Monday musings on Australian literature: Travel writers on Australia

Art installation-restaurant, Teshima

Don't panic (or, art installation-cum-restaurant by Tobias Rehberger, Teshima)

Don’t panic, I told myself, the universe with still continue if I miss one week’s Monday musings. You see, after having been in Japan for over two weeks now, my thoughts have strayed rather far from Australian literature. But then, necessity being the mother of invention, an idea came to me. While I’ve been travelling, I’ve been dipping into travel literature about Japan, such as Isabella Bird‘s Unbeaten tracks in Japan (1880), Donald Ritchie’s The inland sea (2002 Ed.), and Alex Kerr‘s Lost Japan (1994). And that made me wonder about travellers to Australia and what they read.

This is not an area I’m expert in. After all, being Australian, why would I actively read up on travel literature about my own country unless, of course, I want to see what others are saying about us? And of course sometimes it’s good to hear what others are saying, and so I have read some writers on Australia (foreigners, of course, because travel literature is, by definition, written by those foreign to the shores they write about). I’ll share a couple I’ve read though it’s been a while since I read them, and I don’t have them in my backpack to refer to now. I would love to hear if you know of others, and whether you would or would not recommend them.

Bruce Chatwin‘s The songlines (1987)

Most of you have probably heard of Bruce Chatwin and his travel writing. I have his In Patagonia on my virtual TBR though when (or if) I’ll get to it is a good question. I did enjoy The songlines, which I read about twenty years ago now, though I recollect that as a travel book it’s a bit problematical. How much of it is nonfiction, how much fiction? But perhaps you could say that about much travel writing? Anyhow, I particularly liked his discussion of indigenous songlines in Australia, and his use of that as a motif for his own travels. I also enjoyed the “snippets” he presented in the second half of the book comprising various thoughts generated by his experiences… They reminded me a little of a “commonplace book”, albeit one composed primarily of one’s own thoughts.

Bill Bryson‘s In a sunburned country (or, Down under) (2000)

Bryson’s book was published under different titles in Australia and overseas I believe. It’s a hoot of a book really and not to be taken too seriously. For example, he made it sound as though Australians face dangers everyday – from snakes, spiders, crocodiles, sharks, and various poisonous sea creatures – but that, while being good for a laugh, is of course an exaggeration. These creatures and associated dangers do exist and most Australians will come across some of them in their lives but we are far more likely to die on the roads or from melanoma than we are from dangerous animals.

What Bryson does well though is, in his lighthearted manner, give you a flavour of the Australian character and what you can expect to see and enjoy on your Australian travels. (You can take this as great praise from one whose city he rather panned, but Aussies themselves pan it too so what’s new?)

These are two recent books, but there has been a long tradition of people writing about Australia, from the First Fleet on. One of the earliest is Watkin Tench’s A narrative of the expedition to Botany Bay (though my copy is titled 1788). It’s an insightful read but perhaps a little too specific to be of interest to the general traveller.

So, do you read travel literature (as opposed to travel guides) when you travel and/or do you read travel literature to armchair travel? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

8 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Travel writers on Australia

  1. I have Chatwin’s In Patagonia on my shelf and maybe even Songlines too but I have not yet read them. I haven’t read much travel literature but I always mean to. Most of my armchair traveling is through fiction set in “exotic” locales.

    • Same here really Stefanie. Whenever I read good travel literature, I want to read more but somehow it always gets pushed down theTBR pile. Andyet, good travel writers do more than write about place don’t they? The find the particular and the universal and tease out the differences between the two. I love that aspect oftravel – how different are we, and yet how similar too.

  2. I’ve read both those. Its a shame that travel writing masters like Colin Thubron or Paul Theroux haven’t yet attempted a book about Australia. Maybe its the thought of all those great distances between places, or perhaps its just not exotic enough compared with The Silk Road or Tibet.

  3. Sue, I read and loved In a Sunburnt Country, or whatever it was called here, a few years ago. It was funny. I enjoyed it very much, even with the something around every corner in Australia will bite you and kill you focus. I remember two things most distinctly- it mad me really want to visit Western Australia very much. He seemed to wax lyrical about WA more than most. And it made me discover the wonderful hologram video at the back of the Cowra visitors centre that I would never have found to this day if I hadn’t read it there first. You can certainly learn new things from visitors who approach your own backyard with a fresh and inquisitive eye.

    • Ha, Louise, I thought as I wrote this that if Louise reads it she’s sure to mention holograph woman so I decided not to – I’m glad you did and made the point. I agree that you can learn from hearing what visitors see and do, so probably should read those who travel to Australia more often.

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