An island continent located between the Indian and Pacific Oceans, Australia combines a wide variety of landscapes. The highest mountains are part of the Great Dividing Range that lines the east coast from Cape York Peninsula south to the state of Victoria. Most people reside along the southeast coast, in cities like Melbourne or Sydney, because winds from the southeast release rain there—leaving the interior beyond the mountains arid or semiarid. West of the Great Dividing Range the landscape consists mostly of plains and plateaus; the Macdonnell Ranges near the country's center are an exception. The Great Artesian Basin provides underground water for a region that would otherwise be desert. Vegetation ranges from rain forests in the far north to steppes and deserts in the vast interior (which Australians call the outback). There are more than 130 species of marsupials, such as kangaroos, koalas, and wombats. The Murray-Darling River Basin, covering about 14 percent of the continent, helps sustain wheat and wool industries.
Founded in 1788 as a British convict colony, Australia was a place of banishment until gold strikes in 1851 opened floodgates of immigration. Independence came in 1901, with a constitution adapted in part from that of the United States. Immigration has been key to Australia's development since 1788; from 1945 through 2000 almost six million immigrants arrived. Aborigines number about 517,000, and the government is making efforts to settle aboriginal land rights. Australia has one of the world's highest living standards with 85 percent living in urban areas.