As a child, I was captivated by Antarctica.
No one lives in Antarctica—It is treacherous, it tries to kill you. Still, I longed for the otherworldly stillness, the lack of anything human, the extreme isolation. I promised myself I would ski the 1360 km between McMurdo Station and the South Pole someday.
Instead, I’ve ended up in Australia, a country that is “staggeringly empty and yet packed with stuff” as Bill Bryson describes in his book, “In a Sunburned Country.” Australia is trying tries to kill you too. Eighty-five percent of Australia’s population lives in cities along coast, while the interior remains desolate. Cape York Peninsula, for example, is one of the largest remaining ‘untouched’ places on Earth. Australia is also home to more species than any other developed country: there are over 2,400 species of spiders, and 898 bird species, and ten of the world’s most poisonous snakes, and even four different types of kangaroos. I live in Sydney, a city of four million, and I’m terrified of bugs. I have not yet felt the weight of Australia’s wildness and abundance.
Perhaps this is because it takes time and effort to see the Australia that most people don’t, or can’t, or aren’t interested in. As Bryson writes, Australia “teems with interesting stuff, but at the same time it’s so vast and empty and forbidding that it generally takes a remarkable stroke of luck to find it.” When you do find it, “you are totally at the mercy of nature in this country, mate.”
I’ve experienced Australia’s wrath in other ways. An introduced species with an American credit card, I spent three hours this morning looking for an ATM machine affiliated with my bank. I’ve sat in restaurants for thirty minutes before realizing that table service is not ubiquitous here. My skin has peeled from the sun and swelled with mosquito bites. I’ve walked up and down grocery store aisles look for dryer sheets, which don’t exist in Australia. I’ve held my breath in the passenger seat while driving up a winding road, honking the whole way. There has been a lot to learn about this landscape.
But of course, the road lead to a beach which opens up to the South Pacific and is more beautiful than I can articulate. The night before, I sang in the ran with strangers who played guitars and a hand-carved didgeridoo because I was lost and had asked for directions. The peeling meant blissful days the bites meant falling asleep with the window open to the soft hum of traffic and the not-so-soft caw of the common Coel. The food is always delicious. The walk to the ATM that ended up being energizing and scenic.
This is to say that there is a lot to see and feel, and that it’s a pain in the ass to get there. It is still worth it, though. As Bryson writes, “an awfully large part of travel these days is to see things while you still can.” I think this rings true in several respects. The first is obvious—human life is temporary, and so travel is an attempt to contain as much of the earth as one body can hold. The second is more subtle—these landscapes are shifting, changing, and falling apart because of our irresponsibility.
I’m still captivated by Antarctica, this time not for its calmness, but for its power. If it were to melt, The Totten Glacier alone could raise global sea levels by 3.5 meters. We are the primary agents of climate change; Mother Nature fights back slowly but unforgivingly. I think Bryson means that we are living in a strange and special moment in Earth’s history, and that we should take it in before it’s too late. Australia is a good place to start.