Celebrated on April 25 each year in Australia and New Zealand, ANZAC Day commemorates those killed during war and also honors returned soldiers.

During ANZAC Day Down Under, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Tony Horwitz caught a glimpse of the country’s true character.

I thought I knew Australia about as well as a newcomer could. At 25, I’d fallen in love with a Sydney woman and found work at a local paper—the quickest way possible to assimilate. Each day on the job was a crash course in ’Strine (Australian dialect), pub etiquette (never leave before “shouting” your mates a round), and the fine points of local fauna and politics (a koala is not a bear; a “ratbag” is a loud-mouthed extremist). My education continued every weekend at “barbies” and on the beach. I even learned to like cricket.

Then, a year into my stay, feeling disappointed by how familiar Sydney seemed, I set off to find the “real” Australia by hitchhiking across the outback. From dusty pick-ups and battered sedans, I saw the Down Under world I’d dreamed about: mobs of kangaroos, the big red rock at Uluru, lean and painted Aborigines, motorists who measured distance by the number of beers consumed en route (as in, “I reckon it’s a six-pack to the next station, maybe two”).

What I didn’t anticipate was that I’d discover something essential about Australia at a plain, tin-roofed veterans’ hall in Broome, a pearl-diving town at “the back of beyond,” between the Great Sandy Desert and the Indian Ocean. I’d washed up in Broome on ANZAC Day, a commemoration named for the Australia and New Zealand Army Corps that landed at Gallipoli on April 25, 1915. As anyone who has seen the movie version knows, British commanders ordered ANZACs to charge straight at Turkish machine guns. The Allies sustained 140,000 casualties before abandoning Gallipoli—one of the bloodiest debacles of the First World War.

Australians aren’t big on American-style displays of patriotism. In Sydney, I’d witnessed Australia Day, which marks the first landing of English colonists in 1788. Most Sydneysiders regarded their national holiday as no more than an excuse for a day off. After all, the first colonists were convicts, forcibly transported from England, and the country they “founded” had been inhabited by Aborigines for 40,000 years. Australia Day was mainly an occasion for mockery and drink. I assumed ANZAC Day—roughly equivalent to Memorial Day in the U.S.—would be the same.

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So I was surprised to find that much of Broome’s motley populace turned out at dawn to watch 20 veterans march through a park, blow trumpets, lay wreathes, and recite lines from an Australian poem about the war dead:

Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.

At the going down of the sun and in the morning,

We will remember them.

The crowd moved on to a church for a brief service, and then to the veterans’ hall. There, at 7 a.m., the veterans began toasting the fallen with “tinnies” of beer. They also honored the WWI soldiers, known as Diggers, by playing a game popular in the trenches, called two-up. It’s pretty simple. Two pennies are placed on a wooden stick and then flipped, with bettors wagering on whether they come up heads or tails.

At first, I laughed at how clichéd this all seemed. Aussies, I well knew, can drink vast quantities of beer, at any hour, and gamble on two flies crawling up a wall if no better contest presents itself. But for all the drink and gaming, ANZAC Day had a sober and sentimental air, very much at odds with Australians’ characteristic deprecation of themselves and everything else. I even noticed a few tears. In between my turns as “spinner,” the person flipping pennies at two-up, I quizzed my fellow drinkers to decipher what was up.

“The Diggers are what made this country,” one veteran explained, “not Captain Cook and his lot.”

“Or any of the Poms who came after him,” another man said, using derisive Aussie slang for the British. Australia’s political leaders came in for similar abuse. Ratbags, every one.

“But the Diggers got slaughtered,” I pointed out. “Gallipoli was a disaster.”

“Too bloody right,” one of the men replied.

And that, I slowly grasped, was the point. Unlike America, which celebrates winners and sees its national saga as a triumph, Australians view their history as essentially tragic. The country was founded as the world’s largest prison and was still chained to distant Britain until the 20th century. The land itself was unforgiving—arid, blistering, barely habitable, nothing like the American frontier, with its deep topsoil and abundant water. Isolation and poverty were the norm for most Australians until the country began booming after the Second World War. This history bred stoicism, suspicion of authority, black humor, an embrace of collective identity, or “mateship,” and a romance with noble defeat.

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“You Yanks have your ‘Star-Spangled Banner,’” one of the Broome veterans told me, attempting an off-key rendition in praise of the American flag, the military, the free and the brave. Then he sang “Waltzing Matilda,” Australia’s unofficial anthem. I’d heard it countless times but never paid close attention to the lyrics. Now that I was reasonably fluent in Australian slang, I realized the song was about a sheep rustler who drowns himself rather than surrender to the police.

The same pattern holds with national icons. America honors presidents and commanders like Lincoln and Washington. Australia has no comparable heroes. In fact, the most renowned character from Australia’s past is Ned Kelly, the son of an Irish convict who became an outlaw, donned homemade armor before a shoot-out with police, and went to the gallows at twenty-six.

And finally, there’s ANZAC Day, Australia’s true national holiday. Unlike the Fourth of July, which commemorates a triumphant war of independence from Britain, ANZAC Day recalls the men who fought and died in a doomed assault ordered by British generals. It is an expression of Australia’s scrappiness, its skepticism about war and world powers, and its pride in shared struggle and suffering.

This is what I began to understand that hot, beer-dazed morning in Broome, between cries of “Come in, spinner!” and “Head ’em, ya bastard! Heads!” Looking back, from the distance of more than two decades, it’s also the sort of experience I’ve come to cherish in travel. Not the conscious quest for the exotic. But rather, the small, accidental encounter in a distant land that makes me see that culture—and my own—anew.

>> Plan Your Trip with AFAR’s Guide to Australia