Think America’s Roadside Attractions Are Big and Weird? Australia Would Like a Word
Aussies are surrounded by Big Things.
Driving through Australia can be a very, very lengthy undertaking. Once you leave the thin spread of settlements that dot the coastline, the endless expanses are so vast, they can give a serious case of highway hypnosis. But if, over the horizon, you suddenly begin to see a massive lobster materializing on the horizon, don’t be alarmed. This is not a hallucination, or a Down Under kaiju attack. It’s just a Big Thing.
In an effort to make road tripping more interesting -- and also to advertise a certain region’s agricultural bounty -- Australian Big Things made their debut in the 1960s. They are exactly what they sound like: gigantic sculptures of common objects designed to lure you into pit stops. Usually these sculptures are found by the side of main roads, highways, at entrances to towns, outside museums. After hours on the road, spotting the estimated 150 official Big Things across the continent becomes like playing IRL Where’s Waldo, except instead of a striped-shirt wanderer you’re looking for a gun-toting outlaw the size of Paul Bunyan.
Here are a few favorites that give their American counterparts a run for their money.
Dating back to 1964, this is Australia’s first and most famous Big Thing. On the northern edge of New South Wales -- some 360 miles north of Sydney and 240 miles south of Brisbane -- lies the hopping seaside resort of Coffs Harbour. Now mostly reliant on tourism, in the 1960s the town’s income was derived from -- yup --bananas. The Big Banana, along with being a very large tree fruit, also signals your arrival at Big Banana Fun Park, one of Australia’s largest water parks, which also features laser tag (!), a reptile zoo (!!), cheesemaking (?!?!), and a cafe specializing in many banana-based delicacies.
Australia’s countryside is known for its rolling hills crawling with livestock, but if you ever find yourself driving from Sydney to Canberra, you’ll encounter the most famous of them all: Big Merino. The 4-H wonder is an astonishing 50 feet tall and weighs in at a whopping 97-ton sheep. He was built in 1985 in honor of a real-life stud ram called Rambo from a nearby farm, and is in place to celebrate Australia’s largest farm produce: wool. Today, you can climb up inside and peek out of the ram’s eyes and get your woolly souvenirs and head-to-toe clothing ware, courtesy of the less-gigantic sheep from nearby farms, below.
This was my personal first Big Thing, chanced upon on a road trip from Melbourne to Adelaide. The sleepy town of Kingston lies along the coast and lobster-fishing is still a mainstay. The Big Lobster, built in 1979 out of fiberglass, extends 50 feet into the sky and is locally known as Larry. There’s a small visitor’s center worth visiting, as well as a restaurant that sells pies, lasagna, burgers, and seafood platters loaded with prawns, fish, crab, and zero lobster.
In the wine region near Adelaide stands a 60-foot-tall rocking horse, drawing attention to the on-site toy factory. Dating back to 1981, the rocking horse does not actually rock, but you can climb all the way up to the head for a panoramic view. The site includes factory visits as well as an animal park packed with wildlife, making this a particularly key stop if you’re traveling with kids.
Queensland is full of Big Things -- and, incidentally, many great road trip routes -- but my favourite is the Golden Gumboot. The town of Tully, together with nearby Babinda, has the dubious accolade of being Australia’s wettest town, with the average annual rainfall exceeding 160 inches (and a record of 310 inches). So a gumboot -- a big, rubber boot akin to galoshes -- is pretty much the most useful accessory to wear there. This multi-story gumboot, with a giant green frog climbing up it, is ascendible and offers views across this town and its sugar cane mill. Just be sure to pack a raincoat.
Bananas aren’t’ the only tropical tree fruit to get embiggened in Australia: Driving up the Bruce Highway, this gigantic mango hints at the mango growing area around Bowen. The three-story, 10-ton fruit was allegedly stolen back in 2014, in what turned out to be an advertising hoax. Make sure you turn off the highway near the mango to explore the fantastic nearby Whitsunday beaches before you head on -- but only after you score some mango sorbet at the visitor’s center.
Ned Kelly is a late 19th century outlaw and convicted murderer who is also a well-loved Australian icon -- Mick Jagger played him in a movie you’ve never seen -- who was captured and some of his gang killed in what is known as Ned Kelly’s Last Stand in Glenrowan. This is the third incarnation of the Big Ned Kelly: the first statue was stolen, the second was not popular as you had to pay to see it, but this one seems to make a lasting stand. He stands guard outside a post office.
Driving from Melbourne toward the Grampians you will see this: the creepiest of all the Big Things. As far removed from being a cuddly, loveable koala, this 45-foot monster has red eyes and a rather ruddy exterior. But if you are not put off, you can go to the wildlife centre that is part of the complex and look at a real koala, just to reassure yourself that they really are cute and not towering murder beasts.
American stereotypes about Australia evoke images of boxing kangaroos and Outback towns with names like Yabbagabba. These are ridiculous, and the town of Humpty Doo in the Northern Territories is doing its best to dispel them with its 13-meter boxing crocodile. Though not an official “Big Thing,” he’s shrouded in palm trees, he was designed to withstand cyclones and other wild weather. Four decades after being erected, he’s outlasted Yahoo Serious, Paul Hogan, and all other Australian caricatures from the ‘80s.