In a Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Off to a really slow start (but it gets better)
The first 40% of the book is made up of lame non-adventures (he hikes through endless suburbia, is chased by dogs in a park, goes on and an meandering search for drinking establishments), in places that he himself describes as dull, with vain attempts to spice up the non-action with descriptions of all the terribly dangerous things that could kill you in Australia (none of which he encounters). His writing is amusing for the first 20 pages or so but then the oh-so-clever and precious style begins to get tedious. It is all a bit too forced. It would be a better book if he took it down a notch. The parts about Australia were interesting but there was too much Bill Bryon on the subject of Bill Bryson.
Could he possibly have been bored in Australia? Let's hear Bryson's own words:
On Sydney: "The frappuccino heaven that is modern Sydney…" "We set off on foot to the Museum of Sydney, a sleek and stylish new institution, which manages to look interesting and instructive without actually being either."
On Canberra: "Even the lake, which winds a serpentine way between the commercial and parliamentary halves of the city, has a curiously dull, artificial feel." "many people believe the Parliamentary Zone has an empty and unfinished character,… I’ll say. It was like walking around the site of a very large world’s fair that had never quite gotten off the ground."
On Tanuda: I liked Tanunda [wine country] and had a very pleasant evening there, but there was absolutely nothing exceptional or eventful in the experience,
Adelaide: "The real problem with Adelaide these days, I suspect, is that it has just stopped being interesting."
In his defense, Bryson is a superb researcher and editor. He is excellent at culling information from a variety of sources and presenting it in a compelling manner. He did this superbly in the other books of his that I have read, A Short History of Nearly Everything, and The Mother Tongue. This book is no exception; the bibliography attached to In a Sunburned Country is impressive. You can see that he has done his homework.
But even the Australian people are described as being pretty grim: "They don’t have that happiness in their faces anymore. I don’t think anybody does." "They are an extraordinarily self-critical people. You encounter it constantly in newspapers and on television and radio—a nagging conviction that no matter how good things are in Australia, they are bound to be better elsewhere."
Then he hits Melbourne and heads out to explore some of Australia's most impressive natural sites. The book changes, it comes to life. Bryson finds the joy and élan he was missing, and suddenly Australia goes from being a place that you might have been relieved not to have visited, to being somewhere that you are dying to go and see.
He still make judicious and effective use of all kinds of interesting factoids, but they are placed in context and made relevant to his experience, as he appreciates the beauty and wonder of the land, and ponders its complex and challenging history.
Despite the cultural wasteland of the Ned Kelly tribute in Glenrowan, friends Alan and Carmel take him to Powers Lookout, and there we are given our first glimpse of the magnificence of Australia's natural features. From there it just keeps getting better and better.
"What he had for us the next day was a place called Alpine National Park, and in fact it was even better. Covering 2,500 square miles of eastern Victoria, it was lofty, grand, cool, and green. If ever there was a portion of Australia remote from all the clichéd images of red soil and baking sun, this was it."
The Great Barrier Reef: "Well, it was wonderful. No matter how much you read about the special nature of the Barrier Reef nothing really prepares you for the sight of it… I was captivated beyond description."
"Daintree National Park. The road wound up and through a mountainous and intensely beautiful rain forest. We had at last made it into the wet tropics, and I couldn’t have been more pleased."
The Gibson Desert: "Even on a smoothly paved highway, in the comfort of air-conditioning, you are not entirely robbed of the sense of what the explorers must have gone through. The discomforts can’t be fully imagined, but the scale can, and it was awesome."
The uncanny sight of the Devil's Marbles and the mystique of Uluru (Ayer's Rock): "In every other way more arresting than you could ever have supposed. I have discussed this since with many other people, nearly all of whom agreed that they approached Uluru with a kind of fatigue, and were left agog in a way they could not adequately explain."
This is travel writing at its best: Just the right balance between historical, scientific, and contextual information, and the beauty and the wonder of just being open to the experience and letting it unfold. That is what tells the reader that something special is out there and that there is an urgent need to see it before time has taken its toll.
Bryson puts his finger on the crux of the matter and wryly notes, "Perhaps it’s my natural pessimism, but it seems that an awfully large part of travel these days is to see things while you still can." And there is a lot in Australia that is worth seeing.
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