Aussie observations – Review of “In a Sunburned Country”


I just finished reading another great book by my favorite author, Bill Bryson. This one is entitled In a Sunburned Country and is about his travels across Australia.  As usual it is full of funny stories, fascinating facts, general observations, and Mr. Bryson’s unique perspective on things in general.



My own interest in the land down under began in grade school when I was assigned to write a report on the duck-billed platypus. Ever since, I have wanted to travel there and “nearby” New Zealand. Until I have the opportunity, Mr. Bryson’s book will have to serve as my mental picture of the nation and as an excellent resource.

As an urban planner I found Mr. Bryson’s descriptions of the Australian cities to be very enlightening. I think it is very important for us to be open to other perspectives on urban planning, positive or not. We certainly are not gifted with the magic crystal ball of of all good planning ideas.

From photographs seen in other publications or images on television and on the internet, Australian appear to be vibrant, scenic, clean, and delightful. I must admit that Perth, Melbourne, and Sydney have intrigued me the most, but each appears to have its own unique attributes. So, I was looking forward to reading Mr. Bryson’s observations and viewpoints about each of them. He also discusses a number of smaller cities and towns, but in this post I will just stick with the cities most of us are familiar with and know fairly well. My only disappointment was little reference to Brisbane in the book.

Here are just a few examples of Mr. Bryson’s observations about individual Australian cities and urban areas.


Whereas Canberra is a park, Adelaide is merely full of them. (page 117)

…central Adelaide forms a large, plump, somewhat irregular figure-of-eight, with parks creating the figure and the two inner halves of the  city filling the holes. It works awfully well. (page 117)

Alice Springs

…a grid of ruler-straight streets set like an enormous helipad on a plain beside the golden slopes of the MacDonnell Ranges. (page 249)

It’s crazy really. A community that was once famous for being remote now attracts thousands of visitors who come to see how remote it no longer is. (page  249)

Actually, it is Anywhere, Planet Earth. On our way into town we passed strip malls, car dealerships, McDonald’s, Kentucky Fried Chicken outlets, banks, and gas stations. (page 250)


Although Canberra is now the sixth largest metropolis in the nation and remains one of the most important planned communities on earth, it remains Australia’s greatest obscurity. (page 86)

It‘s a very strange city, in that it’s really not a city at all, but rather an extremely large park with a city hidden in it. (page 87)

In Canberra you have the sense of being in a very large green space you cannot quite ever find your way out of. (page 117)


Darwin is in the steamy heart of the tropics, which in my mind imposes certain stylistic requirements – white buildings with verandas, louvered windows, potted palms, lazy ceiling fans, cool drinks in tall glasses presented by obsequious houseboys, men in white suits and Panama hats, women in floral-print cotton dresses,a little mah-jongg to pass the sultry afternoon, Sydney Longstreet and Peter Lorre in evidence somewhere looking hot and shifty. Anything that falls short of these simple ideals will always leave me disappointed, and Darwin failed in every respect. (page 229)


Because my first exposure was to Melbourne, I formed a certain slavish attachment to the place. I still find it terribly exciting to arrive in Melbourne – not an emotion you will hear expressed often, but there you are – and driving now through the glossy high-rises of its central business district had something of the feeling of a homecoming. (page 147)

A generation ago, international companies routinely chose Melbourne for their Australian headquarters; today over two-thirds opt for Sydney. But far more galling to a city that has always viewed Sydney as having the intellectual vibrancy of , let us say, daytime television, Melbourne has had to watch as Sydney has appropriated chunks of its cultural preeminence…(page 148) [sounds very similar to the role reversal that has taken place during the past three decades or so between Montreal and Toronto].


Perth is a lovely city and one of my favorites in Australia. (page 275)

Perth has glorious weather – the kind that sets the postman to whistling and puts a spring in the step of delivery people. (page 276)

You will never see bluer city skies or purer sunlight bouncing off skyscrapers than here. (page 276)

Surfers Paradise

Today Surfers Paradise is famous, while its neighboring resort communities – Broadbeach, Currumbin, Tugun, Kirra, Bilinga – are scarcely known outside Queensland. It hardly matters because they have coalesced into a single unsightly sprawl stretching for thirty miles…This is Australia’s Florida. (page 187)

…but Surfers Paradise was mostly just a succession of stores selling the same stuff – painted boomerangs and didgeridoos, cuddly toy koalas and kangaroos, postcards and souvenir books, rack upon rack of T-shirts. (page 199)


The consequence of this wandering nature [of Sydney Harbour] is that one moment you are walking beside a tiny sheltered cove that seems miles from anywhere, and the next you round a headland to find an open expanse of water with the Opera House and Harbour Bridge and downtown skyscrapers gleaming in airy sunshine and holding center stage. It is endlessly and unbelievably beguiling. (page 60)

Hunter’s Hill was worth every steaming step – a lovely hidden borough of plump stone mansions, pretty cottages, and picturesque clustered shops of an often impressive venerability. There was a small but splindid town hall dating from 1860 and a chemist’s shop that had been in business aince 1890, which must be a record in Australia.  every garden was a treasure and somewhere in almost every backdrop lurked a glimpse of harbor view. I could have not been more charmed. (page 60)

Don’t let my lengthy discussion on the urban aspects of Australia fool you, though. In a Sunburned Country is full of witty and hilarious tales, kind people, historical antidotes, natural and scenic wonders, and a whole lot of discussion on the dangers lurking about from sharks, to riptides, to crocs, to venomous spiders and snakes, to knife-like plants. All in all, the book is a fascinating read and gives one a clear picture of what the land down under is all about.
This entry was posted in architecture, book reviews, cities, civics, culture, density, diversity, environment, history, land use, new urbanism, placemaking, planning, skylines, spatial design, sprawl, tourism, transportation, urban planning, walking and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Aussie observations – Review of “In a Sunburned Country”

  1. George McKibbon says:

    I spent time in New Zealand a year ago last November. An enchanting country that I want to visit again as well as Australia.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.