It’s that time of year again, with Christmas approaching, when we begin to think about the perfect present for an international friend, a relative with the travelling bug, or just the person who has everything, and this beautiful coffee table book Islands of Australia: Travels Through Time (National Library of Australia 2019) by Tony Wheeler is the ideal gift.

Tony Wheeler is the co-founder of the travel publisher Lonely Planet and it is fair to say he has done a bit of travelling in his time. Over the years, visiting Australia’s islands has been a favourite project, and this book encapsulates his gathered knowledge, researched history, stunning photographs and iconic memories of this island home. Australia is not only an island continent, but also a continent of over 8000 islands, and in this book – part history, part travel, part photography – Wheeler takes us on a journey around the coast and beyond, examining islets, cays, atolls and archipelagos.

And what diversity he reveals. From large, inhabited islands to tiny, deserted sand bars; from rainforest to snow-capped mountains; from popular tourist hot-spots to places housing only native wildlife; from farming islands to resource islands; from islands close enough to almost be classed as a suburb of the closest city (think Magnetic Island, Bribie Island or Bruny Island) to those oceanic islands further afield. The islands are varied in geography, geology and population. Wheeler places special emphasis on the local Indigenous history, important sacred sites, past massacres and current Aboriginal environmental activism. He describes everything from famous shipwrecks to lighthouses to the historical journals of the first white settlers, and colonial and convict settlement. Some of the islands will be familiar: Kangaroo Island, Groote Island, Fraser Island, King Island, Lord Howe Island. Others will be small rocks poking out of the sea that you may never have heard of, but all are grouped together by Australian state, and all are afforded the benefit of his fascinating commentary on historical and social facts, and native flora and fauna (both historically and now). Every page is accompanied by stunning photographs of the islands, often taken from the air, or reproductions of historical drawings, or detailed maps of the locations he discusses. He includes many passages of personal reflection about his own experiences and journeys to particular islands, and the memories they hold for him. Especially interesting is the fate of some of the previously popular ‘holiday islands’ off the Queensland coast, which have gone bust over the years, and now seem to be reverting to their natural state of wildness. And I had never heard of the bubblegum-pink Lake Hillier on Middle Island in the Recherche Archipelago in Western Australia, the distinctive colour caused by micro-algae.

The conclusion of the book includes a timeline of Australian explorers and their ships, from 1606 to 1818.

A fabulous Christmas gift idea, or if you yourself are an armchair traveller keen to see more of this beautiful country, this book takes you on a journey of discovery that is interesting, diverse and informative.