November 25, 2012 9:14 pm

Australia is often called “the land down under.” Do you know why? Look at a map or globe and you’ll see. Australia is far to the south, way down under almost everything else!
Facts About Australia
Official name
Commonwealth of Australia
Official language
20,600,000 people
Rank among countries in population
Major cities
Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth
2,970,000 square miles
7,680,000 square kilometers
Rank among countries in area
Highest point
Mt. Kosciusko
7,310 feet/2,228 meters
Australian dollar
Australia lies between the South Pacific Ocean and the Indian Ocean. Like an island, it is surrounded by water. But Australia is too large to be called an island. Instead, it is considered the world’s seventh and smallest continent. In fact, Australia is the only country that takes up an entire continent.
The island of Tasmania, to the south of the mainland, is part of Australia. Thousands of years ago, Tasmania was connected to the mainland. But it split off when the ocean levels rose and water covered the connecting land.
Australia is famous for its many unusual animals. If you visit, you might see a kangaroo hop past. Kangaroos use their powerful hind legs to hop at speeds up to 30 miles per hour (48 kilometers per hour)! If you look up in a eucalyptus tree, you might see a koala happily munching on leaves. Koalas resemble small bears, but they are not related to bears.
Even the names of the animals in Australia are strange. Can you imagine seeing a wallaby, wombat, quokka, bandicoot, dingo, or Tasmanian devil? The most unusual animal might be the platypus. It has a body like an otter and a bill like a duck.
Australia is one of the flattest lands on Earth. It has a vast, flat interior called “the outback.” The only mountains in Australia are in the east. They are called the Great Dividing Range. The only forests are near the coasts.
The outback is hot and dry and rugged. Very few people live there. Most Australians live in cities and towns along the coasts.
Millions of sheep graze on the dry grasslands that cover much of the outback. Wool from sheep was Australia’s first major product. Today, Australia exports more wool than any other country.
A popular attraction in the outback is Uluru, or Ayers Rock. Uluru is one of the biggest rocks in the world. It measures about 2.2 miles (3.6 kilometers) long!
Another famous attraction in Australia is the Great Barrier Reef, along the northeast coast. It’s the world’s largest coral reef. Thousands of kinds of animals live in the reef, including fish, dolphins, sea turtles, and sharks.
The reef is famous for its beauty. Colorful coral grows in shades of blue, purple, green, red, and yellow. Many of the animals living in the reef are brightly colored, too. Swimmers and skin divers enjoy exploring the reef and its waters, which are warm year-round.
Sydney, on the southeast coast, is the oldest and largest city in Australia. A small distance inland is Canberra, Australia’s capital.
British settlers founded Sydney in 1788 as a prison colony. At that time, Britain sent many of its criminals away to distant lands. The colony’s first governor named the settlement for a British politician. Today, Sydney is a bustling city of 4 million people.
On Sydney Harbour is the Opera House, the city’s most famous landmark. The building has tall, white concrete towers that resemble shells or the sails of a ship.
Native peoples lived in Australia long before British settlers arrived. They are known as Aborigines.
Aborigines hunted wild animals and gathered wild plants for food. They practiced “firestick farming.” They burned dry grass so that new grass would grow back. Then they hunted the animals that came to eat the fresh grass.
Aborigines used a famous hunting weapon called the boomerang. A boomerang is a curved, flat piece of wood that spins when thrown.
Aborigines painted beautiful designs on rocks and bark, made music, and told stories. They played a unique musical instrument called the didjeridu. It’s a long, decorated horn made from a tree branch hollowed out by termites.
British settlers caused great hardships for the Aborigines. Many Aborigines died fighting the settlers. Many more were killed by diseases brought from Europe. Today, few Aborigines maintain their traditional way of life. Most live in cities and towns.
After the founding of Sydney, British settlers built several new colonies in Australia. In 1901, these colonies joined together and became an independent country.
Today, Australia has six states. They are New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia, Tasmania, Victoria, and Western Australia. Australia also has two territories. They are the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory.
Most of Australia’s people have British ancestors. Australia still keeps some ties to Britain, and many British customs remain popular. Like the British, Australians love to drink tea. They drive their cars on the left-hand side of the road, as people do in Britain. The Australian flag even sports a Union Jack, a famous British symbol.
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