Our cheeky, competitive cousins

It's 1962, and I'm sitting on a hard wooden form in the French Pass Memorial Hall next to my brother. Our parents sit behind us with the other grown-ups near the enormous clattering, whirring film projector.

David's bored, but I'm not. I'm paralysed with fear, riveted by the story of a little girl lost in the Australian Outback unfolding in sepia-tinted horror on the slightly wrinkled cotton sheet screen directly in front of me.

I can still see the endless scrubby brown Australian bush through which the child heroine wandered, threatened by venomous snakes and dark men with spears. Thus Outback Australia created the backdrop to nightmares for the rest of my childhood.

This memory resurfaced during a trip to north Queensland. As we followed the Mulligan Highway across the Atherton Tablelands towards Mareeba, the scrubby bush took me back to those frightening images.

Of course, with the perspective of years, the fear is replaced with facts and reality: the Australian bush, sparse and littered with termite mounds, is fascinating and very different to New Zealand's.

And what about the people? How alike are New Zealanders and Australians, really?

It's interesting to reflect that the largest number of immigrants to New Zealand in the 1870s came from across the Tasman, and for many good reasons. For example, the Australian goldfields had done their dash and our goldfields beckoned.

Some Australians were trying to escape the shame of their family's convict history or the harsh climate, the latter reason being considerably more compelling before the invention of air conditioning.

My husband's forebears were in this immigrant cohort, although they came to New Zealand seeking souls rather than gold. So we've got a lot of common genetic history with Australians.

A couple of trips to Sydney and a week in Port Douglas probably don't qualify me to judge the differences between Australians and New Zealanders, but I'd argue that half a day at Hartley's Crocodile Adventures, north of Cairns, would give anyone at least a couple of clues.

Hartley's keep their visitors happy with a brisk schedule of croc shows and tours conducted by Aussies whose presentation style is a weirdly effective mix of the laconic Crocodile Dundee and the wildly enthusiastic Steve Irwin. They're not putting it on for the punters, either.

Waiting to board our boat for the short float around the croc lake, we heard one of the guides remarking on the other guide's absence. "Bloody Jason, he's spat the chook," Brad confided not very quietly to his offsider. "Says he hasn't had a bloody break all day . . ."

Brad set off with his boat load while we waited for Jason, who turned up a few minutes later, armed with coffee and pretty cheerful, although he did seem to relish delivering the safety briefing: there are no life preservers, make sure you're not the slowest swimmer if the boat sinks, and please “make a bloody loud noise if I fall in”.

Bruce conducted the crocodile farm tour. Despite his convincing bad boy persona (no female under the age of 60 was safe from his off-colour and outrageously sexist comments), he had a very acute take on language.

"How do you kill the crocs?" an innocent tourist inquired. "Lady, lady, lady," Bruce intoned, with great emphasis on the words under discussion, "we don't ‘kill' them, we ‘harvest' them!"

He then delivered a brief but impressive dissertation on the connotations of language choices in the context of crocodile farming, which wouldn't have been out of place in a lecture theatre.

This was followed by an invitation to the cane toad races he was running that night at the Iron Bar "up at the Port, and if you kiss one, ladies, you might get a prince like me!".

Australians take pride in the sort of rascally con that in New Zealand would have us blushing. For example, Cairns Air Terminal has a large display detailing the history of aviation in the region.

One of the five panels is devoted to the story of Tom McDonald, who piloted the plane for the first parachute jump in Cairns. He'd persuaded entertainer Clem Dawes, who'd never flown, let alone donned a parachute, to jump out of his biplane.

When Dawes quite understandably got cold feet, McDonald hit on a cunning plan. He attached a dummy stuffed with rags to the parachute harness, flew to a suitable altitude above the crowd and tossed it out. He planned to rush Dawes into place in time to complete the ruse.

His plans went awry when the parachute failed to open and the dummy, to the horror of the spectators, plunged into the mangroves next to the runway.

Not one to give up easily, McDonald landed, pushed the hapless Dawes into the mangroves and got him good and muddy before hauling him out and exclaiming, "He's alive, he's alive!" just as the crowds arrived.

It's a great story, and Cairns locals are proud of it - proud enough to display it on a two-metre wall panel.

So what about these differences? There's no doubt that Aussies are brasher than New Zealanders. How did they get that way? I think their natural environment is, in every way, a lot tougher than ours: consider that the "lost child" is a frequently employed motif in Australian culture, while we Kiwis have our "man alone" striding lonely, but safely, over the empty hills.

Perhaps the effort needed to survive has made Australians a brash, tough and competitive people. It's a great country, though, and I look forward to returning for further research.