Down Under by Bill Bryson
Reviewed by Steve Rudd


After having spent so much time travelling around, and subsequently writing about, places such as North America (check out his epic Lost Continent travelogue), Europe (Neither Here Nor There) and good old Blighty via his Notes From A Small Island, it was only a matter of time before the bearded and bespectacled comic genius in Bryson strapped himself into a plane seat and headed further south.
“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 was the first continent conquered from the sea, and the last. It is the only nation that began as a prison.”As with all Bryson’s light-hearted but fiercely informative writing, Down Under is a truly fantastic read that mixes genuinely hilarious anecdotes with fascinating and highly detailed sojourns into the history of all of the places that he visits during his stay there… a journey which takes him to most of the major cities including Sydney, Brisbane, Perth, Canberra, Adelaide, Melbourne, Darwin and Cairns.

As well as enjoying the virtues of some of the most pleasant and leafy cities on earth, Bill also heads into the overwhelmingly expansive outback and soon realises that Ayers Rock (AKA Uluru to its native residents) is a sensationally long drive from civilisation.

“Even Uluru was unseen by anyone but its Aboriginal caretakers until only a little over a century ago. To Australians anything vaguely rural is the bush. At some indeterminate point the bush becomes the outback. Push on for another 2,000 miles or so and eventually you come to bush again, and then a city, and then the sea. And that’s Australia.” Well, that’s Australia according to Bryson’s magnificently simplified model!

Some of the most engaging sections of the book are borne out of the in-depth research undertaken into how the native Aborigines have been treated by white men over the years. Even today, he notes, they seem to be invisible to whites: an astonishingly disturbing observation.

Other absorbing sections of Down Under include those about how rabbits bred and bred and bred from just 24 rabbits to overrun the entire country in a remarkably short space of time. In spite of the myxomatosis virus killing the majority of bunnies when the situation became so bad that the virus HAD TO BE unleashed, today Australia’s rabbit numbers are back up to 300 million and climbing fast.” The history of how Australia was conquered is also told with relish; in doing so Bryson naturally relates Captain James Cook’s epic sailing journeys.
This book was published in 2000 and since then Bill has thrust his Short History of Nearly Everything into the fray of top-notch writing.Whatever he may be writing about, Bill always assumes the air of your favourite schoolteacher. His sense of humour is almost unparalleled in the realm of modern-day travel-writing (even if some spurts of his sarcasm might fleetingly offend some people to subtle degrees), and it is matched only by his rampant enthusiasm for going new places in pursuit of broadening his remarkable knowledge and life experience.

Bill Bryson… the world salutes you, the true Wizard of Oz.

ISBN 0-385-40817-X

(First published in 2000 by Doubleday)

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