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This vast island region is spread over a huge area of the Pacific Ocean to the south of Southeast Asia. Australasia is made up of Australia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, and several nearby islands. Australia is the only country that is also a continent in its own right, the smallest of the seven. Australasia is often linked with three groups of Pacific islands - Melanesia, Micronesia, and Polynesia - which form an even wider region, called Oceania. The climate and geography of Australasia and Oceania are as diverse as the region itself, ranging from the rain forests of northern Australia and the glaciers of southern New Zealand, to the coral atolls and volcanoes that form many of the Pacific islands.


Papua New Guinea is the eastern end of the island of New Guinea. The western end is Irian Jaya, part of Indonesia. Papua is a country of high mountains and thick forests. The highest peak, Mount Wilhelm, reaches 14,107 ft (4,300 m) and is often snow-capped, despite lying close to the Equator. Lower down, the climate is hot and humid, ideal for the growth of the rich, tropical rain forests that cover two-thirds of the island.


Australia bas four major deserts - the Simpson, Gibson, Great Sandy, and Great Victoria. Together they cover most of the heart of the continent in a vast, barren area known as the outback. Very few people live in the outback, although the dry conditions are good for raising sheep and cattle.


Isolated from the rest of the world, parts of this region were among the last places on Earth to be settled. The first inhabitants came from Asia, and include the Aboriginals of Australia, the Maoris of New Zealand, and the peoples of the Pacific Islands. In the 18th century, settlers started to arrive from Europe, and both Australia and New Zealand became British colonies. Many Pacific Islands were European colonies. Today, links with theEuropean colonizers are no longer so strong. In recent decades, people have migrated to Australia and New Zealand from the Middle East and Southeast Asia, and both countries now have multicultural societies and successful modern economies.


Until about 200 years ago, the land that is now Australia was occupied only by Aboriginals. Then, in 1770, the British explorer James Cook arrived in Botany Bay and claimed it for Britain. In 1901, Australia became an independent commonwealth. Over the years, settlers from overseas, first from Britain and Europe, but more recently from Asia, have shaped the culture of this huge country. Wool and wheat, as well as mineral resources of iron ore, coal, and copper, have made Australia wealthy, and most people benefit from a high standard of living.


About 85 percent of Australians live in or around cities along the coast. most of the schools, hospitals, offices and factories are located there, and life is easier than in the remote towns a farms of the outback. Homes in the city are built of wood or brick, often with verandas or "sleepouts," as well as a backyard for a barbecue. The five largest cities contain 60 percent of th population. One of these is Sydney, shown left, with its Opera House overlooking the harbor.

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