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States and Capitals

Australia is comprised of six states, two territories and a collection of offshore possessions.
The six states are: New South Wales | Queensland | Victoria | South Australia | Western Australia | Tasmania
The two territories are: Northern Territory and Australian Capital Territory

New South Wales     top

New South Wales is located in the southeastern part of Australia, bordered by Victoria to the south, Queensland to the north, South Australia to the west and the Tasman Sea to the east. Its population of seven million is concentrated along the eastern seaboard, principally around Sydney, the state capital and largest, oldest, most diverse and flashiest city in the country.

Aborigines had inhabitated Australia for many thousands of years by the time Captain James Cook and his British exploratory naval expedition to the Pacific Ocean made landfall in 1770 at Botany Bay, just south of modern-day Sydney. In the name of the Crown he claimed possession of what he called New South Wales. Eighteen years later, a British squadron transporting about 700 petty criminals, the original "Sydneysiders", and their guards, disembarked at the point where Circular Quay now stands and started the city of Sydney, the first permanent European settlement in Australia, and the only nation that got its start as a prison.

Presumably Sydney is the entry point for most American visitors to Australia. The hub and indeed identifying image of the city is its beloved harbor.

Circular Quay is the best spot to get oriented. In front is the Harbor swarming with all sorts of crafts, fishing dinghies, giant catamarans with billowing spinnakers and sleek ferries. To the west is the great iron arch of the Harbor Bridge spanning the northern and southern shores; sitting on top of a finger of land to the east is that unconventional architectural masterpiece, the Opera House and further on the terraced flowerbeds and shrubs of the Royal Botanic Gardens. In the backdrop is a panorama of the downtown cityscape where billions of dollars worth of improvements and upgrades were fashioned in preparation for the 2000 summer Olympics.

A wide, clean and swift public transit network of ferries, trains and buses intersect at Circular Quay, which makes getting around Sydney easy. Close enough for ferry rides are the Taronga Park Zoo, home to an abundance of native animal life, and the Darling Harbor development, where there's an aquarium, convention center, museums and plenty of restaurants and shops.

If the beach is your goal, and Australia-including Sydney-has some of the finest in the world, then using a ferry as well as a train, bus, or taxi can get you there. The beach-driven culture with its casual, upbeat kind of Southern California lifestyle is the civic glue bonding Sydneysiders from all walks of life. Within the city limits are thirty or so beaches for every taste. Ocean beaches with frothy knock-down waves; protected Harborside beaches with calm waters; topless beaches, touristy beaches; trendy beaches; hard and soft core surfing beaches; hard-to-access beaches; and beaches with fixed outdoor barbies to fire up your shrimps, steaks, and sausages. Most beaches have parking, changing areas with restrooms-all free- and lifeguards (easily recognized because of the colorful beanies covering their heads).

Sydneysiders can passionately rate the character of different beaches like the devout followers of Major League Baseball who compare player and team stats and records. Bondi is the most fabled beach, with its waterfront of funky shops and cozy cafes, despite the fact that it hardly tops the rankings for swimming, surfing, sunbathing or even parking.

There's a lot to do and see in the rest of New South Wales. At Sydney's western edge are the Blue Mountains, 3,000-ft. weather-beaten lumps that make up part of the continental divide. A couple of hundred miles off to the southwest are the Snowy Mountains. Each has scenic, rugged landscape that merits exploration on foot, by horseback, on bikes, skis, affixed to rock-climbing ropes and, in the case of the Snowies, aboard rafts.

The western slopes of these ranges descend to a livestock and farm belt dotted with obscure roadside eyeblinks miles from anywhere-a pub and a cafe, gas station, post office and bank, a few ramshackle houses and sometimes a war memorial-that tapers off to dry and empty Outback.

Northwest of Sydney is the Hunter Valley, a plot of countryside crammed with vineyards and wineries that has been likened to California's Napa Valley. Along the sliver of coastal land, aside from Sydney and its suburban corridor stretching to the nearby ports of Wollongong and Newcastle, is a lineup of laid-back beach towns. A few are on the tourist track, but most are still off the beaten track.

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A few tips for meals and food in Sydney:

Longrain (Asian), 85 Commonwealth Street, ph.:61-2-9280-2888

Cafe Sopra ((Breakfast), 7 Dank Street, ph.:61-2-9365-4924

Sean's Panorama, (Italian), 270 Campbell Parade, ph.:61-2-9560-5008

Luigi's Bakery, 396 New Canterbury Road, ph.:61-2-9560-5008

Queensland     top

Wandering around Australia and especially the tropical northeastern state of Queensland can be hazardous to your health. Eighteen out of 20 of the most venomous snakes in the world live in Australia, 17 of them in Queensland. The spiders can be lethal. The vicious crocodiles are the biggest land-based man-eaters in the world. The box jellyfish, which generally float around offshore from November to April, make a dip in the ocean unsafe.

That said, going there may be the most rewarding and remarkable Australian venture there is. Because that's where that grand archipelago and coral formation running parallel for 1500 miles to Queensland's eastern seaboard is - the aptly tagged Great Barrier Reef.

It is unlike any place you've ever been. You can spend weeks there and not exhaust the supply of sights and activities above and below the water's surface.

The Great Barrier Reef actually isn't a single reef. It includes thousands of separate submerged rock gardens, coral keys and small specks of sand - almost all protected by law from commercial mining, logging and oil exploration. About two dozen islands have resorts from the all frills to the no frills type; the rest are deserted and wild. Underwater is a jumble of marine life of spectacular multicolored beauty; 1500 species of fish, mollusks, dolphins, crustaceans, eels, turtles, rays and whales. As an aquatic paradise for snorkelers, divers, baoters and anglers, it doesn't get any better than this.

The jumping off points are coastal enclaves like Mackay, Rockhampton, Townsville, Cairns and Port Douglas, which is also the gateway to the Cape York Peninsula, that conical-shaped land in Australia's far east sticking up to Papua New Guinea. It is, as so much of Australia is, millions of acres of wilderness: canefields, brackish estuaries and rainforests matted with thick foliage and patrolled by native fauna. Mankind has inserted itself at secluded Aboriginal communities and a Cooktown, a puny port with a certain raffish charm.

Most of Queensland's 3.8 million people and civilization can be found way down the coastline, at the other end of the state, in the vicinity of Brisbane, the state capital and largest city there. A short distance to the south of Brisbane, close to the New South Wales line, is the Gold Coast, the most developed, most commercial and most mobbed of Queensland's beachfront strips, a blend of spring-break Florida, Atlantic City and Disney World. Up north of Brisbane is the Sunshine Coast, a bunch of seaside towns which, by comparison, are less crowded, less mall-ridden, less built-up, more up-scale, more low key and more in step with natural surroundings.

Inland from Queensland's tourist trampled coastal fringe is the Great Dividing Range, dropping off to farmland, then the parched Outback of drab single street towns, commercial mining operations and immense ranches (stations) that extend to the far-flung Northern Territory and South Australia boundaries.

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Victoria     top

Victoria, the smallest mainland state, is tucked into the continent's southeastern corner, bordered in the west by South Australia, in the north by New South Wales and in the south by the strong currents of the Bass Strait. The capital is Melbourne, the country's second largest city, which is split by the Yarra River and is located a few miles from the shores of Port Phillip Bay, an inlet opening onto the south coast.

Cashing in on the spoils of the nineteenth century goldfields, Melbourne developed as a financial and manufacturing center. It clings to its British heritage, laid out in elegant formal parks and thoroughfares flanked by stately Victorian-era structures. At the same time, however, since 1945, Melbourne has welcomed droves of Southern European and Asian immigrants, giving many neighborhoods a Bohemian buzz.

Not long ago voted in international magazine polls as the world's "most livable" city, Melbourne is a happening place that shows off its up-and-coming art, entertainment, dining and fashion scenes. That's true for sports, too, even though the 2000 Olympics were held in Sydney. There's Australian Rules Football, a game so rowdy and rough that it makes its American counterpart look like the two- hand touch version. There's the Melbourne Cup, Australia's equivalent of the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes all rolled into a single horse race, which garners nationwide attention the first Tuesday of each November. Add to these the Australian Open Tennis Championships, one of professional tennis' four grand slams, which is held annually in the summer heat of January.

Catching Australia's "changing of the guard" means making a road trip from Melbourne to Phillip Island for what's been billed as the Penguin Parade. More like a clip straight out of an Animal Planet TV program than the heralded Buckingham Palace drill, every evening penguins toddle up from the sea to the beach, hang out overnight and then reverse course at sunrise.

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South Australia     top

South Australia doesn't draw as many American visitors or as much attention as the three neighboring states on its eastern border do. But this part of Australia offers a trio of overlooked attractions that fascinate so many Americans these days about this huge land halfway around the world: exotic wildlife, world-class wineries and opal mining.

To sample these sights, a good base of operations is the elegant capital and largest city, Adelaide, ringed by bluffs and the Gulf of St. Vincent, a wedge of water slashing up from the Southern Ocean.

Rarely can you come face-to-face with so much nature as at Kangaroo Island, a wildlife-packed 100-mile long island just west of the city. Roaming freely around this designated sanctuary are all kinds of indigenous animals: wallabies, koalas, emus, opossums, lizards, sea lions, seals, echidnas, flocks of majestic birds and of course the island's signature critter, the kangaroo.

Another excursion is heading to the Barossa Valley, in the northeast outskirts of Adelaide, one of the biggest and most renowed wine-producing districts in the country. About fifty vineyards are open for tours and tasting.

According to Australian wine buffs, the gallons of Australian wines with those catchy oddball names that have been poured in the United States are predominantly commercially-made cheap exports. Turning out some of the country's finest vintages are the bulk of the Barossa Valley vineyards, which tend to be small scale, boutique vintners and family-owned agribusinesses. Bottles are virtually unattainable within the United States and in many cases are for sale only at the wineries where they are produced.

Allotting a few days is necessary to snoop around Cooper Pedy, located about 550 miles northwest of Adelaide, in the center of South Australia's Outback. This frontier-type outpost owes its eighty-odd year existence to the opal, and close to ninety percent of the world's opals owe their existence to the thousands of cratered mines carved out of the arid dirt here.

Opals scooped up in the pockmarked fields or purchased in the town's jewelry stores are usually practically worthless, except as souvenirs - a piece of Australia for back home - but the occasional strike quickly can push your standard of living upward. A number of factors makes pricing a subjective business: size, color, pattern, clarity, cracks, water and silica content.

Directly or indirectly, for locals, opals are the only game in town: mining them, buying them, hawking them, polishing and cutting them, providing services and supplies to the prospectors and out-of-towners. To escape the desert's stove top, many reside underground, like the Prairie Dogs of the Great Plains, in dugouts hacked out of the earth - subterranean chambers which they have furnished with all the apparatus of modern life.

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A few restaurant tips for Adelaide:

Jasmin (Indian), 31Hindmarsh Sq., ph.:61-08-8223-7837

Cibo Express, a chain of cafes

Urban (Continental), 160 Fullarton

Western Australia     top

Traveling around Western Australia means covering a lot of ground in extraordinary extremes of climate, from balmy beaches to duny deserts to rainy jungles. This big and barren state comprises one-third of the Australian land mass. It has almost 8,000 miles of coastline with two dozen or so coastal outposts, most of them spread along the southeastern fertile fringe where the majority of the state's two million people live.

At the point where the Swan River flows into the Indian Ocean is the oldest settlement, Fremantle, which dates from 1829. It was on the high seas off Fremantle, Americans of a certain age and affinity for competitive sailing will recall, that Dennis Connor captained the 12-meter "Stars and Stripes" vessel to victory over the gallant Australian defender in the 1987 America's Cup.

Ten miles upstream from Fremantle, perched on the banks of the Swan River, is the largest city and state capital, which by any geographic measure ranks as the most disconnected major population center on earth. To the east is undulating farmland and vineyards and further on the abandoned goldfields that propelled prosperity and people to Western Australia a century ago. Kalgoorlie is the only mining boomtown still left. Then it's another 1500 miles and three times zones across bleak open spaces to Sydney. To the west of Perth is nothing but 5,000 miles of deep blue ocean to Africa.

That bygone brush with yachting glory combined with the last half-century's convergence of global information technology, multinational business expansion, routine shore leaves made by sailors off visiting U.S. Navy warships and the steady flow of trade in precious minerals, petroleum and agricutlure have done a lot to bring this urban pocket out of its shell. Nowadays Perth qualifies as a wealthy, cushy and vibrant city - sort of a Down Under San Diego minus the Hispanic flavor. Its business district consists of modern concrete and glass office buildings. Surrounding neighborhoods are flush with current cultural diversions and cuisine to quench any appetite.

Summers are oppressively hot. Southwesterly sea breezes in the afternoon bring a welcome relief. So can kicking back at the nonstop ocean beaches extending north and south of Perth.

The temperate springtime is when thousands of unique species of wildflowers are in vivid and fragrant bloom. This exotic flora is as big a draw among Australians as New England's fall foliage is to Americans. King's Park, a thousand-acre botanic garden overlooking the Perth waterfront, offers pathways for an up-close appreciation.

All in all, the rest of Western Australia is made up of great searing slabs of diverse and desolate deserts: the Nullarbor Plain, the Great Sandy, the Gibson, the Great Victoria and the Pinnacles. The one major exception is an immense place up north called the Kimberleys, which , even by Australian standards, have been pegged as the most unsanitized, unpaved, uncrowded and unmarked patch of the entire country. Rocky ridges, ravines, gorges cut with waterfalls and sheer coastal cliffs are interspersed with lush greenery and crocodile-infested corkscrew river flats. Because the Kimberleys lie within the tropical latitudes, they are governed by soaking downpours of distinct Wet (too sultry and stormy for most to visit) and Dry Seasons which produce enormous transformations in terrain.

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Tasmania     top

In topography and terrain the island state of Tasmania, that compact chunk of Australia 250 miles off the southeastern coast, is a misfit. Whereas the vast mainland is known for its mostly dry and desolate interior, Tasmania in contrast is an untouched wilderness of cool air, sweeping sandy beaches, dense woodlands, rolling arable pastures, fast-flowing rivers and craggy headlands - to American visitors New England and the Pacific Northwest Down Under. More than twenty percent of the 200-mile wide island is listed as a United Nations World Heritage Area, in recognition of this natural beauty.

It's a destination that draws the outdoors sports set from all over: fishermen/women, hikers, rafters, cyclers, kayakers, golfers, skiers and rock climbers. Along the trails, links and waterways are opportunities to glimpse native animals and birds, like wallabies, wombats and kookaburras, although it would be wise to avoid that not so cuddly marsupial unique to the island: the Tasmanian Devil.

Creature comforts can be found in the largest cities, Hobart, the state capital, and Launceston, and in quaint villages scattered along the coast and inland.

A bit out of the way, about sixty miles east of Hobart, on the Tasman Peninsula is Port Arthur. Nowhere is Australia's convict imprint more apparent than at this grim and authentic former penal compound. If it doesn't put you in an eerie and reflective frame of mind, then you probably don't have one. Port Arthur, from 1830-1877, served as the British Empire's "Devl's Island", the last stop in the Crown's gulag for the nastiest criminals and repeat offenders. Not many inmates made it out alive. This most notorious of jails has been extensively overhauled and converted into a historic site. It's now the favorite stop for island sightseers.

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Northern Territory     top 


Australians have a habit of calling it simply the Rock. What they are talking about is that giant lump of stone - two miles long, one mile wide and a little over a thouand feet high - that lies in the Northern Terrritory, just above the South Australia line and close to the geographic center of the continent. It's the dominant and defining landmark of Australia's interior.

In the 1870's white explorers made it there and tagged it Ayer's Rock, after an Australian politician of the time. But, for the local Anangu Aboriginals, it has another name, Uluru, and for thousands of years it has been regarded by them as supreme holy ground.

As for visiting Uluru or Ayer's Rock, you can look at it (at dawn and dusk it has the astonishing tendency to change colors as the sun paints it in brilliant reds, oranges and browns), hike around it, climb it (although this is now discouraged because of Aboriginal sensitivities), relax at a nearby tourist complex called Yulara or a take a sidetrip twenty miles east to the Olgas or Kata Tjuta, a cluster of rock formations that also have spiritual significance for the Aborigines.

Heading north from Uluru or Ayer's Rock, the rectangular-shaped Northern Territory stretches for 1000 miles, bordered on the west by Western Australia and on the east by Queensland, up to the Timor and Arafura Seas. It takes up one-fifth of the whole country. Cattle easily number the 200,000 inhabitants there.

For many American travelers, the chief reason for visiting the Northern Territory is to say that they've been to the Outback, to check the place off on the must-do global travel list. Still even nowhere is worth a look.

It's where remote is an understatement. It's vast and punishing turf accounts for a long tale of humanity's limits, woes, struggles, misjudgements, conquests and determination. These days that incontrovertible notion of inaccessibility doesn't apply as much because of aircraft, off-road vehicles, wireless communications and infrastructure for water resources.

Mention the Outback, which encompasses not only the southern two-thirds of the Northern Territory but reaches into parts of every mainland state, and the prevailing perception among Americans is that of a monotonous no-mans land. As a matter of fact this stark landscape colored in shades of crimson, rusty brown and golden ochers is a multiplication of sights: spikey grass and clumps of gaunt vegetation beneath stunted trees, punctuated by ridges, valleys, mesas and flatlands.

It's an otherworldly setting looking like a computer-generated NASA feed coming from a Mars surface rover. All that's lacking is Spock and his Star Fleet landing party, having just beamed down, fidling with their tricorders and phasers, plotting their next move against some gruesome alien.

It was the movie set for Mad Max. It sure could have been one for Indiana Jones.

Up on the Northern Territory coastline in the Top End, the distinct warm tropical zone, is Darwin, the state capital, which stands at the threshold of "Crocodile Dundee" country, Kakadu National Park, in epic magnitude and splendor, Australia's Hall of Fame for its extraordinary creatures and indigenous people. This large protected swath of estuaries, swamps, marshes, rainforest, grasslands, eucalypts and a botanical garden of drooping foliage is a haven for crocodiles, kangroos, reptiles, fish and waterfowl (about a third of the species native to Australia).

Kakadu has been administered by the government under a lease agreement with the Gagnudju, the local Aboriginal tribe, who revere this patch of land as traditional and in parts hallowed ground. Thousands of Aboriginal rock art sites, testimony to their flourishing ancient culture, are displayed throughout the Park. Scholars estimate the oldest works may date from 35,000 years ago, making Kakadu one of the earliest and richest galleries of human creativity.

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Aboriginal Australia Art & Culture Center, Alice Springs (

Australian Capital Territory (ATC)/ Canberra     top

It's been 100 years since the first soil was shoveled out to construct the Australian capital of Canberra. Yet what's so curiously striking, so ironic really, about this national seat of power situated in the northern foothills of the Snowy Mountains is how un-Australian it is. Syndey, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth, Adelaide, Hobart and Darwin, the urban hubs where most of the country's 20 millions inhabitants reside, sprang out of 19th century British dumping grounds for its underworld class; the gold rushes; and settlements put up by a mix of explorers, ex-cons, exiles and expatriates. All were named after prominent Imperial figues and all are by the coast.

Canberra on the other hand, owes its existence to 20th century Australian nationalists and American architectural ideas; its name is derived from a word out of the Aboriginal glossary; and its location is 150 miles inland.

How did this Aussie anomaly come to be? Canberra's genesis can be traced to Australia's orderly transition from British colonial dependency to formal nationhood in 1901. The country's founding fathers prepared a constitution - borrowing from both the American and Westminster systems of government - whoch bonded the six states into a federal parliamentary democracy while maintaining a statutory tie to the Crown.

The new federal capital had to be started from scratch in a zone distinct from the state capitals, especially Sydney and Melbourne, and their partisan interests. So began the intense political deliberations aimed at launching the capital project.

It took seven years to compromise on the site - a 900-mile tract hemmed in on all sides by New South Wales, equidistant from Syndey and Melbourne. Another three years passed before the district was designated the Australian Capital Territory and its north end selected as the spot for the erection of the capital. Next came the sponsoring of an international design competition for planning the city, with the prize awarded in 1912 to a young American from Chicago, landscape architect Walter Burley Griffin, a disciple of Frank Lloyd Wright. Not long after, Canberra, the Aboriginal word that loosely translates to "meeting place" was adopted.

To see what's materialized since the capital's setting was picked out, visitors should take in the view from Telecom Tower on Black Mountain, about a twenty-minute drive northwest of town. From this 640-foot-high tower, a fresh spread of city that looks as though it's been slapped over a giant park unfolds.

Canberra is graced by patches of tree-shaded lawns and flowery gardens and public sculptures. It's squeaky clean and bereft of traffic jams, skyscrapers, freeways, inner-city squalor and industry.

The capital's core more or less illustrates Griffin's concept. Three intersecting thoroughfares give a triangular outline to an uncluttered city center. Government and civic buildings, an architectural jumble to suit every taste, and a smattering of monuments in assorted shapes and sizes lie around and inside the triangle.An eight-mile-long inky blue artificial lake bisects the asphalt triangle in an east-west direction. Clustered at the two apexes meeting north of the lake is a commercial area. This tidy municipal pattern ends just outside of the triangle. Further on is middle-class suburbia that abruptly merges with bushland.

With about 300,000 people, Canberra is dwarfed in numbers and cosmopolitan character by Sydney and Melbourne, the most populous Australian cities, each about 250 miles away. Because the capital is dominated by the operations of government bureaucracy, it has acquired an infamous reputation for always being off-peak: little glamour, energy, diversity and nightlife.

Countering the absence of big-city hubbub is the presence of two showplaces that tell the stories of Australia's cultural past and wartime experiences.

The National Museum of Australia, which opened in 2001, explores the land, nation and people of Australia. 

The Australian War Memorial, the country's most visited tourist attraction after the Sydney Opera House, is a one-stop shrine, museum, exhibit, archive and research center. The copper-domed stone-and-brick War Memorial has for nearly six decades taught a unique history lesson. It doesn't glorify battlefield exploits fueled by abstract national principles. As a scholar specializing in Australian history put it, it is in essence a salute to Australians rather than Australia - those men and women who died, survived and distinguished themselves in the armed forces, to individual victories over adversity rather than national conquests over enemy powers.

The structure venerates the hundred thousand Australians who have died in military service. This tribute, like the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, DC and the U.S.S. Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor, compels somber reflection on lives lost and causes fought for. To Americans, this seems especially meaningful, considering that Australia and America have stood side-by-side in seven significant conflicts during the last 100 years: both World Wars, the Korean, Vietnam, Persian Gulf, Iraq and Afghan wars.

National politics, Canberra's main business, is conducted at the triangle's single apex just south of the lake, where there's a gently sloping round hump called Capital Hill - the highest ground in the predominantly flat city. Tucked into the summit is the Parliament House, a flashy mesh of concrete, steel, stone and glass, that made its debut in 1988. The newfangled structure, like the capital's layout, was designed with substantial American input - in this case the architectural firm of Mitchell, Giurgola and Thorp.

To the American visitor perhaps nothing in Australia is more bewildering and yet entertaining than its politics. In Canberra the best show in town is the parliamentary discourse that goes on at the Senate and House of Repreentatives. Those familiar with the generally polite and placid behavior exercised by legislators in Congress will be astonished by the frequently lively and occasionally outrageous exchanges that occur between elected members in the Australian chambers.

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Offshore Possessions     top


Australia has soveriegnty over 8,000 offshore possessions and islands, ranging from those scattered in the tropics to frosty subantarctic outcrops. Among the significant ones that haven't been mentioned yet on this page are:

Christmas Island and Cocos Islands

These two islands, located several thousand miles out in the Indian Ocean, comprise Australia's Indian Ocean Territories.

Lord Howe Island

Lord Howe Island is a tiny island located in the Tasman Sea, about 500 miles northwest of Sydney. A popular eco-tourism destination that is a part of New South Wales, it's listed on the World Heritage Register for its rare bird and plant life. 

Norfolk Island

Norfolk Island is a self-governing territory of Australia that is located in the South Pacific. In 1856 the island was settled permanently by Pitcairn Islanders, the descendants of HMS Bounty mutineers and their Tahitian companions.

Australian Antarctic Division

The Australian Government's Department of the Enviroment and Heritage operates and administers stations and programs on the Antarctic mainland and on subantarctic islands, like Macquarie Island (a part of Tasmania), Heard Island and the McDonald Islands.

Torres Strait Islands

The Torres Strait Islands, seventeen island communities located between Cape York and Papua New Guinea, were annexed by Queensland in the 1870s. The islanders are mostly of Melanesian stock, sharing linguistic and cultural ties with Papua New Guinea rather than Aboriginal Australia. 

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