bill bryson · geography · nonfiction

In a Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson

Bryson is one of my favorite non fiction authors, and his books cover such a range of topics, from Australia, to general history, the Apalacian Mountains, the beginnings of the English language. I’ve enjoyed every single one of his books, he would be a fascinating person to talk to – he’s lead such an adventerous life.

True to his form, this book was written to be both entertaining and informative. It’s not often where you laugh out loud during a non fiction novel, but his are usually littered with golden moments that make you smile.

I knew basically nothing about Australia before this book, I knew that they were “founded by prisoners” and that their seasons are backwards from ours in the Northern Hemisphere, and that their water goes backwards down the drain. That’s basically it.

This book is told as a sort of true life story of his adventures through Australia and he gives a brief history of the places he visits, interesting anecdotes, and personal stories about his experiences in Australia. His adventures boogie boarding and running from 2 feral dogs had me laughing out loud.

I learned so much from his book, and it expanded on the little bits that I had known before reading. Yes, Aussie started out as a penal colony – but they weren’t bad people. It’s not like they sent a bunch of murderers rapists and other violent criminals… the people who ended up getting sent to Aussie (New South Wales as it was known then) were people who did things like stealing cucumbers, books, vagrants and other stupidly mild crimes. Essentially a group of people 200 mariners and 500 “criminals” to a remote land in the middle of the summer. The explorer who had charted out where they were going to send these people had come during the ‘wet’ season and drastically overestimated how hospitable the land was going to be for colonization. The planning for this trip was also abysmal. No one aboard the ship was a botanist or even a gardener, there were no medically trained people, there were no carpenters or builders, and very little supplies were sent with them. Somehow they managed to make it work – Bryson stated that he feels the negative view of starting out as a penal colony shouldn’t be as stigmatized as it is. The people sent there were at worst guilty of petty theft and managed to build a colony from nothing. He has a rather different view on the first Australians than many people do.

I learned a bit about how Parliment works and why it’s significantly more entertaining than USA politics. Apparently it’s not uncommon for Parliment members to cuss each other out, call each other clowns, pigs, pissants, cunts, and a plethora of other colorful language that doesn’t grace the discussions in the US Senate and Congress. CSPAN (usa politics channel) would get a lot more attention if we loosened up a bit.

I was also surprised how sparecely populated Australia is, in 2000, the year the book was written there were only 18 million people living in Australia, which was a bit mind blowing because i thought given the size of the place they would have considerably more people living in it. I looked it up and the current population is around 23 million. The entire middle section of Australia is mostly uninhabited, with the wild outback remaining mostly untouched. What’s neat about Australias outback is since it’s largely untouched, and since the continent doesn’t have much in the way of geological activity – no volcanoes or things like that – the fossil records are wonderful. It’s a haven for archeologists and many full skeletons of creatures long gone have been discovered there. Unlike most places where you are lucky to get a few bones from the same specimin.

Australia also has a shit ton of things that will kill you, and people have just seemed to have adapted to it and become a tougher sort of person. On Brysons boogie board adventure he came across a Man-O-War jellyfish, but he didn’t recognize it for what it was. He asked his Aussie tour guide what it was, and he said “nah mate, you don’t want to touch that, it may be uncomfortable”. Uncomfortable is such an understatement and such a show of how the Aussies view things differently. I would have flipped the fuck out and gotten out of the water immediately. They did shortly there after when they spotted a few more and the tour guide mentioned sometimes “they come in waves”. Jesus christ.

Of the top 10 most deadly snakes in the world, all 10 reside in Aussie. Aussie also has the deadliest spider – the funnel web spider which burrows in the ground and is known for coming out and biting at toes.

The box jellyfish which is the deadliest known jellyfish, it looks gorgeous but its lile playing with Death.

The Blue Ring Octopus which is the deadliest known octopus, and deceptive bevauae of its size. Its itty nitty and is cute in its own way, but that shit will kill you if youre not careful.

The Paralysis Tick which has a name that speaks for itself.

The stone fish…. The stone fish is a fucking menace that looks like a fucking rock but if you step on it you’re going to double over in pain and barely be able to move. It can be lethal, but it’s always incredibly painful, they are in shallow water sometimes and it’s easy to tread on one without knowing what you’re doing.

It’s not uncommon for Australias temperature to get into the 40’s (C’s) 140 (F) in certain locations – so going hiking in the summer can be a deadly trek. It is strikingly gorgeous though. Bryson visited several towns with less than 500 residents and asked them what it is that lured them there and then kept them there despite the harsh environment. They ended up having a cold beer on the porch looking at the most gorgeous sunset he’d ever seen and got his answer. The land is as beautiful as it is harsh.

 

In 1993 in the Victorian desert there was an explosion that caused seismographs all over the continent to register something that was over 193X the magnitude of the largest known mine explosion. There were some reports of a flash of bright light off in the distance. It may have been the first ever nuke set off by non military/non govt personel. It’s speculated that a group named Aum Shinkriko, which is a Japanese cult, got a hold of large amounts of land in the desert, hired two soviet nuclear scientists, and were experimenting with bombs in the middle of the desert.

This book is full of interesting and mind blowing facts about a huge continent that never came up in my studies at school. We all know it exists, but for whatever reason our educational system just leaves it out. I’m hankering to go visit Aussie and I think I’ve fallen in love with it the same way Bryson has – his descriptions of the landscape, the people, and the culture are glowing and passionate and it’s sparked a new interest for me.

 

8 thoughts on “In a Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson

    1. I was introduced to his books with The Short History of Nearly Everything, so that one has a special place in my heart. But I think Walk in the Woods about the Apalacian trail/mountains is probably my favorite. It’s hard to pick though, he’s an author that doesn’t disappoint. This book was super fascinating to me because I knew so little about the subject matter and he was so passionate about his love for Australia it was intoxicating. I seriously just toyed around on the internet trying to see how much it would cost to go there and if it would be feasible in the next year or two. I’m almost done with all of his books to date, just 1 more I think.

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      1. I still haven’t read A Short History of Nearly Everything — A Walk in the Woods and At Home are my favorites of his. He has a brilliant mind for sure 🙂 Hope you get to visit Australia someday soon!

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      2. Oh man, whenever you get around to Short History you’ll be in for a good read – It’s probably the most comprehensive book he’s written, it’s really about basically everything

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