Daily Life

Save
Print
License article

Is this Australia's most perfect country town?

The long Indian summer was fast ebbing as I floated aboard my motorcycle into the impossibly lovely little town of Yackandandah.

The very name of the place sings.I can never go there without hearing in my head the Yackandandah Chorus, a wonderfully silly chant from decades ago composed by actors from the Murray River Performing Group, a brilliant troupe who blew into Albury-Wodonga and transformed the district's cultural life in the1980s.

Apart from establishing the soon-to-be famous Flying Fruit Fly Circus and creating numerous theatrical events – they even got me to write a couple of plays for them – the group was blessed with talented comedians, including several who went on to national fame,like Denise Scott, the late Lynda Gibson and John Walker.

They were so taken by the musical names of towns in the hills and river valleys of north-east Victoria that they composed a spoof on the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel's Messiah, replacing the repeated "hallelujah" with place names.

The chorus, thus, became "Yaa/ckandandah! Yaarra/wonga! Tallang/Atta;Barna/Wartha; Tan/Gamb/Ala-ang/Ga!"

You may need to listen to the Hallelujah Chorus to imagine it.

Advertisement

I hadn't visited Yackandandah for years. Now, in search of a story concerning the 2016 election in the much-disputed electorate of Indi, I was in need of fuel for me and the bike.

I was, it turned out, to be treated to instruction on how small communities can still find and make a future for themselves.

Yackandandah was a bit of a one-horse town the last time I frequented its tree-lined streets. Its major claim to fame was that our nation's first Australian-born Governor-General, Sir Isaac Isaacs, had spent a slice of his childhood there.

Isaacs, the son of a Polish-born tailor, lived with his family in the little town – its existence resting on gold-mining – from 1859 till 1867 before the family moved to nearby Beechworth to get a better education for the boy, who was clearly brilliant.

No country town can live for long on the memory of gold-mining or its attachment to a long-gone figure of history, however.

There didn't seem to be much going for Yackandandah by the time the Murray River Performing Group began singing about it in the 1980s.

Yackandandah, however, blessed by the astonishing natural beauty of its valley setting, had banked up a store of great good fortune by being overlooked.

It was not visited by the scourge of the 1960s and 1970s: the horrors of development. Boosters with their bulldozers and lack of style and liking for cheap yellow-brick monstrosities had no reason to descend.

Little old wooden structures continued to line the main street undisturbed, the motor garage with its faded paint and deco petrol pump was never updated, and the faux Greek temple named the Athenaeum, built in 1878 and once a library with 3000 books, continued to stand in the centre of town, a symbol of an isolated people's yearning for learning.

And all along, there lived a core of Yackandandah residents, farmers and a scattering of newcomers who understood they resided in a magical place.

As I motored in, it was perfectly clear the old place and its timeless style had been rediscovered and carefully tended, as many thousands of other travellers, and those who watch Heather Ewart's wonderful Back Roads series on the ABC have known for a while now.

It might well be Australia's most perfect rural village.

Questing food, I was embarrassed for choice. A lot of those little wooden shops had turned into cafes.

I chose the pie shop on the basis that any decent country town ought to have a proper pie shop. Gum Tree Pies didn't bother with the common "best in Australia" boast, but figured its pies were worth $6 or so, which was about the same thing.

An old farmer rattled up in his ute and wanted to know what I thought about "our pie shop", clearly wanting me to tell him it was the finest anywhere.

Fuel for the bike however revealed the big story of local pride in this little town. Fourteen years ago, the old petrol station announced it was going out of business. A group of locals, alarmed at what it would mean to lose the only petrol pump in town, banded together, set up a co-operative and bought into the fuel business.

That co-operative – the Yackandandah Community Development Company – now has more than 600 local shareholders, has built its own petrol station, has branched into the hardware and rural supplies business and ploughs its profits, after paying expenses, wages and dividends, back into community projects.

Name a Yackandandah outfit, from the bush nursing hospital to the popular folk festival, sports clubs, community choir, scouts and tourism efforts – and you're likely to find a YCDCo contribution.

And really, hallelujah! In a world where media companies struggle, Yackandandah's community company supports the town's newspaper, called Yackity Yack. The print edition (the April-May edition is 28 pages) is delivered free to more than 900 homes and it's online, too.

The early Yackandandah folk who built their Athenaeum to ensure there was a place of culture to meet and read would, surely, approve mightily.