David Whitley discovers why Big Things are a big thing in Australian country towns – and stumbles across a new favourite.
Australian country towns can be comically magnificent. Most labour under the impression that they are comfortably the greatest place in the world. And, if by ‘greatest’ you mean ‘having the highest ratio of mullet hairdos’, then they’re usually spot on. The combination of big hearts and big hair tends to be a winning one, however.
But any country town worth its salt has to be big in another respect. They ain’t nuthin’ if they ain’t got themselves a Big Thing.
To the uninitiated, Big Things are something of a roadside status symbol. The first one cropped up in Coffs Harbour,, back in 1964. Local banana grower John Landl decided that a visible gimmick would help him sell more fruit, so he unveiled an 11m long, 5m high fibre glass banana, based on the precise measurements of the winner from the recent agricultural show.
The idea caught on, and now hundreds of these absurd monstrosities dot the highways across. Most are about a town saying what they’re good at; they’re as much an attempt to define a unique identity as they are a marketing stunt to pull in snap-happy tourists. Nambour in Queensland grows pineapples, for example, so it hosts The Big Pineapple.
Goulburn does sheep – hence The Big Merino – whilst Tully in Queensland likes to think of itself as the wettest place in Australia, and has created The Golden Gumboot to commemorate this.
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Some are undoubtedly better than others. The Giant Cassowary in Mission Beach is very cool, for example, while Robertson’s Big Potato looks like a massive turd.
Up until recently, I thought the best was the Big Prawn in Ballina, New South Wales. It sprawls across the top of the small shopping centre/ roadhouse like an evil invader from a planet where seafood eats you rather than the other way round. Its winning quality is the way that people just nonchalantly ignore it as they go in to pay for petrol.
But after a couple of days in Swan Hill, Victoria, I think I have a new favourite. Swan Hill’s Big Thing is The Giant Murray Cod. It’s an enormous, spectacularly ugly fish that sits by the side of the road. Quite why someone thought “that looks attractive” and decided to put it up is beyond me – although I’m told it was made for a movie set and then appropriated by the town.
The best thing about the Giant Murray Cod is what’s next to it, however. A mere ten metres away from the absolutely unmissable megafish is one of those brown tourist information signs that tells drivers which direction to take for major attractions. As far as I am aware, there is no other sign pointing out the right direction for the Giant Murray Cod – just this solitary post that may as well be in the Giant Murray Cod’s mouth. Many a driver must go past, thinking: “Thank heavens they put a sign up – I’d have missed it otherwise.”
Better still is what sits between the sign and the Giant Murray Cod. A park bench has thoughtfully been placed there so that anyone with a Jonah and the Whale fetish can stare directly down the cavernous throat of a big, scary fish. It’s quite a view…