Australia is almost unworldly. From the time we Americans make our way through our geography units, we consistently have to flick that globe a few reps before we can get to the Land Down Under. It’s constantly out of sight. It’s rarely ever in the news. Its main sports are ones we don’t understand the rules of. And it’s too far to travel for many of us. It’s a place we hear about far more than we will ever see or experience.
One of the great benefits of being the son of an Australian is that I’ve been to Australia twice – once as a 6-month old child (which I obviously have no memory of), and again as an awkward, gawky 11-year-old. As wide-eyed as you can be seeing such an incredible country at such a young age, your brain doesn’t quite engage as much as it could with what it’s seeing. It doesn’t realize how special it all is, and how long it might be before you see it all again.
So there’s still so much about Australia I don’t have a clue about. And because Americans don’t seem to have a pressing need to know everything about the Land Down Under, it can be hard to find interesting resources. So hard, in fact, that we have to rely on a Brit to make it happen.
Enter travel author Bill Bryson. In fact, to call Bryson a travel writer seems rather limiting. I would say he is far more of a story-seeker than anything else. Yes, he wants to see the new patches of the world he has yet to visit. But he is also deeply interested in the stories that make them what they are. And, to our great advantage, he is able to distill them and write about them beautifully.
So what if told you there was a way to visit Australia without ever leaving your seat? Without paying for an expensive 12-hour flight? By simply going to your local bookstore or library (provided they’re cool enough)?
Bill Bryson’s In A Sunburned Country, published in 2000, gives you just that opportunity. He goes as far as he can in the amount of time he has, covering a tremendous amount of ground while never skirting on the stories that he bumps into. In fact, as a born storyteller is wont to do, he begins the book with perhaps the most mind-blowing tidbit I’ve heard in a long time – a tidbit that’s so tantalizing and yet so perfectly encapsulates just how vast a land this place is.
It happens that at 11:03 P.M. local time on May 28, 1993, seismograph needles all over the Pacific region twitched and scribbled in response to a very large-scale disturbance near a place called Banjawarn Station in the Great Victoria Desert of Western Australia. Some long-distance truckers and prospectors, virtually the only people out in the lonely expanse, reported seeing a sudden flash in the sky and hearing or feeling the boom of a mighty but far-off explosion. One reported that a can of beer had danced off the table in his tent.
But the seismographic profile didn’t fit that of an earthquake or mining explosion, and was actually “170 times more powerful than the most powerful mining explosion ever recorded in Western Australia”. Scientists puzzled over it and then set it away as an “unexplained curiosity”.
Then, in 1995, Japanese doomsday cult Aum Shinrikyo released large amounts of nerve gas into the Tokyo subway system, killing 12 people. Investigations followed and showed that Aum had actually held a 500,000 acre desert property in Western Australia very near where the event took place. It had also recruited nuclear engineers from the former Soviet Union. From those facts, it’s conceivable they formulated a nuclear bomb, set it off in the middle of the Australian desert, and no one ever noticed.
You take my point, of course,” Bryson continues, “This is a country that … is so vast and empty that a band of amateur enthusiasts could conceivably set off the world’s first non-governmental atomic bomb on its mainland and almost four years would pass before anyone noticed. Clearly this is a place worth getting to know.
From there, Bryson is off to the races, covering as much of this land he so clearly loves, uncovering as many interesting, colorful facts and faces as possible along the way. To say any more would be both a disservice to just how much he covers, but to how well he describes everything he finds. You will laugh a great deal at many of his discoveries, and find a deep appreciation for the colorful, surreal history that makes Australia unlike any place on Earth.
By the end, Bryson, not looking forward to leaving his enchanted place, sums it up perfectly:
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.