Normally, travel books are not my thing, but my mom sent me a copy of Bill Bryson’s In A Sunburned Country as a Christmas gift. And being that I’ve been sick in bed for quite a long time, I had nothing better to do than start reading it right away. I’m glad I did, because it turned out to be pretty good.
Bill Bryson is a humourous travel writer. While I haven’t read any of his other books, I hear they are all similarly filled with wit and cleverness. The book was published in 2000 and there are certain parts that may come across as a bit out of date (I could have done without the appendix on the Sydney Olympics), but for the most part, I still found it relevant.
Bryson made several trips to Australia, exploring both the usual tourist locales and places off the beaten track. Of each adventure, he gives an amusing account.
But this is not a travel guide. This book isn’t about what to see and do. Instead, it’s about Australia. It’s about the people, the places, the history, the culture. Bryson makes Australia come alive in a way that a travel guide doesn’t. If you want to know which five star hotel is the best in Sydney, look elsewhere. If you want to know what it’s like to stop in a dusty roadside pub in the middle of the Outback as the sun sets and kangaroos hop across the horizon, then this book is for you.
For example, Bryson visits the Great Barrier Reef, one of Australia’s biggest tourist attractions. But does he gush about how beautiful it is, how exotic and exciting? No… of course not. That would be boring. Instead he tells you about an American couple who got left behind when the boat departed without them and were never seen again. Probably eaten by sharks, he speculates.
Likewise, his account of the Great Ocean Road gives only a cursory nod to its beauty, before skipping ahead to the Mornington Peninsula where he tells you what none of the guide books do: that it’s filled with persistent, voracious, man-eating flies that WILL crawl up your nose and ears if they want to and there is nothing you can do about it. It is here that he perfects the “Aussie salute” on his way to pay homage to the spot (Cheviot Beach) where a prime minister, Harold Holt, mysteriously disappeared, swept out into the sea never to be seen again.
Here is what I’ve taken away from the book:
1) Australia is dangerous.
Well, anybody who’s been here already knows that, but the armchair traveler might not. Yep, just about everything here is deadly and what’s not deadly will usually cause you intense pain. Snakes, insects, spiders, fish, sharks, jellyfish, crocodiles, you name it. Bryson relates several stories of dangerous animals, including an infestation of bluebottles (also known as the Portuguese Man O’ War) at a beach in Sydney, a swarm of box jellyfish at a beach near Cairns, and a few deadly but dead snakes in museums. Because he doesn’t mention any fatalities associated with them, I’m going to assume that sheep are at least relatively safe.
“You probably won’t see any redbacks out there,” Sonja reassured us. “Snakes are much more of a problem.”
This intelligence was received with four raised eyebrows and expressions that said, “Go on.”
She nodded. “Common brown, western taipan, western puff pastry, yellow-backed lockjaw, eastern groin groper, dodge viper…” I don’t remember what she said exactly, but it was a long list. “But don’t worry,” she continued. “Most snakes don’t want to hurt you. If you’re out in the bush and a snake comes along, just stop dead and let it slide over your shoes.”
This, I decided, was the least-likely-to-be-followed advice I have ever been given.
2. Canberra is boring.
I haven’t personally been to Canberra, but I’ve always thought it would be a nice place to see until I read Bryson’s account. He describes it as one giant sprawling park, where you can walk a long way without seeing anything or anyone, with not much to see or do and even less to eat.
Downtown Canberra was primarily a series of plazas wandering between retail premises, and devoid of any sign of life but for a noise of slap and clatter that I recognized after a moment as the sound of skateboards. Having nothing better to do, I followed the sounds to an open square where half a dozen adolescents, all in backward-facing baseball caps and baggy shorts, were honing their modest and misguided skills on a metal railing.
[...] If there is anything more half-witted than asking six adolescents in backward-facing baseball caps for a dining recommendation, then it doesn’t occur to me just at the moment, but I’m afraid this is what I did now.
“Are you an American?” asked one of the kids in a tone of surprise that I wouldn’t necessarily have expected to encounter in a world capital.
I allowed that I was.
“There’s a Mcdonald’s just around the corner.”
Gently I explained that it was not actually a condition of citizenship that I eat the food of my nation. “I was thinking of maybe a nice Thai restaurant,” I suggested.
They looked at me with that flummoxed, dead-end expression that you have to be fourteen years old to produce with conviction.
“Or perhaps Indian?” I offered hopefully, and got the same no-one-home look. “Indonesian? Vietnamese? Lebanese? greek? Mexican? West Indian? Malaysian?”
As the list grew, they shifted uncomfortably [...].
“Italian?” I said.
“There’s a Pizza Hut on Lonsdale Street,” piped up one with a look of triumph. “They do an all you can eat buffet on Tuesdays.”
“Thanks,” I said, realizing this was getting me nowhere [...]. “It’s Friday today,” I pointed out.
“Yeah,” the kid agreed, nodding solemnly. “They don’t do it on Fridays.”
3. Most of the early explorers of Australia were really bad at their jobs.
I never knew much about the history of Australia, being an American. What American does? Or for that matter, what non-Australian does? As Bryson frequently points out, Australia isn’t really on most people’s radar, largely due in part to its geographical isolation. But he makes an effort to find out and share some unique points of Australian history, including the story of the most famous of Australian explorers, Burke and Wills. Burke and Wills are basically like the Lewis and Clark of Australia, except, well, they died and Lewis and Clark succeeded. They were sent on an expedition to find a passage through the interior of the continent by which a telegraph line could be built, but they unfortunately were not very qualified and did everything wrong.
They chose as leader an Irish police officer named Robert O’Hara Burke, who had never seen real Outback, was famous for his ability to get lost even in inhabited areas, and knew nothing of exploration or science. The surveyor was a young English doctor named William John Wills, whose principal qualifications seem to have been a respectable background and a willingness to go. On the plus side, however, they both had outstanding beards.
4. Australians are a generally friendly people, except in Darwin.
Bryson’s book is full of examples of friendly Australians. In fact, right up until the chapter on his visit to Darwin, you’re led to believe that all Australians are cheerful, happy-go-lucky, and neighbourly. And really, this does sort of fit the stereotype. I think most people imagine that Australians don’t do much besides smile, surf, drink beer, and say “G’day, mate!” to everyone in the vicinity. But not in Darwin, especially where hotel staff are concerned. Visitors be warned!
Our troubles began when we went looking for our hotel. We were booked into a place called the All Seasons Frontier hotel, but no such establishment appeared to exist. [...]
Eventually we stopped outside a large hotel on the seafront and Allan ordered me to go inside and seek professional guidance. At the front desk a young man who had evidently invested a recent paycheck in a very large tub of hair gel stood with his back to me regaling two female colleagues with some droll anecdote. I waited a long minute, then went “Ahem.”
He turned his head to give me a look that said, without warmth, “What?”
“Could you point me to the All Seasons Frontier Hotel?” I asked politely.
Without preamble, he reeled off a series of complex directions [...] and I couldn’t begin to follow. On the counter was a pad of maps and I asked him if he could show me on that.
“It’s too far to walk,” he said dismissively and just a bit oddly.
“I don’t want to walk. I’ve got a car.”
“Then ask your driver to take you.” He rolled his eyes for the benefit of the girls, then continued with his story.
How I longed for a small firearm or perhaps a set of industrial tongs with which to clamp his reedy neck and draw his head close to me, the better to hear what I next had to say. It was: “Do you think if I had a driver, I would be asking directions of you? It’s a rental car, you snide, irksome, preposterously glossy little shit.” I may not have said the words precisely in that order, or indeed at all, but that was certainly the emotional gist of it.
[...] Ten minutes later we pulled up outside a hotel that announced itself, in large letters, as the Darwin City Frontier Hotel. [...] I stalked through the front doors.
“Is this the All Seasons Frontier Hotel?” I barked from an unsocial distance.
The young woman behind the counter looked up and blinked. “Yes,” she said.
“Then” – I came much closer – “why don’t you put a sign up saying so?”
She regarded me levelly. “It says on the side of the building.”
“Well, it doesn’t.”
She favored me with a thin, knowing, supremely condescending smile. “Yes, it does.”
“Well, it doesn’t.”
Torn between her training in customer relations and her youthful certitude, she hesitated, and in a soft voice said, “Does.”
I held up a finger in a way that said, “Don’t move. Don’t go anywhere. I’m going to check this out and then come back and throttle someone. You actually.”
I went out and ranged around the building in the manner of a demented building inspector [...] then came back in and announced, “It doesn’t say ‘All Seasons’ on it anywhere.”
She looked at me and said nothing, but I could see she was thinking, “Does.”
5. Cricket is an oddity among Australian sports.
Anyone who knows anything about Australia knows that Aussies are a very sporting people who excel in a wide range of different sporting activities, with special preference given towards anything dangerous, like surfing or Australian Rules football. It might therefore baffle the outsider to encounter cricket, quite possibly the most boring sport known to mankind, even more boring than golf or baseball. Cricket is a leftover from British culture and is, for some reason, quite a popular sport in Australia, to the bafflement of the rest of the world.
I had stumbled onto the surreal and rewarding world of cricket on the radio.
After years of patient study (and with cricket there can be no other kind) I have decided that there is nothing wrong with the game that the introduction of golf carts wouldn’t fix in a hurry. It is not true that the English invented cricket as a way of making all other human endeavors look interesting and lively; that was merely an unintended side effect.
I don’t wish to denigrate a sport that is enjoyed by millions, some of the awake and facing the right way, but it is an odd game. It is the only sport that incorporates meal breaks. It is the only sport that shares its name with an insect. It is the only sport in which spectators burn as many calories as players- more if they are moderately restless. It is the only competitive activity of any type, other than perhaps baking, in which you can dress in white from head to toe and be as clean at the of the day as you were at the beginning.
[...] Now imagine all this going on for so long that by the time the match concludes, autumn has crept in and all your library books are overdue. There you have cricket.
6. There are lots of interesting things off the beaten path, if you take the time to look.
One thing that I particularly liked about the book was that Bryson makes a lot of stops in small towns in the middle of nowhere and manages to find something cool about each one of them. If you want to know what is interesting in the touristy places, there is no shortage of literature to advise you. And you can go and see the same things millions of other people have seen, if that’s your thing. Bryson does some of that, but he doesn’t spend much time talking about it. Instead, he’ll tell you about an amazing museum with a lifelike hologram in the some small forgotten town and he’ll visit the nowhere places where interesting bits of history occurred, like Lambing Flat, where a riot among gold miners broke out when the white miners became upset that the Chinese miners were finding better fortunes than they were, or Myall Creek, where in 1838, was the very first time any whites had ever been punished for the murder of Aborigines (seven were hanged). Or if history doesn’t interest you, there is always the Big Lobster.
The Big Lobster, you see, was something- or more properly a species of something- that I had longed to see ever since I had hit the road.
One of the more cherishable peculiarities of Australians is that they like to build big things in the shape of other things. Give them a bale of chicken wire, some fiberglass, and a couple of pots of paint and they will make you, say, an enormous pineapple or strawberry or, as here, a lobster. Then they put a cafe and gift shop inside, erect a big sign on the highway (for the benefit of people whose acuity does not evidently extend to spotting a fifty foot high piece of fruit standing beside an otherwise empty highway), then sit back and wait for the money to roll in.
7. Australia is a pretty amazing place.
Australia is truly unique in the world. The majority of its flora and fauna exist nowhere else on earth. It’s totally inhospitable to life, but has more biological diversity than anywhere else in the world. New species are being discovered all the time. It’s one of the few places on earth that still has vast amounts of uncharted territory. The history of its founding is unique and the Aboriginal inhabitants are an anthropological anomaly. It’s one of the best places in the world to live and possibly also the most beautiful.
Crocodiles would attack, bushfires would rage, ministers would depart in shame, amazing things would be found in the desert, and possibly lost again, and word of nine if this would reach my ears. Life in Australia would go on, and I would hear nothing, because once you leave Australia, Australia ceases to be. What a strange, sad thought that is.
I can understand, of course. Australia is mostly empty and a long way away. Its population is small and its role in the world consequently peripheral. It doesn’t have coups, recklessly overfish, arm disagreeable despots, grow coca in provocative quantities, or throw its weight around in a brash and unseemly manner. It is stable and peaceful and good. It doesn’t need watching, and so we don’t. But I will tell you this: the loss is entirely ours.
You see, Australia is an interesting place. It truly is. And that really is all I’m saying.
This is the kind of book that will make you want to start packing your bags for an extended road trip around Australia. It will make you want to tempt fate by driving into the Outback to see if you could survive from drinking your own urine any better than the unfortunate souls who came before you or by taking a motorboat into crocodile territory just to see how many sets of chompers you can attract with the engine noise and then escape from unscathed.
Australia is generally not on most people’s radar, which is really an unfortunate thing, being such a beautiful and fascinating country. Bryson laments the fact that the rest of the world rarely takes notice of Australia and in his book, sets out to share why the country is so interesting and deserving of a closer look.
Bryson has a deft and sarcastic way of brilliantly poking fun at the country while simultaneously praising it. He really does love Australia. Naturally, he engages in a bit of hyperbole to tell his stories, which non-Australians will find amusing and Australians might not, but it’s all a matter of perspective. In any case, his affection for the country and its people shines through and by the end of the book, you will feel the same special place in your heart for Australia that Bryson has.