Magazine article E Magazine

Undiscovered Australia

Magazine article E Magazine

Undiscovered Australia

Article excerpt

Going Down Under Is an Antidote to Crowded Cities and Vanishing Nature

Even the most remote trails in Nepal are littered with bright orange Kodak film boxes and granola bar wrappers. So what's a solitude-loving ecotourist to do? The best bet these days is to buy a ticket to Australia, where the population density is among the lowest in the world and the Outback offers thousands of square miles of untrammeled wilderness.

Australia is almost as big as the United States, but it has less than a 10th of the population (only 17 million people in 1995). While the U.S. has a increasingly uncomfortable population density of 69 per square mile, Australia gives everyone his or her "space" with a mere six. Even these numbers are deceiving, because this former prison colony's population is overwhelmingly urban. It is a country of bustling coastal cities - and an interior of widely scattered ranches and tiny towns.

Like the U.S., Australia offers dramatic contrasts in climate, ecology, plant and animal life. A recent tour sponsored by the Australian Tourist Commission took in some of the more remote corners of the country, which are trying to build their economies through carefully controlled ecotourism. At present, visitors from the U.S. make up only 10 percent of the national tourist base, and the commission obviously wants Americans to make the long trek across the Pacific.

Shark Bay is a pristine corner of Western Australia that is one of 11 World Heritage-listed sites in the country. The bay certainly lives up to its name: Flying over in a small plane, visitors can see not only sharks, but also dolphins, sea turtles and dugongs (similar to American manatees) in the shallow waters.

The region, 400 miles north of Perth, at Australia's westernmost point, is still very sparsely populated. The whole Peron Peninsula, which is about 50 miles long and contains most of the 15,000-square-mile bay's "population centers," has only 700 people (and 550 of them are in the little town of Denham). Shark Bay's chief tourist attraction is the Monkey Mia Dolphin Resort, which is on international travel maps because of its friendly and accommodating wild bottlenose dolphins, who visit daily for a ration of fish.

The dolphins first started coming to the beach in the early 60s, a rare behavior for the species which, according to visiting biologist Dr. Richard Connor of the University of Michigan, have very complex interpersonal relations. Noting that dolphins form coalitions and frequently make and break alliances, Connor said, "They're constantly re-negotiating their social dynamics. Visiting the beach is probably only a very small part of their lives; their real world is out there. They're extraordinary, very intelligent animals. …

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