In a Sunburned Country

In a Sunburned Country

4.3 155
by Bill Bryson

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"Every time Bill Bryson walks out the door, memorable travel literature threatens to break out. His previous excursion along the Appalachian Trail resulted in the sublime national bestseller A Walk in the Woods. In a Sunburned Country is his report on what he found in an entirely different place: Australia, the country that doubles as a continent, and a place with the…  See more details below


"Every time Bill Bryson walks out the door, memorable travel literature threatens to break out. His previous excursion along the Appalachian Trail resulted in the sublime national bestseller A Walk in the Woods. In a Sunburned Country is his report on what he found in an entirely different place: Australia, the country that doubles as a continent, and a place with the friendliest inhabitants, the hottest, driest weather, and the most peculiar and lethal wildlife to be found on the planet. The result is a deliciously funny, fact-filled, and adventurous performance by a writer who combines humor, wonder, and unflagging curiosity." "Despite the fact that Australia harbors more things that can kill you in extremely nasty ways than anywhere else, including sharks, crocodiles, snakes, even riptides and deserts, Bill Bryson adores the place, and he takes his readers on a rollicking ride far beyond the beaten tourist path. Wherever he goes he finds Australians who are cheerful, extroverted, and unfailingly obliging, and these beaming products of a land with clean, safe cities, cold beer, and constant sunshine fill the pages of this wonderful book. Australia is an immense and fortunate land, and it has found in Bill Bryson its perfect guide."--BOOK JACKET.

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Editorial Reviews editor
The Barnes & Noble Review
The perpetually hilarious Bill Bryson travels to Australia in his latest adventure, where he should feel right at home among the eccentric locals. Crocodiles, insects, giant worms, and venomous jellyfish are just the beginning of Bryson's problems as he navigates the beaches and deserts of this immense, sunbaked country. Arriving just in time for the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, In a Sunburned Country is comic travel writing at its best.

Bryson reveals Australia's surprising geographical and biological diversity as he braves the baking outback, hikes through the ancient rainforests, and swims along the Great Barrier Reef, always highlighting the most unusual and unforgettable people and places. "Give them a bale of chicken wire, some fiberglass and a couple of pots of paint and they will make you, say, an enormous pineapple or strawberry or, as here, a lobster," Bryson writes. Bryson does indeed visit the 56-foot monstrosity known as the Big Lobster, one of 60 such attractions found all over Australia, "like leftover props from a 1950s horror movie." Bryson's approach to Australian history comes across as wonderfully off-kilter as well. Bryson delights in the tale of Harold Holt, the late prime minister, who vanished while swimming at Cheviot Beach and was never heard from again. There is a memorial to Holt in Melbourne -- believe it or not, it's a swimming pool. Upon hearing this delicious irony, Bryson simply states: "This is a terrific country."

But Bryson is more than a literary comedian. He is a travel writer, and a great one at that. He juxtaposes those moments of intense silliness with beautiful, insightful passages: "On every side the desert lapped at the town like floodwater." One of Bryson's most profoundly spiritual moments on the trip -- for no traveler, not even the irrepressible Bryson, is immune to such moments -- is when he stands in front of Uluru, also known as Ayer's Rock. Uluru is a massive red rock, at least a hundred million years old, that stands alone on an empty plain. As he approaches it, Bryson comments "somehow you feel certain that this large, brooding, hypnotic presence has an importance to you at the species level." Bryson explores Austrlia's incredible biological diversity, visiting a wide range of ecosystems and reporting on the unique creatures he finds. He also examines Australia's eccentric history, from its early days, when botched expeditions into the outback resulted in tragic loss of life and limb, to disastrous attempts at altering the native flora and fauna. As Bryson roams Australia's spatial and cultural planes, he leaves the reader with a strong desire to follow in his footsteps. After all, who wouldn't want to see the Big Lobster face to face?

—Julie Carr

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Chapter 1


flying into australia, I realized with a sigh that I had forgotten again who their prime minister is. I am forever doing this with the Australian prime minister—committing the name to memory, forgetting it (generally more or less instantly), then feeling terribly guilty. My thinking is that there ought to be one person outside Australia who knows.

But then Australia is such a difficult country to keep track of. On my first visit, some years ago, I passed the time on the long flight reading a history of Australian politics in the twentieth century, wherein I encountered the startling fact that in 1967 the prime minister, Harold Holt, was strolling along a beach in Victoria when he plunged into the surf and vanished. No trace of the poor man was ever seen again. This seemed doubly astounding to me—first that Australia could just lose a prime minister (I mean, come on) and second that news of this had never reached me.

The fact is, of course, we pay shamefully scant attention to our dear cousins Down Under—not entirely without reason, of course. Australia is after all mostly empty and a long way away. Its population, just over 18 million, is small by world standards—China grows by a larger amount each year—and its place in the world economy is consequently peripheral; as an economic entity, it ranks about level with Illinois. Its sports are of little interest to us and the last television series it made that we watched with avidity was Skippy. From time to time it sends us useful things—opals, merino wool, Errol Flynn, the boomerang—but nothing we can’t actually do without. Above all, Australiadoesn’t misbehave. It is stable and peaceful and good. 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.

But even allowing for all this, our neglect of Australian affairs is curious. Just before I set off on this trip I went to my local library in New Hampshire and looked Australia up in the New York Times Index to see how much it had engaged our attention in recent years. I began with the 1997 volume for no other reason than that it was open on the table. In that year across the full range of possible interests—politics, sports, travel, the coming Olympics in Sydney, food and wine, the arts, obituaries, and so on—the Times ran 20 articles that were predominantly on or about Australian affairs. In the same period, for purposes of comparison, the Times ran 120 articles on Peru, 150 or so on Albania and a similar number on Cambodia, more than 300 on each of the Koreas, and well over 500 on Israel. As a place that caught our interest Australia ranked about level with Belarus and Burundi. Among the general subjects that outstripped it were balloons and balloonists, the Church of Scientology, dogs (though not dog sledding), Barneys, Inc., and Pamela Harriman, the former ambassador and socialite who died in February 1997, a misfortune that evidently required recording 22 times in the Times. Put in the crudest terms, Australia was slightly more important to us in 1997 than bananas, but not nearly as important as ice cream.

As it turns out, 1997 was actually quite a good year for Australian news. In 1996 the country was the subject of just nine news reports and in 1998 a mere six. Australians can’t bear it that we pay so little attention to them, and I don’t blame them. This is a country where interesting things happen, and all the time.

Consider just one of those stories that did make it into the Times in 1997, though buried away in the odd-sock drawer of Section C. In January of that year, according to a report written in America by a Times reporter, scientists were seriously investigating the possibility that a mysterious seismic disturbance in the remote Australian outback almost four years earlier had been a nuclear explosion set off by members of the Japanese doomsday cult Aum Shinrikyo.

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 that 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.

The problem was that there was no obvious explanation. The seismograph traces didn’t fit the profile for an earthquake or mining explosion, and anyway the blast was 170 times more power- ful than the most powerful mining explosion ever recorded in Western Australia. The shock was consistent with a large meteorite strike, but the impact would have blown a crater hundreds of feet in circumference, and no such crater could be found. The upshot is that scientists puzzled over the incident for a day or two, then filed it away as an unexplained curiosity—the sort of thing that presumably happens from time to time.

Then in 1995 Aum Shinrikyo gained sudden notoriety when it released extravagant quantities of the nerve gas sarin into the Tokyo subway system, killing twelve people. In the investigations that followed, it emerged that Aum’s substantial holdings included a 500,000-acre desert property in Western Australia very near the site of the mystery event. There, authorities found a laboratory of unusual sophistication and focus, and evidence that cult members had been mining uranium. It separately emerged that Aum had recruited into its ranks two nuclear engineers from the former Soviet Union. The group’s avowed aim was the destruction of the world, and it appears that the event in the desert may have been a dry run for blowing up Tokyo.

You take my point, of course. This is a country that loses a prime minister and that is so vast and empty that a band of amateur enthusiasts could conceivably set off the world’s first nongovernmental atomic bomb on its mainland and almost four years would pass before anyone noticed.* Clearly this is a place worth getting to know.

* Interestingly, no Australian newspapers seem to have picked up on this story and the New York Times never returned to it, so what happened in the desert remains a mystery. Aum Shinrikyo sold its desert property in August 1994, fifteen months after the mysterious blast but seven months before it gained notoriety with its sarin attack in the Tokyo subway system. If any investigating authority took the obvious step of measuring the area around Banjawarn Station for increased levels of radiation, it has not been reported.

and so, because we know so little about it, perhaps a few facts would be in order:

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.

It is the home of the largest living thing on earth, the Great Barrier Reef, and of the largest monolith, Ayers Rock (or Uluru to use its now-official, more respectful Aboriginal name). It has more things that will kill you than anywhere else. Of the world’s ten most poisonous snakes, all are Australian. Five of its creatures—the funnel web spider, box jellyfish, blue-ringed octopus, paralysis tick, and stonefish—are the most lethal of their type in the world. This is a country where even the fluffiest of caterpillars can lay you out with a toxic nip, where seashells will not just sting you but actually sometimes go for you. Pick up an innocuous cone shell from a Queensland beach, as innocent tourists are all too wont to do, and you will discover that the little fellow inside is not just astoundingly swift and testy but exceedingly venomous. If you are not stung or pronged to death in some unexpected manner, you may be fatally chomped by sharks or crocodiles, or carried helplessly out to sea by irresistible currents, or left to stagger to an unhappy death in the baking outback. It’s a tough place.

And it is old. For 60 million years since the formation of the Great Dividing Range, the low but deeply fetching mountains that run down its eastern flank, Australia has been all but silent geologically. In consequence, things, once created, have tended just to lie there. So many of the oldest objects ever found on earth— the most ancient rocks and fossils, the earliest animal tracks and riverbeds, the first faint signs of life itself—have come from Australia.

At some undetermined point in the great immensity of its past—perhaps 45,000 years ago, perhaps 60,000, but certainly before there were modern humans in the Americas or Europe—it was quietly invaded by a deeply inscrutable people, the Aborigines, who have no clearly evident racial or linguistic kinship to their neighbors in the region, and whose presence in Australia can only be explained by positing that they invented and mastered ocean- going craft at least 30,000 years in advance of anyone else, in order to undertake an exodus, then forgot or abandoned nearly all that they had learned and scarcely ever bothered with the open sea again.

It is an accomplishment so singular and extraordinary, so uncomfortable with scrutiny, that most histories breeze over it in a paragraph or two, then move on to the second, more explicable invasion—the one that begins with the arrival of Captain James Cook and his doughty little ship HMS Endeavour in Botany Bay in 1770. Never mind that Captain Cook didn’t discover Australia and that he wasn’t even yet a captain at the time of his visit. For most people, including most Australians, this is where the story begins.

The world those first Englishmen found was famously inverted—its seasons back to front, its constellations upside down—and unlike anything any of them had seen before even in the near latitudes of the Pacific. Its creatures seemed to have evolved as if they had misread the manual. The most characteristic of them didn’t run or lope or canter, but bounced across the landscape, like dropped balls. The continent teemed with unlikely life. It contained a fish that could climb trees; a fox that flew (it was actually a very large bat); crustaceans so large that a grown man could climb inside their shells.

In short, there was no place in the world like it. There still isn’t. Eighty percent of all that lives in Australia, plant and animal, exists nowhere else. More than this, it exists in an abundance that seems incompatible with the harshness of the environment. Australia is the driest, flattest, hottest, most desiccated, infertile, and climatically aggressive of all the inhabited continents. (Only Antarctica is more hostile to life.) This is a place so inert that even the soil is, technically speaking, a fossil. And yet it teems with life in numbers uncounted. For insects alone, scientists haven’t the faintest idea whether the total number of species is 100,000 or more than twice that. As many as a third of those species remain entirely unknown to science. For spiders, the proportion rises to 80 percent.

I mention insects in particular because I have a story about a little bug called Nothomyrmecia macrops that I think illustrates perfectly, if a bit obliquely, what an exceptional country this is. It’s a slightly involved tale but a good one, so bear with me, please.

In 1931 on the Cape Arid peninsula in Western Australia, some amateur naturalists were poking about in the scrubby wastes when they found an insect none had seen before. It looked vaguely like an ant, but was an unusual pale yellow and had strange, staring, distinctly unsettling eyes. Some specimens were collected and these found their way to the desk of an expert at the National Museum of Victoria in Melbourne, who identified the insect at once as Nothomyrmecia. The discovery caused great excitement because, as far as anyone knew, nothing like it had existed on earth for a hundred million years. Nothomyrmecia was a proto-ant, a living relic from a time when ants were evolving from wasps. In entomological terms, it was as extraordinary as if someone had found a herd of triceratops grazing on some distant grassy plain.

An expedition was organized at once, but despite the most scrupulous searching, no one could find the Cape Arid colony. Subsequent searches came up equally empty-handed. Almost half a century later, when word got out that a team of American scientists was planning to search for the ant, almost certainly with the kind of high-tech gadgetry that would make the Australians look amateurish and underorganized, government scientists in Canberra decided to make one final, preemptive effort to find the ants alive. So a party of them set off in convoy across the country.

On the second day out, while driving across the South Australia desert, one of their vehicles began to smoke and sputter, and they were forced to make an unscheduled overnight stop at a lonely pause in the highway called Poochera. During the evening one of the scientists, a man named Bob Taylor, stepped out for a breath of air and idly played his flashlight over the surrounding terrain. You may imagine his astonishment when he discovered, crawling over the trunk of a eucalyptus beside their campsite, a thriving colony of none other than Nothomyrmecia.

Now consider the probabilities. Taylor and his colleagues were eight hundred miles from their intended search site. In the almost 3 million square miles of emptiness that is Australia, one of the handful of people able to identify it had just found one of the rarest, most sought-after insects on earth—an insect seen alive just once, almost half a century earlier—and all because their van had broken down where it did. Nothomyrmecia, incidentally, has still never been found at its original site.

You take my point again, I’m sure. 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.

From the Audio CD (Unabridged) edition.

Copyright 2001 by Bill Bryson

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In a Sunburned Country 4.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 155 reviews. More than 1 year ago
The first time a read this book I enjoyed it. The second time I read it, a couple of years later after learning a great deal more about Australia from other sources, I loved it. Bill Bryson does not take you to the typical tourist stops. Rather he takes you to many places best avoided, but he explains why in the process. His focus is on odd happenings in history, and quirky people he meets along the way. He is always researching museums and reading local papers to ferret out more little know factoids about the place. He does not spend a lick of time at the Great Barrier Reef except to tell us about the couple that was left there to try to snorkel thirty miles back to shore. They were most likely eaten by sharks as they tried to reach a buoy resting on the other side of a deep channel where the big boys roam. Instead, he takes us to the distant shores of Western Australia, a place so vast that it has never been completely explored, to stare at blobs of matter called stromatolites credited with being the first bits of life in our universe. No matter where we are he always throws in a bit of sly, self-deprecating humor. Fun read chock full of information and insights into the people and the place down under.
Gusboy More than 1 year ago
If Bill Bryson wrote all the history books, history would become every student's (and everyone else's) favorite subject. I've read most of Bryson's books and have been educated and entertained by them all. "In a Sunburned Country" is not a history book, but is about all kinds of facets of Australia, including history, the culture past and present, the geography, topography, animal and plant life, and the residents. Bryson makes it all incredibly interesting. I learned a lot, laughed quite a bit and enjoyed the book thoroughly.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I immensely enjoyed this book... Considering the fact that I've learnt more about my own country from a traveller of origins elsewhere probably says something, not the least of which about my good self. But that is the beauty of Bill Bryson: the most seemly dull things transform into small realms of genuine interest and consideration. With that said, who better to write a book about Australia? Quite an enjoyable read.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
If you're a fan of Bill Bryson, and I am, then this is another must have. Lots of fun and useful information, stories and tidbits about Australia, but what makes it worth the read is Bryon's style and wit. I highly recommend it.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Hands down Bryson's funniest and most interesting book! I've reread this a number of times over the years and it has never lost it's charm.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Classic Bryson style with a wonderful meandering tale chock full of facts, anecdotes and a good giggle nearly every page! Too bad Bryson wasn't my history or sociology teacher!
Chocks More than 1 year ago
Humorous and interesting if you plan on doing a similar trip. Great fun on his take of the local people. A little long but enjoyed what I read.
Xasha More than 1 year ago
I enjoyed the hearing about the history of the places and things he encounters along his trip.
lucysassy More than 1 year ago
If I were going to Australia, I would want to read this book prior to leaving. However, I got a bit bored with it--and I adore Bryson--and did not finish reading it because of that. Would not recommend this if you are looking to be entertained and looking for Bryson's wonderful humor. It is in there but not as much as his other books.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book is enjoyable and easy to read while also containing a wide variety of facts and interesting knowledge that are presented by the author in an excellent manner. Bill Bryson (author) has a way of telling his stories that make you feel like you are right there with him and are experiencing his journey as it happens. He has a great sense of humor and thoroughly enjoys what he does. I would recommend this book for anyone who has been to Australia, lives there, or is thinking about traveling there.
huckfinn37 More than 1 year ago
I loved In A Sunburned Country. Bill Bryson is a witty and smart writer. I want to Australia as soon as possible. He makes Australia come alive and jump right off the page.
L.Emerson More than 1 year ago
I hoped this book would provide a lot of practical information about being a tourist in Australia, and it does. There is a parade of facts, figures and stories about the history of this wild and amazing place, and tons of practical advice on how best to see this continent, what to see despite the hardships in getting there, and what to skip (Canberra). Amazingly, all his facts are real and quite informative. This is a place like no other. What I did not count on was the humor, the hilarity the author finds in trying to survive his adventures in this untamed playground. The reader gets to experience all this with him for the first time, see a vast and bizarre continent through the eyes of a most civilized and middle-aged westerner not normally given to extremes. The result is truly funny. Thereafter, I read more of Bill Bryson; "Notes From a Small Island," about touring the British Isles, and "The Lost Continent," about touring the U.S. after 20 years abroad. I did not like either of these books nearly as much, mainly because in them, he complained constantly. It was not like the detached dry humor of his Australian tour book, wherein he is a confused but willing foreigner trying to make his way through an unforgiving wilderness among people bent on minimizing to the point of deception the dangers lurking in the Australian waters, gardens and yes, in the Outback. But in the other books, Bryson is not as game to try new things, he seems to be looking back for something that once was and not finding it. In them, no place was worth the effort or money he expended to get there, nor did it live up to his fondest memories once he arrived. I did like Bryson's "I'm a Stranger Here Myself," a compendium of newspaper articles he wrote about his new life once he had repatriated back to the U.S. and settled in small town New England. I may try another one of his travel guides. I'm hoping there is another one out there that he wrote with the love and humor as he did this love letter about Australia."In a Sunburned Country" is recommended for its entertainment value even more than for its extensive information that anyone should have before visiting Australia.
hound48 More than 1 year ago
i've never been to australia, but i feel like i've just taken a 3 week vacation there. bryson's style and descriptions are great.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I have enjoyed BIll Bryson's account of his love for the 'Sunburned Country' so much I have to turn off the audio book to laugh out loud and then replay it so I can laugh again. He is fast becoming one of my all time favorite authors. He wicked tongue in cheek is the most fun you can have with a subject about travel in a foreign country.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I just finished this book and loved every page! Bryson has such a way of putting things to make even the most mundane seem comical and interesting. In the past, I have the opportunity to visit many other places he has written about and can't wait to go to Australia now. Who ever thought giant worms would be so fascinating?
Guest More than 1 year ago
I absolutely loved this book. I found it hilarious. Mr Bryson's writing style is great, and it was not only informative, but very fun to read! Even if you're not interested in Australia, everyone should read this book!
Charlottes-son More than 1 year ago
A book to laugh out loud with. And a book to share. 
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Having visited down under on business on a number of occasions, I was curious to see what a visitor with more time would think of that fascinating country. I was not disappointed. Bryson's custom of setting off on foot to experience the country  adds immeasurably to the descriptions of his experiences. I was totally entertained and educated by this wonderful book, and have already begun enjoying another Bryson title. 
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
As a first time exposure to Bryson's writing, I can truthfully thaot Bryson is easily one of my favourite authors. I recommend this book to those looking for a nice, long, and engaging read.
jb70 More than 1 year ago
I listened to this audio book and learned a lot of interesting facts about Australia, but as I am not the best auditory learner I promptly forgot most of the facts! For novels and memoirs audio books are great, but for something like this with a lot of facts and figures, I might have been better off with a print copy. But everyone has a different learning style. Bryson seems to go back and forth about his feelings for Australia. He says over and over again how much he loves the country but then talks at length about the things that can kill a person and about the monotonous miles between places. About how the accommodations at one place or another are unsatisfactory or unbelievably expensive and how poor planning led to having no place to stay for the night. Some of his difficulties make a lot more sense now that I know the book was written in 2001. He makes Australia sound both beautiful and unforgiving at the same time. There are detailed accounts of settlements and expeditions and facts about where they went right and, more often, where they went wrong. About the capital of the country which is neither Sydney nor Melbourne, even though those are the cities most talked about in the news. I had mixed feelings about this book. I think it was supposed to be more humorous than what I found it to be. It felt a bit overly long. I kept waiting to be at the end, which is never a good thing for a book. Perhaps it was his writing style or it could have been the narrator's take on it that just didn't click for me. I am glad to have learned a bit more about Australia, but this book just didn't click for me.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago