Fun fact: from where I live, it’s possible to drive just under a thousand kilometres and pass through eight different countries.
Fun fact: this is roughly the same distance as between Sydney and Brisbane. And in Australia, those two are practically neighbours.
Australia is mind-bogglingly big, is the point I’m trying to make. So is Bill Bryson in In a Sunburned Country, his report of a roundtrip through Australia in the late nineties.
In fact, it is something of a recurring theme within the book: 1. Australia is big; 2. Australia is beautiful and c. Yes, everything really is trying to kill you, whether it’s the spiders, the snakes, the jellyfish, or the scorching desert heat.
Nevertheless, Bryson makes it sound like an appealing place full of sunshine, sea, eccentric yokels, sorry, locals, and landscapes that are breath-taking both figuratively and literally. There are train rides with kangaroos merrily bouncing off into the distant desert, beautiful coral reefs with enormous, colourful fish, and vistas and panoramas aplenty. This much is to be expected from any book about travelling, but as it’s Bill Bryson, we invariably get more information, told through self-deprecating wit and genuine amazement, such as when he unexpectedly finds the plane belonging to the late aviator Charles Kingsford Smith. He also regales us with tall tales of Australia’s beginnings as a colony and the strange, unexplained and unlikely presence of indigenous peoples on the continent.
It’s more than an ad campaign, though. Bryson doesn’t shy away from more controversial subjects. Some of these are tackled in a light-hearted way, such as Australia’s somewhat complicated election system and its tenuous relationship with the Northern Territory, but other are approached more seriously. Bryson seems baffled and genuinely offended by the casual racism he encounters everywhere and by the continuous maltreatment of Aborigines; rather than doing an in-depth study on how this came to be, he transcribes the comments of Australians on the subject and lets them speak for themselves.
He also doesn’t miss an opportunity to stress just how dangerous the country is, telling often lugubrious tales of people getting lost at sea or in the desert and the horrible ordeals they had to get through to survive, if they survived at all. From a distance, it does seem like madness to walk into the wilderness and endure unimaginable hardships just to see what’s out there, but through Bryson’s eyes, you begin to see the attraction.
That’s also the book’s main virtue. It paints a picture of a country without getting bogged down in too much history, sociology or politics; he provides just enough background to paint a compelling picture. Interspersed with anecdotes of colourful locals and places, you get to see a superficial if, probably, complete image of the continent, all done up in typically Brysonian fashion.
I can’t wait to book my ticket, is what I’m saying.