In a Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson

“[Australia] is the home of the largest living thing on earth, the Great Barrier Reef, and of the largest monolith, Ayers Rock (or Uluru to use its now-official, more respectful Aboriginal name). It has more things that will kill you than anywhere else. Of the world’s ten most poisonous snakes, all are Australian. Five of its creatures – the funnel web spider, box jellyfish, blue-ringed octopus, paralysis tick, and stonefish – are the most lethal of their type in the world. This is a country where even the fluffiest of caterpillars can lay you out with a toxic nip, where seashells will not just sting you but actually sometimes go for you. … If you are not stung or pronged to death in some unexpected manner, you may be fatally chomped by sharks or crocodiles, or carried helplessly out to sea by irresistible currents, or left to stagger to an unhappy death in the baking outback. It’s a tough place.” Bill Bryson, In a Sunburned Country

If you’ve been reading this blog for awhile, then you may know that I moved to Australia about a year ago.  Now, my time here in this fabulous, complicated, and strange country is nearing its end and to mark that I am reviewing one of my favorite books by one of my favorite writers, which just so happens to be about one of my favorite countries.

If you haven’t heard of Bill Bryson before, he’s a gloriously entertaining travel writer – though he’s also written some stellar non-fiction about the history of the world and the English language – and I love him a little bit. He’s got the full package: his books are written in a kind of comedically witty style. His travels consist mainly of him going to a place, getting lost, walking for ages, finding a pub, and proceeding to get drunk with the locals. This is the kind of travel I can get behind. This is what travel should be: getting drunk with the locals in a pub somewhere off the beaten track.

I first read In a Sunburned Country long before I ever imagined I’d find myself in Australia, but it instantly became one of my favorite books. It was this book that first introduced me to the concept of Australia as an actual country, rather than a distant conglomeration of stereotypes: kangaroos, Crocodile Dundee, funny accents.  It was this book that first made me think, “Hmm, Australia sounds pretty good. If I ever get over my fear of the fact that EVERYTHING WILL KILL ME, I would like to go there someday.”

And nearly a decade later, here I am. Here I was. While I failed to be bitten by a croc, stung by a jellyfish, or chased by a tiger snake, Bryson’s sentiments on this country ring so unflappably true that I think this book may just be the perfect condensation of what Australia is. 

“I’m quite certain that if the rest of the world vanished overnight and the development of cricket were left in Australian hands, within a generation, the players would be wearing shorts and using the bats to hit each other, and the thing is, it’d be a much better game for it.” Bill Bryson, In a Sunburned Country

Ah, Australia. Where the men wear short shorts and tall socks, the lingo is indecipherable yet the sentiment clear, where coffee shops abound and the sun shines every day. If you’ve ever had an interest in Australia – or even if you haven’t – you should read this non-fiction travel book. It’s sterling. It’s funny, and it’s true.

 

Except for one particular quote. Recently in Australia a rather unsavoury political atmosphere has appeared. Their new PM, Tony Abbott, seems hellbent on destroying as much of this astounding nature as he can get his greedy paws on. While Bryson, back in 2001, wrote:

“Australia is mostly empty and a long way away. Its population is small and its role in the world consequently peripheral. It doesn’t have coups, recklessly overfish, arm disagreeable despots, grow coca in provocative quantities, or throw its weight around in a brash and unseemly manner. It is stable and peaceful and good. It doesn’t need watching, and so we don’t. But I will tell you this: the loss is entirely ours.” 

…this sentiment, I feel, no longer holds completely true. The Great Barrier Reef, possibly one of the most incredible natural wonders not only for its beauty but for its size, age, and diversity of incredible life, is under attack by mining interests – and because the rest of the world doesn’t watch it, this is being allowed to happen. Maybe we should keep a closer eye on our neighbours, even if our neighbours are on the other side of the planet.  A plan to dredge 35 million tons of the seafloor directly through the GBR has been approved – to create a shipping channel for oil tankers.

Delightful, right? If you’ve ever wanted to see the reef, I recommend you book your flights ASAP. Alternatively, if you’d like to do something to stop this, get on the internet and learn more, donate to the fight back, and make your voice heard.  Because even though Australia may be very far away and mostly empty, it is part of our planet as well. It is the oldest continent on Earth and contains plants, animals, and ecosystems that exist nowhere else on Earth. This is not something we should be ignoring.

And as if you needed any encouragement to support this astounding place, read Bryson’s book. He explains much better than I ever could what makes Australia so unique and so worth preserving.

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