Australia. Deadly creatures, the outback, koalas and surfing. You’d expect to see these in any exploration of the land Down Under. There are also some surprises. This was a very good documentary which had a particular focus on the resources boom and the impact on the environment.
- Starting in the Red Centre, with fantastic views of the dusty rocky landscape, the first animal we see is… a camel. Herds were released into the outback, no longer needed as transport, and now wild camels are impacting on farms and the environment. Simon attends a madcap roundup of camels which will be sold to the Middle East for food, riding and, er, ‘beauty camels’.
- In the driest state of South Australia, Bill Hardy of the famous wine brand gives a lesson in winetasting. It turns out you don’t have to spit the wine out to appreciate its taste. The vines are irrigated by a lot of water. There’s a vast sea of white tanks in which the wine is fermenting, produced on a massive industrial scale to cheaply supply our tables.
- Port Lincoln is a city made rich by tuna farming. Hagen, one of the wealthiest, has invested in research to get southern bluefin tuna to breed. This would mean that wild tuna don’t have to be caught. Simon dives in a tuna ‘ranch’ to see the magnificent large fish, which is apparently ‘like being on the hard shoulder of the motorway’.
- The Indian Pacific Railway (2,700 miles long) traverses the epic landscape. Simon hops off at Kalgoorlie, a city with its origins in the gold rush. Prospectors are still bringing gold into the dealers. Our presenter gets ‘gold fever’ and heads for the hills, where a family show him how to look for the shiny stuff but he still ‘failed miserably’.
- Ninga Mia is an Aboriginal settlement, a gold nugget’s throw from the Kalgoorlie Super Pit, a mine which produces 7% of the world’s gold. Poverty and deprivation are evident and as Pastor Geoffrey explains, the community receives no benefit at all from the lucrative mining industry. Aboriginal people are deprived of their inheritance and birthright, he says.
- Perth, a booming city, has a population of which over 11% are British expats. Here, blue collar workers can live the good life too. We meet Steve, a former binman from Hull, who is now earning a great salary from instructing truck drivers, a skill much needed due to the resources boom. He gives a lesson to Simon. The controls look rather complicated. Finally, Simon visits Perth Airport and sees all of the workers who commute by plane to the remote mines every day.
- Kakadu National Park is a wildlife paradise, but numbers are falling due to a notorious poisonous pest – cane toads. They were introduced from America in the 1930s with the intention that the toads would eat beetles, but now they’re out of control. After nightfall, the rangers go around picking up cane toads and putting them in a bag to be euthanised.
- At the Robertson Barracks, on the frontline of Asia, the boys are having fun testing out their toys – tanks. Simon goes on patrol with NORFORCE, surveillance and survival experts. He samples ‘green ant tea’, which is apparently citrusy and refreshing. Australia’s tough immigration policy is demonstrated when he visits one of five detention centres in Darwin, where asylum seekers and refugees tell their stories through the fence.
- There are many deadly creatures in the sea. At Weipa on the Cape York peninsula, the Stinger Research Unit are hunting for box jellyfish, the most venomous creature in the world. When they see one, it’s barely visible near the shoreline. Simon is invited to touch the creature (not the tentacles obviously), which feels ‘like hard jelly’. The scientists take a sample (the venom could provide new drugs) and then everyone gets back in the boat for fear of being spotted by crocodiles.
- Snorkelling on the Great Barrier Reef showcases the beauty and incredible diversity of marine life. However, something is eating the coral – the spiky crown-of-thorns starfish. Unsurprisingly, it’s toxic. It’s believed that chemicals from farming are to blame for the starfish plague. As with the cane toads, they have to be picked off to protect the native wildlife. Unbelievably, huge cargo ships filled with coal are allowed to cross the Reef, which is hazardous because one wrong move could damage the environment. A specialist pilot is flown by helicopter to one ship. This same helicopter lands Simon on a very narrow strip, a coral cay, in the middle of the ocean.
- ‘Ah, the indignity of it’. Simon struggles to surf at Surfers Paradise, a resort on the Gold Coast. On returning to find his parking ticket expired, he finds there is nothing to worry about, as it has been topped up by the scantily clad Meter Maids. At night, he patrols the city, learning about the seedy underbelly and organised crime. He then meets an ‘outlaw motorcycle gang,’ the notorious Finks. Hugely muscled, tattooed and scary, the bikers feel that their rights are being infringed by the the government, who have designated them a criminal organisation.
- The koala is a national icon but it’s in crisis. Koala populations are decreasing and they are losing habitat. Simon sees a koala up close when a vet, Jon, captures one on the edge of suburbia for a health check. On to the Liverpool Plains, where the land is very productive, we meet Tommy and George, 80-something farmers of 12,000 acres. Coal has been discovered nearby and the state has the right to it, not the landowners. Tommy, George and their friends are involved in a campaign to keep the mining companies out of this area.
- From his high rise apartment, wealthy real estate developer ‘High Rise Harry’ Triguboff points out his buildings on the skyline. Many of his apartments are bought by the Chinese. Sydney is visibly a diverse city. Simon meets a female Muslim ‘Aussie rules football’ team who are proud Aussies from migrant backgrounds. However, there are still problems with racist attitudes and abuse towards many people.
- Bushfires are an increasing menace, linked to climate change. Simon is in a helicopter with firefighter Brett to take a closer look at a raging fire. It is predicted that fires will increase in frequency and severity [NB. Seven years later, we see the truth of this]. Arriving in Melbourne in time for the Australia Day celebrations, Simon concludes that, despite its chequered history and some vital issues which need to be addressed, he is ‘bowled over’ by how far the country has come.
If you have access to BBC iPlayer, this programme is available for a couple of months.