Reader's Digest Asia Pacific
THE EASY OUTBACK
For Parkes, NSW, a famous ‘Dish’ and a rock legend have kept it on the map.
John Sarkissian can clearly remember that moment 30 years ago. He was 14 years old and as his maths teacher droned on about quadratic equations, he sat gazing at the picture on the cover of his textbook. “I don’t remember the textbook’s name,” Sarkissian admits. “But the picture was of the Commonwealth
Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) Parkes Observatory.” I’d love to work there one day, Sarkissian thought. Only after becoming a resident scientist in 1996 at the observatory, located in the New South Wales town of Parkes, did he remember his boyhood fantasy.
“It was a dream that came true – to think I ended up working here,” laughs the operations scientist as he sits at a computer screen, listening to faint signals from outer space in a three-storey building housing astronomers and astrophysicists. Outside on the roof, directly above the room Sarkissian calls his office, sits a giant 64-metre-diameter radio telescope, universally known as ‘the Dish’.
Although built in 1961, the telescope has been frequently upgraded. “It’s still at the cutting-edge of astronomical research and is now 10,000 times more sensitive than when built,” Sarkissian tells me.
The telescope was at the heart of a film, released in 2000, starring actor Sam Neill. Called The Dish, it told the story of the observatory’s crucial part in relaying sound and pictures of the
Apollo 11 manned moon landing in 1969. “That’s what made ‘the Dish’ famous but it’s remained at the forefront of international astronomy ever since,” says Sarkissian. “Sometimes it’s like the United Nations here with scientific visitors from all over the world. What’s more, we’ve become a major tourist attraction.” The film also helped put Parkes back on the map.
Logging more than 100,000 visitors a year, the CSIRO Parkes Observatory – positioned 20 kilometres north of the town in a picturesque farmland setting – is a major tourist destination. Besides gaping at and photographing the enormous ‘dish’ itself, visitors can wander through a museum where black-and-white moon landing films screen on a continuous loop and 3D films on astronomy – specifically, the moon landing – are shown.
Black-and-white reels of the 1960s space race – and the crucial role of the Dish in helping get the three NASA astronauts to the moon and safely back to Earth – reveal a decade of rapid change and success.
The past has helped transform the local economy of Parkes, giving it an enviable tourist industry that not only reaches out to the celestial stars – but also to one of the biggest stars of rock ‘n’ roll history – Elvis Presley.
Since 1993, Parkes has hosted an annual Elvis Festival on the second weekend in January, coinciding with Elvis’s birthday on January 8. Today, Elvis is as synonymous with Parkes as its famous Dish. The five-day fiesta of carnivals, concerts and parades attracts Elvis enthusiasts from around Australia and the world, swelling the town’s population of a little over 15,000 to upwards of 40,000. Around 300 Elvis Presley impersonators come to town, ranging from the fantastic to the awful. Black wigs and white satin suits – some owned, some rented – make many an impersonator think he really is Elvis, even if only briefly.
A five-minute drive up a steep road winding out of Parkes leads to Memorial Hill, a much-visited tourist spot where a 33-metre Shrine of Remembrance, commemorating Australian war dead, overlooks the regional hub and wheat-and-wool country beyond.
Wheat and wool remain mainstays of the local economy. But sometime during the 1980s, district leaders realised there was potential for the region to develop alternatives to agriculture, that this slab of outback couldn’t ride the sheep’s back forever. Working from the simple premise that Parkes had great potential as a holiday destination – particularly for the domestic traveller keen to explore what rural Australia had to offer – they turned their attention to tourism, with impressive results. Parkes can boast its Dish, Elvis festival, as well as its grand old buildings – former banks or libraries have been reborn as restaurants, coffee shops, other emporia and even
THE FIVE-DAY FIESTA OF CARNIVALS, CONCERTS AND PARADES ATTRACTS ELVIS ENTHUSIASTS FROM AROUND THE WORLD
boutique hotels. Today, revenue from tourism and hospitality is worth $56 million to the Parkes Shire economy.
Tourism has helped create employment and arrested decline. Boardedup businesses are few. In June 2016, 15,328 people lived in Parkes. The population has been rising over the previous decade. It was 14,592 in 2011. It hasn’t been a dramatic increase but growth has been steady.
Between the town and Memorial Hill, the road passes the recently
refurbished Hotel Gracelands, one of the leading lodgings in Parkes. This upscale Elvis-themed hotel is owned by diehard fans Bob and Anne Steel. The couple founded the festival after mulling over ways to attract more visitors during the long, hot summer days of January, when hotel occupancies plummeted and the whole town suffered. “We needed something to bring people here,” said Bob. Their idea has turned into a huge success – with some estimates placing the value of the festival at around $16 million. The Steels remain volunteer organisers.
“WE DIDN’T WANT TO ROUGH IT. SO WE PICKED PARKES AND EXPLORED FROM THERE. IT’S BEEN EASY OUTBACK AND WE’VE LOVED IT”
Presley is a Parkes passion. Local resident Elvis Lennox, who changed his name from Steve by deed poll, runs a small museum of Elvis memorabilia open year-round. Also open throughout the year is the King’s Castle Elvis Exhibit, a much larger joint venture between Parkes Shire Council, the local authority and former Wiggle Greg Page. Page holds the international record for owning the fourth-largest collection of Elvis memorabilia. Much of his collection is on permanent loan to King’s Castle. Visitors amble between exhibits that include performance outfits (even a Santa Claus costume the singer once wore), 78 rpm records formerly owned by Elvis, and letters and books.
While Elvis and the Dish have boosted my enthusiasm, a lesserknown attraction 102 kilometres ‘up the road’ awaits. Lake Cowal is the largest inland lake in New South Wales. Lake Cowal is ‘ephemeral’, meaning that it’s sometimes there and sometimes not. Blame this bizarre phenomenon on the weather. In times of plenty, water flows in from the Lachlan River. However, if it doesn’t rain for three years, the lake dries up, as it last did in 2014, says Mal Carnegie, the Lake Cowal Foundation projects manager. Lake Cowal is presently at its maximum size, a whopping 21 km long and up to 9.5 km wide. Even at its deepest, this shallow lake bottoms out at barely 2.5 m.
A keen birdwatcher, Carnegie has found that rare water birds have returned to the lake, making it their home. I watch a flock of magpie geese, about 20 in all, skim barely a metre above the water. Carnegie has recorded 277 species in the past decade, including silver gulls, black ducks, great egrets and royal spoonbills.
Then there’s tiny Trundle (55 km north-west of Parkes), home to only 666 people. There’s not much traffic: I stand in the middle of its 60-m-wide
main street for a full five minutes while chatting with a local and not a single vehicle passes by.
Trundle’s most important event is its annual ABBA Festival, now in its sixth year. Founders and organisers Gary and Ruth Crowley acknowledge Parkes’s bigger Elvis Festival triggered the idea. Held each May, the festival attracted around 5000 people last year. Over a pie, chips and beer in the Trundle Hotel’s bar, I chat to two Melbourne couples travelling together. One of the four told me they’d toured a museum stuffed with Elvis memorabilia, gawked at the Dish then enjoyed a pub meal
in Trundle. “We craved experiencing the outback,” she said. “But we didn’t want to rough it. So we picked Parkes and explored from there. It’s been easy outback and we’ve loved it.”
It’s dark when I drive back to Parkes. As if on cue, a kangaroo hops across the road. The sky is clear and filled with stars. It’s an astronomer’s sky. I think of my time with scientist John Sarkissian. “People often ask me where I’ll go next,” he told me. “But I can’t imagine moving. I love Parkes. I look up at the clear night sky and know immediately that I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.”