A continent celebrates 200 years. Heading for Australia? Next year holds a lot in store - the World Expo, tall ships racing, high-caliber theater, dance, and music, as well as major sports events.

WHILE King George III was on the verge of losing 13 rebellious American Colonies in 1770, a sea captain leading a scientific voyage planted the British ensign on a continent that would soon provide a vast new colony: Australia. The will to establish new crown colonies was insistent even before the old ones were lost, with Parliament debating the site as early as 1779. Only 18 years after Capt. James Cook had landed in Botany Bay, Capt. Arthur Phillip arrived in Sydney Cove to begin the first settlement.

In many ways, America and Australia have had corresponding histories of exploration, colonization, immigration, and growth. Both began with settlements on the maritime fringes of huge continents, gradually pushing inward to cultivate a wilderness interior. And both developed a frontier ethos of fierce independence and self-sufficiency.

Australians will celebrate their bicentennial with just as much hoopla as did the United States, beginning Jan. 26 and continuing all next year. On that date in 1788, 11 ships arrived from Britain, and 1,030 settlers, including 736 convicts, began their new life in a waterfront section of Sydney called ``the Rocks.''

Now 16 million in number, Australians will sponsor bicentennial festivities in nearly every city and village throughout the continent. The underlying theme of ``Living Together'' reflects the eclectic character of a population drawn from more than 120 countries in all parts of the world.

Visitors who come here thinking of Australia as a monolith are in for some surprises. The continent is nearly as big and varied as the US, with distances that will astound anyone contemplating a grand tour. How can the first-time visitor choose where to go and what to see?

Here are some of the major attractions:

A Bicentennial Exhibition starting in Albury/Wodonga will travel like an old-fashioned circus to 34 cities in a convoy of 25 trailers, setting up a tent city at each stop. The broad focus of the exhibits is Australia's past, present, and future - and the contents span everything from aboriginal art objects and Captain Cook's telescope to computers. Science, natural history, legends of the bush, social customs, and live performances - this nomadic exhibition will have it all.

World Expo '88 will be open in Brisbane April 30, running till Oct. 30. Situated across the river from the city skyline, the Expo site has its own unique roof, a fleet of ``sunsails'' that resemble boats tacking back and forth. They provide shade and protection for visitors as well as a mobile spectacle reminiscent of the most famous roof in Australia, the Sydney Opera House. Made of PVC-coated polyester, the sails have been stretched taut to provide shelter from sun, wind, and rain without separating visitors from the outdoors or the adjoining river.

The theme of ``Leisure in the Age of Technology'' invites an eclecticism that will stretch the imagination of 35 exhibiting nations. The pavilions include a ski slope, complete with gondola ride, from Switzerland; ``Sport and its Science,'' with personal appearances by sports celebrities from the US; and a complete pagoda from Nepal. Many countries will provide a smorgasbord of their ethnic traditions, costumes, music, food, and entertainment, and each will celebrate its national day of origin with a special performance.

The Queensland Performing Arts Complex adjoining the Expo grounds will house many distinguished programs in music, dance, and theater throughout the bicentennial year. And a $12 million monorail will glide over, around, and through pavilions.

Tall Ships will sail from all over the world to Australia, some of them stopping in Fremantle, Adelaide, Melbourne, and Brisbane. The fleet includes the Eagle from the US; Principat D'Andorra Trotamar, Andorra; Abel Tasman, the Netherlands; Young Endeavor, Britain; Spirit of New Zealand, New Zealand; Capitan Miranda, Spain; Asgard II, Ireland; and Dar Mlodziezy, Poland.

They will assemble in Hobart on Jan. 14 for the start of a race to Sydney.

After the race, visitors will be able to board some of the ships at their berths in Darling Harbor, Sydney, until Jan. 25, when they will proceed east of the Harbor Bridge, festoon their riggings with flags, and sail in a parade through one of the most magnificent harbors in the world on Jan. 26. Sailing ships began the history of Australia, so these tall ships will be honored on the anniversary of the first fleet's arrival.

The Bicentennial Arts Program has scheduled performances by orchestras, dance companies, and theatrical troupes from around the world, including the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Twyla Tharp Dance Company, the Royal Ballet of London, and Peter Brook's Theater Company, among others. The arts program will also sponsor workshops, exhibits, and festivals in various locales throughout the country, and it has commissioned five cultural histories and 20 literary volumes to be written by Australian writers. (For information on the schedule of performances and tickets write to the Australian Bicentennial Authority, Box AUS 1988, Sydney, N.S.W., Australia, 2001.)

The Around Australia Relay will begin in Canberra on May 9, with a single runner carrying a baton. As many as 16,000 runners will be involved in the 17,500-kilometer (10,870-mile) relay that touches every region before returning to Canberra Dec. 13.

A Bicentennial Air Show will be the major feature at the RAAF Base at Richmond near Sydney Oct. 12-16, 1988. The show includes hot-air balloons, aerobatic performers, antique planes, sky diving, and airfield mock-ups from several wars.

In addition to these major events, there are special events such as the World Boomerang Throwing Cup, the Droving Cattle Re-enactment, the Carriage Driving Championships and National Harness Show, and the opening of the new National Maritime Museum.

Those interested in sports can be on hand for such events as the Blue Fin Tuna Fishing Competition, the Round Australia Ocean Yacht Race, World Series Cycling, World Youth Cricket Club, the World Gold Soccer Cup, International Wildwater and Canoe Slalom Championships, and the Australian Tennis Open.

With this much to see and do in 1988, many people will not be able to resist taking the long trek down under. As Paul Hogan in ```Crocodile' Dundee'' says, ``Go and say G'day!''

If you go

For an overview of travel possibilities, order a free copy of ``The Aussie Holiday Book'' by calling 800-445-4400. Check Pages 21-23 for a list of the major bicentennial events. For more information, write to the Australian Tourist Commission, 2121 Avenue of the Stars, Los Angeles, CA 90067.

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