In a Sunburned Country By Bill Bryson
There have been some travel guides published in the last few years with titles such as The 1,000 Place to See Before You Die. I’m not a fan of the die part, but I get the point. I expect we all have that life list - and some of us, as we realize we are actually past middle age, think we had better get going while we are able.
Australia is on my list. I have always used the excuse that I can’t see going there if I can’t go for several months. I’m beginning to realize that if I wait for that time it might never happen - and after the weather this winter I’m thinking February in Australia in the next year or two might be a good plan.
So, thinking far ahead, I picked up Bill Bryson’s book In a Sunburned Country.
Mr. Bryson is an amusing writer - he can make a place you have no interest in, well, interesting.
He reads about the country as he travels, from the vintage novels of Nevil Shute, to the many books of Australian history he picks up along the way. Mr. Bryson had to travel to Australia several times in order to write his own book about the place - or at least some of the place. It is a vast country. One traveling companion from England describes it as “roomy”.
Mr. Bryson is a traveller who doesn’t mind a certain amount of discomfort if it is necessary - but really prefers a comfortable bed and a good restaurant and a drink (sometimes far too many) at the end of the day. He likes to settle into a place, experience the pleasure of reading the local newspaper, getting a feel for the life lived by the residents.
He discovered how little he, as an American, knew about Australia. Mr. Bryson has lived in both Britain and the United Sates and loved “what a beguiling fusion of the two” Australia is, so much like America but with driving on the left, drinking tea and playing cricket. It is a country that feels comfortable for an American - and I expect for a Canadian even more so. There were many times when Bill Bryson described something about Australia when I thought it much like Canada - including the story of the Barnardo children, who were shipped off to Australia between 1947 and 1967 – as they were to Canada. The fate of the Australian Aboriginal people is also not too dissimilar to our own. The children were removed for schooling, the aboriginal population was “managed” by the white government, with subsequent high alcoholism and suicide rates.
Australia is, however, very unlike Canada in climate - extreme being the only similarity. Mr. Bryson maintains that there are more life-threatening bugs, snakes, sharks, and crocodiles than anywhere else in the world - and he is in more or less constant fear of coming in contact with them. This rather spoils the idyllic idea of swimming on endless beaches or camping in the wilderness. How much of this is real and how much is for literary effect is hard to tell.
Mr. Bryson travels across the country on the Indian-Pacific railway - three days non-stop from Sydney to Perth. This seems like a very good idea. As much as I love the prairies and desert, the miles and miles of nothing that Mr. Bryson describes when he later drives around the outback is definitely daunting. It is actually hard to believe that it can be as perilous as he seems to feel that it is. Like any traveller, the experience of a place can determine how much one likes it, and Mr. Bryson has his favorite, and least favorite places and cities. Uluru - Ayers Rock however is not a disappointment. Alice Springs, the closest city, was so full of tourists that Bryson dreaded the journey - concerned that it would disappoint - “and then you see it, and you are instantly transfixed”.
There are some few places in the world where the traveller can feel that there is some exceptional experience about just being there, and Mr. Bryson found that at Ayers Rock. I think he then actually began to know the country, as he writes “now I understand completely. All that emptiness and dazzling light has a seductive quality that you might actually never tire of”.
Reading In a Sunburned Country is a good first step on the way to getting there.