Australian Geographic’s 100 Aussie icons

By AG Staff November 10, 2010
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From the sacred and the profound to the almost unbelievable, here are our picks of the top 100 Aussie icons

WHY DO AUSTRALIANS HOLD such disparate things so dear? Fly spray…Vegemite…A hat made from rabbits? A backyard washing line that does double duty as a frame for kids’ cubbyhouses, or a vagabond who carries his bed on his back? An annual race of thoroughbred horses? Of course, we love the country’s awe-inspiring beauty but we also have a sneaking regard for her terror – the “wilful, lavish land” of the poet Dorothea Mackellar, who reminds us that “for flood and fire and famine, she pays us back threefold”.

Of course, we’ve had to work for it – whether shearer or drover – and even lay our lives down for a nation so blessed it could almost take freedom for granted. The digger and his wife, kids and mates is the icon celebrated on our most sacred day, Anzac Day. Our icons are as true blue and fair dinkum as Australia itself.

If you’re an Aussie you’ll know what these 100 precious things are about straight away. Let us know if you reckon we missed something; we’d love to hear what you’d add to the list.

Here are the top 100 Australian icons


1    Ned Kelly: Australia’s most loved and infamous bushranger. Many Aussies believe his last words before his 1880 hanging in a Melbourne jail were “such is life”. That’s a myth, but it does represent the easygoing Aussie ethos.

2    Captain Starlight: Only an Aussie could successfully ‘lift’ 1000 head of cattle and drive them from Queensland to South Australia, only to be caught three years later and then released by a sympathetic jury. Australia’s top duffer.

3    Charles Kingsford Smith: This ambitious aviator made the first flight across the Pacific from California to Brisbane in 1928.

4    Nancy-Bird Walton: Our elegant aviatrix pioneered the way for female flyers.

5    Don Bradman: Cricket’s greatest batsman, ‘The Don’ was a willow-wielding prodigy.

6    Douglas Mawson: From 1911 to 1914 this geologist led the much-celebrated Australian Antarctic Expedition.

7    ‘Banjo’ Paterson: Who’d have guessed that a Melbourne lawyer would turn out to be among a new nation’s best-loved poets? ‘The Man’ (12) is probably Australia’s most recited poem, while Banjo’s story of a swagman down on his luck (13) is our unofficial national anthem.



8     Corroboree: An early addition to Aussie English; from Dharug garabari.

9     The didgeridoo: A European word. One indigenous name is yirdaki.

10     Dot paintings: Modern descendants of ceremonial flower and sand art.

11     My country: A homesick Dorothea Mackellar expressed her love for a  “sunburnt country” while she was living in England in 1904.

12     The Man from Snowy River (See 7).

13     Waltzing Matilda (See 7).

14    Surfing: Summer in Australia means long days at the beach, where surfers can be seen riding some of the best surf breaks around the world.



15    The boomerang: Most visitors choose ‘dot’ paintings (10), boomerangs or didgeridoos (9) to take home as symbols of Australia’s indigenous peoples. All are used at ceremonies – known as corroborees (8) to whitefellas – at which stories and songs have been passed down through the ages, defining and shaping Earth’s oldest continuing culture.

16    The Outback: The stuff of romantic legend – backlit trees on sunset-red plains, beneath a star-filled sky.

17    The Bush: Home to koalas high in gum trees, waddling wombats, wily woylies and sleepy snakes, the bush is the setting for many adventures.

18    Gold: Many a hopeful moved to isolated fields with a dream of making his fortune.

19    Homestead: Running isolated stations in the harsh bush would’ve been almost impossible without the basic comforts of a sprawling homestead.

20    Verandah and corrugated-iron roof: Many a tall tale has been shared on a verandah, the house shaded by its corrugated-iron roof.

21    Water tank: Standing companionably next to many Aussie homes is the water tank, full of sweet rainwater and, sometimes, froggy visitors.

22    Windmill: Making the most of underground water sources, the windmill creakingly pumps its precious payload, often standing lonely in vast paddocks.

23    Flies: The reason for our ‘national salute’.

24    Merino sheep: Australia produces over a quarter of the world’s wool, and merino fibre is recognised as being the finest.

25    Kelpie: Top sheep dog and an Australian creation; without one, you have little hope of keeping your mob in line.



26     The convict: That Australia was built by England’s unwanted – criminals and political exiles – could explain our larrikin nature.

27     The bushranger: These outlaws on horseback could make travelling a nightmare in the early days.

28     The swagman: We reckon the swagman, or nomadic worker, was “jolly” because he had his billy boiling, a camp under a coolibah tree and a free meal of squatter’s mutton, until the troopers turned up.

29     The Shearer: The first authenticated daily shearing tally was recorded in 1835: “Tom Merely shears 30 sheep with blades in WA”.

30     High country cattleman: The image of the high country cattleman was stamped into our consciousness in 1890 by Banjo Paterson’s now legendary ballad The Man from Snowy River (12).

31     The Drover: Cattle driver, famously immortalised in Banjo Paterson’s poem Clancy of the Overflow.

32     The Gold Miner: Armed with dryblowers or pans and seeking their ‘eureka’ moment, gold prospectors helped establish many Australian towns.

33     The Digger (See 34).



34    Gallipoli: The best of Australia and New Zealand’s young men went to war on the other side of the globe in 1914–18. Nicknamed “diggers” (33) after the gold prospectors of a previous generation (32), many – almost 60,000 Aussies and 18,000 Kiwis – never returned. Every Anzac Day (36) – the anniversary of their first day in battle at Gallipoli – we remember and mourn them.

35    Two-up: This game was popular with diggers in both world wars. Illegal throughout most of Australia, authorities turn a blind eye on Anzac Day.

36    Anzac Day (See 34).



37     Drought: An age-old worry in this red and dusty nation, it threatens to worsen with climate change.

38     Flood: When it rains Down Under, it pours. Many towns and cities have fallen victim to flooded rivers.

39     Bushfire: They help regenerate the land and encourage regrowth, but bushfires can be deadly when they get out of control.

40     The desert: Under a blazing sun, red dirt stretches as far as the eye can see to meet the bluest of skies.

41     The Southern Cross: Recognisable to Aussie travellers, the Southern Cross is a reminder of home.

42     Kangaroo: You can’t get more Australian.

43     Koala: Dozy it may appear, but it has captured hearts the world over.

44     Wombat: This koala relative trundles through the bush like a small tank.

45     Emu: Its name is Portuguese, but it’s true blue.

46     Kookaburra: Once called the ‘bushman’s alarm clock’, its name comes from the Wiradjuri gugubarra.

47     Frill-necked lizard: Sometimes known as the ‘blanket lizard’.

48     Platypus: The first skins seen in Europe were pronounced a hoax.

49     Crocodile: This ancient survivor has become a symbol of the Top End.

50     Banksia: All but one of the 76 Banksia species occur only in Australia. Named after Sir Joseph Banks, naturalist on the Endeavour who, in 1770, was the first European to collect one.

51     Flannel flower: A close relative of the carrot family, this star-shaped flower feels like flannel.

52     Wattle: A profusion of yellow flowers characterise the wattle, Australia’s national emblem.

53     Gum tree: “Give me a home among the gum trees,” sang John Williamson. Also offering the staple food for koalas, they are found nation-wide.



54     Uluru:  Hiding most of its mammoth bulk below ground, Uluru changes colour as the light changes and… well, you’ll just have to see it for yourself.

55     Kakadu: Half the size of Switzerland, Kakadu NP is one of the world’s biggest, largely unspoiled freshwater wetlands.

56   Daintree Rainforest: This ancient jungle reveals Australia as it once was, before deserts claimed much of the continent.

57     Great Barrier Reef: Arguably the world’s best-known ocean habitat, this jewel is a kaleidoscope of colour and diversity.

58     Twelve Apostles and Great Ocean Road: Australians love a good road trip – and there’s none better known than the Great Ocean Road, past the towering Twelve Apostles.

59     Mt Kosciuszko: Australia’s highest peak, at 2228 m, is at the heart of the Snowy Mountains.

60     Cradle Mountain: This 1545 m Tassie peak is the home of icy streams and wild beauty.

61     Opera House: As Big Ben is for London and Lady Liberty for the USA, the Opera House and ‘the Bridge’ (62) are the harbour city’s global identifiers.

62     Sydney Harbour Bridge: Sydneysiders’ beloved ‘coathanger’.



63     Boiling the billy: What campfire would be complete without a twist of crusty damper (64) and a mug of billy tea?

64     Damper: A simple bread baked in a camp oven covered in coals.

65     The picnic: The Aussie picnicker has learnt to live with bull-ants and bush-flies (23).

66     Lamingtons: Often used for fundraising ‘lamington drives’, these squares of sponge cake covered in chocolate and coconut are a favourite complement to a hot cuppa.

67     AFL: The first rules of Aussie rules football were published by the Melbourne Football Club in 1859 and it is a favourite weekend pastime for many.

68     Barbeque: Men stand around it, its smell makes tummies grumble and, in summer, firing up the barbie is the best way to attract family and friends.

69     Backyard cricket: Aussies’ summertime Christmas Day isn’t complete without hotly contested backyard cricket. Bins work well as stumps and a tennis ball gains you extra runs.



70     Surf lifesaver: Bronzed Aussies with zinc-smeared noses spell summer – and if they’re patrolling the local beach, so much the better.

71     Zinc sunscreen (See 70).

72     Ute: The ‘coupe/utility’ was an Aussie innovation of the 1930s (87).

73     Roadtrain: When 100 tonnes of glinting steel come barrelling at you amid a cloud of outback dust, you’d be wise to make room to let them pass.



74     School of the Air: Fifty years old in 2009, the School of the Air brought education by radio (and now the internet) to children in the remote outback.

75     Royal Flying Doctor Service: Brainchild of Reverend John Flynn, it brings reliable emergency medicine to settlers in the back of beyond.

76     Alice Springs Camel Cup: Held annually in July in Blatherskite Park, this is the nation’s most notable camel race meeting.

77     Melbourne Cup: “The race that stops a nation” can be the cause of much regret over money lost, but ‘The Cup’ is a November favourite.



78     Mortein: We’ve been swatting flies (23) and other pests for generations but Mortein and Aerogard (79) help take the sting out of our outdoor lifestyle.

79     Aerogard: As much a part of summer as zinc (71).

80     Akubra hat: Made from the fur of wild rabbits, the national curse.

81     Drizabone coat: To the urban Aussie, nothing says ‘bushman’ like an Akubra hat (80) and an oilskin Drizabone coat.

82     Victa lawnmower: The first Victa was built by Mervyn “Victor” Richardson in his garage in Concord, NSW, in 1952.

83     Hills Hoist: From Kalgoorlie to Cabramatta, the sculpture in every 1960s backyard.

84     Arnott’s biscuits: There’s no substitute for Tim Tams, Scotch Fingers and Sao crackers,just some of the crumbly creations from Arnott’s Biscuits.

85     Aeroplane jelly: Known as much for its trademark sweetness as for that catchy jingle “I like it for dinner, I like it for tea, a little each day is a good recipe!”

86     Vegemite: Who else but an Aussie would eat a brewery’s leftovers.

87     FJ Holden: Provided a roomy bench seat for lovers from 1953.

88     Toyota Landcruiser: If you want your transport to say ‘outback’, there are very few vehicles that fit the bill. Seated in a Toyota Land-cruiser or one-tonner ute (72), you’ll be making the statement.

89     Qantas: Still calls Australia home, 90 years after humble beginnings in outback Queensland.



90     Coat of Arms: Prominent in our nation’s coat-of-arms, the kangaroo (42), emu (45) and wattle (52) simply shout “Australia”.

91     The Australian flag: Made official in 1953, the Australian flag features the Southern Cross (41) and the Union Jack and was created after the Australian colonies became the Commonwealth of Australia on 1 January, 1901.

92     Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander flags: The flags of Australia’s indigenous peoples are potent symbols of their cultures and widely seen on public buildings and during special occasions.

93     The Eureka Flag: When in 1854 diggers on the Ballarat goldfields revolted – an event immortalised as the Eureka Stockade – the Eureka Flag was flown. It has since been used in countless other protests.

94     The anthem: At sporting matches and in schools around the country, the strains of our national anthem Advance Australia Fair unite us.



95     The Ghan: Named for the ‘Afghan’ cameleers who once moved supplies throughout the interior, The Ghan rolls from Darwin to Adelaide.

96     Indian Pacific: Rumble for more than 4000 km, much of it across the arid inland, from Sydney to Perth on one of the world’s longest train rides.

97     Gibb River Road: Travellers no longer have to harness up their donkey teams to travel the Gibb River Road in the Kimberley.

98     Birdsville Track: Hardy drovers once pushed cattle along this 520 km stock route, but it’s now a popular 4WD journey.

99     Canning Stock Route: The world’s longest stock route (now 4WD dream destination) was created in 1906 to drive cattle from the Kimberley to the railhead at Wiluna, WA.

100   Crossing the Nullarbor: Do it by train, car or bicycle, but do it at least once. The Nullarbor Plain is the ultimate trans-Australia experience.

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