The Down Under: Travels in a Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson
Estimated reading time: 4 minutes
I had heard a lot about Bill Bryson’s writing and always wanted to pick it up. But some or the other book kept me away from it. For those of you who aren’t familiar with Bryson, he is known for showing a country in his unique way. Think of history meets comedy meets cynicism. The best part though is his writing, is astonishingly affectionate and delightfully breezy. After reading, some information-laden books like – Homo Sapiens, History of Jerusalem and Contagious- I decided to read a “fun” book. Bill Bryson’s name came to me, and I picked up one of his books. Here is my book review of The Down Under: Travels in a Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson.
“Australia is the world’s sixth-largest country and its largest island. It is the only island that is also a continent, and the only continent that is also a country. It was the first continent conquered from the sea and the last. It is the only nation that began as a prison.” – Bill Bryson
Most travelogues tell a story linearly. Stating what led the authors to take on the journey, essential events, and learning through the journey. The Down Under by Bill Bryson, however, chooses a different path. Bill, takes us through all the regions of Australia which he affectionately categorised as – the outback, civilised Australia and around the edge. He travelled to all of these regions at different points in time. This book is a compilation of his wacky encounters and hilarious anecdotes in this one book.
Throughout the book, Bill touches upon the historical facts of everything in Australia. Starting with the troubles of “discovering” this land, with a great many voyagers only having to either miss it or not knowing they found it in the first place! How Captain Cook discovered Australia’s lush expanse and claimed the east coast for Great Britain. Only to find out later that he took Australia’s wet season for its dry one! In fact, the point where Circular Quay now stands is precisely where Cook anchored his ship back on 26, January 1788- a date now recognised as Australia Day.
Bryson keeps dropping background information on everything of importance. Some interesting ones like how the Australian Prime Minister, Harold Holt, went missing and the mystery behind it. To some rather wacky ones, like Australia’s love for big things! It started with a big Banana placed to catch the attention of passersby visiting the amusement park. Now you will find big lobsters, big guitars and even a big Ned Kelly! So much so that tourist flock to “see” all the big things that Australia has to offer.
“No one knows, incidentally, why Australia’s spiders are so extravagantly toxic; capturing small insects and injecting them with enough poison to drop a horse would appear to be the most literal case of overkill. Still, it does mean that everyone gives them lots of space.” Bill Bryson
One thing that stands out in the book is Australia’s flora and fauna. No, not just the fact that it is so diverse. But the fact that everything is deadly in Australia. Bryson doesn’t miss a chance to share an anecdote about the nasty fauna and flora of Australia. It starts with sociopathic jellyfish, deadly spiders in the toilet, homicidal crocodiles and even murderous rip currents! The Down Under is filled with hair-raising hilarity. Bill Bryson puts himself in some of the most distressing situations. Which most Australians dismiss by calling these situations “uncomfortable.” Ultimately Bill concludes that Australians are so surrounded by the danger that they have evolved an entirely new vocabulary to deal with it.
“This is a country that is at once staggeringly empty and yet packed with stuff. Interesting stuff, ancient stuff, stuff not readily explained. Stuff yet to be found. Trust me, this is an interesting place.” – Bill Bryson
Apart from the nasty encounters and the ever-so-fun anecdotes. Bill does a phenomenal job of describing life in Australia and the Australian landscape. At first, he is perplexed by the Australia Day celebration in Adelaide – large family groups gathered in the park playing cricket and picnicking. He wondered why would everyone want to crowd in one small park when they are blessed with such vastness. But soon concludes perhaps it is the intimidating emptiness of the country that makes Australians rather social creatures. While, ever so beautifully, describing the view from Cheviot Hill, Bill says, “All I could see through the drifting soup were some vague outlines of rocks and an indeterminate expanse of sand. Only the sounds of unseen waves flopping onto an unseen shore made it evident I found the sea”. A description so clear, it is as if you are experiencing it all with Bill.
All in all The Down Under: Travels in a Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson intersperses everything you need to know about Australia. Along with bizarre facts and hilarious accounts with natives/fellow travellers. This book is equally appealing for someone planning to visit Australia as it is for those who have already been there (survived that).
If you are looking for your next read, I say pick this marvellous book up! Liked this book review on The Down Under: Travels in a Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson? Then do check out my review on Xanadu: A Quest by William Dalrymple.