Lois and I have been amazed by the scale of things in Australia. We spent our entire time in the state of Queensland on the eastern coast. Although Queensland is one of Australia’s smaller states, if we had tried to drive from our place in Cairns to our next destination on the “Sunshine Coast” near Brisbane (both in the state of Queensland), it would have taken us twenty hours, longer than a drive from San Francisco to Denver. Even after spending six weeks in Australia, the parts that we experienced did not even begin to give us a sense of the whole of the country.
We began our stay in Australia in the Tropic of Capricorn, just 17 degrees south of the equator. When we moved to Australia’s Sunshine Coast, we were 27 degrees south of the equator. The ocean was still a beautiful turquoise color, framed by crescents of white-sand beach, but it was decidedly cooler, and unmenaced by the stingers and crocs of northern Queensland.
Every other day Lois and I would run for 30 or 40 minutes along the beach promenade in Mooloolaba or Noosa (two wonderful Sunshine Coast beaches) in the late afternoon, and then cool off by swimming in the ocean as the sun set, showing those Aussie blokes a thing or two about California-style body surfing, which included spectacular tumbling exhibitions and face plants.
On the Sunshine Coast south of the tropics, there are still wonderful forests. Our favorite was at Noosa Heads, where koalas snooze in forests that seem to run right into the sea.
To an American, Australian forests are as exotic and unfamiliar as its animals. Even to a person familiar with every native tree in America, few native Australian trees would be recognizable. Although Australia is, culturally speaking, more like America than any other country we’ve visited, its natural environment is utterly unlike America’s environment.
Although the idea of national parks was actually born in America, I got the sense (in Queensland, at least) that Australia is currently more committed to maintaining and expanding its parks than America. This is something of a surprise, given the politics of Queensland during the height of the American environmental movement. From 1968-1987, Queensland was led (paradoxically) by a ruthless self-proclaimed pious Christian governor, Johannes Bjelke-Petersen, who was described by the Australian prime minister in 1975 as a “Bible-bashing bastard.” This was an episode in Australian politics that contemporary Americans would find distressingly familiar. Bjelke-Petersen was fiercely anti-environmental, so much so that even when Australia’s Great Barrier Reef was declared a World Heritage Site, he nonetheless opposed giving it national-park status, because he was still trying to find ways to drill for oil there. Over the past 15 years, Lois and I have snorkeled in some of the world’s most famous coral beds, but the Great Barrier Reef is the most spectacular. The corals are breathtaking and the diversity of sea life is absolutely astonishing.
In one day of snorkeling there, Lois and I spotted white-tipped reef sharks (harmless, they say, but still….crikey!), sea turtles, sting rays, and tropical fish of every description, as well as some that are simply beyond description. Many divers consider the Great Barrier Reef the best dive location in the world. It stretches for 1200 miles down the eastern coast of Australia, so huge that it’s visible from space.
Its northern tip is near Cape Tribulation (so named by Captain Cook because one of his ships ran aground there), where the amazing Daintree Rainforest National Park now connects with the Great Barrier Reef to form a huge protected region of land and sea.
Fortunately for the reef and for the Australian environment, Bjelke-Petersen became mired in scandal in the mid to late 1980’s, falling out of favor….and power. Since that time, national parks have proliferated in Queensland; currently there are approximately 200 of them, five of these Unesco World Heritage Sites. Unfortunately, however, the prospects for the Great Barrier Reef are dim, according to biologists. As a result of the warming of the oceans, many are predicting that the Great Barrier Reef corals will die out by 2050.
Like America, Australia has struggled with the tension between economic development and environmental protection. Australia currently has a stronger economy than America, strong enough that Lois and I have encountered a number of immigrants to Australia from Ireland and Italy who reported that Australia rather than America is the place with the job opportunities these days. The unemployment rate in Australia has remained below 5.5% throughout 2012; whereas the U.S. unemployment rate has been above 8% for most of the year. This has had a very tangible impact on Lois’ and my children, one of whom was laid off when his employer moved overseas (he remains unemployed) and two of whom left the U.S. for better job opportunities abroad. Economists attribute Australia’s ability to avoid the most serious consequences of the world recession to a variety of causes, one of which is the strength of its mining industry, particularly its exports of iron, coal and natural gas to China. Despite the proliferation of national parks in Australia, its mining and energy policies contribute to the problems that not only threaten the Great Barrier Reef, but that also make Australia one of the most environmentally vulnerable of all developed nations. Although other developed nations, including the U.S., face similar problems, given the geological isolation of Australia and its unique evolutionary history, its life forms have much more of what environmental philosophers refer to as “scarcity value.” Australia has some very difficult decisions to make.
My son would like to visit Australia. As Lois and I hiked through her exotic and unique rainforests, encountered her delightfully strange animal life, and snorkeled her spectacular coral reefs, I wanted to encourage him not to wait for retirement before traveling there.