Monday, June 4, 2007

Bill Bryson: Down Under - An extremely entertaining book

This book was published in 2000, and goes by 2 different names. In the UK, it is called Down Under, and in the US, it is called In a Sunburned Country, no doubt because the term Down Under to refer to Australia is not so common.
This is an extremely entertaining book (I read it over a period of 3 days), and I would recommend it to anyone who wanting to visit Australia for vacation, or planning on settling over there. For most people in the outside world, Australia is known for its vast deserts, for some beautiful cities (Adelaide, Sydney (and its Opera House and Harbour), Melbourne, and Perth), for its cricket and rugby teams, and that is all what most people know about Australia.
The book presents an incredible amount of detail about Australia, presented from the perspective of driving from one city to the other. Hence, the author covers a fair amount of Australia through drives greater than 1000 km each; through the book, you get a perspective of how large, and yet how deserted most of Australia. Description of the last habitation for the next 400 km on a road gives an incredible feeling of desolateness.
The most interesting insight you get is into the kinds of creatures who inhabit Australia, a large number of them deadly who can suddenly attack you. From the large Australian salt water crocodile which can suddenly attack you when you are swimming, from extremely small jellyfish that can deal an incredible sting if you come into contact with them, from sharks in some of the major waters, from a number of extremely poisonous snakes, other creatures in the waters who are dangerous and you would not even notice them, a bird who has extremely sharp talons, spiders who are somewhat big and very dangerous. And about people who keep on getting struck by one of these dangers.
There is a lot of perspective on explorers, most of them who seem doomed, but still keep on venturing on; there is a street level perspective on the major cities, including what to see. The saddest part of the book was about the treatment of the original inhabitants, the aborigines and their current dismal health and life statistics, as well as not much of an improvement seen.
Mostly, the book is written in a very outsider perspective, so it seems much more entertaining. It is not a tourist guide, it is not a book about the people or a vacation diary, it seems much more than that. For example, the author wonders at so many unknown facts about Australia; from the fact that one of its serving Prime Ministers vanished into the sea and was never found,
that Australia sent large contingents to the World Wars, that there was no concept of something called an Australian citizenship till 1949. Read this book !!

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