“Oh, the kids here do one of those every year” someone shrugged by way of explanation. I continued to gawp, utterly horrified, at the giant papier-mâché edifice hanging only a few meters above my disbelieving head.
Upside down, tethered by his feet and catching the midday sun at odd angles, Jesus was wearing an off-yellow robe. The corners of his mouth drooping sadly (understandably it would seem) Lumps of sun-dried, crusty paper that some unassuming primary school teacher hadn’t been unable to smooth out, protruded from Jesus’ left arm and chest with a tumorous vigour.
The final artistic touch had involved the application – in every imaginable, and indeed unimaginable way – of bright red bloodied paint. Hurled, spattered, flicked and brushed. Not even the tiniest portion of the poor man’s flesh had been left unscathed. My knowledge of the bible is hazy at best, but I could have sworn that Jesus was crucified and not, in fact, accidentally hit by the 11.03 from Paddington. However, this was Coonamble, where as I was to find out, an upside down Jesus is the mildest of idiosyncrasies.
There are two routes to the small outback town. Earlier that day we had set out from Dubbo, known locally as the ‘Gateway to the Outback’ and very soon afterwards left the bitumen, heading towards Quambone. A tiny town, whose main attraction was a white-washed shed that held the prestigious title of ‘The Smallest Library in NSW’. The only people to be found were two bearded locals smoking pot in the garden of a derelict pub.
The first part of our adventure was a morning’s kayak through the protected wetlands of the Macquarie Marshes. The trips are run by local farmers Carolyn Fisher and husband Eric, who provide all the equipment, a friendly guide and a wonderfully bucolic location for a well-deserved lunch after all that exercise!
The Marshes themselves surpassed my greatest expectations. Home to hundreds of species of birds, frogs, fish and somewhat worryingly, snakes, you couldn’t fail to spot something new around every meander of the waterway. The highlight was spotting a red-bellied black snake sunning itself on a log less than a meter from our kayaks, as cormorants, egrets, pelicans and superb parrots glided overhead.
As the burning sun gave way gradually to the beige, hazy warmth of Outback evening, we carried on towards the town where I quite literally found Jesus. Coonamble, meaning ‘cattle dung’ in the Aboriginal language, was at the heart of the pastoral boom across the Western Plains during the mid 1800s, and was the site of some of Australia’s first large cattle stations, which gave it its name. With the migration of many Australians to the urbanised coastline during the latter half of the 20th century, nowadays the population only just creeps over 2,500, but the place has no shortage of character.
After steak and chips in the local bowls club (I was advised against ordering anything more ‘exotic’!) we hit the tiles at the town’s RSL Club. Originally established as a meeting point for returned servicemen, these RSLs are now the life and soul of smaller communities in rural Australia. It certainly didn’t disappoint, with a full house, cheap beers and karaoke into the early hours. The effects of the night before were easily remedied the next day with a fry up at Big Sam’s, the best, and the only breakfast joint in town. I stepped out into the deserted Main Street and the warm air hit me like a hair drier. It was going to be another sweltering day in Coonamble town.
As I glanced upwards to reminisce on my unearthly experience of the previous evening, I was greeted with a pleasant surprise: Jesus was the right way up! Not only was he now standing proud and erect ready to embrace the local residents but there was no blood and gore to be seen! While pondering whether he had just been very thoroughly scrubbed, if this was in fact, a completely new papier-mâché saviour, or indeed a true Easter miracle, my thoughts were rudely interrupted by the horn of my friend’s car. It was time to say goodbye to this wonderfully quirky little town and return to the 21st century.
This time we chose the tarmac, and a detour through Gulargambone, pop: 395, famed for its cast iron galahs that line the roads and parks, erected by residents who want to attract more tourists to their proud home. As we approached what now seemed like a metropolis of 40,000 people, I realised how privileged I was to have seen an Australia that hasn’t lost its rural identity. No marauding backpackers nursing hangovers on a sweltering beach and no sneaker-clad crowds fighting for the perfect shot of Sydney Harbour Bridge. Just umbrella grass tumbling across dusty countryside, friendly locals and one elated British visitor finding herself very much off the beaten track.