A vast island continent situated south of Indonesia and Papua New Guinea, Australia lies between the Pacific and Indian oceans. The world's sixth largest country, Australia measures some 4000km (2500mi) east to west and 3200km (2000mi) north to south. Much of the interior of the country is flat, barren and extremely sparsely populated. The bulk of the population lives on the narrow, fertile eastern coastal plain and on the south-eastern coast. The continent-long Great Dividing Range runs north-south down the eastern seaboard, separating the coastal plain from the drier inland areas. The Great Barrier Reef lies between 50-300km (30-185mi) offshore and extends 2000km (1240mi) from the Torres Strait to Gladstone.
Australia is blessed with a fascinating mix of native flora and fauna. Its distinctive plants include the ubiquitous gum tree or eucalypt, of which there are some 700 species. Other common plants are wattle, banksia, waratahs, bottlebrushes, paperbarks and tea trees. Endemic animals include the iconic kangaroo, koala and emu, and the platypus, echidna, possum, wombat and dingo. There are also a number of interesting birds, such as parrots, cockatoos and kookaburras, and countless indigenous reptile and insect species. Fauna to be wary of include Australian spiders (especially the redback and funnel-web), snakes (notably the venomous brown, tiger, death adder, copperhead and red-bellied black varieties) and both salt and freshwater crocodiles. There are more than 500 national parks, incorporating rainforests, deserts, mountain ranges and coastal dunes.
Australian seasons are the antithesis of those in Europe and North America: summer starts in December, autumn in March, winter in June and spring in September. Seasonal variations in temperature are not extreme except in the deserts, where scorching daytime temperatures can approach freezing by night. Otherwise, it's rare for temperatures to drop below zero on the mainland except in the mountains. As you head north, the seasonal variations become even less distinct except that summer is much wetter and more humid. Darwin, in the far north, is in the monsoon belt, where there are just two seasons: hot and wet (when floods can occur) and hot and dry.
The southern states are popular during the summer months, but the best time to visit is probably the shoulder seasons of spring or autumn when the weather in the south is mild, Queensland is still warm, the humidity is not too draining in the north and there are less flies in the bush. Spring in the outback can be spectacular if rains encourage wildflowers.