Dog of an idea to bypass our great country towns
Like many struggling country towns, Gundagai needs a new slogan. Something like “Gundagai: Our burgers are better than Maccas”. Or “Gundagai: Worth turning off the highway for”. Or even “Forget the hound, come into town”? A lot has changed since the immortal dog guarding the tuckerbox five miles from Gundagai was cast in bronze in 1932. The track winding back to an oldfashioned shack is now a six-lane asphalt highway called the Hume.
And the dog that doesn’t even have a name is now a major tourist attraction, surrounded by fast food outlets and trinket shops. But none of this is doing Gundagai, a town that was once celebrated as one of Australia’s earliest river settlements, much good.
The problem is that most people stop to have a smooch with the pooch on the highway, grab a fast food fix, and don’t drive the extra 8km into town.
Thanks to multi-laned highways lined with international fast food outlets, there’s simply no reason to come into towns like Gundagai any more.
It’s the same story around the country, with towns such as Murray Bridge and Gawler in SA, along with Yass, Goulburn and Holbrook in NSW, struggling to attract lucrative motorist dollars.
Now Penola (pictured) in SA’s South-East is set to be bypassed in the same way thanks to what officials call a “key short-term road infrastructure action”.
Penola may be the home of Saint Mary MacKillop and the alluringly-named Fantasy Model Railway, but it’s going to struggle without the passing Limestone Coast traffic. Sadly, all this character and history doesn’t seem to mean anything to the average Aussie family wanting to get from place to place as fast as they can before the kids’ iPads run out of charge.
After driving straight past in the past few years, this time I decided to do my bit for Gundagai and stay there overnight on the way to Sydney. I can’t tell you how glad I was that I did. I discovered that Gundagai is an absolute rarity: a town that is almost totally historically intact along its wide, grand main street. It’s absolutely fascinating.
There are historic bridges, a beautiful courthouse with a stacked slate wall and a lovely Art Deco theatre. No doubt my kids think I am getting old or getting soft. In fact they did say all of this and more – not to mention can’t we just get back on the highway pleeeease? Instead, I made them follow me around the town, pointing out landmarks and stopping to read every historical sign we came to.
Oh, look kids! A beautifully restored timber station – once the longest in Australia and with the only slateroofed goods shed in NSW!
Look! Here’s the post office, home of the last pony express in Australia!
We also stopped to read all about the two historic bridges crossing the Murrumbidgee (Look kids! Wooden Trusses! Early engineering! Timber viaducts!)
The children perked up a bit when they realised the jail once housed bushranger Captain Moonlight and became fully excited when they entered the Gundagai Museum.
They weren’t enthused by seeing Phar Lap’s saddle cloth, a model-T Ford or newspapers going back to the 1850s. No, it was the earliest Apple Macintosh computer, and it still works.
At times, it was a bit of a struggle but they had heaps of fun despite their determination not to.
(It reminded me of the time I asked them what their wish was as they threw coins in the pond around the tuckerbox dog. “To get back in the car,” one of them said.)
Sadly, though, we were just about the only ones who were feeling the love for Gundagai. Although it was school holidays in at least three states, it didn’t seem all that busy.
Many of the shops in the grand buildings on the main street were empty, for sale or clearly struggling.
There was a general air of neglect about the place, and road works improving the street’s landscaping didn’t help one bit. But you could tell this was a town with not only a great history, but a band of dedicated locals determined to keep it going as long as they can.
Sitting there in the gravel outside the bakery (Look kids! The oldest bakery in Australia operating since 1864!), I felt relaxed and happy.
Sometimes it’s nice to leave the highway and just go exploring. You never know what you might find.
Too often we take the fast road, and we’re rarely better off for it. Blog with Susie at susieobrien.com.au, follow her on Twitter @susieob and Facebook.com/ NewswithSuse