Travel

What happens when a regional town finds itself engineered off holidaymakers’ road maps? Instead of viewing it as a death sentence, many are revelling in the chance to reinvent themselves. By Katrina Lobley.

Surviving a bypass

The old truss bridge crosses the Clarence River in Australia’s jacaranda capital, Grafton.
Credit: Katrina Lobley

When highway traffic stopped rumbling through Ulmarra earlier this year, the silence was deafening. “People found it difficult to sleep because there was no noise – the highway’s always gone through the village,” says Steve Pickering, president of Ulmarra Village Inc and co-owner of Coldstream Gallery. Millions of vehicles a year had trundled through the northern New South Wales town (population 450), a historic river port that’s squeezed between the Clarence River and what was – until May – the Pacific Highway.

That thoroughfare is now named Big River Way following the Pacific Highway’s realignment, part of Australia’s largest regional road infrastructure project that, after $15 billion and 25 years, is set for completion this month. And not-so-sleepy Ulmarra has taken the seismic change in its stride.

“Over the last 12 months Ulmarra and the Clarence Valley has been through bushfires, droughts, floods, Covid and the main highway bypassing [them] – we’ve had five things to contend with and we’ve overcome most of those obstacles,” says Pickering.

Once lockdown lifted, he explains, a sense of excitement pervaded Ulmarra. “Trade has downturned during the week but weekends are really busy,” he says. “People are coming down from Brisbane for day trips and coming up from Coffs Harbour … so there’s a lot of optimism.” It also helps that Ulmarra had been planning for its post-bypass future for years, with villagers originally using Post-it notes and sticky dots to vote for their preferred improvements such as main-street beautification and a riverside boardwalk.

It was just up the road from Ulmarra, at Cowper, that a horrific bus crash occurred in 1989. Two months later, at Kempsey, there was another. Fifty-six people died in what were the country’s two worst road crashes. The tragedies prompted a commitment to duplicate the 657-kilometre highway from Hexham, near Newcastle, to the Queensland border, making it a much safer four-lane divided road that would also shave two-and-a-half hours off the journey.

Kempsey’s mayor, Liz Campbell, has watched her community revive and thrive since its 2013 bypass. “We’ve got our town back,” she says. “You couldn’t really walk from one side of [the main street] to the other – the noise and the congestion at holiday time was incredible. This was a trigger for change [with street beautification and last year’s return of a cinema]. It also gave us the opportunity to get back to who we are and what we are – the Slim Dusty Centre is right there, Akubra hats, Milo – all those things that defined us.”

It also helps that Kempsey – and nearby iconic businesses such as Fredo Pies in Frederickton – are only a short detour off the highway. NSW Regional Transport and Roads Minister Paul Toole told The Saturday Paper: “When completed, the upgrade will have bypassed more than 30 towns and villages … but Transport for NSW still wants tourist dollars being spent in regional towns.”

To that end, following a picture-signage trial at Berry (off the Princes Highway south of Sydney), Holbrook (off the Hume Freeway in southern NSW) and Macksville (off the Pacific Highway on the NSW mid-north coast), other bypassed towns along the Pacific Highway corridor were nominated to receive enormous signs showing images – such as Grafton’s profusion of flowering jacarandas – to entice motorists to take the exit ramp and visit that community. The 5.7-metre-by-5.3-metre signs, the largest directional signs in the state, are now in place for Kempsey, Nambucca Heads, Urunga, Woolgoolga, Grafton, Maclean and Ballina. Woodburn, Broadwater and Wardell will soon receive theirs.

Grafton doesn’t need help attracting tourists during October and November when 2000 jacaranda trees burst into high-octane bloom, but Clarence Valley councillor Debrah Novak thinks there are new ways road-trippers could be enticed to visit year-round. As a history buff, she’s working with Richmond Valley and Kyogle councils to develop a self-drive trail, the Light Horse Way, to honour Tabulam-born Lieutenant-General Sir Harry Chauvel of the Light Horse Brigade, known for its heroics at the Battle of Beersheba in 1917. The proposal includes a virtual-reality component. “I think the community needs to not be scared to think outside the box and have a vision,” she says. “There’s so much potential to bring Grafton’s history to life.” The 19th-century old Grafton jail site, for example, is now going begging after a new correctional centre opened.

Repurposed buildings have become a drawcard in another bypassed city. Geelong found itself largely bypassed in 2009 by a ring road that allowed Melbourne holidaymakers to zip straight to the Great Ocean Road. Tourism Greater Geelong and The Bellarine executive director Brett Ince says at first “there was a little bit of worry about not having that magnitude of traffic coming through”. Thanks to an investment in infrastructure and the arrival of new experiences, he says Geelong, once known for heavy manufacturing, is now perceived “as a destination in its own right”.

Its creative scene includes the transformation of Fyansford’s Old Paper Mills into an arts precinct that includes a winery. To add further cred to the city’s art smarts, artist Rone, known for his transformation of abandoned spaces and an astonishing installation at Burnham Beeches in 2019, will return to his home town for his first survey exhibition, set to open at Geelong Gallery on February 27. Ince sees the region’s burgeoning creative sector as a continuation of Geelong’s long history of makers, which includes refrigeration pioneer James Harrison. Yet that’s not all there is. “You can park your car, you can get around, you can still have that amazing world-class food scene – we’ve got restaurants like IGNI that’s in a back street and it’s world-renowned,” he says.

But what motivates a road-tripper to make a detour? University of Queensland senior tourism lecturer Dr Shane Pegg says “we’re all very different”. “You and I could be on the same road and one of us would pull over based on a sign – so there’s that micro-moment of choice – while the other one keeps going,” he says.

Those who do detour, he says, are “looking for something in that experience”, whether it’s novelty, adventure, nostalgia or something else. “In the experience economy, we want a very individualised experience, whether that’s for ourselves, who we’re travelling with or who we’re going to share with socially what we’ve just gone and done.”

Place attachment is a factor, he says, citing Byron Bay. “Why do people pull into Byron? People say it’s the laidback lifestyle, the arts and crafts, it’s organic – that all aligns with the values people have about sustainability. Byron has that image and people gravitate to that. The reality is that Byron’s a traffic nightmare. There are places that create this narrative that draws people – when they see the sign, Byron, already they’re half-sold on it. And if you’re looking at what photo you want to share [on social media], well, ‘Here I am at this organic restaurant where they grow most of their produce onsite’ – there’s me reaffirming who I am as a person and what I value as a citizen.

“A lot of the places that are being passed by, the image is that they’re rundown, tired or old, but there’s a better story about all those places,” he says. “There are stories that should be shared that would give people a very different impression of some of these places that they’re zipping by at 110km/h.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 5, 2020 as "Surviving a bypass".

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Katrina Lobley is a freelance travel and arts writer.