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Small town off the highway

Story & photos: Russ Grayson

THERE’S A MAN SITTING ON THE WHARF, a man perhaps in his seventies, hair grey, shirtless, tanned. Every so often he sips from a longneck… he’s a man who likes a quiet drink by himself on a warm, summer evening.

I stand atop the hill that spills grassy and steep down to the riverbank with its little wharf. Down there, the man has tied his terrier to a rope long enough to allow it to range freely over the lawn but short enough that it can’t wander too far.

Something gives me the impression that he is a long-time resident of this town…  there’s some indefinable quality about him that suggests this. I imagine him coming here frequently during the warmer months to sit on the wharf and, perhaps, reflect on his life and how he came to end up in Wauchope.

A quiet contentment... solitude by the Hastings.
A quiet contentment… solitude by the Hastings.

What vessels make use of this little wharf I have no idea. Just private motor boats, most likely. The river has seen little commercial navigation this past 70 years. It is a big, broad, grey river that flows past the farmland on the opposite bank. On the upstream horizon there’s a high, rounded mountain blued by distance. Just a few hundred metres downstream there’s a railway bridge, and over this speeds a northbound train. Its destination? Brisbane, perhaps? The man on the wharf watches it too and I think — does the sight of the train make him wonder where it is taking its passengers? Does it kindle imaginings of other places in him as it does in me?

The river – it’s the Hastings – is part of the town but it doesn’t seem to be a constant presence in the minds of the inhabitants in the way that the Manning River that flows through Kempsey, a little further north, is. Out of sight from the town centre, perhaps it is not a geographical anchor point in the minds of the residents.

It’s hard to say what is here. I imagine the town centre itself fills that role, yet when you look into the commercial centre from the little park on its western edge, what you see is an unremarkable Australian country town. Wide streets lined with one and two storey buildings, almost all the artefact of past decades. Wauchope makes little concession to modernity in architecture, probably because of the proximity of Port Macquarie, just 30 minutes down he road.

Wauchope — an authentic Australian country town that serves its surroundings rather than tourism.
Wauchope — an authentic Australian country town that serves its surroundings rather than tourism.

Bain Park has a modern landscape that you enter thorough an open set of gates. Raised planters around trees, seating and a garden along the mural painted on the wall of the neighbouring shop make a quiet refuge from the street. But, I wonder, is that really needed in this town? Walk through this corner of the park, with its carvings and grass trees, to come to Watermans Café where you find outdoor dining on a wide, covered veranda. This is a good place to meet with friends, to enjoy lunch or a coffee on a sunny afternoon.

Wauchope is not a tourist town. It’s a town you visit on the way to somewhere else. Touristwise, it exists in the shadow cast by Port Macquarie, down on the coast, and its main function seems to be to service the surrounding rural area. The main tourist feature is Timbertown, a theme park that draws on the town’s forestry past.

Pass through Wauchope on the way to Comboyne, a small town high up on its own plateau where the rolling country of the coastal plain meets the Great Divide. For connoisseurs of Australian rural towns, Comboyne is worth a visit. It’s quite a small place set amid undulating, green farmland. There is a café where you can get lunch. Notice how the climate up here is cooler, more temperate, than that down the escarpment in Wauchope. The view from the big water tank just out of town reveals the village in its rural surroundings.

To those who notice it, Wauchope is just a direction sign on the Pacific Highway where most traffic turns in the opposite direction towards Port Macquarie. Few visiting Port would bother to make Wauchope a destination. Yet, during daylight hours the town has a quiet vitality, one perhaps more authentic of this country’s past that the bustle of Port.

So, why not make the detour and instead of turning east off the Pacific Highway, turn west and follow the undulating road for 20 minutes or so, even if its just for a coffee break at Watermans Café. And, when you get to Port, sit by the water like that man does by the Hastings and reflect on life and the way that tourism changes towns.

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