Trail of the Unexpected: Parkes in New South Wales has two big claims to fame
Saturday 27 June 2009
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.
Station Hotel, 82 Peak Hill Road, Parkes, New South Wales (00 61 2 6862 8444; stationhotels.com. au). Doubles from A$110 (£55).
AstroFest (00 61 395 452 176; parkes.atnf.csiro.au), 18-19 July.
Elvis Festival (00 61 2 6863 8860; parkeselvisfestival.com. au), 6-10 January, 2010.
Parkes Shire Council: 00 61 26 861 2333; parkes.nsw.gov.au.
Tourism Australia: australia.com.
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