You know what you’re getting with a Bill Bryson book: easy to read, funny, interesting and above all, fantastic story-telling.
Bryson’s great affection for Australia and Australians is obvious throughout the book. He travelled round Australia over several trips, visiting most of the big cities (Perth, Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane, Cairns, and Canberra) but also spent a lot of time in the outback, which I imagine is quite rare for an Australian travelogue.
Bryson is very effective at conveying some sense of just how enormous and unforgiving the outback is. Most of it has never been properly surveyed. He also tells a number of interesting stories: of early explorers; encounters with Australia’s plethora of dangerous animals; and its incredible richness of flora and fauna, much of which is unique to the continent. There are stories of people making remarkable scientific discoveries, such as finding a colony of animals which were thought to be extinct but returning a few years later to find them all gone.
A favourite of mine was the story of a man named Lang Hancock, who lived in Western Australia. At the time, it was thought that the country was quite poor in natural resources, to the extent that exporting iron ore was illegal. Hancock was flying a light aircraft when he had to make an emergency landing and found himself on almost solid iron ore. Later he discovered that his land encompassed a section of almost 100km of ore. Another story I like is that of a group of explorers, reaching the centre of the country after much toil, found themselves greeted by aborigines with a masonic sign. One aborigine then painstakingly tied the shoe of an explorer. The men had thought they were the first white men to penetrate the heart of the continent, but it was immediately obvious that it was not so. To this day, no one has any idea who got there first.
Bryson also delves into the aborigines, explaining their history and how they have been treated in Australia up to now (until quite recently, very badly. Serious problems persist, such as in education). The tale (such as is known of it) of how they came to be in Australia may be the most fascinating of every story in the book, which is saying something:
The first occupants of Australia could not have walked there because at no point in human times has Australia not been an island. They could not have arisen independently as Australia has no apelike creatures from which human beings could have descended. The first arrivals could only have come by see, presumably from Timor in the Indonesian archipelago, and here is where the problems arise.
In order to put Homo Sapiens in Australia, you must accept that, at a point in time so remote that it precedes the known rise of behaviourally modern humans, there lived in southern Asia a people sufficiently advanced that they were fishing inshore waters from boats of some sort, rafts presumably. Never mind that the archaeological record shows no one else on earth doing this for another 30,000 years.
Pretty incredible stuff, and this book is packed with stories just as interesting.