Terra Australis Incognita

The Southern Unknown Land–that was how Australia was known (along with Botany Bay and New South Wales) collectively before some Scottish busybody (Governor Lachlan Macquarie) popularized the current name in the early nineteenth century. I knew that–but we know surprisingly little about Australia and Australians, except the fact of course that they have weird animals and even a weirder animal watcher.

So, I was surprised to find in a friend’s room a 300-page travel journal, written by Bill Bryson. I like Bill Bryson’s books but I couldn’t imagine why he (or my friend for that matter) would want to travel to Australia. Granted that they have great beaches and forests, so do a lot of other more hospitable places (it is just me but a place devoid of any poisonous creepycrawlies counts as a more hospitable place in my book). After a brief disagreement with my friend about the Ayers Rock (with him insisting upon the unpronounceable name of Uluru-Kata Tjuta–yes, some letters underlined no less), I opened Bryson’s book. 

It is called, “In a Sunburned Country”. It is excerpted here. It began with the usual Brysonian mumbo-jumbo about how little he knows about the place. Well, everything is funny and sightly amusing until this moment:

“[in 1997–that book was released in 1999, so a little outdated] scientists were seriously investigating the possibility that a mysterious seismic disturbance in the remote Australian outback almost four years earlier had been a nuclear explosion set off by members of the Japanese doomsday cult Aum Shinrikyo.” 

WTF? Someone set of an atom bomb in Australia and no one noticed it? Bryson continues: “Aum’s substantial holdings included a 500,000-acre desert property in Western Australia very near the site of the mystery event. There, authorities found a laboratory of unusual sophistication and focus, and evidence that cult members had been mining uranium. It separately emerged that Aum had recruited into its ranks two nuclear engineers from the former Soviet Union. The group’s avowed aim was the destruction of the world, and it appears that the event in the desert may have been a dry run for blowing up Tokyo.” 

I will probably buy the book for my summer reading (I can link the Amazon page of the book here, but I’d rather not, just because they won’t pay me) just to laugh at the Australians and the Japanese. But the, even after reading Bryson’s books on language, I still don’t understand why the Australians are plural and the Japanese not so–so I consider all my previous spendings on his books wasted.  

… and he comes from Des Moines, Iowa — which apart from being named after monks, also produced my college roommate (apparently they even share highschool alma mater) — which just proves my point that nothing important and nothing good come out of Iowa. 

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