Small Town Country Australia
I’ve been passing through a lot of small Australian towns lately. Ever since leaving the tourist haunts of the coast and travelling inland, I’ve been encountering a new Australian geography. Up through the Great Dividing Range mountains and onto the western plains, Australian towns get comfortably country.
From the New England Highway to the west side of the Snowy Mountains, I’ve passed through towns more familiar with the rumble of a livestock truck than to the stamp of tourist feet. Populations in these towns may reach from a few thousand to a few ten-thousand—not necessarily tiny by Australian standards. Regardless of their size, however, these towns may be the largest settlement for an hour in any direction—and thus these small country towns serve as regional centers of commerce. Along the backroads and byways of rural Australia, a traveller will be rewarded with the very appealing character of the Australian Country town.
My experience of country towns is based on one I’ve spent a fair amount of time in recently: Tumut, New South Wales. Tumut, like other country towns, lies amidst a landscape of grazing, field crops, orchards, and timberlands. Roughly halfway between the major metropolitan centers of Sydney and Melbourne, Tumut sits 30 minutes off the main highway—and is largely bypassed by the hubbub of interstate traffic. With a population of just over 6,000, Tumut is the principle settlement in Tumut-Shire, in addition to being the largest town for at least an hour’s drive. Though Tumut may be nestled in the scenic western foothills of Australia’s highest peaks, the Snowy Mountains, tourist traffic remains light here largely due to hilly terrain and narrow town access roads.
Small country Australian towns like Tumut share a distinct geographic feel. At the heart of these towns runs the main street, lined with the town’s oldest and most elaborate buildings. Wide brick sidewalks traverse either side of the main street with store-front balconies and branching European street trees providing shade from the blistering country sun. The most prominent buildings along the main street just might be the hotels—in Australia, hotels are the place you go to hang out and drink a beer. Even in the small town of Tumut, there are no fewer than six hotels along the main avenue of business: The Commercial, The Oriental, The Royal, The Star, The Woolpack, and The Wynard. Banks, shops, public buildings, and churches complete the line-up of edifices on the main street. Further out from the main street, historic brick and stucco houses speak of early city residents who had a great sense of pride and importance in the place where they lived.Though individual businesses may change through the years, the turn-of-the-century street façade remains strongly characteristic of the country town.
Scattered around the business district and residential streets of the typical country town is ample parkland, which lends an appealing openness and naturalistic feeling to the rural development. These parks provide shade, recreational opportunities, and amenities to resident and visitor alike. As a visitor to a new town, I often form my quality assessment based on the town’s parkland and amenities—for example, public toilets and electric barbecues are very appreciated. Civic buildings such as libraries are another important public resource that attest to a quality of life in a town, in addition to being very helpful to the traveller.
The physical landscape—the built environment—is just one aspect that is characteristic of the Australian country town. The other aspect is the cultural landscape. Though I originally only planned to pass through Tumut on my search for employment elsewhere, I’ve ended up staying for a week now. Having found no job leads further afield, I returned to Tumut to come up with an alternative plan, and I have stayed because I enjoyed the aura of the city. I’ve found the people to be particularly friendly here, and more apt to start a conversation with the town’s new stranger. This is especially true while I’ve been sitting outside the library after hours bumming wifi for my job search. One local man came right up and joined me on the bench I was sitting on, talking to me as if we’d meet long before. He really only came to the library for some half-smoked cigarettes in the ash-tray, but he wanted to greet the stranger as well. He gave me some advice for my job search, and then informed me that in a town like this, everyone will know your business by the time you leave. I guess that’s all part of the small-town life.
My one week in Tumut has given me a good sense of the nature of the town, and may be a good indicator of the character of the other country towns I’ve passed through along the way. With little in the way of tourist traps in Tumut, I’ve been living like a local instead. Daily, downtown Tumut is a bustling locale—at the shops and bakeries by day, and at the hotels by night. I’ve nursed a beer at one of the hotels, listening to live music from a nearby bluegrass band. I’ve been shown the river float along the Tumut river where locals go to cool off on hot summer days. My van radio has been tuned to the local radio station playing golden oldies and old-time country music. I’ve eaten local produce fresh from the weekend outdoor market. I’ve even watched part of a high-school cricket match, and I’ve seen the civic pride of the Tumuters as a large group volunteered their Saturday to pick up rubbish in the riverside park. All these little things I’ve seen and done here in Tumut add to the congenial character of this small country town.
It’s not that only small country towns have the kind of charm I’ve described—it’s that I find it easier to perceive in a small country town, where the bright lights of international corporate business and the McMansions of suburbia don’t obscure the local identity. Large towns, urban centers—these too have their unique geographies and contingent of dedicated citizens who make their homes resplendent with civic pride. These are the same people who pass the love of their city onto the wayward visitor.