Tuesday, October 15, 2002

"The loss is entirely ours" (or: The story about Australia)
I recently finished Bill Bryson's book "Down under" about his travels through Australia. It's not common travel literature but gives insight into unknown stories about this huge continent. The most puzzling experience was that we really don't know anything about this place.

Culture: Australians are the biggest gamblers on the planet. The country has less than 1 per cent of the world's population but more than 20 per cent of its slot machines. Theyspent over 2000 Australian Dollars per head a year for various games of chance (page 34)

Australia's imported animals: Did you know that out of Thomas Austin's 24 imported rabbits in 1859 had become millions which almost entirely overrun Autralian territory, changing the green landscape characterized by lush groves and emu bush into deserts? In the 1960 they tried to kill them all with a special virus which showed to be succesfull in 99.9 per cent of the cases. It took a while for things to get rolling, but the surviving one rabbit in a thousand was enough to bring Australias rabbit numbers back to over 300 million today, climbing fast. The damage to the landscape, much of it irreversible, goes on (page 152).
But rabbits aren't the only imported animals. For examples camels were imported for use of the building of the railway between Adelaide and Alice Springs. "Today 100,000 of them roam the central and western deserts. [...] There are so many introduced species, in fact, that the red kangaroo, once the largest animal on the continent, is now only the thirteenth biggest" (page 185).

Australia's gigantism: "So unyielding is the land that ranches have to be vast to support a single operation; the largest of them, at a place called Anna Creek, is bigger than Belgium" (page 323). Or take the "School of the Air" in Alice Springs. "It has a catchment area of 468,000 square miles - that is an area roughly twice the size of France - the Alice Springs school has just 140 pupils spread between kindergarten and the early teens. (pages 347-348).

Unknown secrets: Australia is not just vast in size, but also rich in natural wonders which haven't even been discovered. Take this example: In 1989 in Sydney, "scientists found an entirely new species of tree called Allocasuarina portensis. People had been living around these trees for 200 years, but because they weren't numerous - just ten haven been found - no one had noticed them before" (page 360). If you even find such wonders within the biggest cities, what about the remote territories? There are thousands of such stories. Another funny one is about Gerard Krefft who caught two very rare pig-footed bandicoots on an expedition in the nineteenth century. On the way back home he grew so hungry that he ate them, destroying, as far as anyone can tell, the last of the species (page 341).

Bryson travelled most of the country. He comes up with a very pointing wordplay: "What a preposterously outsized country this was. But that is of course the thing about Australia - that there is such a lot to find in it, but such a lot of it to find it in" (page 393). His conclusion about the country: "Australia is mostly empty and a long way away. Its population is small and its role in the world consequently peripheral. It doesn't have coups, recklessly overfish, arm disagreeable despots, grow coca in provocative quantities or throw its weight around in a brash and unseemly manner. It is stable and peaceful and good. It doesn't need watching, and so we don't. But I will tell you this: the loss is entirely ours" (page 394).

Well, I agree and I am happy to have chosen this book. It's a part of the world we should at least know something about. And I'm sure, one day I'll travel there to see it on my own. The pages refer to the UK paperback edition from 2001.

Bill Bryson: Down Under, 2000
Deutsche Ausgabe: "Frühstück mit Kängurus"

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