Trail of the Unexpected: Parkes in New South Wales has two big claims to fame

On the adrenalin scale of thrills, Parkes scarcely rates. Or so it seemed at first. This sleepy bush town of 11,000 people is five hours' drive from the heart of Sydney, Australia, threading west beyond the wheat fields of Manildra, across dry creeks, on narrow capillary roads that are studded with wilting cypress trees and drooping eucalyptus.

Why then, in the course of an average month, do visitors flock to this little town, founded in 1862 on the back of the Gold Rush and duly settled into farming respectability and graft? It's a tricky question – unless you're an Elvis fan or a Dish-head.

The Dish is, of course, the Australian movie: a folksy, whimsical, feel-good tale that told the story of man's landing on the Moon. It starred the scientists at Parkes's radio telescope. They were homespun heroes who tracked the Apollo XI landing and beamed the pictures of the moon walk from New South Wales to the rest of the world on 21 July, 1969. In the annals of movies The Dish barely stands out, but in Parkes it's iconic.

"Yep, it put us on the map," said a guy I met at Chester the Chick, a hot food takeaway on Clarinda Street, the main shopping drag (itself a giant leap from Armstrong Street and one small step from Moon Crescent). Before The Dish came out in 2000, 50,000 visitors a year beat a track to the telescope; one year later and that number had doubled.

The following morning I drove the 12 miles north. A faded moon forlornly hung above the fields – and suddenly, cresting the line of smudgy pines in the bluish light, there loomed the Dish itself.

Seen close up, the Dish is elegant, poised, in touch with galactic space, its movements stealthy. I was invited to climb the ladders, to enter the sanctum bedecked with panels and baffling dials, to stand staring up at the steel parabola reaching out into distant space. Below me lay the visitors' centre (freely open daily, except Christmas and Boxing Day), where visitors can take a virtual tour of Mars. You can also check out the Dish's greatest hits (visiting quasars millions of light years away, and finding the double pulsar – one of astronomy's holy grails).

I ran into John Sarkissian, the operations scientist, and an adviser during the filming of The Dish. With John was Neil Mason, who was responsible 40 years ago for cranking the radio telescope into position, pinpointing the signal from the moon.

"The movie drama really happened. The wind was gusting," said Mason. "We didn't know if the Dish would hold or break." The irony was that Parkes had been chosen as the telescope's location because of its record of windless weather as well as isolation from interfering radio energy.

Now, each year there's a three-day AstroFest, held in July, when the radio telescope plays host to a serious scientific gathering. "This year," said Sarkissian, "we'll be marking the 40th anniversary with special events for everyone." There are plans to re-run the movie out in the paddock, with flights in a helicopter, a moon-boot throwing contest, and a Frank Sinatra lookalike singing "Fly Me to the Moon". "It'll be a premier event with lots to do," said Sarkissian. "Plus tours of the Dish."

The nearby Dish Café spoils you for choice with its Meteor Muesli and Space Station Sandwiches served with "rocket fuel". But the Elvis vibe was upon me. I ordered a Dish Burger – king-sized of course – garnished with pineapple, egg and chips.

This set me up for an afternoon date with Ellie Ruffoni. "Welcome to Parkes," she said. "The well-known Elvis capital of Australia". Then she handed me a pair of outsized shades.

Parkes, in pop-music parlance, went platinum in 1994 when a couple of Elvis fans ran an Elvis weekend to celebrate the King's birthday. Now, every January the town is gripped by Elvis fever, doubling its population. Ellie described it all as "surreal, all these Elvises doing ordinary things".

The best is apparently yet to come. "Next year the theme is Viva Las Vegas," she said, and I pictured Parkes in lights with the Dish bedecked as a giant roulette wheel.

For four crazy days Parkes will bop to the sound of hip-grinding tribute acts and impromptu celebrations. It was a giddy thought that left me peckish enough for a Love Me Tender Steak and a bowl of grits on Clarinda Street's strip: the moon and the star in a single, small Australian town.

Staying there

Station Hotel, 82 Peak Hill Road, Parkes, New South Wales (00 61 2 6862 8444; au). Doubles from A$110 (£55).

Visiting there

AstroFest (00 61 395 452 176;, 18-19 July.

Elvis Festival (00 61 2 6863 8860; au), 6-10 January, 2010.

More information

Parkes Shire Council: 00 61 26 861 2333;

Tourism Australia:

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Ashdown Group: Technical IT Manager - North London - Growing business

    £40000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A growing business that has been ope...

    Recruitment Genius: Technical Supervisor

    £24800 - £29000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: As one of London's leading Muse...

    Recruitment Genius: Centre Manager

    £14000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

    Guru Careers: Accountant

    £28 - 45k (DOE): Guru Careers: An Accountant is needed to take control of the ...

    Day In a Page

    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before