Every time Bill Bryson walks out the door, memorable trip literature threatens to break out.
His previous excursion along the Appalachian Trail resulted in the sublime national bestseller A Walk in the Woods. In A Sunburned Country is his report on what he found in an entirely different place: Australia, the country that doubles as a continent, and a place with the friendliest inhabitants, the freshest, driest weather, and the most peculiar and lethal wildlife to be found on the planet. The result is a deliciously funny, fact-filled, and adventurous performance by a writer who combines humor, wonder, and unflagging curiousity.
Despite the fact that Australia harbors more things that can kill you in extremely nasty ways than anywhere else, including sharks, crocodiles, snakes, even riptides and deserts, Bill Bryson adores the place, and he takes his readers on a rollicking ride far beyond that beaten tourist path. Wherever he goes he finds Australians who are cheerful, extroverted, and unfailingly obliging, and these beaming products of land with clean, secure cities, cold beer, and constant sunshine fill the pages of this wonderful book.
Australia is an immense and fortunate land, and it has found in Bill Bryson its perfect guide.
Bill Bryson follows his Appalachian amble, A Walk in the Woods, with the story of his exploits in Australia, where A-bombs go off unnoticed, prime ministers disappear into the surf, and cheery citizens coexist with the world’s deadliest creatures: toxic caterpillars, aggressive seashells, crocodiles, sharks, snakes, and the deadliest of them all, the dreaded box jellyfish. And that’s the reason just the beginning, as Bryson treks through sunbaked deserts and up endless coastlines, crisscrossing the “under-discovered” Down Under on the lookout for all things interesting.
Bryson, who could make a pile of dirt compelling–and yes, Australia is mostly dirt–finds no shortage of curiosities. When he isn’t dodging Portuguese man-of-wars or considering the virtues of the remarkable platypus, he visits southwest Gippsland, home of the world’s largest earthworms (up to 12 feet in length). He discovers that Australia, which began nationhood as a prison, contains the longest straight stretch of railroad track in the world (297 miles), as well as the world’s largest monolith (the majestic Uluru) and largest living thing (the Great Barrier Reef). He finds ridiculous place names: “Mullumbimby Ewylamartup, Jiggalong, and the supremely satisfying Tittybong,” and manages to catch a cricket game on the radio, which is like
listening to two men sitting in a rowboat on a large, placid lake on a day when the fish are not biting; it’s like having a nap without losing consciousness. It in reality helps not to know quite what is going on. In such a rarefied world of contentment and inactivity, comprehension would become a distraction.
“You see,” Bryson observes, “Australia is an interesting place. It in reality is. And that actually is all I’m saying.” Of course, Bryson–who is as much a trip writer here as a humorist, naturalist, and historian–says much more, and does so with generous amounts of wit and hilarity. Australia may be “mostly empty and a long way away,” but it’s a little closer now. –Rob McDonald