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Bill Bryson’s In A Sunburned Country — Family Adventures Down Under

Family Travel

Destination: Australia

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.

Bill Bryson didn't find this spot.

Austin and Emmi at the Remarkable Rocks on Kangaroo Island, off the coast of Adelaide (and ironically, a spot that even Bryson doesn’t cover in his book.)

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.)

 Note: Because A Traveler’s Library is an affiliate of Amazon, links here allow you to shop at Amazon. You should know that it costs you no more to follow these links, but we will be making a few cents to pay the rent. Thanks.

5 Best Family Travel Books


Destinations: Beijing, Burma, Korea, Australia, Alaska

Books: Several

By Powell Berger


Every place we’ve ever visited has been made better by a book. Relatable teenage characters overcoming odds and introducing us to cultures other than our own open doors to exotic locales and make these new places familiar and welcoming. For us, travel planning goes something like this: pick the destination, book the flights, find the books.

For my first post on A Travelers Library, I’m excited to share the five best family travel books, the ones we immediately talk about when remembering our travels or planning the next adventure.

family travel book
Forbidden City: A Novel of Modern China by William Bell takes the reader on a personal trek through the political nightmare of Tienanmen Square, all through the eyes of Alex Bell, a Canadian high school student who travels to Beijing with his father, a journalist. What starts out as an opportunity to miss school and explore China becomes a harrowing story of a western teenager embroiled in one of the most dangerous political uprisings of modern times. Separated from his father during the demonstrations, Alex has to fend for himself while also helping young demonstrators find safety. A riveting novel based on the true stories surrounding the massacre, Forbidden City delivers a powerful history lesson while leaving the reader on the edge of her seat until the last page.

book cover: family travel to Burma
Elephant Run, by Roland Smith also delivers a great history lesson, drawing the reader into the world of rubber plantations in Burma and the Japanese occupation of that gentle land. Nick Freestone’s mom fears for her son’s safety in their London home after the night bombings, so sends him to live with his father on their rubber plantation in the remote Burmese elephant village. Before Nick even settles in, however, Japanese soldiers invade the village, occupy the plantation and take Nick’s father hostage. To save his father, Nick and the Burmese villagers who work the plantation stage a daring and dangerous counter-attack, depending on their timber elephants to save the day. While the story keeps the reader turning pages to know that the Freestones prevail, its real beauty is in the lovely story of these beautiful elephants, their mahouts, and the deep bonds that hold them together.


book cover: travel to KoreaA Year of Impossible Goodbyes, by Sook Nyul Choi is one of those books that never quite leaves you. My daughter and I still tear up occasionally when we talk about this one. Ten year old Sookan and her family endure the atrocities brought on their native North Korea during WWII by running a sock factory that supplies the Japanese army. The story unfolds in layers, painfully but with grace, unveiling the horror and cruelty of the Japanese soldiers occupying their village. The author handles the issue of comfort women with particular skill, remembering her audience of middle school children, but also not flinching from the atrocities endured by these gentle, proud people. Another page-turner, the book takes the reader through the double whammy – occupation first by the Japanese, then the subsequent horror that Russia inflicted after defeating the Japanese. The courage and determination of Sookan and her family to survive the horrors and ultimately escape to freedom is both inspiring and heart-breaking.

Walkabout: family travel book to Alaska
Walkabout, by James Vance Marshall is an Australian classic but rarely read by American audiences. Marshall tells the story of two American kids who survive a plane crash in the Outback and team up with an Aboriginal boy to save their lives. The author skillfully unfolds the history and tradition of Australia’s native people through these children’s fate. “Walkabout” is a treasured Australian tradition, where young people (usually men) leave home to explore and find themselves, walking about until they figure out their purpose on this planet. The story offers terrific insight into the plight of Australia’s aboriginal people and the issues of racism and discrimination that still exist today.

book cover: family travel to Alaska
Touching Spirit Bear by Ben Mikaelsen takes the reader on an adventure through remote Alaska with Cole Matthews, an angry teenager whose rage leaves another young man fighting for his life. Out of options to rehabilitate Cole, the village leaders turn to Circle Justice, a native American tradition that attempts to rehabilitate hardened offenders through a community/victim/perpetrator program. Cole is sentenced to a one-year banishment to a remote Alaska island where he must fend for himself, under the watchful but stern eye of his Tlingit Indian parole officer, Garvey. Cole endures a gruesome bear attack that leaves him clinging to his life and survives on raw worms and other despicable foods, scenes set in gruesome, stomach churning detail. It is Cole’s encounter with the Spirit Bear that eventually sets him on a path to redemption, guided by his own demons, his past, and his determination to save himself. This coming-of-age story is poignant in both its harsh reality and depth of love and connection between an unlikely set of characters.

Note: To learn more about Powell and her family’s travels, and why she is a good judge of best family travel books, see this interview.

Links from the cover illustrations are affiliate links to Amazon.  Even though it costs you no more, when you shop through these links, you are supporting A Traveler’s Library. Thank you.

Meet Our NEW Family Travel Writer–Powell Berger

Family travel expert and family

Meet Powell, Emmi and Austin in Copenhagen.

As I sifted through the stack of names of family travel writers, and checked out their websites, one stood out immediately. I am so excited to introduce to you our new Family Travel Expert, Powell Berger. The reasons Powell caught my eye were personal as well as professional.  The professional–I loved the lively writing style Powell shows on her own family travel site: Family Vagabonding and the depth of family travel experience she has. The personal has to do with many parallels in our past history that would be of no interest to you whatsover.  Powell now lives in Hawaii, but for many years she has traveled the world with her daughter, Emmi, and son, Austin, “road-schooling” them along the way. They still go to Paris every summer and travel is still a big part of their lives. But let’s see what Powell has to say.

A Traveler’s Library: Which came first–the travel or the writing?

Powell Berger: Both I guess! I’ve been writing since I was a kid – first creative writing and poems and heartfelt stories of life-gone-wrong as a teen, then on to papers and client documents and “grown up stuff” in my career. When we started our road-school gig, I wanted to capture it in some meaningful way, so the creative writer came out of hiding after all those years.

Like writing, I’ve been traveling since I was a kid, mostly road trips in the family Cadillac, then eventually on planes to exotic places like LA and Boston, where we had family. I didn’t travel internationally, though, until I was in my thirties, a business trip to Paris and London. I saw Buckingham Palace and the Eiffel Tower and Big Ben, and I knew instantly. If the little girl from Mississippi could see those places – places she’d only heard about – then she could see the world.

Family Travel Expert in Scotland

Austin and Powell leaning on a canon — Edinburgh Scotland.

ATL: How does your family travel style differ from the way your parents (and siblings?) traveled when you were young?

PB: Our family travel was all domestic, and was almost all to see family. We did a lot of road trips in the family Cadillac, and my mom always said “swimming pool” were among my first words, my announcement that I’d seen a Holiday Inn sign along the highway and that it was time to stop for the night. My mother’s wanderlust was passed on to me, though, without me even realizing it. She left the farm in Mississippi to work as a civilian during WW II, riveting airplanes just like Rosie the Riveter, and eventually landed at Hickham Air Field in Hawaii. Like so many of that generation, her eyes were opened to a much larger world, and while she returned to Mississippi after the war, her love of place and people in the world never diminished. It’s no coincidence that both of her children now live in Hawaii, some sixty years after she returned to Mississippi to continue her life.

Family travel expert and family

The three of us on the back of a boat in wetsuits and flippers at Exmouth Australia where we swam with whale sharks.

ATL: Have you made the travel plans and decisions, or has it been a democratic process?

PB: I believe travel works when everyone is vested in it, so we all get involved. Once we settle on a region, everyone picks something special they want to see or do while we’re there, and we build the itinerary accordingly. On a family trip to Paris once, my now-grown son really wanted to see the D-Day beaches. I was slightly irritated since that’s not exactly Paris and took some Houdini work to make it happen in our already over-packed schedule. But we did it, and you know what? It was everyone’s favorite part of the trip!

We’ve discovered the beauty of Western Australia because Austin (16 year old son) wanted to swim with whale sharks. We know the ends and outs of Germany’s King Ludwig’s and his distant cousin, Austria’s Empress Sissi because Emmi (13 year old daughter) became fascinated with their royal lives and castles and antics.

The kids and I also create a “Trip Book” for every adventure, where they dig into each destination and write about it – what to see, where to go, what’s cool and what’s not. In doing that homework, they become experts of sorts on the destination and become the de facto family tour guide once we get there.

ATL: Where would you like to go WITHOUT your kids?

PB: I’ve never done any of the great wine tours, since there’s not much fun in that for them. I figure I’ll get that done with girlfriends one day.

I do believe in solo travel, too, though. I try to do something solo every year. It’s my ‘me” time, where I read, meditate, make long term business plans and goals. Last fall, I spent five days on Lanai at the glorious Four Seasons there and loved it. I’ve also done a couple of cruises solo, including a Pacific crossing where I had no conversations with another human being – other than “yes, I’ll have a glass of wine,” or “yes, please turn the room down for the evening” – for six glorious days.

ATL: What do you wish someone had told you about family travel before you went on a trip with your kids?

PB: I think I bought into the mainstream media hype that traveling with kids was difficult, that they need constant entertainment, and that I was restricted to “kid friendly” destinations. We’ve done our share of Disney and kid friendly, but I had to learn on my own how to really travel with kids and broaden their world view in the process. Treat kids like partners in the experience, vest them in the itinerary, and set guidelines and expectations for everyone, and the experience is a much more rewarding one.

Americans share a belief that travel is difficult and expensive. We find it exactly the opposite. There are places in the world where we live much more cheaply than we do at home, and once you have a grasp on DIY travel logistics, it’s all pretty simple.

Family travel writer Sardinia

Emmi and Powell in front of the grafiti wall — Calgieri, Sardinia (Italy)

ATL: What have your kids taught YOU about travel?

PB: My kids have taught me that we can find home anywhere in the world. They’ve taught me to slow down and enjoy playgrounds and fountains and street art just because it’s there. They’ve reminded me again and again that meals don’t have to be in restaurants, and that every experience doesn’t have to be guidebook perfect.

ATL: How has “book-larnin’” fit into your vagabonding life?

PB: Our roadschool curriculum is pretty similar to a standard school’s, just with our travel experiences layered on top. [Note: Powell wrote about her home schooled family in this magazine article.]They have their standard grammar, math, literature, etc and are expected to do their work every day, regardless of where we are. That doesn’t mean we don’t have days where the books are tossed aside for some magical experience, but the time is made up later. (Long plane trips are great for that.) We then build their curriculum around where we’re going. Literature might come from the region, or be steeped in the history of the culture. History and Global Studies bubbles up organically based on our travels, and the curious learner in all of us is sparked when we come upon a new place.

See more about Powell Berger and her traveling family at this page of Family Vagabonding, and at A Traveler’s Library Contributors Page.