Outward on the M5 from Sydney, under the wind turbines that look like spinning Mercedes badges on enormous stems, through towns where life and death is marked by the newly painted population number on faded green signs, you will arrive at a bungalow flying a tricolor flag.
You have arrived at Atlantium, the smallest country in Australia. The only micronation on AirBnB.
"Atlantium is not a micronation," the nation's emperor, Georgivs II, corrects me as we arrive.
"It's a non-territorial global sovereign entity," he continues, offering to make tea for my girlfriend and me using the country's gas stove.
Art Deco portraits cover the walls, and a mixture of travel, science fiction, and local interest books pack the shelves. Inside, the empire's one building for guests (the emperor stays next door in a corrugated metal-sheeted shed) is not too dissimilar from any other AirBnB housing.
There are some distinct features. The heat is oppressive here in Atlantium. Walking into it is like opening an industrial oven door. The place is incredibly silent. All you can really hear is the stridulation of locusts and the warble of Atlantium's various bird species: crimson rosellas, cockatoo, and owls.
The bungalow overlooks the Lachlan River Valley, near Reids Flat in New South Wales. The toilet is next to the emperor's office. It's a compost type deal where, instead of flushing, you throw sawdust down the hole.
A herd of sheep graze in the shade of a nearby copse. Farther away, a mob of kangaroo holds court near a river basin. The wasps here sound like helicopters, which at least gives you prior warning of their arrival.
Other noticeable differences are the various sites and sculptures of cultural significance. The giant timber pyramid, for example—the only of its kind in Australia—or the column made up of an eagle statue sitting on top of a gold sphere.
Tea prepared, Emperor Georgivs II—or George Francis Cruickshank, as he goes by outside the nation's boundary lines—rattles the wind chimes and takes us all back to his mother's backyard in Sydney, where he and his cousins, Geoff and Claire, created Atlantium in 1981.
"We were living in the tail end of the Cold War. It was a very confrontational world, and we had this idea that maybe we should set up our own country. I wrote the constitution and we developed the postage stamps and flags and all that sort of stuff. It was largely an intellectual exercise: a black and white dotted line in the corner of my mother's backyard in suburban Sydney. I think that black and white line is still there."
Back then, Atlantium was a reflection of the young emperor's ideals. It had no territory, only values and paraphernalia. In fact, it was the paraphernalia that, in part, went some way to establishing the nation it is today. George and his cousins created and issued postage stamps, which attracted stamp enthusiasts, which attracted other micronations. Recognition grew for what was essentially a product of the imagination of a group of teenagers.
As time passed, however, and George went to university in Wagga Wagga, his cousins' interest fell away. Yet the idea of Atlantium lived on in his mind. He calls it his obsession; a thread through his entire life. Naturally, Atlantium matured as George did—or, as he puts it: "It evolved as I evolved. Atlantium was a way of expressing my broadly progressive political views in an age and at a time when progressivism was under attack from all comers."
Trouble was, it's difficult to have your progressive notions taken seriously by anyone when half your country is a bedroom. So when, by chance, a friend bought a piece of land near Reids Flat in 1999, the young emperor began to visit in the hope of terraforming the nation. By 2008, he became a co-owner and the Atlantium as we see it today was finally free to be realized.
The pyramid was constructed, the column erected. If the regality of its ceremonial sites and the emperor's own title gives the nation a sense of pompousness, George is quick to dispel it. The monarchy he's created for himself has more to do with the message than madness.
"It's based on Australian humor," he says. "If you're trying to communicate a serious message and do that with a smile on your face, you're perceived as not threatening to people in power, or to people you're communicating with more generally."
It's clearly a technique that works, allowing George his proudest moment: being asked to appear as the emperor on a national morning television show in Sydney. He took the opportunity to broach the subject of abortion and assisted suicide.
Looking around the empire, it's easy to see the irony at play, whether it's in the postcards, the pyramid guarded by the sphinx, or even the stamps, which feature a Soviet-style portrait of the emperor that wouldn't look out of place in the Gosha Rubchinskiy SS16 look-book.
Stamps also led Atlantium into its first and last conflict.
With the attention he garnered from the original Atlantium stamps, George expanded to cover other micronations. For the 15th anniversary of Hutt River Province, Australia's oldest micronation, he created commemorative postage stamps. Little did he know, this would become an act of war.
British-born Alex Brackstone came to Australia in the 1950s. He worked as a circus monkey trainer and uranium prospector before finally buying up a piece of property in southern Australia and seceding to ensure a part of the continent would remain forever British. Such was his devotion to both his homeland and his micronation, the Province of Bumbunga, he planted strawberry plants there in the shape of the British Isles. Brackstone would later become one of many to follow the issue of George's commemorative Hutt River Province stamps.
"[Brackstone] wrote to us and basically said, 'If you do the same thing with my micronation, I'll be hauling you into court.' And so I said: 'Bugger you,'" says George. "There was a series of correspondences of increasing escalation, and we did actually declare war on the Province of Bumbunga. As a consequence, we've completely renounced the use of state force. We have no army. We have no military significance. We have a non-confrontational relationship with our neighbor Australia."
Later, as the emperor fixes himself up in a suit and a sash bearing the empire's flag, it's hard not to feel like the act is a bit labored. The costume a kind of ritual he has to enact. How do you end a 34-year private joke?
In the morning, we share another cup of tea and I manage to send a postcard to the office using the nation's official postbox.
Before we go, I ask George about the landscape that Atlantium has become a part of and how that plays into his 15-year-old vision for the world.
"I don't know whether Atlantium is tied up in some way with my desire to make a mark on the world, but I suspect it is, because that's what I was really doing when I was 15," he says. "That's really what I've been trying to do all my life with all of the things that I do. Maybe that's just a way of me raging against the infinity of knowing that my time here is finite, and that once you're gone, you're gone."
Before I went to Atlantium I had my reservations about venturing into the Australian wilderness to meet a man who'd deliberately set himself apart from the world. But that's not what Atlantium is at all. It's a man's imprint of his vision on the landscape. A teenage ambition—the kind most of us come across years later in our childhood bedrooms, sketched on the back of notepads, or scrawled across backpacks—realized in the shape of a yellow bungalow, a pyramid, and a collection of postage stamps.
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