AUSTRALIA - G'day from Australia, Tasmania and New Zealand, where we've spent the last 10 days getting to know our southern brethren. They are brethren in that they seem so much like us.
Or maybe, more accurately, like we were 150 years ago. That's about the head start we had on them in taking over our vast country. Most of Australia's population is on the eastern and southeastern coasts. According to many we talked with, The West begins about 100 miles inland.
Aussies have the can-do, pioneering spirit that our forefathers had while conquering our vast frontiers. They are very proud of their country and are optimistic about its future. European sophistication has not reached them yet, so they are very real people who say what they think.
Many of them are descended from the prisoners who largely colonized the English territory. In 1788, England was very busy fighting wars and developing profitable businesses in the Caribbean and elsewhere.
That didn't leave many able-bodied men of any character to send halfway around the world to develop and hold onto a new colony on an island so big it later became categorized as a continent.
So it emptied its prisons. It didn't send everyone. Murderers and others prone to violence wouldn't make good colonists. To prevent mutiny, prisoners were given some choice. If they served out their terms without getting in any more trouble, they could have a piece of the new land and a new start.
And some of the convicts weren't such bad guys. People were thrown in prison in those days for being Irish, advocating unions, disagreeing with King George or the Church of England. Women also were guilty of such minor crimes. And everyone knows, colonies need women too.
Most of the arrangements worked out. Some were sent back. Some stayed in jail forever. But the large majority got out, some early, because of special talents.
Aussies contend this national history has made them stronger and more independent, with a strong work ethic and a trustworthy nature.
Political correctness hasn't made it down here yet. Many Aussies are on this ship and several Aussie comedians. The humor is much more raw than that to which we have become accustomed.
There is no race, age or social status that is off limits. And sexual jokes abound. Aussies seem to laugh the loudest, but then, they're a pretty exuberant bunch. Camilla Parker Boles seems to be their favorite butt of jokes.
Although Aussies see themselves as very upstanding people, they still have a certain underlying contempt for authority. I'm told that Ned Kelly, a Robin Hood sort of criminal, is usually named as the biggest national hero. They like Billy the Kid down here too.
During the many bus tours we took, we saw only tidy countrysides and no slums. Aussies tell me the tour companies were just being careful not to pass through such places. Maybe so, but I can't think of many countries where it has been possible to avoid slums.
The Blue Mountains, outside Sydney are a source of pride, mainly because they are about the continent's only mountains. We were told the gas given off by eucalyptus leaves causes the blue appearance. If they could see the endless blue ranges of our Rockies, they might get the idea that the color is caused by the same thing that makes their ocean appear blue.
Or they could just go to New Zealand and see some real mountains. We spent a day cruising through Fiordlands National Park, one of the more beautiful sights in the world. They were quite proud of their recent acceptance as a World Heritage Site.
The park ranger, who boarded our ship for the day, told us the type of beach forests in the park are found only there and in Tasmania and Chile, leading to the conclusion that all were part of the same area of Gondwanaland before it separated.
Spell a grand slam in this game where word skill meets World Series. Get in the game.