From the craggy peaks of the Blue Mountains to the lush tropics of Queensland and the coral treasure land of the Great Barrier Reef, Australia has something unusual and something special to offer visitors—even those traveling by tour bus.
The most frequently visited places in Australia's vast "red center" have been tamed and put on a tour, but the Outback hasn't lost its frontier allure. Watching the sunset at Uluru (formerly known as Ayers Rock) has become something of a circus with the hordes of tour buses, camper vans and motorcycles that crowd the parking lot, but watching the scalloped monolith go from reddish-brown to a haunting burnt-orange against the desert sky is still a magical—some say spiritual—experience.
The same can be said for much of the rest of this country that's also a continent. Sydney may have joined the ranks of the world's top cities, but its architecture, stunning harbor, and electric, manic personality keep it singular. You won't mistake it for anywhere else.
New Zealanders sometimes refer to their country as "God Zone," a rather prideful twist on the phrase "God's Own." But if you like gorgeous scenery and gutsy people, you'll agree with them. New Zealand is blessed with some of the most varied and dramatic terrain in the world—from glaciers, fjords and beaches to mountains, meadows and rain forests, known to New Zealanders as "native bush." If you're so inclined, you can admire the breathtaking scenery while skiing, surfing, horseback riding, mountain climbing, hiking (which the locals call "tramping") or kayaking.
And if those pursuits aren't exciting enough, you can try some of the adventures the Kiwis (as New Zealanders are called) have invented: You can bungee jump off cliffs or bridges; paddle through white-water rapids; rocket through narrow caverns on jet boats; or strap yourself inside a giant plastic ball and roll down a hillside.
If you prefer more leisurely activities, you can still enjoy New Zealand's natural wonders by strolling on its pristine beaches, sailing along its picturesque coastline or fishing in its crystal clear rivers and lakes.
With approximately 3 million sq mi/7 million sq km, Australia is the world's largest island. It is the only country that is also a continent. Although most of it is barren desert where little rain falls, Australia has a wide range of environments, including tropical rain forests in its northern regions, temperate forests along the east coast and even a few snowy mountains spotting the Great Dividing Range, which runs north to south across almost the entire length of the eastern side of the continent and separates the coastal plains from the drier inland areas. Off the northeast coast is the world's largest coral reef—the Great Barrier Reef (1,200 mi/2,000 km long). While the state of Western Australia occupies the entire western third of the country, much of it desert.
Australia is divided into both states and territories (capital cities for each are in parentheses): Australian Capital Territory (Canberra—also the capital city of Australia), New South Wales (Sydney), Northern Territory (Darwin), Queensland (Brisbane), South Australia (Adelaide), Tasmania (Hobart), Victoria (Melbourne) and Western Australia (Perth).
New Zealand consists of two large islands (called the North Island and the South Island), as well as numerous small islands. Both major islands are mountainous with coastal plains. The North Island is more populated and has a warmer, temperate climate, along with vigorous geothermal areas and active volcanoes. The South Island has a more open, spacious feel with spectacular fjords, glaciers, agricultural plains, and hundreds of streams and lakes.
Early European explorers had been curious about the possible existence of Australia long before they actually found it. During the first 250 years of Pacific exploration by Europeans, a large blank space in the corner of navigators' maps was marked Terra Australis Incognita, meaning Unknown Southern Land. In 1770, Captain James Cook reached the southeast coast. He claimed the land for England, named it New South Wales and sailed 2,500 mi/4,000 km along its shores, charting the coast and barrier reef.
The "new" land wasn't empty, however. Cook encountered a dark-skinned race of nomadic hunters and gatherers. The distant ancestors of these people had begun their migration into the land as many as 75,000 years earlier, passing across land bridges and shallow seas connecting Ice Age Asia to present-day Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and Australia.
England didn't do much with New South Wales until 1787, when the First Fleet was dispatched, transporting convicts from overflowing British prisons to Botany Bay. The fleet anchored there in January 1788 and then headed a few miles/kilometers north to Port Jackson, within a pistol shot of Sydney Cove.
More prisoners were transported and other convict colonies founded. Free settlers soon followed. Slowly, the land was explored and domesticated, in a pattern similar to the opening of the West in the U.S.—settlers in wagons followed pathfinders to make homes in wild country; pioneers and the Aborigines engaged in bloody conflict; great cattle stations (similar to ranches) were founded. Gold was discovered in 1851, and fortunes were made and lost in boomtowns. Then railroads were built along old wagon routes, and paddle wheelers were launched for transport.
This experience, set in a land that for 100 years remained at the ends of the world's transportation and communication lines, bred a special frontier spirit and independent attitude. It persists today in every Aussie who would "never let a mate down." This spirit of "mateship" became legendary in World War I when Australian troops who had been called on to help fight in Europe experienced major losses in 1915 on the Gallipoli peninsula in Turkey.
When World War II broke out, Australian troops fought alongside the British in Europe; after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, the country shifted its forces homeward. The Australian towns of Darwin and Broome were subsequently bombed before the Japanese were defeated in the Battle of the Coral Sea.
After World War II, millions of immigrants, especially from continental Europe and the U.K., arrived on Australia's shores. In 1974, the government abolished its "white Australia" policy, and thousands more migrants arrived from Asia. Today, Australia is one of the most diverse, multicultural societies in the world.
Many historians designate 800-1350 as a likely time frame for the Maori (pronounced MAU-ree) settlement of New Zealand. The Maori called their new home Aotearoa (Land of the Long White Cloud), and their oral history recounts how they took a large fleet of canoes from a place called Hawaiiki (perhaps a set of islands in French Polynesia) to sail to what is now New Zealand. For hundreds of years, Maori life went untouched by the outside world. They had spectacularly elaborate body and face tattoos and maintained a culture of fishing, hunting and gathering. Rival tribes warred with one another, and the battles often resulted in the losers being eaten or enslaved by the victors.
The next epoch in the islands' history opened in 1642, when Dutch explorer Abel Tasman sighted the land and called it "Niuew Zeeland." He charted part of the coastline but left without officially claiming it after some of his men were killed by Maori. Some 130 years later, Capt. James Cook claimed the islands for the British crown. He circumnavigated both main islands, which he mapped with an accuracy that is still admired (and used) today.
Once European settlement began in earnest, the introduction of muskets and other weapons to the Maori led to fierce intertribal wars, which—in addition to new European diseases—nearly wiped out their population. Calm ensued by the 1830s, however, and in 1840, a conditional alliance between the Maori and the British, called the Treaty of Waitangi, acknowledged British sovereignty in exchange for some Maori land rights. Despite being signed by more than 500 Maori chiefs, it was a controversial document. It was only after several subsequent decades of bloody war over these land rights that an easier coexistence—which persists to this day—evolved.
From the 1860s to the 1880s, gold fever drew thousands of prospectors to New Zealand. About the same time, large sheep farms began to be established on land cleared from the native forests. The country became autonomous in 1907 and is today an independent member of the Commonwealth of Nations.
Some of Australia's main attractions include the Great Barrier Reef, Aboriginal culture and art, Uluru, kangaroos, Tasmania, koalas, the Queensland rain forest, Sydney, beaches, white-water rafting, diving and the Outback.
Almost everyone will love Australia. The only people who should avoid it are those who are made uncomfortable by unrelenting informality.
Everyone should visit New Zealand at least once. The country's foremost attractions include great natural beauty, mountains and glaciers, rain forests, beaches, bright blue skies, fjords, fishing, sailing, surfing, scuba diving, skiing, golf, hiking, thermal baths, wildlife and sheep, friendly people, Maori culture, vineyards and fresh seafood.