“In A Sunburned Country”: Bill Bryson’s Journey and What It’s Taught Me

In The Art of Travel, 6. First Book, Sydney by Eliana2 Comments

When I was 2, my parents decided to get rid of our television, a decision that turned out to have a major impact on my life. Aside from the fact that I never understand my friend’s references to childhood TV shows, reading became the constant source of entertainment for my siblings and I. In the summers, when we were home from camp or complained of boredom, my mom would gather us into the car and take us on an adventure to the library, and we’d always come home with a whole trunk full of books.

Throughout the years, books have always been a comfort to  me, but the main reason I love them is for their ability to transport me to another time and place. To me, there’s no feeling like having a lazy day to curl up and let myself get lost in a story for hours, but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve had  less time to read for fun and it’s something I really miss. Just before I left for Sydney, I was home from New York for the weekend hanging out with my mom in the kitchen, when she started telling me about a book she had read and loved by Bill Bryson called, “In a Sunburnt Country.” Amidst packing and saying my goodbyes, I forgot all about it, but recently I took advantage of some free time and sat down to read it.

The book focuses on Bryson’s journey as he travels around Australia and the outback, from the White Cliffs to Melbourne, to Ayers Rock to the Great Barrier Reef. In the beginning of the first chapter, he remarks, “This is a country that loses a prime minister and that is so vast and empty that a band of amateur enthusiasts could conceivably set off the world’s first non-governmental atomic bomb on its mainland and almost four years would pass before anyone noticed. Clearly this is a place worth getting to know.” From the second I read that line, I was hooked…

The pages of  “In a Sunburned Country” are filled with fascinating and random facts about Australia, like that it was the first–and last–continent conquered by sea, and the only country to begin as a prison. Bryson has such a witty and relatable way of writing, and makes you feel as if you are right there alongside him  on his adventures. Throughout the chapters, he gives the reader an inside look into the sheer vastness of the land, and into the deadly native wildlife here, like the poisonous snakes, kookaburras, sharks, and crocodiles. As he writes about the spiders he encountered, he remarks, “No one knows, incidentally, why Australia’s spiders are so extravagantly toxic; capturing small insects and injecting them with enough poison to drop a horse would appear to be the most literal case of overkill.” Bryson also reflects on his hilarious and  bizarre encounters with other travelers and locals as he ventures from town to town, in a way that makes me want to get out and explore on my own. Even when describing the dangerous situations he finds himself in, like the time he ran out of fuel and water while traveling, and the time he almost got stung by a bluebottle jellyfish while boogie boarding at Manley (which I’ve experienced too!) he manages to maintain a sense of humor and spin the story positively.

Aside from regaling the reader with his adventures, Bryson focuses on important issues in Australia, such as the history of the Aborigines, their journey to Australia around 60,000 years ago, and the incredible ways they’ve managed to survive despite the terrible treatment they have endured. He also goes into depth describing the effects of introducing non- indigenous animals to the country, as he explains, “”The consequences for native species have been devastating. About 130 mammals are threatened. Sixteen have become extinct – more than in any other continent.” I also loved reading his stories of the dangers  the underprepared Australian explorers faced in the past as they journeyed through the interior of the land in the 1800’s.

I connected to this book for so many reasons, and would highly recommend it to anyone. In the beginning of the book, Bryson makes the point that Australia is very rarely discussed in the media, and I realize now how right he is. Before coming here, I’m ashamed to say I barely knew anything about the country, aside from the few Australians celebrities or bands I knew of, and a couple of basic facts. If you’re curious about the country, Bryson is the perfect mix of informative and entertaining, and after reading it, I feel like I’ve gained a new appreciation for Australia; I’ve learned so much about the history, politics, wildlife, and people here, in a way that I never would have been able to on my own. Throughout it all, Bryson’s passion for exploring and his infectious love for Australia shines through, and makes me feel even more excited and grateful to be here.

(Image: Road Trip To Byron Bay ; Source: Eliana Arian)


  1. I have to agree––before this week’s assignment, I had never read a book about Australia before. I knew little of the culture, and was unprepared to discover the things I have upon arrival. The book I read was about Aboriginal history (particularly the Stolen Generation) which was a topic I knew absolutely nothing about. Like you, it seems, I’ve always relied on books for entertainment, education, and pure company. I realize that to fully understand Australia, I’ll definitely need to take a trip to the library.

  2. It seems that this book was just a great go-to guide for all things pertaining to what Austrailia actually is. I definitely agree that in the media we receive a very limited/warped view of this country. Since coming here, I’ve gained such an understanding of what makes up the culture here beyond beaches and the outback. You did a great job of promoting the book here, as I’ll definitely want to take a look at it soon. Given from what you’ve said, I think its something a lot of people need to read if they want to gain a proper understanding of Austrailia.

Leave a Comment