Spin the Globe with Justin Butner

A world citizen may provide value to society by using knowledge acquired across cultural contexts.

Objects on Map May Be Further Than They Appear

Written 13 May

Posted a few hours before I drive 11 hours between Melbourne and the Blue Mountains outside of Sydney.

Australia is about the size of the continental US, but with a relative population of less than 10%. Those numbers, 20 million people spread out over a continent, make this country almost the least densely populated in the world, with a figure of just 2 people per square kilometer. That puts them second only to Mongolia for sparseness of people.

When you factor in that 4.5 million live in Sydney, 4 million in Melbourne, and another million or two in cities like Brisbane, Adelaide, and Perth, the end result is a whole lot of nothing just about everywhere else.

This is great when you want to see the stars. Even in the big cities, the light pollution from the city is a blip on the radar, since there aren’t hours and hours of lights in every direction. It means that you can see more stars in downtown Melbourne than you can from an hour outside of DC.

This is great if you really like to be alone and isolated from people.

This is pretty rough when it comes to getting from point A to point B if that distance is more than 50 km. The drive between any two cities of size and note in the country is substantial. Melbourne to Sydney is about 10 hours. Melbourne to Adelaide is 9. Adelaide to Perth, the world’s most isolated capital city, is about 28 hours.

I was talking to an Australian who will be visiting Texas in a few months. Thinking back to my experiences with Texas, they pretty much involve me trying to drive across it and getting frustrated at just how unnecessarily large it is. “You can start the day in Texas, drive all day, and still not escape.” Then I thought about it. That is pretty much true of any state in Australia. After all, the US sized country is divided into only eight states and territories.

People from overseas have a hard time grasping this concept. The map of Australia is one page. The map of England is also one page. Few people really look at the scale to realize just how different the two are. It is the source of amusement for many Australians, when talking to Poms who think that they will just do a day trip from the coast to the center and back.

The enormity of the country also means that road trips from one place to another are something to be undertaken, not casually done. The petrol costs alone (gas is a different thing here) are prohibitive – about $6 a gallon. This means that for interstate (and even really intercity) driving, dividing the costs of fuel is a necessity if you don’t have a bottomless bank account. And since I’m traveling solo, it means that every major drive is not just a matter of plotting direction, time, and sights along the way. It is also a matter of posting rideshare ads on CouchSurfing, Gumtree (the Aussie version of Craigslist), and on notice boards in hostels. After 6 hostel notice boards and online postings 10 days in advance, I found only one duo to share the ride from Adelaide to Melbourne. Countless other people inquired but dropped out when I told them my route didn’t include the default tourist sights that I’d already seen.

The sparsity also means that there is little to see between “population centers.” I use quotation marks because every hour to 90 minutes in the more densely populated states the main roads will bring you to a town of a couple hundred or maybe a couple thousand. This means the radio is pretty useless, petrol stations are few and far between, and sights to break up the monotony are hard to come by. I’m used to driving the east coast of the US, where at worst I had to go 10 miles if I got hungry or wanted to find a toilet. Here if you’ve passed a town and your gas light comes on, you have to look at a map to figure out if turning around is the right answer. And the hours that you travel can make or break your trip. Stores close. Restaurants, cafes, and grocery stores all close their doors. Even some petrol stations shut down. And things close at 5 or 6 outside of the cities, not 9 or 10. (Honestly, many stores close at 5 or 6 in the cities as well.) There needs to be food in the trunk. Six hours of driving yesterday, and I was fueled by dry cereal, musli bars, and peanut butter and vegemite sandwiches. Well, that and coffee and more coffee.

The other passengers, in addition to being portions of the petrol costs, are also sources of conversation. At least they are a way to break up the monotony of the hours and hours traversing the countryside.

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This entry was posted on May 28, 2012 by in Australia, Victoria (Melbourne).

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