place. It's often wrongly asserted that the piece is by Douglas Adams, however this is wildly inaccurate. Feel free and correct anyone who asserts that it is so. He did write one piece on his Australian experiences, "Riding the Rays", which isn't half as good as The Confusing Country. IMAO.


Just to cheer you up after all that, here's a little tune by Aussie group the Scared Weird Little Guys. Enjoy!

Come to Australia