Adventures in the tourist trade

Some of our tourist attractions are natural, like Uluru (alias Ayer's Rock). Some tourist attractions are institutions: the Australian Ballet, the Australian Opera, Sydney's art galleries, museums and so on. Some popular "attractions" are built especially to cater for the lowest common denominator of tourism: the wish to see novelties. These are always called The Big [Something].

For example, we have the grotesque Big Merino, a 15 metre high sculptured relief of a ram of the Merino breed, complete with shop selling souvenirs and postcards. One of the few reasons for visiting Goulburn, it is featured on roadside signs as "the world's biggest merino".

The bizarre Big Banana offers displays about the banana industry. Nearby, the Big Banana Theme Park features an Aboriginal Dreamtime Cave experience, and a "realistic bunyip". The bunyip is a mythical beast, so the realism must be very powerful indeed!

The list goes on: the Big Prawn, the Big Pavlova, the Big Trout, the Big Pineapple, the Big Red Apple, each outdoing its competitors in some aspect of what I call Tabloid Tourism. Aimed at the vacuous, the foolish and the feeble-minded, these "attractions" all claim to be, well, maybe not quite the largest of their kind, but each is "reputed to be the largest [something] in the southern hemisphere". Among them all, only the Big Merino is prepared to take on the whole world.

This "in the southern hemisphere" qualification of the claim is clever, since so little of the world is actually south of the equator. Moreover, most southerly nations are under-developed, and hence unlikely to build giant fibre-glass cockroaches, plum puddings or gumnuts. As a class, these "attractions" are mainly remarkable for the cynical way they seek to trap the tourist dollars and cents.

Yet alongside these calculated money-traps, and often classed with them, we find those gentle innocents, the amateur museums. At the very forefront of these establishments for many years has been the Fancelli sisters' Rhine Castle, near Sydney. The sign outside the gate says it all: "Fancelli Sisters, curiosa and Devonshire teas, also dogs boarded and home-made tomato sauce".

The sisters have survived for many years on the entrance fees and the money they get from the sale of afternoon teas and garden produce, especially their famous tomato sauce, made from their own tomatoes and herbs. Their boarding kennels were closed many years ago, by order of the bureaucrats on the local council, but the legally-sized sign lives on, cocking a snook at petty officialdom.

I have taken friends to visit the sisters many times over the years, to admire their house and ocean views, and to take strong tea on a small terrace facing the sea, all at extremely modest charges. I have even stood on the turret at the top to wave a flag at the tourist ferries, allowing the commentator on the boat (an old friend of the Fancelli family) to draw the attention to the sisters' establishment. This flag- waving task is a role that the sisters allocate only to their "friends", their frequent visitors, and we all regard this as a sign of our acceptance.

The sisters are getting on now, and they speak mainly in croaks, yet they are both well-known for their good works along this stretch of the coast, especially in evangelism. They share a Studebaker dating from about 1947 (a strange model that looks the same at both ends) and both drive with a verve that puts the sternest fear of God into pedestrians and motorists alike.

I was at the castle last week with a young cousin from Perth. As we stopped at the gate, we were greeted by the shorter Miss Fancelli - no "friend" has ever progressed beyond that in naming them, so far as I know. She came to the gate to say they had been ordered to close up entirely by the council, but even though she is getting old now, she recognised me right away.

"We're still welcoming our friends, though," she reassured me in a wheeze. Her bony right hand reached out to grasp the portable ticket machine from the low stone wall beside her, and four dollars later, we were safely inside. My young cousin, on his first visit, was keen to see everything, so I left him to ferret around with the shorter Miss Fancelli. I settled down on the terrace at a rickety table, decorated with seasonal sprigs of holly, and the taller Miss Fancelli put on the kettle to brew one of her drastic pots of tea.

Out to sea, a yacht race was in progress, and there was a scattering of sails along the horizon. In the background, my cousin was being shown legend-rich items like the Tam O'Shanter left at the castle in 1939 by a young man who came to the headland each night to play his bagpipes. He left the cap behind when he went away to the war, and never came to reclaim it. Or it may have been the ornate cast-iron key that fitted no lock in the castle, or some other equally unusual relic. After a while, these priceless relics all seem the same . . .

Just then the gate bell rang, and three people of about my age were ushered in. I quickly realised that, like me, one of them was a "friend". The taller Miss Fancelli took them in hand, darting back every so often to check the brewing of the tea. Finally satisfied that it was sufficiently tar-like, she poured sturdy mugs of the brew for all. Then the other "friend" asked a question in low tones which I did not quite catch. The taller Miss Fancelli shyly pulled a small case from under a settee, a well-worn Globite case, such as my generation carried each day to school.

The three gathered around to marvel at something unseen in the case. Then the lid was closed, and the old lady half-slid it back under the settee before turning to me and croaking "Would you like to see the mummified cat?".

I felt a stirring of jealousy within me. In all my visits, I had never had this treasure opened for me, one of the best of their friends. I had waved the flag for them, brought them new friends, and more. This other visitor clearly knew the treasure well, but I had never seen it. Still, now the chance was mine, and I put those churlish thoughts aside. Eagerly, I stepped forward, and looked down into the case, held open for my inspection. There, grinning up at me, was a very dried very dead cat, lying on its side.

It was old, perhaps even as old as the Fancellis, and it fitted perfectly into the case. It must have crept into the case one day and died in gentle seclusion, in some hot attic room. There it would have remained, baked and solar dried until it was discovered and hidden beneath the settee. I duly admired the mummified cat, and said it was the finest example of a mummified cat I had ever seen. I forbore to mention that it was the only such specimen I had ever seen.

Then I looked up to see the shorter Miss Fancelli standing in a doorway. Her eyes were flashing, and I realised I was not the only one to feel the venom of envy that day. Hissing slightly, she drew her sister to one side. Their exchange was brief and to the point. Furiously, the shorter Miss Fancelli opened fire on her sister at short range. "You shouldn't have got it out," she spat.

Here sister was mildly defensive. "Why ever not?" she asked.

"It's beginning to crumble."

The taller Miss Fancelli now crushed her shorter sister, once and for all. "Nonsense! It's as good as ever it was." She paused for a moment, considering the closed case, then she drew the argument to a brutal close. "Besides, a bit of fresh air does it good."

I do not know when, I do not know how, but one day, in some way, in some moment of need when I am caught out for lack of a valid argument, I shall use that line on somebody. In an instant, I had realised why the shorter Miss Fancelli is less tall than her sister.

For a quick return to Yandackworroby, present home of the Fancelli sisters, click on Yandackworroby

For a quick return to Cootaburra, home of the Big Dung Beetle, click on Cootaburra

For more about the Fancelli sisters click on more about the Fancelli sisters.

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