In a Sunburned Country (2000) is Bill Bryson’s personal account of his time traveling around Australia. With stopovers in major cities, out-of-the-way mining towns and treks through the vast wilderness, it’s a travelogue packed with insights into the history, culture and wildlife of this unique nation.
What do you really know about Australia? If you’re not from “down under,” probably not a lot. It’s a massive country that leaves a comparatively small footprint in the global consciousness. Even the most bizarre events there barely make international news.
Take the seismic activity that baffled experts in 1993.
The disturbances took place in the Great Victoria Desert. An earthquake was ruled out, which left a couple of possibilities. It couldn’t have been a meteorite strike as there wasn’t a crater, and the activity was too intense to be blamed on a mining accident. In the end, the tremors were chalked up as an unsolvable mystery.
Later, in 1995, the Japanese Aum Shinrikyo cult achieved notoriety after killing 12 commuters in a nerve gas attack on the Tokyo subway. Subsequent investigations turned up a massive 500,000-acre property owned by the group near the site of the previously unexplained seismic activity.
When the authorities investigated, they found a sophisticated laboratory and evidence that members of the group had been mining uranium. More disturbingly still, the group was known to have nuclear engineers among its members. Apparently, its aim of putting an end to the world included secret bomb tests in the desert!
How did the world respond to this shocking news? The New York Times ran just one story, in 1997, four years after the actual event. That’s a pretty good snapshot of the kind of place Australia is – a country so vast that covert nuclear bomb tests can go unnoticed for years!
There are hundreds of other fascinating stories waiting to be discovered in Australia, and that alone makes it worth exploring. You can also see that in its nature. Around 80 percent of all animal and plant life is native to the continent, and given that it’s such a hostile, hot and flat environment, there’s a stunning abundance of it.
But the country’s vastness makes an exact headcount difficult. It’s estimated there could be around 100,000 species of insects, but the true number could be double that. A good 30 percent of all insects are entirely unknown, while for spiders the number is closer to 80 percent!