“Down Under” by Bill Bryson a book review

Having read Bill Bryson books before, I had been looking forward to reading “Down Under” for quite a while.   Seeing as the Australian international borders are still closed and I was recovering from surgery, now was the perfect time to cross it off the list.

If you’ve never read a Bill Bryson book before then you are missing out.  I think of him like that weird uncle you have – the one who tells great stories but you’re never really sure quite how embellished the stories are.  The thing I love about his books though, is that he always does a lot of background reading and research before his travels so you tend to learn plenty of random facts as well as being thoroughly entertained.

“Down Under” is, of course, no exception.  Being New Zealand born, I missed out on a lot of the Australian history that I assume Australian children are taught at school.  Whilst I’ve picked up plenty of info during my almost 13 years in Australia, I definitely learnt plenty reading this book.  I also found myself reminiscing about my various travels around Australia – especially the road trips.

Bryson actually wrote the book across at least two separate trips to Australia in the 1990s – one was a paid work trip in which he took the Indian Pacific train from Sydney to Perth and the other where he hired a car with a friend and did a strange sort of itinerary over a 2-3 week period.  In my humble opinion, neither was the ideal sort of itinerary. Had I been his travel agent, I would have made some strong recommendations against some of the choices he made such as planning to drive from Cairns to Cooktown in wet season (road closure prevented that part of the trip).  He also made the rookie error of trying to find a hotel when he arrived at Yulara/Uluru (an area notorious for booking out way in advance).

Nonetheless, “Down Under” is full of interesting facts, enthralling anecdotes and hilarious observations – almost all of which I have at some point thought myself while living in Australia.

The verse he made up to Waltzing Matilda alone on a long drive day with no radio station had me laughing out loud:

Forgetting that spoons stir hot liquids much better

The Swagman immersed his tool in his tea

And he sighed as he spied his old willy boiling

Now I can’t bugger you, so will you bugger me?

His ability to paint a picture with words of those funny little situations we all find ourselves in on our travels is unparalled.  And his witty repertoire of comebacks never actually said out loud are everything you wish you could say in a given situation.

I thoroughly enjoyed seeing Australia through Bill Bryson’s eyes.  We are a nation that to most of the world is so very far away and very rarely features on the news.  The wonder he experiences when he discovers another “hidden gem” or explains something to his readers that those of us who live here take for granted will make you smile.  His commentary regarding Indigenous people will make you think and may make you cry.  And his appreciation for this unique, treacherous, ancient land that we live in is contagious. He may even get you thinking about plants in a new light!

“Down Under” will definitely make you want to explore the Outback more – a great read!

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