Yes, Parkes is known for Elvis fans and alien hunters. But it’s about to put itself on the map for a very practical reason. By Larissa Dubecki.
From the very beginning, Parkes’ fortunes have been firmly tied to the railway. In 1873, the NSW gold-rush town changed its name from Bushman’s to the more genteel Parkes to curry favour with the premier, named of course Henry Parkes. The move was a calculated one: the town wanted to be added to the Sydney to Molong rail line, a plan that came to fruition a full 20 years later.
The railway is important because Parkes is the front yard of the back of beyond. West of the Great Dividing Range, 400 kilometres inland from Sydney, it’s the farming country from central casting, where fields are punctuated with lambs and branded with the sunny blaze of canola crops.
It’s Wiradjuri country. And it’s Elvis Presley country. The Wiradjuri tribe was the largest in the state, covering about a fifth of NSW, from Coonabarabran to Albury, for more than 40,000 years.
The King, on the other hand, has been in Parkes for 25 years, ever since Anne and Bob Steele were inspired to start a festival during an Elvis party at their restaurant and reception centre, Gracelands.
The Parkes Elvis Festival is now a five-day extravaganza of satin and flares, sideburns and rhinestones that sees 25,000 people flood into the town.
In 2017, the event’s website got 200 million hits worldwide and made the front page of The Wall Street Journal – woe betide anyone who didn’t make accommodation arrangements back when Elvis was alive.
The festival is just one thing that makes Parkes what mayor Ken Keith calls, “A glass half-full kind of place”. The town has had its share of hard times: the ’82 drought and the Millennium Drought were no picnic. But, he says, Parkes is defined by its progressive spirit.
Take the town’s other icon: the 64-metre CSIRO radio telescope (parkes.atnf.csiro.au). Partly thanks to The Dish, the film that immortalised (and partially fictionalised) the observatory’s role in the Apollo 11 moon landing of 1969, it draws more than 100,000 tourists each year.
Among other things, The Dish searches the cosmos for evidence of civilisations on other planets (fun fact: the local League team is known as the Spacemen). But when Federal Minister for Small Business Michael McCormack recently said, “Parkes is the centre of the universe,” he wasn’t referring to its role in Breakthrough Listen, the largest search for extraterrestrial intelligence ever undertaken.
No, Parkes’ latest good fortune is the construction of the 17,000-kilometre Inland Rail. It’s big news – $8.4 billion will be spent on the Melbourne to Brisbane line – and it’s been a long time coming. The idea was first raised in the 1990s but the council has been campaigning for Parkes to become a freight hub since 1969.
In a sign of the town’s “glass half-full” character, it’s been planning its role as Australia’s new transport and logistics hub for several years, just hoping that the Inland Rail would go ahead. Parkes set aside about 600 hectares on the town’s outskirts to create the Parkes National Logistics Hub, all of which has now been sold to major freight and logistics companies.
If that sounds like giddy optimism combined with gambler’s luck, it has been soberly underscored by geographical advantages. Parkes is the only point where the Sydney to Perth rail line and the Inland Rail will intersect, plus most Australians are less than 12 hours away by road. Maybe Parkes really is the centre of the universe. ￼
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