Down Under is the account of Bryson’s experiences and encounters during various sojourns in Australia. These include a rail journey on the Indian Pacific from Sydney to Perth, a road trip across the south east of the continent (covering Sydney, Canberra, Adelaide, Melbourne and many towns in between), briefly visiting south eastern Queensland, before finally covering the top end of Australia, followed by Perth and Western Australia.
Bryson opens Down Under with dialogue about Australia’s unmemorable Prime Ministers, also beginning his humorous fixation with Harold Holt, who drowned in 1967, disappearing without a trace. He also later describes far right politician Pauline Hanson as “cerebrally unpredictable”, probably one of the more polite yet witty ways to which she’s been referred. He is additionally bemused by how little Australian current affairs feature in international news.
Whilst Bryson offers humorous anecdotes throughout, Down Under is a travelogue in which he considers Australia’s landscape, weather, animals and people. He savours the uniqueness of the country, expressing his fondness for its distinct features—with the exception of the dangerous wildlife, which he is often preoccupied with. Bryson truly seems to love Australia and its residents and delights in learning and sharing his discoveries about the country. He also touches on the colonial history of Australia and the associated oppression of Indigenous peoples. He shares his thoughts on Indigenous culture and sadly indicates the past and present racist attitudes of white Australians toward Indigenous and migrant communities.
The comedic elements of Down Under provide many laugh out loud moments however, such as Bryson’s description of his sleeping habits, cricket and the snippets of conversations he overhears or partakes in. He delights in cheesy tourist attractions, although he does make Australians seem a little backward at times, with little emphasis on the contemporary. He is charmed by the stories of Australian explorers, and the undesirable fates which often befell them, which he sporadically includes in his narrative.
I learned many interesting facts about Australia, such as the number of introduced plants and animals, and their devastating effect on native flora and fauna. As the book was first published in 2000 it may warrant some investigation as to accuracy and currency, however I enjoyed the accounts without concerning myself with this.
Bill Bryson has an impressive array of publications, including various other documentations of his travels. Down Under is the first Bryson text I have read and I would subsequently be keen to read more of his work. I wonder how non-Australian readers who are unfamiliar with the culture or idiosyncrasies of Australia and its people would perceive this book, however it certainly made me keen to see more of the country in which I reside.
“’It was as if I had privately discovered life on another planet, or a parallel universe where life was at once recognizably similar but entirely different. I can’t tell you how exciting it was. Insofar as I had accumulated my expectations of Australia at all in the intervening years, I had thought of it as a kind of alternative southern California, a place of constant sunshine and the cheerful vapidity of a beach lifestyle, but with a slightly British bent – a sort of Baywatch with cricket…’
Of course, what greeted Bill Bryson was something rather different. Australia is a country that exists on a vast scale. It 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 driest, flattest, hottest, most desiccated, infertile and climatically aggressive of all the inhabited continents and still it teems with life – a large proportion of it quite deadly.
In fact, Australia has more things that can kill you in a very nasty way than anywhere else. This is a country where even the fluffiest of caterpillars can lay you out with a toxic nip, where seashells will not just sting you but actually sometimes go for you. If you are not stung or pronged to death in some unexpected manner, you may be fatally chomped by sharks or crocodiles, or carried helplessly out to sea by irresistible currents, or left to stagger to an unhappy death in the baking outback.
Ignoring such dangers – yet curiously obsessed by them – Bill Bryson journeyed to Australia and promptly fell in love with the country. And who can blame him? The people are cheerful, extrovert, quick-witted and unfailingly obliging; their cities are safe and clean and nearly always built on water; the food is excellent; the beer is cold and the sun nearly always shines. Life doesn’t get much better than this.”