That Continent Down Under

In a Sunburned Country    by Bill Bryson

x + 307 pp, Broadway Books of Random House, Inc. NY 2000  ....   reviewed by David P. Stern

      This is Bill Bryson's tribute to Australia, a well-crafted package balancing humor and information. The nation he describes reminds one of the early United States, a young country trying to forge its culture and identity. Criss-crossing the continent from Melbourne to Perth, from the Barossa valley to Cairns (plus a visit to Alice Springs and Uluru, aka Ayers Rock), Bryson captures well the essence of Australians, including their salty and irreverent language and their attraction to strong drink. If you plan to tour down under, you will still need a good guidebook, but this account comes pretty close too. Take along a copy as essential reading.

    Australia's deserts are among the driest on the planet, "sunburned" and more. Bryson makes it clear that Nature here is not just different, but often different in a deadly way: venomous funnel spiders and snakes, and in the water, sharks, deadly sea snakes and box jellyfish whose painful sting (if you survive it) will burn forever in your memory. Add to these salt water crocodiles which dart onto the shore to snatch victims and yet, the greatest peril are still the vast deserts and their bordering outback, where kangaroos and koalas may thrive but you, left alone, may face a hot and dry death. A huge unforgiving country, it still has its beauty spots, forests and striking shorelines. It is after all a continent, big enough for a wide variety of sights, climates and life styles.

    Unforgiving it may be, yet archeologists find it has experienced human inhabitants several times longer than the Americas. How they arrived is to Bryson an unsolved mystery. America (supposedly) was reachable by a "land bridge" across the Bering straits when ocean levels dropped during the ice age; but Australia in recent geological times has always been separated by deep ocean, allowing it to develop unique animals and plants. Somehow the ancestors of present "aborigines" must have performed a serious feat of navigation and crossed the Torres strait 60-80,000 years ago.

    Viewed up close, the "abos" are not at all subhuman, and their skills in adapting to a harsh environment are still admirable. They were just unable (or unwilling, at least most of them) to adapt to modern literate civilization. Their story reminds one of the American Indians--free but destitute, vulnerable to alcohol, mostly gentle but left out by Australian society. Bryson even tells of a time when the Australian government tried to bridge the gap by forcibly educating children away from their families, in special boarding schools. The attempt failed, and the children ended up fitting into neither their old society nor the new Australian one.

    Beside his insider view of the land, Bryson also overviews Australian history, including the many near misses which preceded the continent's "official" discovery by Captain Cook in 1770. Louis de Torres in 1606 crossed the Pacific and by blind luck threaded the Torres straits to the north, narrowly missing the many reefs that adjoin it, while the Dutchman Abel Tasman in 1642 passed to the south and discovered Tasmania. Even before, in 1629, the Dutch "Batavia" with 350 passengers ran aground at some islands near Perth: after a rather bloody mutiny among survivors and a dramatic rescue, two of the mutineers were marooned on Australia's coast, the first Europeans on Australian soil. But 1770 was the real beginning, followed by the first deportation of British prisoners to Sidney in 1787.

    Later regular settlers appeared (mainly in the south-west corner), followed by exploration of the dry interior, gold rushes, sheep, rabbits and finally the Japanese attack in 1942. That attack convinced Australians that they were too few to defend their continent, so selective immigration from Europe was encouraged, leading to the current ethnic diversity. Even if you do not plan to visit Australia, this book is a very good introduction to a vigorous young nation, still developing a style of its own.

Author and Curator:   Dr. David P. Stern
     Mail to Dr.Stern:   david("at" symbol) .

Last updated 9 July 2009