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In a Sunburned Country

Cover of In a Sunburned Country

In a Sunburned Country

Deliciously funny, fact-filled and adventurous, In a Sunburned Country takes us on a grand tour of Australia. It's a place where interesting things happen all the time, from a Prime Minister lost — yes, lost — while swimming at sea, to Japanese cult members who may (entirely unnoticed) have set off an atomic bomb on their 500,000 acre property in the great western desert.
Australia is the only island that is also a continent, and the only continent that is also a country. Its aboriginal people, a remote and mysterious race with a tragic history, have made it their home for millennia. And despite the fact that it is the most desiccated, infertile and climatically aggressive of all inhabited continents, it teems with life. In fact, Australia has more things that can kill you in extremely nasty ways than anywhere else: sharks, crocodiles, the planet's ten most deadly poisonous snakes, fluffy yet toxic caterpillars, sea shells that actually attack you, and the unbelievable box jellyfish (don't ask). The dangerous riptides of the sea and the sun-baked wastes of the outback both lie in wait for the unwary.
Australia is an immense and fortunate land, and it has found in Bill Bryson its perfect guide. In a Sunburned Country offers the best of all possible introductions to what may well be the best of all possible nations. Even with those jellyfish.
Deliciously funny, fact-filled and adventurous, In a Sunburned Country takes us on a grand tour of Australia. It's a place where interesting things happen all the time, from a Prime Minister lost — yes, lost — while swimming at sea, to Japanese cult members who may (entirely unnoticed) have set off an atomic bomb on their 500,000 acre property in the great western desert.
Australia is the only island that is also a continent, and the only continent that is also a country. Its aboriginal people, a remote and mysterious race with a tragic history, have made it their home for millennia. And despite the fact that it is the most desiccated, infertile and climatically aggressive of all inhabited continents, it teems with life. In fact, Australia has more things that can kill you in extremely nasty ways than anywhere else: sharks, crocodiles, the planet's ten most deadly poisonous snakes, fluffy yet toxic caterpillars, sea shells that actually attack you, and the unbelievable box jellyfish (don't ask). The dangerous riptides of the sea and the sun-baked wastes of the outback both lie in wait for the unwary.
Australia is an immense and fortunate land, and it has found in Bill Bryson its perfect guide. In a Sunburned Country offers the best of all possible introductions to what may well be the best of all possible nations. Even with those jellyfish.
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  • Chapter One

    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, Australia doesn'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...

About the Author-
  • Bill Bryson was born in Des Moines, Iowa, in 1951. He lived in England for almost two decades, and now lives in Hanover, New Hampshire, with his wife and four children.

Reviews-
  • Publisher's Weekly

    Starred review from May 29, 2000
    With the Olympics approaching, books on Australia abound. Still, Bryson's lively take is a welcome recess from packaged, staid guides. The author of A Walk in the Woods draws readers in campfire-style, relating wacky anecdotes and random facts gathered on multiple trips down under, all the while lightening the statistics with infusions of whimsical humor. Arranged loosely by region, the book bounces between Canberra and Melbourne, the Outback and the Gold Coast, showing Bryson alone and with partners in tow. His unrelenting insistence that Australia is the most dangerous place on earth ("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") spins off dozens of tales involving jellyfish, spiders and the world's 10 most poisonous snakes. Pitfalls aside, Bryson revels in the beauty of this country, home to ravishing beaches and countless unique species ("80% of all that lives in Australia, plant and animal, lives nowhere else"). He glorifies the country, alternating between awe, reverence and fear, and he expresses these sentiments with frankness and candor, via truly funny prose and a conversational pace that is at once unhurried and captivating. Peppered with seemingly irrelevant (albeit amusing) yarns, this work is a delight to read, whether or not a trip to the continent is planned. First serial to Outside magazine; BOMC selection.

  • The Globe and Mail

    "Bill Bryson is...an artist who needs a big canvas. Australia has provided this. He's painted a masterpiece in travel literature."

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    Doubleday Canada
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