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Australia is both the world's smallest continental landmass and the sixth-largest country. Most of it consists of low plateaus, and almost one-third is desert. First occupied about 40,000 to 50,000 years ago by peoples from Asia (the ancestors of today's Aboriginals), Australia was visited by Dutch explorers in the seventeenth century, including Abel Tasman in 1642 and 1644, and by the Englishman William Dampier in 1688 and 1699. After being claimed for Britain by Captain James Cook in 1770, a penal colony was established by the British in what is now Sydney in 1788. Some 160,000 convicts arrived before "transportation" from Britain was phased out in the nineteenth century. By then many free settlers had also arrived, and the gold rushes of the 1850s attracted still more people. With both wool and wheat exports providing economic security, the settler population sought greater independence from Britain, and a measure of self-government were granted in 1850.
In 1901 the six states formed themselves into the Commonwealth of Australia, and in the 100 years since federation the country has become a successful, prosperous modern democracy. Current concerns include the consequences of economic dependence on Asian markets at a time of recession, demands for the frank acknowledgment of the history of Aboriginal displacement and dispossession, and whether there should be a republican government.
The Western Plateau constitutes the western half of the Australian continent. Made of ancient rocks, the plateau rises near the west coast-the iron-rich Hamersley Range representing its highest elevation in the northwest-and then falls eastward toward the center of the continent. The arid landscape alternates between worn-down ridges and plains, and depressions containing sandy deserts and salt lakes. There is little surface water The t1atness of the plateau is interrupted by the MacDonnell and Musgrave ranges in the center of the continent and the Kimberley and Arnhem Land plateaus in the north. Sheep and cattle are raised on large holdings in parts of this region.
The Central Lowlands forming the Great Artesian Basin, and river systems including the Carpentaria, Eyre, and Murray basins constitute a nearly continuous expanse of lowland that runs north to south The river systems feed into Lake Eyre, the Bulloo system, or the Darling River While the Murray Basin is the smallest of the three, its rivers-the Murray and its tributary the Darling are Australia's longest and most important. Artesian bores make cattle and sheep raising, possible through much of the semiarid Central Lowlands.
The Eastern Highlands (known as the Great Dividing Range) and the relatively narrow eastern coastal plain constitute Australia's third main geographic region. This has the greatest relief, the heaviest rainfall, the most abundant and varied vegetation, and the densest human settlement. A notable feature of the eastern marine environment is the Great Barrier Reef. The world's biggest coral reef complex, it lies off the northeast coast, stretching some 2,500 km 0,550 miles) from the Tropic of Capricorn to Papua New Guinea. A major tourist attraction, with over 400 types of coral and 1,500 species of fish, it is now protected as the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.
The island of Tasmania, to the southeast of mainland Australia, has spectacular mountain wilderness areas and more than 30% of the state is protected World Heritage areas, national parks, and reserves.
Australian plant and animal life is distinctive. The most common trees are the gums (Eucalyptus) and wattles (Acacia). Highly adaptable, Eucalyptus varieties range from the tall t100ded gum, found on rainforest fringes, to the mallee which grows on dry plains. Most native mammals are marsupials, and include kangaroos, koalas, wombats, and possums. Australia's monotremes-the platypus and the echidna-which lay eggs and suckle their young, are unique. There are also about 400 species of reptile and some 700 species of bird. Australia's vulnerability to introduced plant and animal species was dramatically shown by the spread of prickly pear, which took over vast areas of rural New South Wales and Queensland in the 1920s, and the plagues of rabbits that devastated pastures for a century until the 1960s. Both scourges have been tamed by biological controls.
Once heavily dependent on the pastoral industry-nearly one-third of Australia is still used for grazing sheep-the nation's economy is now diversified, with an important manufacturing sector Australia is rich in mineral resources, the leading export earners being iron ore from Western Australia and coking coal from Queensland and New South Wales, while bauxite is mined in the Northern Territory and Queensland. In recent years Australia has produced more than one-third of the world's diamonds, 14 percent of its lead, and 11 percent of its uranium and zinc. Because commodities account for more than 80 percent of exports, falling commodity prices have severe economic effects: an apparently irreversible decline in world demand for wool has cast a shadow over the pastoral industry. The government has been encouraging increased exports of manufactured goods--cars are being expo11ed to the Gulf States but international competition is intense. The 1998 Asian economic downturn affected the tourist industry, which was the largest single foreign exchange earner, with 12.8 percent of the total.
New South Wales. Sydney Queensland. Brisbane South Australia. Adelaide Tasmania. Hobart Victoria. Melbourne Western Australia. Perth
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This webpage was updated 17th August 2012
Main Photographers Matthew Laird Acred and Teresita L. Soliman
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