For those playing at home, Australia is a large, flat island in the Southern Hemisphere, both a country and a continent. I’ve spent the lion’s share of the last four years abroad, but as the song goes, I still call Australia home.
Currently, I’m in a friend’s living room in Portsmouth, New Hampshire and very close to ticking a full calendar year’s worth of time in the USA since 2012. Realising this has given me cause to reflect on the unique peculiarities of home. When comparing Australia and the States, there are a great deal more similarities than you’d probably expect, but also a vast gulf of differences.
Today, I’m going to speak at length about socio-economic differences, the political climate, housing affordability and ethnic diversity…
Just kidding. I’m going to list my Top 5 biggest differences in the realm of outdoor recreation between the two countries. Low hanging fruit, and all that.
In no particular order:
Along with China, the United States has the highest number of biomes, that is to say the most diverse landscapes. I feel like it’s kind of cheating to include Hawaii as your ringer for tropical rainforest, but what do I know?
Even within the Lower 48 alone, however, the diversity of the landscape is staggering. From the swamps of the south, to the steppes of central plains and the temperate rainforests of the Pacific Northwest, the US has it all. The existence of Glacier National Park alone is indicative of vastly different environmental realities than here in Australia, a continent which won’t contain a glacier until the entire planet drifts somewhere beyond the orbit of Pluto.Along with China, the United States has the highest number of biomes, that is to say the most diverse landscapes. I feel like it’s kind of cheating to include Hawaii as your ringer for tropical rainforest, but what do I know?
Here in Australia, we have eucalypts and desert. That’s about it. Ok, so there’s a little more to it than that, but compared to North America, the terrain here is largely homogenous. That said, we still have the largest coral reef in the world, so suck it!
Down here, we have a different process toward establishing a National Park. In the United States, the dedication of such land requires an Act of Congress and a Presidential Proclamation. Here, if there is a sizable area of natural vegetation, we throw a fence around it and call it a day. Even if the flora is introduced (usually for forestry purposes), we pretty much do the same thing but call it a State Park instead.
The upshot of all this is that Australia has over 500 National Parks in comparison to the United States positively meek 59. This difference in the amount of conservation areas is what scientists refer to as “a metric buttload”.
Seriously, there are so many National Parks here that we don’t even know how many we have. An official government website can’t even provide an exact figure, stating that “Australia has over 500 national parks. Over 28 million hectares of land is designated as national parkland, accounting for almost four per cent of Australia’s land areas”(http://www.australia.gov.au/about-australia/australian-story/national-parks).
Land use and access within the parks differs greatly as well, but I’ve already written at length about this subject in a previous article, which you can find here if you’re so inclined.
When Australians visit the wilderness areas of the United States, we are generally in a state of constant anxiety regarding large, angry mammals – to wit, Bears.
Apart from the fearsome Drop Bear, a small tree-dweller which descends from the eucalypt canopy to satiate its bloodlust, Australia has no bears. It’s not even a remote consideration to cook and store food away from your campsite lest you fear the wrath of a hungry visitor. These measures represent a huge mental shift for the antipodean outdoor enthusiast, one which is not lost on me having had a curious Grizzly take a peek in my tent once in the Yukon.
This is puzzling, because despite our dearth of bears, everything else in this country is trying to kill you. Australia is home to the most venomous snake in the world (the Inland Taipan, bless his heart) as well as sharks, box jellyfish, blue-ringed octopus, stonefish, big fuck-off crocodiles, paralysis ticks, spiders that jump out of little hidey holes and even a seashell that shoots poisonous darts into you. You read that right…. a seashell.
We take some sort of perverse pride in having these nasties around, as if mere survival is proof of our moral and physical fortitude. But bears are scary…. Go figure.
Australia is a very old, and thereby very flat continent. America, by way of contrast, is quite rugged. For the sake of comparison, I’ll just leave this here:
It is perhaps not widely known that Australia and the Continental United States are roughly the same size. The big difference, however, is population density. The United States has a population of roughly 320 million, compared to Australia’s paltry 23 million. Basically, we took one look our huge, hot, dry interior and said “Well, fuck that”.
This equates to few cities and vastly underpopulated swathes of land, but it also represents a lesser density of the kind of folk who have an outdoorsy persuasion. Therefore, numbers of climbers at any given crag are generally much less than can be expected at most US climbing areas, particularly popular ones such as Yosemite, Joshua Tree, Red Rock Canyon, Moab et al.
The disparity between overcrowding was made abundantly clear to me on my return from the US last year. Over an entire month of climbing in Red Rock Canyon, just outside Las Vegas, we experienced only one occasion in which we were alone on a crag. On classic routes, one can expect anywhere from 3 to 10 parties to compete for space on the wall. The RRC ringroad is choked with vehicles, pedestrians, bicycles, you name it. In a word, hectic.
In contrast, during an excursion to Mt Tibrogargan, less than an hour north of Brisbane, my friend described the carpark as “crowded”. There were three other cars. Just to put that in perspective, that’s a total of four parties on a possible 270 routes. When you consider that we only once had a crag to ourselves in Red Rock Canyon, an area with over 1700 documented routes, the reality of chronic Dirtbag saturation is evident.
Sure, most of the rock in Australia isn’t quite as spectacular as you might find elsewhere, but you can generally take your pick of any route that your heart should desire. And as for our snow…. Ahhh, can we talk about something else?
What these differences serve to illuminate is that it can be easy to take your local area for granted, wherever you’re from. I have to admit to being guilty of that.
But something I’ve learned over the last few years is that every wilderness area has something special to it, something unique and unquantifiable. That doesn’t just hold true for exotic locations around the globe, but also for your own backyard.
Not all of us can travel constantly, chasing a new horizon each day. Take some time to view your old stomping ground through a different lens. Adventure can be found anywhere, even within the familiar.
Ryan Siacci, Esq.
Originally published in November 2015