In A Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson

In a Sunburned Country is the second book I’ve read by Bill Bryson, the first being A Walk in the Woods. Recently A Walk in the Woods was made into a motion picture starring Robert Redford and Nick Nolte. One review I read complained that there was really no plot and that nothing much happened. I laughed. Yes, this observation is true, yet the reviewer just didnt get the point of Bryson’s tale. His books are basically travelogues told with an amazing sense of humor and a talent for word play which captivates the reader. Honestly, I had no interest in walking the Appalachian Trail, yet Bryson had a way of keeping my attention despite my reticence about the topic.

It’s the same with the book In a Sunburned Country which describes Bryson’s travels through Australia. Americans tend to have a vague knowledge about this country/continent and might even be able to name a few cities and states, but besides a restaurant called The Outback, a vague recollection of the words to Waltzing Matilda, a fading memory of a movie character called Crocodile Dundee, and a reminder of the tragic death by stingray of The Crocodile Hunter, Steve Irwin (while watching his daughter, Bindi, compete on Dancing With the Stars), Australia is simply a continent on the other side of the world where summer is winter and vice versa. Yes, we did watch the summer Olympics in Sydney (and we do recognize the famous Opera House) and we have heard of the Great Barrier Reef, and we know they have aborigines living in the wilderness, but do we really need to know much else?

Actually, there are a lot of neat facts about Australia which Bryson, in his witty way, is ready to impart to the reader as he describes his travels exploring the “high” points of this country. We go from Sydney to Canberra to Melbourne to Adelaide to Alice Springs to Perth and numerous points in-between meeting all sorts of interesting characters and vicariously viewing the sights within this largely unsettled nation. Bryson, as part of his adventure, reads as many books about Australia that he can find reflected by a listing of over 60 resources. He then shares some of the highlights, especially as they relate to the landmarks he visits.

The takeaway is that Australia is “packed with unappreciated wonders”, some known and many others yet to be discovered whether wildlife or foliage. Australia has a wealth of minerals, numerous one of a kind creatures including the well-known marsupials, and a dearth of plant life either unique to this continent, or varieties which are extinct throughout the rest of the world. With a limited population, there are wide areas, especially in the Outback, which have remained unexplored. This means that there is plant life and maybe even animals which have never been identified, as well as other valuable resources. It’s also probably the most dangerous place on the planet from deadly riptides to poisonous fish to hidden crocodiles to venomous snakes to cute animals with razor sharp claws which the Australians all seem to take in stride, including the death of their own Prime Minister, Howard Holt, who disappeared while swimming (back in 1967) and was presumed drowned.

Australia is an empty country with an average of 6 people per square mile versus a world average of 117 (with the US average of 76) keeping in mind the 2000 publication date of this book. Since most Australians are clustered along the coast with 86% living in urban areas, it is easy to understand why the majority of the unforgiving land has been unexplored. Bryson takes us along to numerous sights, many often lacking eager crowds of tourists, pointing out interesting facts such as the encroachment of transplanted plants (the blackberry bush and prickly pears) and animals (camels, rabbits, foxes, and even the common cat) which have threatened the existence of indigenous species. This includes the aborigines who while living in poverty with limited access to education and health care have a life expectancy as low as age forty seven.

So, if you are low on funds and don’t want to literally travel to the ends of the earth (or even farther depending upon your starting point), then pick up a copy of this book for a vicarious visit to this exotic land. All of the sightseeing without the inherent danger and a few yucks along the way. Four stars.

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