Thursday, January 6, 2011

In a Sunburned Country

In a Sunburned Country
© 2001 Bill Bryson
352 pages

Bill Bryson takes on the largest island in the world in In a Sunburned Country,  traveling its coasts and dashing into the heart of the outback to gaze upon some of the most wondrous natural scenery to be found on Earth in around three weeks. Though some of his other journey books take place on foot, Australia is far too vast to experience in such a way. Even by train and rental car, much of the trip is marked by hours of travel through the wilderness. Bryson spends most of his time in Australia's cities, though, most of which are clustered in the southern 'boomerang'.   Like A Walk in the Woods, Bryson begins his journey by reading about the terrifying perils that await him -- especially the wildlife -- and later uses this knowledge to entertain and terrify those who travel with him. Aside from the pleasure he takes in doing this, Bryson seems like an agreeable fellow to explore a new place with -- he pokes his nose into every facet of life he can, never ceases to ask questions or make witty observations, and prefers to end days on the road by exploring local communities, winding up at a pub wiling away the hours.

In addition to describing his travel experiences, Bryson also engages the reader with a history of Australia, its provinces and towns, and also provides the odd science lesson -- commenting on how Australia's isolation led to its incredible and varied abundance of animals and plants, many of which can be found no other place on earth. To Bryson, Australia is an immense paradise -- teeming with life, and yet bizarrely empty. That abundance of life is all the more striking considering the hostility of Australia's climate, marked by scorching heat and long periods of drought and floods.  Bryson's own travels were uneventful in this regard -- the only wildlife he records was a small echidna in a natural park, and only once did the threat of weather stop him. (He had to wait for a flood warning in Queensland to pass before continuing north, an odd experience for me to read given the sweeping floods in Queensland at the moment.)  Despite the lack of drama, there's no shortage of entertainment between Bryson's commentary and the regular misfortunes of travel: at one point Bryson drove three hundred miles into the desert to take in a particularly momentous site, only to realize there were no open hotel rooms in town -- meaning he had to drive three hundred more miles before finding any rest.

Recommended easily if you're interested in Australia or a good laugh.


  1. Bill Bryson seems to be quite a new fad in the bookstores these days. I've yet to read anything by him, but his books are everywhere, mocking me and my interest in fiction.

  2. I first read him in 2006 ("A Short History of Nearly Everything") and for years thought of him as a pop-science writer. I noticed he had a strong presence in libraries and bookstores, though, and that none of the books I saw had anything to do with science. ;-)

    He's a fun guy to read, especially for the historical and scientific information.


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