Australia is massive, and sparsely populated: in size, it rivals the USA, yet its population is just under 22 million. It is an ancient land, and often looks it: much of central and western Australia – the bulk of the country – is overwhelmingly arid and flat. In contrast, its cities, most founded as recently as the mid-nineteenth century, express a vibrant, youthful energy.

The most memorable scenery is in the Outback, the vast desert in the interior of the country west of the Great Dividing Range. Here, vivid blue skies, cinnamon-red earth, deserted gorges and other striking geological features – as well as bizarre wildlife – comprise a unique ecology, one that has played host to the oldest surviving human culture for up to 70,000 years (just 10,000 years after Homo sapiens is thought to have emerged from Africa).

This harsh interior has forced modern Australia to become a coastal country. Most of the population lives within 20km of the ocean, occupying a suburban, south-eastern arc extending from southern Queensland to Adelaide. These urban Australians celebrate the typical New World values of material self-improvement through hard work and hard play, with an easy-going vitality that visitors, especially Europeans, often find refreshingly hedonistic. A sunny climate also contributes to this exuberance, with an outdoor life in which a thriving beach culture and the congenial backyard “barbie” are central.

Although visitors might eventually find this Home and Away lifestyle rather prosaic, there are opportunities – particularly in the Northern Territory – to experience Australia’s indigenous peoples and their culture through visiting ancient art sites, taking tours and, less easily, making personal contact. Many Aboriginal people – especially in central Australia – have managed to maintain a traditional lifestyle (albeit with modern accouterments) , speaking their own languages and living according to their law. Conversely, most Aboriginal people you’ll come across in country towns and cities are victims of what is scathingly referred to as “welfare colonialism” – a dis-empowering consequence of dole cheques and other subsidies combined with little chance of meaningful employment, often resulting in a destructive cycle of poverty, ill health and substance abuse. There’s still a long way to go before black and white people in Australia can exist on genuinely equal terms.

Fraser Island

The giant dunes, freshwater lakes and sculpted, coloured sands of the world’s largest sand island form the backdrop to exciting 4WD safaris.

The Franklin River

White-water rafting is the only way to explore the wild Franklin River, one of the great rivers of Australia.

Sailing in the Whitsundays

There’s fantastic sailing and diving – and whale watching in season – in the idyllic white-sand Whitsunday Islands.

Atherton Tablelands

With its majestic rainforest, crater lakes and abundant wildlife, you could spend days exploring the Atherton Tablelands.

The Great Ocean Road

On two wheels or four, the 280-kilometre route along the rugged, surf-battered cliffs bordering the Great Ocean Road is perfect road-trip material, and can also be followed as a rewarding hike.

Photo by nomadic_state_of_mind on Flickr