Dust coats Australian outback myth
The huge outback dust storm that swept across eastern Australia on Sept. 23 smothering Sydney in red dirt was a stark reminder that after 221 years of white settlement Australians still only cling to the edge of this harsh island continent.
Australians love to promote the idea that they live in a sunburnt country, of rugged outback cattlemen and ancient Aboriginal culture, but for most Australians it’s a myth.
Australia’s 21.7 million people may live in the world’s driest inhabited continent, with a vast outback interior, but the country is one of the world’s most urbanised societies.
Almost 90 percent of people live in “urban Australia” and 67 percent call one of eight coastal cities home, with Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane dominating.
In fact, the mass desire to live in one of these three cities on Australia’s eastern seaboard has ensured that the nation’s major housing markets did not plummet, like elsewhere in the world, during the recent global financial crisis.
When Australians go on holiday few head inland to the outback, an ancient landscape which Aborigines regard as a living spirit, but pilgrimage to the beach to enjoy hedonistic pursuits.
And when they’re bored of Australia’s beaches they fly overseas to beaches in Fiji and Bali.
Even as Australia continues to experience high population growth, 2.1 percent in the year to March, few people seem intent on heading inland.
Sydney and Melbourne town planners are struggling to cope with their bulging urban populations and infrastructure such as roads, rail and hospitals is groaning under the weight of demand.
And those that opt to leave the hussle and bussle of the city stick to the gentle coast in what Australian demographer Bernard Salt calls the “seachange” generation — mid-life Australians moving to coastal towns to try and relive their youth when life seemed slower, less stressful.
Yet despite this love affair with cities and the ordered lifestyles they offer, Australians love to romanticise that they are like their forbearers, forging a life in a rugged land.
When the red dust storm blanketed Sydney the city’s newspapers resurrected the outback imagery with headlines like “Outback pain blowing in the wind” and “Red centre causes havoc in big city”.
While radio stations dusted off Australia’s iconic early 20th century outback poem “My Country”, which describes author Dorothea Mackellar’s love affair with this harsh, sun scorched land.
“I love a sunburnt country, a land of sweeping plains, of ragged mountain ranges, of droughts and flooding rains. I love her far horizons, I love her jewel-sea, her beauty and her terror – The wide brown land for me!”
But for most Australians in the year 2009, Mackellar’s poem is not their world.
In fact, one Sydney newspaper article titled “Just a taste of country life” said: “Dear Sydney, got dust in your hair, dust in your eyes and dust in your mouth? Welcome to our world….Sydney, harden up“.