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  • Writer's pictureTerrie

In a Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson is our second Buddy Read for July

In a Sunburned Country By Bill Bryson

Genre: Nonfiction / Travel

Published 2000, 331 pages


In a Sunburned Country is a travel/adventure book. I don’t recall having ever read one before. With our Buddy Read selections, Terrie and I try to include books and genres that we don’t normally read. This certainly qualifies for me.

I enjoyed it very much although there was more history and more about politics than I was expecting. I quickly figured out that I didn’t really need to pay attention to the names of the early explorers or the politicians (sorry for dismissing those people) or the names of the streets or tiny towns. I focused on the stories themselves which I found interesting, bizarre, and fascinating by turn.

Bryson writes with a great deal of humor that helps lighten the dryness (for me) of the names (which he states even Australians rarely know anything about). Although, I found most of the facts about the country itself – the land, the people, the animals – to be not just informative but amazing.


“Australia is the world’s sixth largest country and its largest island. It is the only island that is also a continent, and the only continent that is also a country.”

“It is the home of the largest living thing on earth, the Great Barrier Reef.”

“It has more things that will kill you than anywhere else.”

“Of the world’s ten most poisonous snakes, ALL (emphasis added) are Australian.”

“Eighty percent of all that lives in Australia, plant and animal, exists nowhere else.” Read that again, that's extraordinary!

OR: For you gamblers out there, how’s this? Australians are the biggest gamblers on the planet. The country has less than 1 percent of the world’s population but more than 20 percent of its slot machines – they spend $7.3 billion a year!!!

Terrie's added factoid: "It is far and away the most thinly peopled of nations. In Britain the average population density is 632 people per square mile; in the US the average is 76; across the world as a whole it is 117. The Australians average, by contrast is 6 people per square mile." (all this is as of 2000)


Two friends took Bryson boogie boarding. As he was about to go back in the water, one of them stopped him and said, there’s a bluebottle (known elsewhere in the world as a Portuguese man-of-war). When he asked if it was dangerous, she said no, but it might be a bit uncomfortable. “I looked at her with an expression of interest bordering on admiration. Long busy journeys are uncomfortable. Slatted wooden benches are uncomfortable. Lulls in conversations are uncomfortable. The sting of a Portuguese man-of-war – even Iowans know this – is agony. It occurred to me that Australians are so surrounded with danger that they have evolved an entirely new vocabulary to deal with it.

Or, if you like snakes or fear them, here’s a tidbit. A person was listing various types of snakes, couldn’t remember them all, said it was a long list. Then said, “most snakes don’t want to hurt you. If you’re out in the bush and a snake comes along, just stop dead and let it slide over your shoes.” Bryson’s thought – “This, I decided, was the least-likely-to-be-followed advice I have ever been given.” [Amen to that!]

Bryson’s love and enthusiasm for the country was infectious. He loved everything about it – the people, the emptiness, the parks, the museums (he visited a lot and found them surprising in their detail, fascinating in the information provided), even the heat. Well, maybe not cricket though. He has a hilarious couple pages about the slowness and oddness of the sport. Terrie and I both marked that story as funny but it's too long to share - you'll just have to pick up the book!

I could go on and on with the quotes and the stories and the people he meets. More than once he comments on what a wonderous country it is. And yes, he does visit and talk about the major cities like Sydney and Melbourne, although they are not the focus of this book. This is about the Outback, the parks, the barrenness, the water, the dangers, the sights-like Tree Top Walk - you’ll have to read the book to know about that (deserves to be world-famous he says).

As Terrie and I discussed it, I liked it much more than she did. She skimmed quite a bit and missed some stories that I had tagged. Her loss.


Donna's correct - I think it's a case of right book, wrong time. I've been to Australia a couple times so was actually looking forward to this book. I thoroughly read the first half then noticed I was skimming more and more as I sped through the second half. Donna is also correct that, in typical Bryson fashion, it's full of humor. Often books that are billed as "humorous" or "hilarious", etc. are never funny. But this one had me smiling plenty of times.

However, unlike Donna, I found the history references overwhelming. There's a LOT of history presented. To Bryson's credit, not a bit of it is dry. However. History. snooze.

One of the zillion anecdotes he shared that I found fascinating is the introduction of the rabbit to Australia in 1859. The cute little critters had no natural predators in Australia so they multiplied. And multiplied. By 1880 over 2 million acres of Victoria had been picked clean and they were intruding on the more populated New South Wales. Many native plants are extinct now, thanks to the bunnies.

Later in the book he describes his trek to Uluru (Ayers Rock). I read that section with interest that turned to fascination. He does have a way with words to describe the places he sees and the people he meets. This was an excellent few pages.


Generally we agree that his book is worth your time. It's entertaining, well written, and exceptionally researched. If you enjoy travelogue books or books that explore the history of a place, this book is for you. Don't be put off by the fact that it's written 20 years ago - it isn't dated (though some of the population info, etc will be wrong).

Have you read any of Bill Bryson's books? Which is your favorite? Will you try this one?

All the photos are by me on my visits to Australia (#1 Three Sisters in the Blue Mountains; #2 at a preserve; #3 Bondi Beach)

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