The next big thing

Sue Atkins marvels at Australia's ability to turn mundane objects into tourist attractions in her 15,000km project to visit all of Australia’s Big Things

There are certain things that you have to be Australian to appreciate: Bert Newton; Vegemite; our long tradition of using diminutives (more than 4300 in our lexicon); Jimmy Barnes; Mad Max; Scott and Charlene’s wedding; fibro houses; pavlova; ugg boots; Kylie Mole; irreverent humour; current affairs programs that believe chasing con-artists down a street constitutes good television; the Hills Hoist and Australia’s Big Things.

Australia is well known for its “big things” — man-made oversized sculptures mainly built to attract passing visitors. Whether you hate them or love them, most Australians will have at least one childhood memory of stopping at the likes of The Big Pineapple, The Big Prawn or at The Big Banana.

I can still remember, as a child, setting off in the early hours to head north, still half asleep, clutching my pillow.

The never-ending sameness of the landscape didn’t hold a lot of interest for my younger brother and me. I would spend hours hunched over maps, studying the names of towns, checking how far we’d come and still had to go.

To pass the time my brother and I would sit astride the armrest in the back of Dad’s V8 Statesman, playing “corners”. This involved shoving each other to fall back into our respective seats; I don’t recall anyone wearing seatbelts.

So imagine if you will, the mind of a six or seven-year old, after only using maps, an armrest as a mini-catapult to wile the hours away, to suddenly round a corner, and see a giant 5m-high banana. Not only do you have this oversized fruit in your sights, you stop and walk through its yellow core, clutching your banana-flavoured ice-cream. It was simply the stuff dreams are made of.

The initial idea of a journey to visit them all stemmed from a library lesson I taught a couple of years ago. We were discussing Australian icons, natural and man-made, and the conversation led to the Big Things.

The students excitedly told me about their adventures on the road with their parents and what Big Things they’d encountered. I joked that I should try to get around to seeing them all and almost immediately shelved the idea with all my other harebrained ideas. Too hard, too many to visit, not enough time, my children too old … forget it.

But sometimes the strangest ideas are the best. Like a zombie from The Walking Dead that keeps coming back, the idea returned during a meeting with the senior editor of Pan MacMillan towards the end of last year. I simply had to come up with an idea for a book.

So despite my initial reservations I went back to the idea of travelling around Australia to see all 150 or so of its Big Things.

I planned to mix it up a bit: I would go with the whole family or just my sons; sometimes with friends, at other times alone; I’d drive or take the caravan, my Vespa, a country train, walk or fly. In the end, I figured the best thing would be to start driving. I’d have some rough plans and heck, just go with it — isn’t that what a road trip is all about?

I’ve just come back from Guyra, up past Armidale, to see the Big Lamb, my 36th Big Thing to date. The town had hosted its Lamb and Potato Festival where I had the best home-cooked baked dinner, listening to a talented 20-year-old belt out some country music in one of the tents.

I’m learning a lot more about this country — things you don’t always read in books or on the Internet.

Many of the Big Things represent a part of history or produce important to the area.

Did you know the blue heeler was a cross-breed of the dingo and an English breed, the Blue Smooth Highland Collie? (Big Blue Heeler, Muswellbrook)? That June Bronhill was born in Broken Hill (home of the Big Ant and the Big Bench) and her stage name, “Bronhill”, is an abbreviation of that? And that before the Big Merino at Goulburn was moved to its current position as a local resident used to complain regularly that the giant ram’s testicles were in plain view out of her kitchen window?

I won’t mention that last fact during my library lessons but after each trip I am bursting with information. The students’ excitement and enthusiasm encouraged me to set out on these journeys and I think I’m a better teacher for it.

But be warned, I’m very keen to share my experiences and new-found trivia, so don’t get stuck next to me at a dinner party.

Sue Atkins is teacher librarian at Laguna St PS, Caringbah.