Book: In A Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson
By Powell Berger
Ask Bill Bryson about Australia and he makes three points quite clear:
(1) The place is huge, so huge in fact that when a rogue activist group reportedly detonated a test nuclear device in the outback, no one even knew about it for years. No one heard it, felt it, had any inkling whatsoever for years. That’s big.
(2) You’re more likely to die in Australia than anywhere else in the world, particularly if your chosen death method is by wild and woolly beast. Between the sharks, crocodiles, blue octopi, and tiny microscopic jellyfish that can kill you before you even feel them, stepping out of your car and into the wilds is, according to Bryson, a death wish.
(3) The country and its quirky, opinionated, hard-ridden, passionate and sometimes half-baked crazy people can worm their way into your soul and never let go.
With Bill Bryson’s In a Sunburned Country as our testimonial to all things Australian, it’s no wonder I chose to ignore the death wish mantra and make Australia our jumping off point for our Family Vagabonding adventures over five years ago.
I first read the book on my annual sabbatical – a respite I give myself every year where I go somewhere, alone, to read and reflect and plan what’s next. And so it was in a quiet little wine bar, nestled back in a romantically lit corner that I dove into Bryson’s stories of the outback. When the kind maitre’d finally wandered over and suggested I either put away the book or find another spot to read – that my hysterical outbursts were disturbing the romantic mood – I wiped away the laughing tears and took my book and my wine elsewhere. Bill Bryson was the funniest date I’d had in years; we’d simply take our hilarity and our business elsewhere.
Bill Bryson has been criticized for being more about Bryson than about the place, and perhaps there’s truth to that. But through his antics across Australia, I came to first know a country I’ve since fallen in love with. And one that my children and I now consider our adopted home.
Bryson’s work is not a family book, per se, particularly if some family members are not tall enough to ride the scariest rides at Disney. But his masterful storytelling – and his ability to weave story and anecdotes of all flavors and experience – create rich vignettes suitable for most everyone in the family. Bryson’s book was our constant companion as we traversed that exotic land over two months. “Read us another story!” my kids would beg as we settled into our RV in some Outback campground.
One of our favorites, his experience sharing the desolate Outback roads with Australia’s ubiquitous “road-trains” quite possibly saved our lives. Road Trains – multi-layered semi trucks easily measuring 150 feet long or more – can’t really be explained, unless you’re Bill Bryson.
To meet a barreling road train coming at you at full throttle on a two-lane highway on which it desires all of its lane and some of yours is a reliably invigorating experience – an explosive whoomp as you hit its displaced air, followed at once by a consequent lurch onto the shoulder, several moments of hypermanic axle action sufficient to loosen dental fillings…., an enveloping shroud of gritty red dust…and savage thumps of flying rocks, some involuntary oral emissions on your part as the dust clears and you spy a large boulder dead ahead…”
Armed with this warning, we simply pulled to the side of the road at the mere sight of an oncoming train and gave him both lanes. Better safe than sorry, we figured. And we still held our breath until he passed and we could safely share the road.
Bryson takes his readers across the country, from well-known and well-traveled Sydney to the far-flung corners of Western Australia, the deep wilderness of the Northern Territory, and the remote saloon towns of the extreme rural and desolate Outback. He introduces the color and character of each swath of the country with the same care and attention Americans give to our diversity. New York is to Omaha what Melbourne is to Alice Springs. Bryson makes sure his readers know this, and have an abiding respect for the fabric that weaves such a diverse and colorful lot.
Australia remains our first recommendation when asked “Where should we start?” It’s vast and exotic and fueled by adventure, yet the language is similar, the food recognizable, and the people delightful. No doubt, we’d love Australia even if I’d never picked up the book, but we’re all the richer because we have “Uncle Bill” (as we like to call him) whispering in our ear every time we take the ferry from Sydney’s Circular Quay to Manley and mingle with commuting Sydneysiders.
These are people who get to live in a safe and fair-minded society, in a climate that makes your strong and handsome, in one of the world’s great cities – and they come to work on a boat from a children’s storybook, across a sublime plane of water, and each morning glance up from their Heralds and Telegraphs to see that famous Opera House and inspiring bridge and the laughing face of Luna Park. No wonder they look so damned happy.
In a Sunburned Country doesn’t just tell its readers stories about a place far, far away. It takes you there, instills the spirit of the country deep in your fiber, and sends you to your laptop to check airfare and Visa requirements STAT. (And perhaps to confirm just how deadly those creatures really are.)
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