Kick started by a dung beetle

Cootaburra lies quietly, drowsing beside the Corella River, in western New South Wales. Until recently, little has changed in Cootaburra during a hundred years of slow and gentle decay. Many of the children still go to school barefoot, as their great-great-grandparents did last century, bantam roosters call the town to wakefulness each dawn, and each barking dog in the night is instantly recognised and cursed by name, as is each squalling cat.

It is a small and compact town. The people are all old residents, intermarried for five and six generations, with kith and kin scattered all over "the district", an indefinite geographical entity that seems to cover the whole Corella River catchment, the western marshes, and even beyond.

The district is prosperous, for it is surrounded by wheat fields that yielded good crops, even in the recent drought, and vast sheep paddocks that sprawl over the rolling hills. With the drought a thing of the past, the local farmers are happy, but the town itself has been under threat. It seemed to be a town without a future, for the farmers of today pass Cootaburra by.

When the area was settled last century, people spread out thinly and took over the land of the first inhabitants. All land was considered the property of the Crown, and having chosen your land, you paid the Crown for the right to do so, and that was that. The original inhabitants were largely ignored in the process, although they are now being accorded some recognition, and even some occasional compensation, but that is another story.

The early farmers needed towns, about every sixty miles along each main road (that is, about every hundred kilometres today). This pattern meant that most farming people could ride the fifty kilometres or so to the nearest town by horse or sulky, and get back again in the same longish day, provided they were quick about their business in town. The town provided schools, churches, and stores, the main essentials for all but the most distant farms.

Once the car came, the horse was discarded, and the sulky, a light cart, drawn by a single horse, went with it. A few children still ride horses to school, but they are the children of rich farmers who live close to town, riding fine ponies, not the offspring of the poor, riding four-up on a superannuated plough horse as their grandparents did. Once the horse was an economic necessity, now the car fills that role.

With the car making travel easier, rationalisation was inevitable. People can now drive the 100 km between towns in just over an hour. Now they can choose a larger regional centre, which can grow and offer more services, at the expense of the smaller towns. On the edges of the bypassed towns, houses are deserted, they fall into disrepair, and the town slowly lurches closer to being a ghost town.

Once the banks start to cut their losses and move out, once the main store in town has its last sale, once the pubs start closing their doors, when the dentist leaves town, the pharmacist merges with the newsagent, and the local doctor cannot sell the practice, it is only a matter of time before the town dies completely. Unless the locals start to fight back, that is.

Cootaburra is a lovely example of recovery. Established during the gold rushes of the 1850s, the town lies on a major highway, and Cootaburra survived on the passing trade: it was a long way, either side, to the next main town. True, the main fast food chains ignored Cootaburra, but that was all to the good, for locally owned businesses filled the gap. Truck drivers knew what the food was like, and stopped there for a feed. Knowledgeable travellers saw the trucks, and stopped there as well.

Now a "government transport initiative" has sealed Cootaburra's fate as victualler to the travelling masses, for a bypass has been installed, and ordinary travellers sweep by on the highway, unaware of the feeding delights that they are missing. The farming riches of the district were still being spent 200 km away, and the town was slowly bleeding to death.

Most Australian country towns have a Big Something. The map is littered with Big Merinos, Big Pavlovas, bananas, huge pineapples, cane toads, trout -- most of God's creation and much of human invention can be found, sculpted rough and large, in an Australian country town. Each naive replica was built to draw hordes of tourists in to gasp with delight at this or that gigantic model, and each is slightly more grotesque than the one that went before. This seems to be inherent in the genesis of Big Somethings.

And here lies the problem that faced the citizens of Cootaburra. To be really effective, they could not afford yet another naive "attraction" that would soon be overtaken. They had to take a leap to the really grotesque, while still falling within the apparent range of Big Somethings, Australia-wide. Enter Bob Rutherford.

Bob is the second Rutherford to appear in these chronicles, and he is in fact a cousin of Ernie Rutherford of the Yandackworroby pub. Bob was in Yandackworroby a year or so back for the running of the highly successful Yandackworroby Cup that I mentioned last year. I met him while I was down there to have a yarn with Ernie, and I have kept in touch since.

Bob's solution was to have the town build a giant replica of an African dung beetle at Cootaburra. To explain why they did this, I will first have to discuss a few matters that may distress the more sensitive of my readers. Trust me, for this exposition is essential to your understanding.

Australia's native animals produce small dry pellets of dung that are dealt with by native dung beetles, but they are quite unable to deal with the massive productions of cattle and sheep. The result has been a vast increase in the number of "bush flies", right across Australia. About twenty years back, Australian scientists imported African dung beetles, well able to cope with the productions of elephants, rhinos and hippos, and tested them in small areas of Australia.

The results were outstanding. The dung beetles cut up the wet plops into little balls which they push away and bury, laying eggs in them as they do. The buried dung is unavailable to the flies, whose numbers are reduced. In sheep farming areas like Cootaburra, people no longer need to practise the "Great Aussie Salute", sweeping the flies away, all summer. In the Corella River district, dung beetles are widely hailed as saviours by people, now able safely to open their mouths during summer, for the first time in their lives.

So Cootaburra has its dung-beetle, a huge scale model in ferro- cement and fibre-glass, standing almost six storeys high, set up and floodlit by night on a low hill, just as you enter the town, and visible from the bypass highway, as well as being advertised on billboards across the state. Already, a theme park is developing around this coprophilic coleopteran, and the continually rolling "dung ball" has a hatch let into it, so intrepid adventurers can climb into the hollow centre and tumble around. I will not offend my gentle readers by recording here the name given this ride. Cruder readers will no doubt work it out.

My friends the Fancelli sisters have recently moved to Yandackworroby (I will have to tell you all about how that happened, some time soon), and they have developed a smaller model of the beetle, where the dung ball is the barrel of a "stone rumbler", in which stones are rolled with abrasive powder until they are polished smooth as glass. Three of these rumblers are now in operation at Cootaburra, turning gravel from the Corella River into attractive souvenirs. Then there are the dungball ear-rings, key rings, tea spoons and dung beetles in snowstorm domes, but the true winners are the unintended attractions of the town.

Bob Rutherford had a clever idea, but he never recognised the true glories of the town. Now the city people are coming for longer stays, they are beginning to ferret out the real oddities of Cootaburra which are the mainstay of the town's economic recovery. The Acropolis cafe by the railway station offers "capuccino", where the foam is produced by shaking a two-litre plastic milk bottle. Every kind of steak at the Acropolis is served with a fried egg on top, the only sort of bread is politically incorrect and white, and the Acropolis is always packed by smirking cognoscenti, waiting for some innocent passer-by to react.

Equally packed is the traditional bush Chinese restaurant operating at the town's bowling club, where all of the meals taste like slightly curried sweet and sour monosodium glutamate, just as most bush Chinese food has, ever since the Chinese settled here, after the gold rush days. City people, seeking their mythical rural roots, delight in such things, just as their real and urban ancestors delighted in other types of freak show. But freak show or not, at least it keeps the town economically alive.

The Cootaburra annual Arts festival proved so popular that it now runs four times a year, and it may even be pushed into continuous operation -- the locals may be naive, but they aren't thick! These items are often claimed by Bob's detractors to be the true basis of Cootaburra's recovery, but without the kick- start from that dung beetle, endlessly rolling its ball of dung, day and night, on the hill over the town, Cootaburra would be dead by now, another victim of economic rationalism.

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In the future, there may well be a polyesta-led recovery in the area, but just for now, there is little to be said about this, due to a government embargo.