In a Sunburned Country | Bill Bryson

Summary of: In a Sunburned Country
By: Bill Bryson


Australia, a country so vast that its secrets often go unnoticed, invites you on an exceptional journey through Bill Bryson’s ‘In a Sunburned Country.’ Discover a land rich in history and biodiversity, from the Great Victoria Desert to cities like Sydney and Canberra. This book summary delves into Australia’s mesmerizing stories: from the enigma of seismic activities linked to the Aum Shinrikyo cult to its astonishing flora and fauna. Traverse the outback, experience cities that hide their convict origins, and explore Australia’s gold-mining past as Bryson covers the breadth of this sunburned country.

Australia’s Secret Nuclear Bomb Tests

Discover the mystery behind the seismic activity in Australia’s Great Victoria Desert and how it led to the discovery of a cult’s secret uranium mining and bomb testing. Despite such an astounding revelation, the incident never gained worldwide attention, reflecting Australia’s vastness. This huge country, though, has more than covert activities, with its incredible diversity of animal and plant life that makes it a place worth exploring.

From Sydney to Perth

Bryson’s journey from Sydney to Perth accompanied by photographer Trevor Ray Hart covers 2,720 miles and crosses three states of Australia, New South Wales, South Australia and Western Australia. Although Bryson and Hart encountered little natural life and experienced an inhospitable environment, they stopped off at White Cliffs, a settlement with a population of only 80 people. The opal store in White Cliffs reminds us of its boomtown past when it had over 4,500 residents. The Nullarbor Plain, which Bryson and Hart crossed, is a massive, desolate landscape with red soil stretching hundreds of miles in every direction.

Discovering Australia

Australia was home to the indigenous peoples of Aborigines for 45,000 to 60,000 years before European explorers stumbled upon the continent. Despite several European explorers claiming to discover Australia, the real credit goes to British navigator and explorer James Cook, who arrived in 1770 aboard the HMS Endeavour. Cook was responsible for rounding New Zealand, collecting around 30,000 plant specimens, and claiming the continent for Great Britain. Prior to this, the Dutch seafarer, Abel Tasman, and Spanish explorer, Luís Vaez de Torres, missed sighting the massive landmass of Australia by threading the needle through its surrounding waters. The presence of a possible European landing party on Carronade Island suggests earlier European explorers in Australia before Cook, but little is known about them.

Australia: The Birth of a Penal Colony

After losing its American colonies in 1783, Britain decided to send thousands of convicts and working-class Brits to Australia to build a new colony. The First Fleet, consisting of eleven ships, transported around 1,500 convicts to Botany Bay in May 1787. However, the mismatch between reality and Cook’s lush descriptions was overwhelming. The ships lacked essential equipment and skilled craftsmen for building and tilling. Vital know-how was also missing for constructing the intended government farm. Eventually, the farm was built, but it would have been considerably easier if the ships’ “passengers” had been chosen more wisely!

Sydney’s Denial of its Dark Origins

In his exploration of Sydney, Bill Bryson was surprised by the city’s denial of its convict past. Despite being founded as a prison camp in 1788, there are no monuments or direct mentions of the First Fleet’s crew and passengers. This culture of denial is part of a much wider phenomenon in Australia and has resulted in the erasure of the country’s history from school curriculums. Nonetheless, Bryson enjoyed his time in Sydney, particularly admiring the impressive feat of engineering that is the Harbour Bridge and the charming old-world ferries in the harbor.

The Australian Gold Rush and the Birth of a Nation

The Australian gold rush of the 1850s turned the country into a land of opportunity. The gold rush brought a massive influx of people, which also laid the foundation for the future federation and birth of a nation. This summary explores these events, as well as Canberra, the country’s new capital.

Australia’s gold rush began when a young Sydneysider, Edward Hargraves, kicked off the first gold rush after his return from California. In just ten years, some 600,000 new arrivals landed in the country, doubling its population virtually overnight. The discovery of gold also changed the way the British thought about their colony. Criminals were no longer sent to Australia as punishment, but as an opportunity to seek their fortunes.

The gold rush not only changed individuals’ fortunes, it also changed those of the entire country. Talks on whether to join all previously separate six colonies truly began in 1891. The colonies were self-sufficient and managed their own taxation systems, and also set their own clocks. This gave rise to many inconveniences, such as having to pay as much import duty on beer from neighboring New South Wales as on European beer. In 1901, these talks culminated in a deal that led to the birth of a new nation – the Commonwealth of Australia.

After exploring the gold rush and its effects on the nation, the summary shifts to the country’s capital, Canberra. As a relatively new capital, Canberra is a planned city built to serve as a compromise between Sydney and Melbourne. The city boasts beautiful scenery and landmarks such as the parliament house and war memorial.

From the 1850s gold rush to the birth of the Commonwealth of Australia and Canberra, this summary beautifully captures these historic events and their impact on the country.

Canberra – Australia’s Remote Capital City

Australia decided to build a new capital city instead of choosing between Melbourne and Sydney. The chosen site was a rural area in New South Wales, where Canberra was constructed. Despite being the sixth largest city in Australia, it is still considered remote and isolated because it is located 40 miles away from the Hume Highway that connects Sydney and Melbourne. Canberrra is mostly consisted of straight lines and green spaces with few proper restaurants or pubs. Even former Australian prime minister John Howard decided to live in Sydney instead of the deserted city.

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