This is Bill Bryson’s Australian travelogue, called Down Under outside of Canada and the US, and it details two back-to-back trips to the country. He begins by travelling across Australia by train, from Sydney to Perth, and then recounts his time in the southeastern cities of the country. He then returns with a friend of his to visit the Great Barrier Reef, Alice Springs in the north and then down to Uluru, which I guess is a very impressive rock.
The people are immensely likable— cheerful, extrovert, quick-witted, and unfailingly obliging. Their cities are safe and clean and nearly always built on water. They have a society that is prosperous, well ordered, and instinctively egalitarian. The food is excellent. The beer is cold. The sun nearly always shines. There is coffee on every corner. Life doesn’t get much better than this.
I loved this. Apart from the small journal he kept for his African charity trip to Kenya, my only previous experience with him was his novel Notes from a Small Island, which I read before starting this blog (the dark years). I’d forgotten how funny he his. He has a kind of quiet humour, self-deprecating with a keen eye for pointing out the ridiculous without harping on it too much. He also travels the way I like to travel, which is fairly casual without much on the schedule – arrive in a city, walk around all day, spend some time in a museum, and eat and drink too much. He isn’t spending a week trying to survive in the desert or travelling from personal tour to personal tour with a film crew in tow. He’s just sightseeing, which is actually a refreshing read.
I have to admit, I’ve never really found Australia particularly exciting. I mean, the deadly critters and the expansive outback and all of the adventure tourism activities are exciting to me in an abstract sense, but as far as feeling personally excited to visit, it’s just never really captured my imagination. When I dreamed of travel as a kid, it was always for more exotic locales. Places where they served food I’d never come across and spoke a language I didn’t know. Australia fell into the same category as the rest of Canada for me, in that I’d love to see it at some point but it’s not something I sit up at night thinking about. This book has changed that view, though, somewhat. He has an unbridled enthusiasm for the country, and it’s hard not to have some of that rub off on you. This is probably good, because my girlfriend is desperate to get me to go.
I have no idea how he researched this book. He comes up with so many bizarre stories and interesting facts, and he’ll just drop those here and there nonchalantly throughout the narrative, as if it’s something off the top of his head. He clearly did a lot of reading for this book, and I feel like it would be very tempting to load it up with very detailed history and long-winded stories just to justify the research, but he has great self-restraint. It seems like some of the books he read about Australia must have only become one or two paragraphs in this book. It was so full of these stories and facts that it could have turned overwhelming, but instead it was a light and fun read, and it doesn’t feel like knowledge was sacrificed to accommodate that. He very naturally weaves the information into his travels.
He spends time describing how awful the aboriginal people were treated throughout history after the arrival of the Europeans, but I would have enjoyed a more thorough look at how attitudes have changed, or not, more recently, as well as some more information on their actual culture. While it is a bit disappointing, I do understand it. This is a personal travelogue of two relatively short trips, not a documentary, and he’s just describing what he experienced. Shoehorning in more information, without having actually experienced any of that culture himself, could have come across as quite superficial, so it’s probably for the best.
I realized part way through this that I now have to read everything he’s ever written, so I’ll certainly be reading more from him next year.