To borrow from LP Hartley, the bush is a foreign country; they do things differently there.
Back in the day, every country town in Australia would reliably boast a Golden Fleece service station, a Paragon Café, an RSL Club, and a pub called the Commercial or, in the swanky joints, the Royal. Now most of those artefacts have gone. Maccas rules, but bush charm remains inimitable.
Bush towns cannot survive on whimsy and nostalgia alone. The bush is not a museum or a resort. We city slickers might be amused by crosscut saws luridly painted with kookaburras (Boorowa), a hindquarters special for a mere $285 (Parkes), the Hair of the Dog Inn (towards Dubbo) and an advertisement for a motor museum upstaged by a reminder underneath that "Jesus is the answer" (Forbes). As for the losers, Carcoar describes itself as "the town time forgot" (surely a threat?). Hill End resembles a grim, weird transplant from West Virginia. When asked about Sofala, a local neglected to mention Russell Drysdale-bleached depictions of drought but did note that the town "is pretty unlikely to be open".
A few bush towns intend to have the last laugh. Who would think that an Elvis festival could flourish in Parkes, only 20 kilometres away from an unintelligibly high-tech monument, The Dish (capital "T" compulsory). As a kid, I used to think Elvis flew down from Nashville to Hobart each weekend to perform on the Top 60; who guessed he had not yet left the building in central NSW?
Taking pride in any asset you possess might mean you end up like Middlethorpe, with gracious bourgeois houses on the hill, well-kept stone public buildings on the flat, and not too many trees chopped down. Cowra has transformed memories of a Japanese POW camp into a quite lovely mix of Australian and Japanese trees festooned through a Peace Garden.
Cowra also displays the most laconic bush sign. At a spot where lethally venomous reptiles might lurk under any log or rock, the city authorities merely counsel "watch out for snakes". By contrast, coronavirus signs at the Western Plains zoo combine anthropology with medicine, warning visitors to "stay with your herd" and advising that the proper extent of social distancing amounts to the length of an elephant's trunk.
I misjudged the sole attraction in Bathurst, driving around the Mt Panorama track with my grandson when restrictions on travelling around regional NSW were first lifted. Through every S bend and on the downhill straight, he complained that he was sitting in the back rather than shotgun, that we trundled along sedately behind a ute, and that I was reluctant even to flick the car over into sports mode. A career as a racing car driver never beckoned.
Nonetheless, driving just as safely but a bit more quickly on country roads, we felt liberated just by the sense of movement and freedom. On the way to Dubbo, the hills flattened, the valleys opened up, and we were finally offered "the vision splendid of the sunlit plains extended". Every one of those plains looked greener and lusher with the benefit of a bit of rain.
Then we arrived in Mudgee, surely the jewel box of the central West. If you were building a country town from scratch, would you not surround it by vineyards? Each municipal office would be well kept and well restored. Coffee shops would be sprinkled on every corner. Undulating hills would frame the horizon. The inhabitants would be justly proud of their honey, wine, jam and steaks. In Wiradjuri, Mudgee evidently derives from "nest in the hills". No bird enjoyed so cozy and graceful a nest.
- Mark Thomas is a Canberra-based writer.