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.