Australia has an incredibly long history, geologically dating back 60 million years or so and being settled by Aborigines more than 60,000 years ago - long before there were modern humans in America and Europe - and boasts an impressive number of accolades;
• It is the world's sixth largest country and its largest
• It's the only island that is also a continent
• And the only continent that is also a country
• It was the first, and last, continent to be conquered from the sea
• It's the only nation that started life as a prison
• It's home to the largest living thing on earth, the Great Barrier Reef (though sadly we can't say how much longer that might be the case)
• 80% of life in Australia is found nowhere else in the world
• It's home to more poisonous animals than anywhere else on earth…
OK, so the last one may be slight hyperbole, but it really does host some of the most fascinating and unusual creatures on earth thanks to its isolated ecosystem, and even fluffy caterpillars and innocuous looking cone snails can cause painful toxic reactions.
Despite this far-stretching geographic and sociological saga, many native Australians consider the landing of Captain Cook's HMS Endeavour to be the true birth of the country we're all familiar with today. (Interestingly, no one aboard realised that they were experiencing an Antipodean winter when they arrived and reported back that Australia had a similar climate to Britain, making it the perfect place for a colony. When they returned with the first prisoners about eight and half years later, they landed in the height of summer and found they had been gravely mistaken). And this week saw Australia celebrate 230 years since this not quite so triumphant return, so we thought we'd join in the festivities by counting down what we think are five of the country's most iconic experiences.
1-Snorkel or dive on the Great Barrier
Covering around 1,400 miles, the Great Barrier Reef is one of earth's most admirable creations and is home to vibrant coral formations as well as elegant reef sharks and numerous tropical fish, and you can be a part of this underwater world by joining a number of diving and/or snorkelling expeditions. As the reef covers such a large area, you'll have to decide what kinds of marine life you'd most like to see in order to pick the best dive spot. Perhaps glide through the water with the manta rays of Lady Elliot Island or meet playful turtles off the coast of Queensland.
Having reverted to its original Aboriginal name, Uluru is an incredibly spiritual site and also the world's largest monolith. This imposing sandstone structure is extremely humbling to see in the flesh, as it were, and if you visit at either dawn or dusk, it almost appears to shapeshift, changing colour with the ebbing or increasing levels of light. Situated in the heart of Australia's arid 'red centre' doesn't mean it's hard to get to either, there is a nearby airport making it easier for visitors to experience its wonders for themselves. You can also choose from different packages if you want to spend more time admiring the isolated nature of Uluru. Enjoy a traditional dinner under stars you never realised could be so bright or plentiful and let an expert star-talker explain the constellations as well as their significance to the indigenous Pitjantjatjara people.
3-Take a journey on The Ghan train
Australia's Afghan Express, now affectionately referred to as The Ghan, offers an epic travel experience through this remarkable country. Named in tribute to the Afghan camel drivers who helped to make Australia's red centre more accessible at the end of the nineteenth century, The Ghan's maiden journey in August 1929 travelled the 1,559 kilometres from Adelaide, South Australia to Alice Springs - one of Oz's most famous outback towns.
4-Visit Sydney's Opera House
An iconic landmark recognised across the world, many would be surprised to know that this modern building was first designed in 1957 and that building wasn't completed until 16 years later, in 1973. It's sail-like resemblance is so well-known it was awarded UNESCO status in 2007 and has played host to acts from nearly every corner of the globe including Luciano Pavarotti, Frank Sinatra and even Sting. On your visit, you might like to attend a performance, ascend up onto its unique roof or just admire the exterior abaord a tranquil boat cruise around the harbour.
5-Relax in Barossa Valley
The Barossa Valley is a diverse region to the northeast of Adelaide, with a profound history of grape-growing and wine-making dating back to 1842. Renowned as one of the world's leading wine areas, it is home to some of the oldest vineyards in the world, and its laid-back attitude to all things wine related make it a very appealing destination for holidaymakers. And it's not just alcohol that you can savour here, also in abundance are seasonal produce and speciality food products, such as cheese bread and unique smoked and cured meats.