Down Under by Bill Bryson

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Last month I decided to take part in Australian Reading Month for November (original post). I was feeling optimistic because my friend had kindly bought me some Australian based books for my birthday and I had booked a trip for next July, so I was keen to start reading. What I failed to anticipate was how manic the start of November was going to be; I returned to school after half term and I moved to a new flat. Unfortunately this has left me with little time for reading and I think the fact I had chosen to read a non-fiction made it all slightly harder.

I have vague recollections of Bill Bryson books appearing at some point in my teenage years, however I remember avidly avoiding them, in the same way I avoid travel shows, travel agent brochures and any other type of holiday related parapanellia. Jealousy. Yes, I will readily attempt I am subject to severe green eyed envy with anything related to venturing abroad. For such a long time the thought of travelling never really seemed something I could afford to do. I grew up with a dad who views money and education as everything. Why go travelling when you can save that money and buy a house type attitude. Materialistic gain is everything and you are not successful until you have a big house, flashy car and wide screen TV. In hindsight it was this attitude that most likely stopped me from taking a gap year. As I have gotten older and more independent, as my family unit has changed (for the better) and as I have come to the realisation that to afford a deposit for a house I would most likely have to sell a kidney or live off beans for the next ten years, I have come to the wonderful epiphany of f**k it! Why shouldn’t I travel? I have a good job and income, very few responsibilities and why not spend my money on something exciting and adventurous. In this new frame of mind I am happy to read Bill Bryson’s books on travelling distant lands and I can read Lonely Planet guides without wanting to throw them out of the window and resorting to an ‘it’s not fair’ child like tantrum.

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Back to Bryson. I read Notes From a Small Island a few years ago; I could deal with this as it is a book about Great Britain so I can hardly be jealous of travelling around the country I live in. I already had some experience of Bryson’s witty writing style and my friend gave me Down Under as part of my Australian reading birthday present so I thought this would be the ideal place to start. I have read very little travel writing so I’m afraid I have nothing to compare Bryson to, but his writing is welcoming and full of interesting facts and places to visit. He has a certain ability to sum up the character of a nation and to describe these in a lovable way. You genuinely feel that he loves travelling and relishes the opportunity to meet a wide and varied selection of people. His enthusiasm for his travels is almost infectious and makes me wish I could write as well, especially as I am currently toying with the idea of a travel blog focused on my big adventure.

I started my reading by turning down the corners of pages with interesting facts, but the more I read the more I realised I would probably end up turning down every page in the book. I do feel as though reading this book has made me much more educated on Australia, perhaps some of the key things I learnt are:
1. 80% of all that lives in Australia only exists there.
2. You should swim across a rip tide.
3. There are giant sculptures of random things, such as bananas and lobsters, in the Outback just waiting to be discovered.
4. The capital city, Canberra, is just over 100 years old.
5. The majority of the Outback has never been officially surveyed.
6. Aboriginal children were taken from their families in an attempt to ‘integrate’ them with the White people and this was happening as recently as 30 years ago.
7. And perhaps the scariest thing is that the majority of animals, insects and ocean life will want to kill me. For example, Bryson recalls a tale of a man stung by a Box Jellyfish who is in so much pain he screams even though he is unconscious. Or the tale of a shark captured and kept at an aquarium, swam around for a few days and then spat out a human arm.

Despite this last and slightly worrying fact, I feel surprisingly comforted. I am travelling alone on my adventure and Bryson has reassured me that I can do this on my own. Yes, he is a middle aged man who has travelled extensively and I am a novice, but his description of the country and Australians in general has made me realise I can do this. I’m sure it will be scary at times, but I have no intention of venturing to the Outback -even though now I’m thinking should I try to get to Uluru – and I feel prepared for anything that could attack me ha! So it is fair to say that reading Down Under has helped to quiet some of my worries, but maybe I won’t be lending it to my mum anytime soon; she is 100% supportive of my plans, but that might change if she thinks I could stray into the path of a crocodile or a box jellyfish at any moment.

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