On the face of it Australia is much like any other modern, developed nation. But for a number of reasons it isn’t, and chief among those reasons is the koala: you may not know this but it spends almost all of its life off its face on dope and then, whenever it feels frightened, it catches chlamydia.
You do not find this sort of thing going on with any other creature in any other part of the world. Then you have the kangaroo. The red variety can travel at 40mph, which is fast enough to give a G-Wiz a run for its money. But no kangaroo of any sort can back up. They have no reverse gear at all. Plus, all female kangaroos are permanently pregnant.
Life is very different for the female Sydney funnel-web spider. She has to spend her whole life in the burrow and is not allowed out until she dies of old age. The males, meanwhile, like to roar around Sydney at night, swimming in people’s pools, hiding in children’s shoes and eating anyone who gets too close.
I like Australia but almost everything you find down under is unique. The duck-billed platypus, for instance. Surely the strangest animal ever to leap from the fumes of God’s chemistry set. On land it is four-wheel drive, but underwater it becomes front-wheel drive and uses its rear legs for steering. So it’s an amphibious fork-lift truck, with a beak.
We see the same sort of thing in sport. Elsewhere in the world, you have American football or proper football. Whereas down under there is Aussie Rules, which is strange because from what I can gather there aren’t any rules at all. Apart from no poofters, obviously. The game itself is part soccer, part rugby and part basketball, but what sets it aside from all three is that each side consists of about 17,000 players, all of whom wear rather unattractive skintight vests.
Another notable thing in Australia is a fanatical approach to health and safety. There are more speed cameras than people, and if you wish to go snorkelling you must dress up in a giant nylon all-in-one. This means no part of your skin, including hands, feet and face, is in contact with the water, and so you cannot get stung by a box jellyfish. In some ways it is a wise precaution. But I’m sorry — splashing about in an acrylic submarine rather spoils the point of snorkelling. And it’s not as if the box jellyfish is unique to Oz. The little critters are everywhere, and no other nation makes you get into a condom just in case.
It gets worse. After my snorkelling expedition, I tried to rent a Jet Ski. But a state law meant that I had to sit down, in the blazing sunshine, and take a written exam. What’s to learn? There’s a throttle and that’s it. My daughter was riding a Jet Ski at the age of five. An idiot could do it. I pointed all this out to the blond surfer dude who was running the course but it was as if he’d been programmed: safety is everything.
Not on a Jet Ski, it isn’t. Fun is everything. Whizzing about and trying to splash your mates is everything. Getting knocked off by a big wave is everything. If you want to be safe on a Jet Ski, get off it. So there you are, in a country where they drive on the same side of the road as us, speak the same language and have the same head of state. And the same summer weather, if my recent trip is anything to go by.
But it’s not the same at all. And it especially isn’t the same when you look at cars. In every other country in the world people may like the brand of car they drive, but not so much that they would punch someone in the face for driving something different.
To the average Aussie there are two brands. Ford and Holden. And even if you are a solicitor and you drive an Audi, you are instinctively in one of these two groups. I was going to say it’s like the Catholics and the Protestants in Northern Ireland, but it isn’t. It’s more ingrained than that. There is such fanaticism, in fact, and loyalty that both Ford and General Motors make cars specifically for the Australian market.
We’re talking about a country of just 22m people — most of whom are in Earls Court. That would be like making a car specifically for Romania. It wouldn’t happen. That said, it is not expensive to engineer a car for the Australian market. Certainly, you don’t have to employ a stylist. The current crop of Holdens aren’t too bad, in a meaty, knuckle-dragging sort of way, but the Fords … Oh dear.
And it was always thus, even back in the days of Mad Max and his Interceptor. I tried the new Ford Falcon FPV Boss 335 GT when I was over there and it struck me that someone had spent a few quid on the engine and then nothing at all on anything else. I’m told this is how it should be when you are upside down. Which you will be if you try to make it go round a corner.
The old Falcon V8 was a bit of a problem child because the turbocharged V6 model was faster and nice to drive. So Ford has teamed up with Prodrive — the famous Aussie motor racing house in Oxfordshire — to create the new one. It was a big ask because the base engine comes from a Mustang and it has asthma. To try to insert a bit of ephedrine, it is now fitted with a supercharger and an intercooler, which means you get lots of grunt. So much that every time you set off you “lay a couple of darkies”. People cheer when you leave a skid mark like this in Australia.
So it’s quite gruntsome in a straight line, but it is too big, too soft and too heavy to be remotely good at anything else. And inside, you get the impression everything is made from Cellophane. My snorkelling suit felt more robust. By rights the FPV should not exist. It’s pointless. But then so is the koala, and we’d all be a bit sad if we woke up one morning to find that the last button-nosed little stoner had fallen out of his tree.