Book 5; Continent: Australia

In a Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson

  • 352 pages (roughly 35 pages of Notes and Bibliography)
  • Engaging and informal, read this one at home if laughing out loud in public embarrasses you
  • Thanks to Andrea for her suggestion of this book

I’ve been blocked on how to write about Bill Bryson’s book about traveling throughout Australia. I’ve been worried that I was going to gush a stream of stereotypes about Australia: kangaroos and poisonous critters, Outback desert, weather-beaten Paul Hogan-types and Aborigines as mysterious as they appear on American television. Did I mention vegemite? Well, Bryson doesn’t either – there’s better stuff to talk about. He does address a lot of these features commonly associated with Australia, however.

Kangaroos are part of the landscape, but not really dwelt upon. The poisonous creatures, however, draw Bryson’s attention because he marvels at Australian nonchalance about having them in their midst. At one point, a local contact he meets teases him with a venomous spider in her car. Seeing his horrified expression, she reassures him with a laugh that it’s dead and flicks it casually off her finger. Plainly, if I ever get my bucket-list wish to travel in Australia, I’m going to have to pack plenty of extra clean underwear.

On the whole, however, most of the author’s interactions with Australians (he never uses the term “Aussie” in the book – is it a pejorative or just lame?) are entirely pleasant. Theirs is a welcoming culture, well-adjusted with a taste for outdoors and sport. Curiously, he notes, they seem collectively to have a certain under-confidence about their own significance on the world stage. Perhaps their shared self-esteem suffers because the world largely ignores them. Bryson floats this theory, observing that they are a well-behaved and largely self-sufficient bunch, so they don’t command the international headlines. No one in the northern hemisphere has the faintest idea who their prime minister is, for example. Bryson went so far as to look up mentions of the country and its people in the New York Times index for a particular year (1998, I think?), and it appeared twice.

As open and friendly as Australian society is, the author observes that two topics make white Australians go quiet. The first is the whole “prison colony” business. Lots of fairly minor crimes, like stealing some stockings, could get one sent to Britain’s prison colony in Australia, so plenty of impoverished and not especially criminal people got sent there. Bringing it up seems ill-advised and, honestly, irrelevant to modern Australia. The second and more pertinent issue to Bryson’s visit is race relations. Bryson tells us that white Australia and the Aboriginal population seem to ignore one another whenever possible. In the past, however, things haven’t necessarily been that amicable. The book is a bit dated now, so I wonder how much is still true. If you know of a good book on the topic, please comment.

Considering how much ground he covered, he can scarcely avoid discussing the Outback. The first thing he tells us is that the definition of “Outback” is a bit fluid. To an Australian living in a metropolitan area, a lightly populated area with scrubby trees might be the Outback, but the residents there might think of themselves as living in the suburbs. That said, there is still plenty of space – to the tune of thousands of miles – that is still unquestionably Outback. As in, pack up the extra gasoline and drinking water. He tells us about people in fairly recent history who have gone missing in the Outback. While Bryson himself is credible with this sort of story, I can’t help but think some urban legends about lost tourists circulate around the Uluru (Ayer’s Rock) postcard racks.

A lot of copy in this book is dedicated to providing the reader with a sense of the country’s vastness. Bryson drove nearly everywhere he visited throughout the continent, hundreds of miles and hours in the car between each way point.

He did the traveling for this book back in the late 1990s, when cell phones still flipped open and didn’t play games. More importantly, GPS wasn’t a big feature, and Google Maps wasn’t an app to download to your phone. Closing in on fifteen years later, we talk about remoteness in terms of how many bars of signal we have, and we get antsy if we’re only getting two. In that context, the description Bryson offers of most of this country is refreshing, given in terms of landscapes and their relevant history.

Photo credit: Jirrupin / Foter.com / CC BY-NC

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