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The Sydney Morning Herald

Feted attractions

Date: 11/07/1998
Words: 1679
          Publication: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: Travel
Page: 3
JAMES COCKINGTON hit the highways and discovered that big isn't always best when it comes to Australia's roadside wonders.

IF YOU'VE been driving along Australia's highways for a couple of days it doesn't take much to make you stop. A sign saying "museum" will do. Any sign. Attractions that a sane person would avoid at any cost suddenly have the appeal of the siren's song.

Fortunately most of Australia's highway towns are more than happy to take advantage of travellers suffering from terminal white line fever. While The Big Merinos of this world are hard to avoid, for me the more subtle attractions have more stopability - the likes of the Harley-Davidson carved out of wood, the Sydney Harbour Bridge constructed from matchsticks, the fruit shop run by an Elvis impersonator and the full-size replica of a submarine in a town several hundred kilometres from the ocean.

Often, these are simply the results of some well-meaning small-town fanatics hoping to share their personal obsession with Bazza and Shazza Public, and after six solid hours behind the wheel, who are we to argue? These, then, are the attractions for brain dead zombies and their bored-rigid passengers.

Two of Australia's weirdest roadside attractions are handily placed within kilometres of each other on the D'Aguilar Highway, about 100 kilometres north-west of Brisbane.

The Big Yowie was erected at Kilcoy when the town was suddenly struck by Yowiemania in 1979. A Yowie (the Australian equivalent of Big Foot, currently being commemorated in chocolate) was sighted at nearby Sandy Creek on December 28 by a local whose name is unrecorded, as is the hallucinogenic substance he was possibly taking at the time. Nevertheless, an unsubstantiated sighting was reason enough for Kilcoy to nominate itself Yowie capital of Australia and erect an impressive statue of the mythical creature in the local park.

These days Kilcoy's Yowie is a sad sight; minus an arm, a foot and its genitalia, which appear to have been removed with a chisel. Yowie souvenir spoons are available.

Just down the road at Woodford is Elvis Parsley's Grapeland, "fruit fit for the king", and possibly the only fruit emporium run by a genuine Elvis impersonator. I was told that Mr Parsley likes to perform in front of the shop on Saturday mornings, but sadly I haven't witnessed this phenomenon personally. The grapes were a disappointment.

Equally mind-blowing are the works of matchstick artist Len Hughes at Caloundra, just off Highway 1 on the Sunshine Coast. Highlight of the 500 exhibits at Len's World of Matchcraft Museum is a 5.28-metre-long model of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. A mere mortal would have stopped at the bridge, but not Len Hughes. He has added the 92 steam locos that were parked on the bridge on opening day to demonstrate its structural strength.

Brian Dumper likes to work with larger bits of wood at his Designer Offcuts Gallery at Cann River, a blink-and-miss-it town at the intersection of the Princes and Monaro highways. Don't be fooled by the sculpture of a dolphin outside; Dumper is no tree hugger. In fact, he's a former timber cutter with a finger missing to prove it. The must-see item at this gallery is a full-size replica of a Harley-Davidson made of wood. Even the coil springs and brake cables are timber. Highway-hardened bikers have been reduced to tears at the sight of the amazing wooden hog.

There are other Princes Highway attractions worthy of your inspection. At Bega, make a detour at Auckland Street (50 metres to the left if southbound) to see the old grey Massey Ferguson tractor balanced on the top of a 20-metre pole. It's a gimmick to lead customers to Plumb Motors, but if you don't want to buy a new or used tractor you can take a trick photo of your travelling companion with the floating tractor balanced on his or her finger.

Further south, at Nowa Nowa, see the superb selection of polished tree roots at Jack Ramsdell's Gallery. The late Jack Ramsdell was a local sawmiller with a passion for interestingly shaped roots. The highlight is a massive six-tonne root system called Sun Ra, displayed in a pyramid made of wooden roof tiles.

The old Hume Highway is a treasure trove if you can force your vehicle off the modern freeway into the almost-ghostly towns which once lined the route.

At Gundagai's Tourist Information Centre in Sheridan Street is Rusconi's Marble Masterpiece, a mini-cathedral made between 1910 and 1938 by local monumental mason Frank Rusconi (who also sculpted the dog that sits on the tucker box). Rusconi's masterpiece is constructed from 20,948 fragments of marble. If you won't take my word on this, start counting.

Further down Sheridan Street is the Niagara Cafe, scene of the most exciting event in Gundagai's recent history. Late one Saturday night in 1942, owner Jack Castrission was cleaning up in the kitchen when he heard a knock on the door. He shouted out that the cafe was closed but changed his mind when he saw that the would-be customer was the Prime Minister, John Curtin, along with three other heavyweight politicians. While Jack cooked steaks the four politicians, on their way back to Canberra, held an impromptu War Cabinet meeting in his kitchen. The plates and cutlery used by Curtin are displayed in the window of the cafe, which appears to have changed little since that night.

Holbrook is a small town 500 kilo-metres from Sydney on the Hume. It may be a long way from the sea, but the fact that the place was named after Commander N. D. Holbrook, who won a Victoria Cross for his daring underwater exploits, is a good enough reason for the town to run with the submarine theme.

It all began modestly enough in 1971 when a scale model of a B2 sub was erected in Holbrook Memorial Park. A statue of Commander Holbrook followed in 1982. Despite being mounted on an archway of bricks, a life-size sculpture can't hope to compete with a larger-than-life legend like the Big Ned Kelly, down the track at Glenrowan in Victoria. What Holbrook needed was something huge.

The town now has it, in the shape of a full-size replica of a modern submarine, the Otway, which sits half-submerged in concrete as if about to float across the highway. Travellers wondering what this sub is doing there have found an answer in the series of small slots along the hull, just large enough to allow drink bottles and chip packets to be slipped inside. Holbrook's sub is shaping up as the world's largest rubbish receptacle.

Travelling south, Mrs Stell's House in Miniature is in Wangaratta, Victoria, at the Visitors Information Centre on the corner of Tone Road and Handley Street. This is a one-sixth scale labour of love which took Gay Stell 10 years to make. She was 70 years old when she decided that her mission in life was to make a perfectly detailed model of a house circa 1960, complete with working light bulbs and original oil paintings on the wall.

Further south, the Benalla Costume Museum lies near the bridge over the Broken River in Mair Street. The must-stop, must-see exhibit here is Ned Kelly's cummerbund, an item of clothing more closely associated with Noel Coward than some butch bushranger. But this is what Ned was wearing under the tin suit on the day he was arrested, and there's blood on the cummerbund to prove it.

In stunning green silk with tasteful gold fringe, this item was collected at Glenrowan by the doctor who attended to Kelly's injuries. It was kept in the family until 1973 when it was donated to the museum.

Also on display is the world's longest whip (33.6 metres) but for me the best part is the impressive 1970s section, featuring denim platform boots, cork wedgies, corduroy hot pants and extravagantly flared pants suits. Benalla must have been one swinging town in 1973.

According to the graffiti-splattered information board, Cranbourne, about 50 kilometres south-east of Melbourne, was the site of one of Australia's most significant meteorite falls. The Cranbourne Meteorites are in the park at the intersection of the South Gippsland Highway and Camms Road, but you'd have to have come down in the last cosmic shower to believe that these 10 objects, suspended from a metal frame, are rocks from another solar system.

These are fakes, made from what appears to be fibreglass. The real meteorites are scattered around the world, locked away safely in museums in Bonn, Budapest, London and Vienna. A few are in Melbourne. While one of the Cranbourne meteorites looks large enough to cause some damage in a crowded car park, a couple of the rocks aren't much larger than the Quarter Pounders available from the McDonald's across the road.

While the bulk of roadside attractions are placed close to the fertile Melbourne-Sydney-Brisbane road system, there are treasures for those taking paths less travelled. Haven't had the pleasure myself, but I hear that in Albany, Western Australia, a local builder, Aldo Scamozzi, has created a replica of the Leaning Tower of Pisa with ordinary house bricks. Judging by the photos, Aldo's tower is smaller, cleaner and straighter. Should be well worth the trip.

* Do you know of an interesting Australian roadside attraction? Send a short (250-word maximum) description of the attraction, including its location, to our letters column for the amusement of other readers: Travel Letters, SMH, GPO Box 506, Sydney, NSW 2001.

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