In a Sunburned Country
is the U.S. and Canadian title of a 2000 travelogue by writer Bill Bryson. Originally published as Down Under
in the U.K., the book charts Bryson’s journey through Australia by train and car, his conversations with locals, and musings on Australia’s history and culture. Bryson, best known for his comic travelogues such as Notes from a Small Island
and A Walk in the Woods
, approaches the subject with characteristic humor, dry wit, and historical digressions from the narrative. The American title is taken from the notable Australian poem “My Country,” by Dorothea Mackellar.
Bryson tells the story of three trips he takes to explore Australia. He explains, first, his reason for writing the book. He has visited the country before, but only on book tours, traveling from bookstore to bookstore and hotel to hotel. This is his chance to get to know the “real” Australia.
He describes Australia as a kind of forgotten country, often ignored despite its incredible biodiversity. As Bryson points out, Australia is filled with a greater variety of unique species of plants and animals than anywhere else in the world. Yet Australian news, whether political or social, rarely makes headlines in Great Britain or America.
Bryson tours the famous Sydney Opera house and tries to boogie board with disastrous results. Then, he travels along the Indian Pacific railway from Sydney to Perth to explore the Outback. Bryson is accompanied by photographer Trevor Ray Hart for this part of the journey. He holds amusing conversations with Australian locals on the train and describes landmarks such as the Blue Mountains. Intermingled with the travel narrative are historical anecdotes and accounts from early Australian settlers, which Bryson treats with humor.
Bryson’s second trip to Australia is a tour of the Boomerang Coast, the most heavily populated stretch of the country on the southeastern shore. He begins this section of the book with a history of the continent and its colonization. He notes that early explorers set foot in Australia multiple times without understanding the continent’s size. Initially, they thought it was just another small island in the Indies. It wasn’t fully explored by Westerners until the eighteenth century when James Cook sailed along the coast for hundreds of miles. A few decades later, the place famously became a British penal colony.
Touring Adelaide, Bryson explains that some parts of Australia’s desolate landscape weren’t always like that. They are the product of an environmental disaster begun by the grave mistakes of white settlers. Over a century ago, Thomas Austin released English rabbits so that colonists could hunt them for sport. This unfortunate choice upset the ecological balance of the area as the rabbits began to breed unchecked by prey—devouring Adelaide’s lush green landscape along the way. Not long after, the land dried up from a ten-year drought. It has never recovered from those two events, remaining dry and barren today.
Bryson later meets up with a handful of friends in Melbourne. Along the way, an intriguing sign promises a glimpse of the world’s largest lobster, and he decides to stop and see it for himself. He discovers, to his bemusement, not a live animal but a fifty-six foot model of a lobster constructed out of sheet metal.
Later, Bryson’s friends take him to their country house in King Valley. There, his friend Alan Howe tells him about a persistent problem with bushfires in the area. The flames can move at speeds of 55 miles per hour, and the fires can reach hundreds of feet into the air, causing widespread devastation.
Bryson and friends explore Glenrowan, famous as the town where Australia’s most infamous outlaw, Ned Kelly, made his last stand. They attend a hokey animatronic show that retells the events of Ned Kelly’s fate. The following day takes them to Alpine National Park to travel up Mount Bogong on an all-terrain vehicle, accompanied by a ranger.
In the book’s final section, Bryson details his third trip “around the edges” of Australia. Joined by another friend, Allan Sherwin, Bryson flies to Queensland, where the two swim in the Great Barrier Reef. After that, the trip is derailed. Flooding prevents them from exploring jungles to the north as planned, and the two men are stuck in their hotel instead. Drinking at the hotel bar, they discuss Australia’s deadliest and most dangerous animals. Later, attempts to swim in the cove by their hotel are stymied: it’s breeding season for the deadly box jellyfish, and the waters are infested.
When the weather is better, they resume with a modified schedule. They visit Alice Springs, a desert-like landscape studded with orange and red rock formations. The town of Alice Springs is a strange oasis of K-Marts and other generic chains surrounded by a barren landscape. The next day, Bryson and Sherwin travel to Ayers Rock, also known by its Aboriginal name, Uluru, a striking red monolith that towers above the flat land around it. After touring the rock, Sherwin flies back home.
Finally, Bryson arrives in Perth, Australia’s only major west coast city. He encounters an echidna and launches into a discussion of Australia’s monotremes. The echidna and the platypus, both native to Australia, are the sole members of this subgroup of mammals, known for their baffling blend of reptilian and mammalian characteristics. Bryson explains that Australia’s harsh environment is the reason behind its unusual biodiversity; species tend to become highly specialized to survive. Bryson travels south to see the staggering jarrah and karri trees populating the forests there, then goes north to see the stromatolites—rock-like structures formed by algae over thousands of years. These structures are the earliest form of life that still exist today. As Bryson says, it’s not the sight of them but the idea of them that makes them exciting. After this last surprising sight, he returns home for the final time.
The book received positive reviews from critics. The Chicago Tribune
called In a Sunburned Country
“laugh-out-loud funny,” while the Wall Street Journal
said Bryson was “unparalleled in his ability to cut a culture off at the knees” with his wit. Bryson has since written further travelogues and popular nonfiction books, including A Short History of Nearly Everything
, Bill Bryson’s African Diary
, and The Road to Little Dribbling: More Notes from a Small Island