In A Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson

“And so once more to the wandering Road,” declares Bryson in his 2000 book In a Sunburned Country. His previous excursions were along the Appalachian Trial in the national bestseller A Walk in the Woods, and rambles through Britain in Notes from a Small Island, and now to his visits to Australia, the country that doubles as a continent, the hottest, driest weather, and the most lethal wildlife found on the planet (the ten most poisonous snakes, sharks and crocodiles in abundance, cassowary’s with razor claws, venomous seashells, spiders galore, even fluffy caterpillars and knife-like plants).

To travel with Bryson is not to simply experience a locale, but rather to enjoy his special visions and his humor – self-deprecating, but with a well-developed sense of the ridiculous, the outlandish and sublime. I lost track of how many times I laughed until there were tears running down my cheeks.  He doesn’t try to be funny at all costs, it’s just the way he is. For example, he says: “Cricket is the only sport that shares its name with an insect”, and “the following are all real places: Wee Waa, Poowon, Burrumbuttock, Suggan Buggan, Jiggalong, and the supremely satisfying Tittybong.”

Australia is fascinating, and Bryson has done an excellent job of telling us why – touching on a little bit of everything – history, politics, people, geology, biology, flora and fauna. Wherever he goes, he finds Australians who are cheerful, extroverted, obliging, and quirky. He says that Aussies spend half of any conversation insisting that the country’s dangers are vastly overrated and there is nothing to worry about, and the other half telling you how a snake bit Uncle Bob on his groin, but it’s okay now as he’s off the life support machine. Clearly, Bryson’s fascination and affection for Australia shines through.

On the other hand, Bryson tries to set the record straight about Australia\’s original people, pointing out that the Aborigines are the world\’s oldest continuously maintained culture and they were sophisticated enough to get to Australia from Asia by boat, long before Europeans even figured out how to sail. But he also writes about white Australians\’ racism and tragic treatment of the Aborigines, but acknowledges that, like most white Australians, he has had virtually no contact with the Aborigine population.

The result is a deliciously funny, fact-filled and adventurous performance by Bryson, who combines humor, wonder and unflagging curiosity. My only negative criticism is that the book would have benefited with the addition of better, more extensive maps.  Since Bryson was constantly on the move, I found myself frequently going back to the four maps at the beginning of the book. Pictures would have helped too. For example, here’s a panorama of Uluru (Ayers Rock), the world’s largest monolith. Words alone don’t convey the beauty one of Australia’s most recognizable natural landmarks around sunset, showing its distinctive red coloration. 

I highly recommend this enjoyable and delightful book. Bryson did a considerable amount of research before heading Down Under and his writing shows it. As the Aussies would put it, he’s done a fair dinkum job.

— Ken Johnson

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