My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I first met Roff Smith in Northwestern Australia, as he was in the middle of his bike trip around the continent. Not in person, of course. I read one of his National Geographic articles among some back issues shelved at my folks’ house. But I recently finished Bryson’s In a Sunburned Country, and Bryson was right: this was an incredible place that I needed to learn more about. I recalled Smith’s articles and wondered if they were collected into a book. A bit of searching, an interlibrary loan, and I was off.
Roff’s book documents his 10,000-mile biking odyssey around the perimeter of Australia. Departing from Sydney, he travels north up the coast and proceeds to bike across every Australian state (and one territory), including Tasmania. Smith’s prose is that of a reporter, documenting his travels and the places through which he passes. His account primarily focuses on the people though– from ranchers to campers to Catholic missionaries. He sees the land on a level that makes Bryson’s account seem penned by a funny fat man breezing through the country in a car. But Bryson is the better writer, and Smith (perhaps because he’s pedaling the better part of 100 miles each day) doesn’t spend the time going into the natural history and accounts of past explorers that make Bryson’s work such fascinating read. If you want an eye-level account of the aching emptiness of much of Western Australia though, as well as snapshots into the life of those who make such out-of-the-way places home, Smith’s account is a good place to start.
My only complaint (besides the terrible puns he uses as chapter headings) is that because the account we get of the landscape is tied to this single bicycle expedition, by the time he’s reached Southern Australia he’s tired and sick and pushing for home. I would have liked to have spent more time here. Also, there’s a laconic nature to the descriptions. There are lots of spots on his maps he breezes through, and the only picture we get of them is what he ate, drank, and the room he slept in. After nine months and 10,000 miles, I would liked to have read more.
Still though, I came away from this book with lots of other leads of classical accounts of travel in the Outback to check out, but the main thing I took away?
I need to get a bicycle like that.