THE PROGRESSION OF THE PACIFIC
Small towns along the Pacific Highway might have been bypassed, but they’re certainly not forgotten! The cash registers are ringing again.
WORDS BY CATHY WAGNER, PHOTOGRAPHY BY ROB AND CATHY WAGNER
The drive from Sydney to Brisbane seems much shorter these days, as you whizz along 397 kilometres of the four-lane divided road. Some call it progress. Others, hit hard by the loss of tourism, lament the effect on their homes and businesses.
We visited several of the bypassed townships to see what, if anything, other small towns could learn from their experiences. We talked to business and locals about what effect the bypass has had on them and how the town has survived.
Roads and Maritime Services had excellent reasons for upgrading the Pacific Highway: to reduce fatalities at black spots and cut down travel time from Hexham to Queensland. No RVer is going to take issue with that – we’ve gritted our teeth for years crawling through roadworks, knowing it was for our ultimate benefit. The small townships along the road, however, watched progress with dismay; concerned about their survival.
Travelling this road for the past forty years, driving from the south coast of NSW to visit family on the North Coast, we’ve seen these changes first hand. The car trip used to take around twelve hours with a couple of breaks along the way. Now we can get there in much less than that. I confess that we never stopped over at the small towns along the way: often the journeys were done at night to fit in with children’s sleep time. Travelling at night with the truckies became the norm, as we took turns at the wheel to avoid micro sleeps.
These days, we don’t have the children to consider. As grey nomads, we decided to take a few detours to find out what had happened to those smaller townships and see whether they had been affected by the bypass. What we found was a mixture of raw emotion, anger and joy as time healed and townships grew, despite most people’s fears.
TIMES OF CHANGE – THE IMPACT ON LOCAL COMMUNITIES
We decided to do our tour in reverse, talking to people in townships who would be affected in the near future as the roadworks moved up towards Brisbane from Hexham. We were heading back from the North Coast, so our first stop was Urunga, where we happened to encounter one of the highway road workers. He was a local, and was unexpectedly finding himself the victim of abuse, as some of the local townsfolk didn’t approve of what was happening. It was a double-edged sword. Whilst he was happy to have a job for a while, he was not happy about the flack he was copping from the locals.
Whenever possible, Roads and Maritime Services and its contractors use local products and services for infrastructure construction projects. We were able to confirm this when we talked to people, and discovered that the locals were a source of food and accommodation for the workers. In June alone there were about 1675 workers onsite. Many of these either lived in the town or were housed locally in the various motels and caravan parks.
Some of the businesses based on the highway felt they were being affected as new road works inhibited their driveways or access to the business. Added to these grievances was the concern that the bypass would take business away from the town. In general, people were obviously fearful of what was happening. Not everyone shared this concern, however. Stan, a local from Woolgoolga, was more philosophical. “Not much has changed,” he said. “Except it’s easier to cross the road now – and the petrol station is being replaced by a bigger Woolworths.” He felt it was a positive move, although he did notice the change in traffic noise as it had now moved further west.
THE ROAD TO RECOVERY
As we continued south, we found that townships which had been bypassed more recently were coming up with creative ways to encourage people to turn off the new highway and take time for lunch or coffee. Signs were often left on a parked trailer for the day, then moved at night when businesses closed.
At Kew, we spoke to a service station proprietor who was now renovating. He told us that he had purchased the business from the previous owner because he decided to retire when the bypass went through. Physically, Kew is just off the bypass via a ramp which means that it’s not far out of the way for travellers. The business owner thought that business had grown as a result.
Local Real Estate agents Jason and Natalie were of the opinion that the real estate market was booming. They felt that many people were doing exactly what we were: stopping to see what these smaller townships have to offer. “Previously there was a large fluctuation of land prices between Kew and the coast,” Jason told us, “but they are slowly catching up and people are cashing in on the opportunity.”
The faster travel time between Kew and Newcastle, and from coastal areas to major towns, has meant an improved lifestyle for many. Natalie suggested that whilst businesses had changed hands, much of this was a positive move. She pointed out that many businesses had opened as a result of the bypass, such as the nearby Produce and Trash and Treasure stores. The local café also appeared to be flourishing and she said that they had noticed the changes within six months of the bypass. Apparently the motel has now been refurbished and the local council has added a dump point to encourage the grey nomads.
RVERS – A SAVING GRACE
Members of the Kew Chamber of Commerce are working together to encourage the council to beautify the centre of townships. “The way to keep the town alive,” Jason pointed out, “is to stay positive and think about what we can do to encourage people to come and visit.” He told us that the road crew from the RMS had liaised with the locals regularly to assist with ideas about boosting business, and that he would encourage other townships who will be affected in the future to do the same.
Bulahdelah is one of the more recent places to be affected, with the bypass having gone through the area in 2013. The local Lions Club was proactive in taking advantage of this halfway position between Sydney and the North Coast; they decided to encourage travelling nomads to free camp by the river. Kevin, from Café on Main, said that their philosophy is to support local business through buying locally. He didn’t feel he had really been affected, although some other local businesses had a more negative attitude.
His belief in being positive and having a positive outlook seems to keep customers coming back. Their recently painted, brightly coloured walls were warm and inviting, and the air redolent with the aroma of fresh coffee. The shop also featured locally produced jams, chutneys and meals. Kevin, a Lion’s Club member, observed that the free camp just across the river had done a lot to support the township’s businesses.
Further south, the locals at Nabiac told us that more caravans were stopping there now. The local caravan sales, repairs and service centre, as well as the caravan storage centre, has encouraged caravan owners to stay. Dan, from the local real estate office, has noticed an interesting trend: since the GFC crisis in 2008, people are gradually recouping their lost funds and investing the money wisely. Many nomads wanting to reduce debt while still being able to travel had purchased homes in these smaller townships close to the coast.
This means that they can rent whilst they travel and still have a base not too far from their grandkids. I must admit that shopping in these smaller towns is easier and more interesting with no parking problems!
Further down at Karuah, we met up with a great group of volunteers at the Karuah Crafts Centre. The local council bought an old service station and turned it into a community centre where locals come to learn new skills and support the community through sales of crafts and art. Two of the locals I spoke to – Hope and Jean from the centre – told me that when the bypass went through ten years ago, there were four petrol stations in town, whereas now there was only one. Jean thinks that the caravan parks are doing well in comparison to pre-bypass years, as they are quieter now. “The township is often used as the meeting point for weddings on the Karuah River,” she said, “and the local oysters are to die for!”
THE FUTURE IS BRIGHT
The Pacific Highway keeps rolling north, constantly being improved. Roads and Maritime say that substantial progress on the upgrade is being made with the completion of the Kempsey bypass, and that the overall Woolgoolga to Ballina Pacific Highway upgrade has been approved by both the NSW and Australian governments.
This means that many more townships will be affected in the near future. Perhaps they should learn from the lessons in the past and, as Kevin has suggested, stay positive. They could also ask, as I did, why Jean and Nola from Karuah speak in terms of ‘celebrating’ the tenth anniversary of the town bypass. Their answer was: “because we have survived, grown and are flourishing!” What a great attitude these people have. Perhaps all Australians could learn from this.