Down Under

By Bill Bryson

Rating: 5 stars

Bryson is on top form in this book which documents his adventures in the Antipodes, from crossing the continent in style on the India-Pacific Railway to pledges with his travelling companion about the fair distribution of urine should they get trapped in the outback. Bryson is endlessly fascinated by the continent of Australia and his joy in exploring it comes across very clearly in this book. He loves the people and the country and his descriptions of both show it. He also describes the sheer absurdity of the country, from carelessly losing a prime minister (he walked into the sea and never came out again) to the fact that someone may have detonated a small nuclear bomb in the north of the country and nobody noticed.

He talks about the history of the places he visits and uses visits to museums to go off on tangents about the people and objects he finds. He follows in the footsteps of some of the pioneers and expeditions that opened Australia (insofar as a country that size ever can be “opened up”) and you can sense the shaking of the head as he describes how incompetent some of those early explorers appeared to be.

And he seems endlessly intrigued by the sheer quantity and quality of flora and fauna of Oz that are deadly. From the box jellyfish that can cause the most indescribable pain a man could feel to the spiders that have enough venom to kill a man in seconds, Australia is blessed (or cursed) with some of the most deadly creatures on Earth. And Bryson takes a perverse pleasure in describing them, in great detail, both to the reader and to any travelling companions he might have at the time. But that just adds to the joy of the book. He is relishing the absurdity of the whole thing and writes so lightly and humorously that you’re left chuckling about things that should rightly leave you aghast.

The one thing that Bryson touches only lightly upon is the state of the Aborigines of Australia, their past treatment by the settlers and their current haunted, downtrodden emptiness. But amidst this, he also points out another absurdity of this continent-country: that recent research has shown that the Aboriginal people came to Australia over 40,000 years ago! That they had a civilisation capable of producing sea-going vessels that long ago is incredible and a story that is still full of mysteries.

In total, this is a marvellous book from a man who has a real eye for the world around him and a humorous touch with a pen (or keyboard, as the case may be).

Book details

ISBN: 9780552997034
Publisher: Black Swan
Year of publication: 2000

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