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.
Sydney is a sprawling metropolis. But it’s also a beautiful city full of parks, greenspaces, and natural reserves. I find the interplay of the natural biological/ecological element in built-up environments fascinating. It’s a niche scientific field known as Urban Ecology, but I like to think of it more like Urban Nature. Here is a smattering of some natural sights I’ve been intrigued by around the city so far:
Let’s start out with the base…geology of course. Sydney is built upon a vast expanse of sandstone. Add the weathering action from the maritime climate, and this sandstone erodes into numerous cliffs that expose the natural patterning of the rock. Early Sydnians made use of the sandstone, using convict labor to carve steps into the soft rock and quarrying stone for Sydney’s elegant public buildings. (Images: grottos of eroded sandstone pockets; contrast of light rock and dark staining from running water; color patterning; color patterning)
I wouldn’t be true to myself if I wasn’t fascinated by the new plants I’ve seen here. They may be cultivated as landscape plants, but their wild beauty exists nonetheless. (Images: Fig Tree growing mass of adventitious roots; succulents growing on sandstone cliffs; Jacaranda Tree in full purple blossom, row of unidentified trees in a park)
One can’t walk around an urban park in Sydney without seeing the ubiquitous Australian Ibis. With its long curved beak and bald black head, it’s a quite different looking bird than what is common in the States. Interestingly enough, the Ibis wasn’t common in urban areas until a series of droughts in the 70’s and 80’s pushed the Ibis into the cities. Though a species native to Australia, its decline in its native habitat and rapid increase in urban areas has led to questions as to whether it’s an endangered species or a pest.
Another ubiquitous bird in the city is the Common Myna. Unlike the Ibis, the common myna is not native to Australia, and its status as a pest is unequivocal (it is recognized by the International Union for Conservation of Nature as one of the top 100 invasive species). The urban environment, however, provides the ideal habitat for these birds. Adapted to life as a scavenger in woodland environments, the features of a city—the abundant buildings for nesting, open sidewalks for foraging, and plentiful food scraps—provides an ideal home.
Ferns, being one of the most ancient types of plants, are able to thrive in harsh environments—both natural and urban. They grow wherever a crack in infrastructure provides a small foothold and traps enough moisture to drink. Here these ferns find a home similar to a sandstone cliff in the seaside dock and decaying brick wall.