04
Nov
14

Outback: In A Sunburned Country – Bill Bryson

In a Sunburned CountryIn a Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson

I think I’ve read a Bill Bryson book before. Maybe more than one, I’m not really sure. See the thing about his travel books is that once you’ve read one, you’ve kind of read them all.

Generally, they follow him as he drives around a country and takes in the sights and has a few pints. He reports on the background of the country, reports colourful stories that fill the background and has enough interesting people and experiences to fill in the book’s details. It’s nice and charming, but it all kind of blends together. These days I can’t remember if I read his book on the United States or England. Or if even read both.

Anyway, I picked up a used copy of his Australian book a while ago at a thrift store and was waiting for a good opportunity to dig into it. And after reading Peter Carey’s novel about Ned Kelly, I figured now was as good a time as any.

The book follows Bryson on about four different journeys. First is a cross-country train tour, the second takes him up and down the eastern coastline. Then it’s a trip down through the Northern Territory to Uluru and finally, a jaunt along the west coast. He drives a lot, drinks a bunch and visits a lot of museums, too.

Of the trips, I found the third the most interesting. Bryson starts at Darwin, up on the northern coast and takes a long drive with a buddy of his down to Alice Springs, a long, flat drive that takes a few days and has almost no scenery around to liven things up. Just lots and lots of dry land and highways. But his stopovers in small towns are as interesting as anything here: small places that aren’t much more than a pub, motel and gas station, sometimes all in one. In one place, the owner shows off their TV, a novelty in that part of the country.

Their visit to Uluru is great, too: Bryson’s description of the big rock is okay, but I was more interested in how he describes the nearby town of Alice Springs: after driving through so much desert and isolation, he comes to the built-up city, where you can hit up a K-Mart and get some takeout before staying in a plush hotel. The juxtaposition is stunning and entirely from tourism, from people flying in.

There are other fun visits. There’s a museum with a giant picture of a telegraph repairman working in the buff, a trip to Hemelin Pool Marine Nature Reserve to see the stromatolites, a swim over at the Great Barrier Reef, an explanation of why it took so long to build the opera house and plenty of history between the coastlines.

And it’s not always a nice history, so it was good to see Bryson not shy away from Australia’s shabby treatment of the Aborigine population. Every so often, he’ll ask someone about them and get a dismissive response, generally along the lines of drinking and walkabouts. He notes their coolly dismissive attitude; compared with his section on how the country has failed them, you can see the vicious cycle and how little people seem to care.

One annoying trait throughout this book: Bryson commonly uses a passive voice that makes him seem more than a tad British and longwinded. And I wonder about his facts, too. For example, he opens the book with a strange story about a possible nuclear blast in the outback. He suggests the country is so vast and open that Aum Shinrikyo can set off a nuke and nobody will notice.

It’s a crazy story and Bryson repeatedly refers to it to illustrate how open the Outback is. But did it actually happen? A while back, The Straight Dope busted that story wide open, suggesting it was probably a meteorite, but maybe a small earthquake. But almost certainly not a bomb, which as Cecil Adams notes, is completely improbable. And if Bryson falls for such an obvious trap, I get a nagging feeling about his other reporting and conclusions: how much did he put in for colour? Did that pub owner really show off his TV?

Rating 5/10. As a whole, it’s not a bad read. I have some doubts about his conclusions, but generally nothing so big it ruined everything. Rather, I looked at this like I’d experience an episode of This American Life: enjoyable, light entertainment. Thing is, it’s about as memorable as that too: a week later and I’m already struggling to remember which event happened in which Bryson travelogue.

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