Australia Day

Journalist and Sydney resident Phil Sylvester explains with characteristic Aussie wit what Australia's national day is all about.


Let us rejoice!*

When the English sent 11 ships loaded with handkerchief and bread thieves to Australia in 1788, they thought they were handing out harsh punishment to a bunch of ne’er-do-wells.

While the overlords in foggy London were wringing their hands and bwoahahaha-ing in malicious glee at their cunning plan, the convicts were blinking in the bright summer sunshine, staring out across what we now call Sydney Harbour, and couldn’t believe their luck.

This wasn’t punishment, it was paradise… and we’ve been celebrating that day ever since.

We have this great big belly laugh of a day to do what we love best: have a barbecue with friends, cool off in the surf (because it’s mid-summer and can be 35 degrees!), and when the sun goes down, eat roast lamb and blow-up tens of thousands of fireworks over the Opera House.

Thank you, overlords!

Australia? Day

Strictly speaking this is a celebration of the day New South Wales was started, the other colonies have their own, different foundation days. It wasn’t an organised, national public holiday until 1994, but everyone’s into it now.

It’s the biggest day of the year for stuff from when the first hot air balloon rises at dawn till the last skyrocket falls to the ground close to midnight. Fun fairs, cake stalls, vintage cars, air force fly-overs, tuna throwing competitions (don’t ask– okay, it happens in a fishing town in South Australia), gnome conventions, official receptions, citizenship ceremonies, and of course the ubiquitous Aussie barbie (barbecue – check the WorldNomads language guide for Australia).

There’s a regatta on the harbour that has run annually since 1838 (that’s old in Australian terms) when whaleboats raced each other. These days the harbour ferries ‘compete’ in what must be the most fixed race in the world, but there are no losers on Australia Day - especially on the ferry chartered by the company that runs the national lottery, it’s filled to the gunwales with millionaires who picked the right numbers!

Mayors sweat under their robes, middle-aged jazz musicians strum their banjos until their fingers bleed. But most of all it’s a day for sitting on a picnic rug and just being Australian.

Many of Australia’s half-million indigenous people don’t share the same sense of celebration. A few still call it “Invasion Day”, and there’s no denying the aboriginal population suffered shockingly because of white settlement.

Righting the wrongs is a slow process. It wasn’t till 2008 we officially said “sorry”. All official Australia Day events now begin with an acknowledgement of the “original owners” of the land. Many aboriginal communities take part in the celebrations, performing “welcome to country” ceremonies, and sharing the hope for a fairer Australia.

Join the celebration

Not Australian? No worries, everyone’s Australian on Australia Day (or bloomin’ wishes they were!) and you’re invited to the party.

If you’re in Sydney it’s hard to go past the chance to set up harbour-side with all the free entertainment happening right in front of you. Go early to ‘bags’ a spare bit of grass at Mrs Macquarie’s Chair (a local landmark which looks across to the opera house and bridge).

Darling Harbour, on the city’s western side has another set of celebrations and evening fireworks.

Hyde Park in the centre of the CBD is turned over to an enormous food festival.

Sydney’s main streets are blocked off and every organisation, fan club and collection of collectors has their life’s work on display.

If you’re after musical entertainment, there are all types of concerts, the biggest being the Big Day Out (book ahead, it sells out) usually held on Australia Day in Sydney.


Down at backpacker central – Bondi Beach – there’s no shortage of fun. The main event being a surf race on giant inflatable thongs – again, I’m talking about footwear, although the other option sounds fun!

If you go to Bondi Beach (or any beach), don’t drink before you go in the drink, and swim between the red and yellow flags. There’s a vicious rip at one end of Bondi Beach called the Backpacker Express. It’s a nice stretch of sand with not many people about…. we’re all further up the beach between the flags for a bloody good reason: people drown here.

The same stretch of beach is popular with thieves too. While you’re out swimming (or drowning – they don’t care) they find your wallet, phone and music player cunningly hidden under a corner of your towel or tucked into your shoe – devilishly smart, those crooks!

Alcohol is banned on Bondi Beach - there are plenty of pubs in the streets behind the beach - but there’s no law against fish ‘n’ chips and good humour.

Because Australia Day is a “family event”, organisers are quite strict about drink and drinking in public everywhere. Check for signs indicating “alcohol-free” zones, and try to stay nice around the kiddies.

There’s far too much drinking in general on Australia Day. It’s mid-summer and it’s usually hot. Resist the temptation to down another cold beer, have some water instead. You can get dehydrated easily and alcohol only makes it worse.

It’s not all Sydney

It doesn’t matter where you are in Australia, you won’t be able to go very far without running into a celebration of some type. Every local council across the country is turning it on. Be sure to slip, slop, slap – slip on a shirt, slop on sunscreen (not tanning oil!), slap on a hat and get out there.

Australia Day is always celebrated on January 26th, in 2012 that’s a Thursday – do you need any other excuse for a mid-week party?

*Part of the Australian national anthem; “Australians all let us rejoice, for we are young and free.”

Phil Sylvester is a journalist and a resident of Sydney. He’s also the Travel Safety specialist at (which is why he wants you to slip, slop, slap).

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