Reading: Bryson, “Walking around Sydney”

Bill Bryson [b. 1951]

Bill Bryson is an American author known for his humorous and insightful books, including many travel books. He has written The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town America (1990), The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way (1991), Notes from a Small Island (1997), A Short History of Nearly Everything (2004), and A Walk in the Woods (2006). In At Home (2011), he writes about the house in England where he and his wife live and about the history of houses in general. The following essay is from his book about Australia, In a Sunburned Country (2001).

Walking around Sydney

I noticed on the map what appeared to be a worthwhile shortcut through a place called Tennyson Park.

I followed a side road down a residential street and about halfway along cane to the entrance to the park. A wooden sign announced that what lay beyond was preserved bushland and politely requested users not to stray from the path. Well, this seemed a splendid notion—an expanse of native bush in the heart of a great city—and I ventured in eagerly. I don’t know what image “bush” conjures up in your mind, but this was not the brown and semi-barren tract I would have expected, but a wooded glade with sun-dappled path and tinkling brook. It appeared to be scarcely used—every few yards I would have to duck under or walk around big spiderwebs strung across the path—which lent the whole enterprise the sense of a lucky discovery.

I guessed it would take about twenty minutes to cut through the park—or the reserve, as Australians call these things—and I was probably about halfway along when from an indeterminate distance off to the right there came the bark of a dog, tentative and experimental, as if to say, “Who’s that?” It wasn’t very close or intimidating, but it was clearly the bark of a big dog. Something in its timbre said: meat eater, black, very big, not too many generations removed from wolf. Almost in the same instant it was joined by the bark of a companion dog, also big, and this bark was decidedly less experimental. This bark said, “Red alert! Trespasser on our territory!” Within a minute they had worked themselves up into a considerable frenzy.

Nervously I quickened my pace. Dogs don’t like me. It is a simple law of the universe, like gravity. I am not exaggerating when I say that I have never passed a dog that didn’t act as it if thought I was about to take its Alpo [brand of dog food]. Dogs that have not moved from the sofa in years will, at the sniff of me passing outside, rise in fury and hurl themselves at shut windows. I have seen tiny dogs, no bigger than a fluffy slipper, jerk little old ladies off their feet and drag them over open ground in a quest to get at my blood and sinew. Every dog on the face of the earth wants me dead.

And now here I was alone in an empty woods, which suddenly seemed very large and lonely, and two big and angry-sounding dogs had me in their sights. As I pushed on, two things became increasingly apparent: I was definitely the target and these dogs were not messing around. They were coming toward me, at some speed. Now the barking said, “We are going to have you, boy. You are dead meat. You are small, pulpy pieces.” You will note the absence of exclamation marks. Their barks were no longer tinged with lust and frenzy. They were statements of cold intent. “We know where you are,” they said. “You cannot make it to the edge of the woods. We will be with you shortly. Somebody call forensic.”

Casting worried glances at the foliage, I began to trot and then to run. It was now time to consider what I would do if the dogs burst onto the path. I picked up a rock for defense, then discarded it a few yards further on for a stick that was lying across the path. The stick was ludicrously outsized—it must have been twelve feet long—and so rotted that it fell in half just from being picked up. As I ran, it lost another half, and another, until finally it was no more than a soft spongy stub—it would have been like defending myself with a loaf of bread—so I threw it down and picked up a big jagged rock in each hand, and quickened my pace yet again. The dogs now seemed to be moving parallel to me, as if they couldn’t find a way through, but at a distance of no more than forty or fifty yards. They were furious. My unease expanded, and I began to run a little faster.

In my stumbling haste, I rounded a bend too fast and ran headlong into a giant spider web. It fell over me like a collapsing parachute. Ululating [wailing] in dismay, I tore at the cobweb, but with rocks in my hands only succeeded in banging myself in the forehead. In a small, lucid corner of my brain I remember thinking, “This is really very unfair.” Somewhere else was the thought: “You are going to be the first person in history to die in the bush in the middle of a city, you poor, sad schlubb.” All the rest was icy terror.

And so I trotted along, wretched and whimpering, until I rounded a bend and found, with another small and disbelieving wail, that the path abruptly terminated. Before me stood nothing but an impenetrable tangle—a wall of it. I looked around astounded and appalled. In my panic—doubtless while I was scraping the cobwebs from my brow with the aid of lumps of granite—I had evidently taken a wrong turn. In any case, there was no way forward and nothing behind but a narrow path leading back in the direction of two surging streaks of malice. Glancing around in desperation, I saw with unconfined joy, at the top of a twenty-foot rise, a corner of a rotary clothesline. There was a home up there! I had reached the edge of the park, albeit from an unconventional direction. No matter. There was a civilized world up there. Safety! I scrambled up the hill as fast as my plump little pins would carry me—the dogs were very close now—snagging myself on thorns, inhaling cobwebs, straining with every molecule of my being not to become a headline that said, “Police find writer’s torso; head still missing.”

At the top of the hill stood a brick wall perhaps six feel high. Grunting extravagantly, I hauled myself onto its flat summit and dropped down on the other side. The transformation was immediate, the relief sublime. I was back in the known world, in someone’s much-loved backyard.


Bill Bryson. “Walking Around Sydney” from In a Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson. Copyright © 2000 by Bill Bryson. Used by permission of the author and Broadway Books, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. Any third party use of this material, outside of this publication, is prohibited. Interested parties must apply directly to Random House LLC for permission.