Discovering just how big the country is
Words & images © Paul Ransom
Recently I had the opportunity to spend a few days in the country and so, eager to shake off the bustle of the city and breath some less polluted air, I booked myself into a ‘holiday park’ in one of Australia’s many coastal towns. I won’t name the place (in order not to unfairly impugn it or unleash an agrarian jihad) but suffice it to say that the picturesque brochure image of unspoilt natural beauty and cosy hamlet warmth was not backed up by reality. Indeed, the town in question, though surrounded by glorious coastline and fringed with lovely forested foothills, looked more like a tribute to outer suburbia circa 77-89, complete with ugly Meccano set architecture, empty ‘for lease’ arcades and junk food franchises. Not exactly the villagey quaintness of sea-change fantasy.
But that’s not all. What struck me was…well, how can say it…just how big many of the locals were. By big I mean obese. Staggeringly enormous. In fact, some of these folk would qualify in the small whale category. At first I thought I was dreaming, but throughout my eight day stay I kept encountering hugely overweight people. Maybe they’re overfed tourists, I mused – only to be corrected by the obviously local “g’day Val” banter between the various blimps in cafes, supermarkets, etcetera.
But before we lurch into excessive fat shaming, what I’m driving at here is not so much the scale shattering immensity of certain locals, but the deeper myth of country; for here in Australia we are wedded to our cherished ‘Bush’ heritage. In this narrative, life in The Bush is noble and country people are the straight talkin’ heart and soul of good ol’ Aussie blah blah. Conversely, we city folk are lazy degenerates sending the nation to the dogs. Guys like me are queer-arse leftist elites who wouldn’t know an honest day’s work if it socked us in the jaw. Australia’s mythic heart still beats somewhere out on its very wide, drought prone plains.
However, it’s not just agricultural workers and cynical politicians who foster these simplicities but dissatisfied city slickers. There is, after all, an almost innate appeal about country life. I mean, who wouldn’t want clean air, broad horizons and a less stressed out existence amongst all those trees? At least, that’s what we think here in the West – and so, whilst our Asian and African brethren stampede in droves towards an ever-increasing number of megacities, those of us in the post-industrialised North are, like caged birds, pining for the fjords. Here in Australia, the Real Estate marketers are busily spruiking ‘lifestyle towns’ to jaded urbanites and, ever quick to spot a bandwagon, our governments have cottoned on, talking up regional renewal and selling the healthy, invigorating freedoms of rural living.
Because, now that life comes in a range of styles, why not choose rural nirvana? After all, the houses are cheaper. Add to that the internet’s promise of gig portability, and it’s easy to imagine a steady stream of former execs and freelance hacks filing up the coast or off into the hinterland for a life of lifestylin’ it in The Bush. Just like all those TV shows, where everyone gets to reinvent themselves as an organic farmer or host their own quirky talkback show, and in the process discover the boundless virtues of a less sedentary, more spacious existence.
Perhaps foolishly, this is what I pictured when I took myself off for an eight day seaside sojourn – and sure, the city escapees were there (mostly in caravans) but the hale and hearty farm and fisher folk of Aussie legend were distinctly lacking. Or should I say, they’d run to fat. So much for toiling in the fields. The ‘hard yakka’ was obviously being done by someone else.
So, is it the hole in the ozone layer that’s driven them from the paddocks, or the 2-for-1 combo of Netflix and Uber Eats that’s lured them into their relatively affordable loungerooms? And what happened to all that home baked bread and farm fresh food? Ah yes, that’s right, it got squished into the enormous 4WD for the two minute trek to the drive-thru for a deep friend, sugar soaked, chemically enhanced premature death burger.
Whatever it is they’re doing out there in that beautifully located town, it certainly isn’t keeping the weight off. Nor do they appear to be choosing the healthy options menu. Alongside the usual fat food franchises, the township boasted an array of fish ‘n’ chip shops. Indeed, even in the so-called cafes, the veg focaccias glistened with a buttery sheen and offered up a substantial salt high.
The standout moment of the week came one lunchtime, when, nestled in my corner with long black and relatively benign toastie concoction, I observed a somewhat generously proportioned couple roll into the venue. Again, they chatted like locals with the waitress before settling in next to me; where, instantly curious, I kept a furtive eye on their order. But somehow, maybe cynically, I already knew.
Yet even my lazy assumptions could not prepare me for the immensity that followed. With all due respect, when a clearly and uncomfortably overweight person guzzles a milk shake and a can of Fanta before destroying a huge plate of burger and fries, (and then palpably struggles to stand up afterwards), you have to wonder what’s going on.
Obviously, I am not privy to this person’s particulars, nor indeed to any of the back stories of the denizens of fat land, but still I was struck. This is meant to be a lifestyle town, I thought. Fishing, hobby farming, long beach walks with happy hounds and squealing grandkids. Jeez, maybe even a veggie patch and a bit of fresh picked bartering at the weekly farmers’ market. Surely all that sturdy, rural, backbone of the nation stuff thrives on outdoor vigour and a willing physique? Well, not in this town. Here, the great Aussie Bush spine is curved, vertabrae crushed together by the downforce of a billion empty pizza boxes and softened by too many years spent watching re-runs of Farmer Wants A Breeder.
Levity notwithstanding, good agricultural practise is quite clearly vital to our survival and the communities that grow our food are deserving of our profound gratitude. For, despite our often rosy and romantic vision of country life, farming is a notoriously tough and uncertain business and the lack of services and conveniences that we in the city take for granted imposes real restrictions on the citizens of The Bush.
And yet, on every street, in every shop, at every eatery, the gargantuan gathered in slow moving numbers. I am not sure how to interpret this (or even if it’s worth interpreting) but I was jolted by the preponderance of bulging bellies, bat wing arms and super-size thighs. Then again, perhaps modernity has finally breached the city/country divide and AI bots are doing all the tilling, thus leaving the humans to do the hard yakka of pushing their own sagging bodies from remote control to chip shop. After all, if standing up makes you wheeze and it’s an effort to lift your feet off the floor when you walk, who needs a hammer and sickle to be the true soul of a nation?
I mean, they breed ‘em tough out bush, don’t they? On the broad acres of the great Aussie lifestyle farm simply moving is a form of regular resistance training and staying upright is akin to a full-on weights programme. So yeah, city slickers, maybe we can just carry on with readying the nation for the great canine takeover, safe in the knowledge that our regional friends are doing most of the heavy lifting.