Bill Bryson has built a career around humorous observations of tourist destinations. Inevitably he was drawn to Australia, ambitiously attempting to summarise a nation in 19 pithy chapters. It is curious, then, that he can spend most of Chapter 12 of “Down Under” heckling a small town on the mid north coast of New South Wales, called Macksville.
It is possible, I suppose, to construct hypothetical circumstances in which you would be please to find yourself, at the end of a long day, in Macksville, New South Wales – perhaps something to do with rising sea levels that left it as the only place on earth not underwater, or maybe some disfiguring universal contagion from which it alone remained unscathed. In the normal course of events, however, it is unlikely that you would find yourself standing on its lonely main street at six-thirty on a warm summer’s evening gazing about you in an appreciative manner and thinking, “Well, thank goodness I’m here!”
Now is probably the right time to mention that approximately 29 years ago, I was born in Macksville Hospital. I lived in West st, Macksville until I was 16. I have since lived in Sydney, Cambridge (UK), Zurich and now Sydney again. I have holidayed in the Macksville region every summer since moving away.
I must admit that laughter was my first reaction to Macksville’s treatment at Bryson’s hand. There is a lot that hits close to home. However, there are a few facts to be corrected. Either Bryson has embellished for comic effect, or else his powers of observation are somewhat weaker than one would expect for a travel writer.
“I was in Macksville for the night, owing to the interesting discovery that Brisbane is not three or four hours north of Sydney, as I had long and casually supposed, but the better part of a couple of days’ drive.“
Crap. After visiting Macksville, Bryson shows that he has the navigatory nous to find an obscure historical site (pre-satnav era, of course). He has been in Australia for eleven chapters. Having arrived in Macksville, he opens his book of maps. His arrival in Macksville is either moronic or contrived.
“Set on the bank of the swift and muddy Nambucca River …”
Judge for yourself:
Need more photos? Macksville is on a coastal plain. There isn’t a mountain within a hundred miles. The river is never swift, and except for a day or two after very heavy rain it isn’t muddy either (Bryson refers to the “dusty margin” of town, so it is unlikely that rain preceded his visit).
Actually, Bryson’s only experience of Macksville is a stretch of road about 100 metres long in the middle of town. Here is a brief tour of the wider area. Many thanks to the websites / facebook friends from whom I “borrowed” these photos. An Aerial shot of Macksville, looking East.
15 minutes North, the Nambucca River meets the sea. (Thanks, Brad.):
10 Minutes south-west – Scotts Head
5 minutes south-west – Way Way State Forest
20 Minutes south-west: Yarriabini National Park
Bryson wonders at the “miraculous notion” that some people can call this region home. I had a few photos like the ones above on my computer desktop in Cambridge and Zurich. Colleagues wondered aloud why I ever left.
The Chinese restaurant was just across the road as promised, but according to a sign in the window it was not licensed to serve alcohol and I couldn’t face small town Chinese food without the solace of beer.
Macksville Chinese is BYO (Bring Your Own). You find the nearest bottle shop (“Off Licence” if you’re from the UK) and buy your own supply of alcohol. Bryson is in the Macksville Hotel. The nearest bottle shop is across the road – literally 30 metres away, and between the Hotel and the restaurant. Powers of observation…
I have travelled enough to know that a chef does not, as a rule, settle in a place like Macksville because he has a lifelong yearning to share the subtleties of 3,500 years of Szechuan cuisine with sheep farmers.
Perhaps a Chinese family exchanging the communist “paradise” of 1980’s China for Australia isn’t as picky as Bryson imagines. He’ll never know. (I’ve eaten many times at Macksville Chinese. A lot of special occasions – usually birthday dinners – were spent there, so every mouthful is coated in a few inches of nostalgia. I won’t even pretend to give an unbiased review. My optimistic suspicion is: possibly about average.)
Another baffling observation appears in this passage. There are no sheep. The Mid North Coast is a cattle farming region. I’ve driven from between Macksville and Sydney at least 100 times in my life and I’ve never seen a sheep farm. Maybe a couple of lambs. But cows – everywhere. Cows outnumber sheep by 100 to 1 on the Mid North Coast. Exchanging “sheep” with “cattle” in the passage above doesn’t change it’s impact, of course. But I do start to wonder just how often Bryson glanced out the window on his drive north.
So I went off to see what else there might be in Macksville’s compact heart. The answer was very little. … Bub’s [Hotbake] had a substantial range of food, nearly all of it involving brown meat and gravy lurking inside pastry. I ordered a large sausage roll and chips.
`We don’t do chips,’ said the amply proportioned serving maiden.
`Then how did you get like that?’ I wanted to say, but of course I suppressed this unworthy thought and revised my order to a large sausage roll and something called a `continental cheesecake square’ and went with them outside. I ate standing on the comer.
Bryson’s indignation aside, this passage tells the story of a man asking for fried chips in a bakery. Bub’s Hotbake – the clue is very much in the name. Macksville is admittedly light on restaurants, mostly because the larger town of Nambucca is 10 minutes drive away. Matilda’s, for example, comes recommended by Lonely Planet and serves the Barramundi on which Bryson had set his heart. Seafood isn’t hard to come by when the Pacific Ocean is just around the corner. Also, the views of the Nambucca River near Macksville in the pictures above are about 50 metres from Bub’s Hotbake, easily viewable from the picnic tables. Why he stood on the corner – I have no idea.
Bryson hits rather closer to the mark when he notes the struggle that the news has in making world events seem relevant to Australia. The world feels a long way away. It is a long way away. The local newspaper didn’t have the broadest view of world events. The second page of the Nambucca Guardian News once reported that the Macksville Golf Club’s greenskeeper’s dog had recently been feeling ill. A picture of the dog was included. The dog made a full recovery.
And yet, this isolation is not self absorption. There is something about the region that I notice whenever I return. A thought pops into my head as I float in these waters, surrounded by sunshine and sand. I get the feeling that I should do a lot more of this. I couldn’t answer the charge of laziness, but I know what procrastination is (I write a blog!) and this is not it. I am not wasting my time.
My friends and classmates have taken different paths – lawyers, teachers, bankers, graphic designers, builders, parents, the very occasional astrophysicist. Those who have stayed in the area have a different approach to life. Work a small thing. Life is elsewhere. They aren’t loafers, couch potatoes – they work very hard at enjoying life. Surfers and fishermen will rise before dawn and go to extraordinary lengths in pursuit of just the right conditions.
“What did you do for fun, growing up in the country?” You just need to know the right places. Get on your bike, ride along the train line, climb under the bridge, across a small creek, through the barbed wire fence and across a paddock and you’ll find a location known simply as “the tree”. It was the ideal set up: a tall gum tree, leaning over deep freshwater, rungs nailed into the trunk and a rope swing on a high branch. Adrenaline on tap. Macksville is boring – of course it is. It’s a town. It’s where you buy milk. Macksville is not why you live in Macksville.