Coffs Harbour - The Armpit of Australia

Trip Start Feb 05, 2012
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Australia  , New South Wales,
Thursday, March 8, 2012

At a quick glance of a map of East Coast Australia, Coffs Harbour jumps out as a merry flag on the 800km journey from Byron Bay to Sydney. A night in Coffs breaks this mammoth journey up into more friendly, manageable chunks and consequently as The Lonely Planet puts it, travellers are given 'no choice' but to stop here.

Despite the emphasized necessity of a stop in Coffs, the entry in the guidebook is surprisingly scant. Indeed, the attraction that the author got the most excited about is Coffs Harbour’s ' Big Banana.’ – A huge garish plastic banana that squats on top of an ice-rink, welcoming you into the town.

This Big Banana isn’t as unconventional as it sounds. Australia has a loveably tacky tradition of erecting supersized replicas of random objects and animals in places that have some loose relation to said object. There are approximately 150 big things dotted around the country, but the majority of them are on The East Coast. These marvels include a big penguin, a big avocado, a big paperclip and even a big poo (built in protest at a decision not to reuse waste water in the area of Kiama).

Despite the number of natural wonders abundant in Australia, these Big Things have acquired quite a cult following: with people organizing entire road trips around pilgrimages to them.

Coffs Harbour’s biggest boast is starting this craze back in 1964 with the birth of The Big Banana. It has since become Coffs most treasured attraction. We caught a glimpse of this entity from the bus on the way into town. Surprisingly it wasn't anywhere near as big as I had imagined.

I like to think we are fairly perceptive girls and looking back, I am disappointed in our inability to read between the lines of the guidebook’s review. In retrospect, it is clear that the status of such an object doesn’t really bode well for the town as a cosmopolitan destination.

We were picked up from the bus station in the hostel minibus. As we drove through town, a pregnant silence fell over the group. Coffs Harbour was entirely different to anywhere we’d visited on the coast so far. It was clear people lived here, but there was nobody around. Its shopfronts looked sparse and embarrassed. As if they’d all been put on the shelf to quietly wither away.

We agreed later that on first impressions, Coffs has many similarities to the depressing small fictional town Porpoise Spit from ‘Muriel's Wedding.’ A place of purgatory and faded dreams.

The hostel was perfectly suited to the place. It recalled the motels that inhabit American road movies. ‘The Hoey Moey’ was identical to the dwelling in the film ‘Psycho’ and the directions to our room included the phrase 'just up there past the fake police car.'

That afternoon was taken up by a stroll through suburbia to the local shopping mall. It was very similar to a British suburbia, complete with an abandoned shopping trolley in the stream. It was Sunday afternoon and the mall was sleepy and slightly eerie almost as if the town was in the middle of an apocalypse. The selection of outlets to procure an evening meal had some of us almost in weeps.

We tried to pass the time by spending the evening in the motel bar. It seemed like a sort of halfway house. Burly men in skimpy tank tops with their hair in little rat-tails curled over the bar. We left before the trouble started.

The next day we took a stroll along Coffs Harbour Beach. Which if it had been the first stop on our trip, we no doubt would have loved. But we had been spoiled with beaches further up the coast – so the beach was amiable but not breathtaking. We reached the harbour at the far end and evoked a few strange looks from the other people there. It’s a very industrial place and tourists are obviously a rare breed.

In Coffs’ defence the patchy weather made the place feel even more drab and probably limited further the small collection of things on offer. However, I would advise other backpackers to steer clear and ignore the temptation of a rest stop. We spent the whole time we were there wishing we were somewhere else. The worse part was that if we hadn't been so eager to break up the journey and just stuck it out, we would have been able to catch the last day of the famous Sydney Mardi Gras

After doing a bit of research on Big Things, I discovered that Coffs can’t even claim dismal responsibility for the birth of Big Things. The first big thing, The Big Scotsman, was erected in 1963 in Medindie, beating the Banana by a year. And so the attraction that Coffs clings to so dearly as a marker for its importance and identity, is not even its to claim.

On the road out of Coffs we consoled ourselves with the assurance that our time invested there had not been wasted. At least this way we had seem Oz at both it's best and it’s most mundane. A visit to Coffs Harbour, the equivalent of a weekend away to Slough.
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