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Australia: Land of Extremes

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September 4, 2000 -- As the world's great athletes prepare to descend on Sydney, Radio Expeditions took a pre-Olympic journey with a three-part series that explores Australia -- its geology and history, its great icon and Aboriginal spiritual site of Ayers' Rock, and its people of today.

Unchanging Continent
Part one discovers Australia as a land of extremes: the oldest continent; the least changed over many eons; the last major place settled by Europeans; in many ways the most challenging land anywhere.

Other continents have been shaped and renewed by geologic forces like earthquakes and volcanoes, and by the sweep of glaciers. Australia has escaped these catastrophes for tens of millions of years, and slowly aged into a land of dried, ancient riverbeds, worn soils, and stark, open landscapes.

Visitors to Sydney will enjoy its lush hills and lovely harbor, but beyond them is the vast outback of rock and desert and scrub brush.

Through conversations with three Australians who study and explore the land -- a geologist, a research biologist and a composer - Radio Expeditions examines how the continent gave rise to species that exist nowhere else, what it offered to and demanded of the first human inhabitants tens of thousands of years ago, and how it baffled and fooled the later colonists.

With a nation the size of the U.S., but with a population no bigger than the state of New York, Australians are still trying to understand their land and learn how to live on it. Listen as NPR's Alex Chadwick explores how Australia's landscape sets it apart from the rest of the world.

Ayers' Rock
Part two of our National Geographic Radio Expeditions travels by train into the Australian outback to begin a journey to the great icon of Australia -- an enormous stone -- popularly known as Ayers’ Rock, but now commonly called by its Aboriginal name, Uluru. The rock has been a destination for human pilgrimage for at least 20,000 years, and as Radio Expeditions discovers, it has lost none of its power to intrigue.

Geologists say the rock is a kind of sandstone, half a billion years old. It is so worn by time that its surface is formed in a series of soft curves and swooping lines. The rock is the color of new rust, with a scaly texture, more than 1,000 feet tall and several miles around at the base, where it rises almost vertically in many places with an abrupt and startling presence.

The rock is overseen now by its traditional keepers, the Anangu people, who took back title from the government years ago. They continue to allow visitors to tour the rock, which is one of the world’s most recognizable natural features. In the evening, the setting sun colors the rock fantastically, and hundreds -- sometimes thousands -- of tourists gather to watch, as the rock seems to glow with incandescence.

But some tourists are not content to merely see the rock. For many years, visitors have climbed to the top. The Anangnu people have posted signs asking visitors not to climb, but each day dozens and dozens of people ignore them and climb anyway. The Aboriginals say they do not want to close off the rock -- which they regard as a spiritual site, and prefer to educate outsiders and persuade them not to climb it.

Listen as NPR's Alex Chadwick explores the base of Uluru with a park guide, hears stories of its spiritual nature, and confronts climbers from all over the world with questions as to why they continue to violate the wishes of the Anangu.

Australia's Peoples
In part three of this month's NPR/National Geographic Radio Expeditions Australia series, NPR's Alex Chadwick examines the nature of the people who are the gregarious hosts of the 2000 Summer Olympic Games in Sydney.

Australia has a world reputation as a friendly and outgoing nation, but its past includes a disturbing history of racism and oppression that still troubles many. In an Adelaide market, Radio Expeditions finds products, produce and merchants from all over the world. Many of them would have been excluded from Australia a few decades ago, when the country practiced a notorious 'whites only' immigration policy. Today, though, there is a growing sense of tolerance.

Radio Expeditions notes signs of complexity in the Australian character -- a recent study finds mental depression is a cause of national concern. But many Australians today believe their country offers more benefits than any other in the world -- a sound economy, high standards of living, and wholesome values. Communities are clean and well maintained -- signs of poverty, graffiti and litter are rare.

Why then does a survey detect signs of depression? Perhaps because Australia is still seeking to find its place as an Asian-Pacific nation with a European-based culture. And as a final interview in the report makes clear, Australia has yet to come to terms with the treatment it's accorded the aboriginal people who were there when the European settlers arrived.

Australian Contrasts Australian contrasts

Ayers' Rock Ayers' Rock

Alex with Millingimbi Aboriginal leader Keith Lapulung Alex with Millingimbi Aboriginal leader Keith Lapulung

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