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“To the south of Canberra runs a highway that goes down through a country as haunting as it is colourful. The Monaro road to Cooma and the Alps exemplifies many characteristics of outback Australia and points to the past as much as to the future. Therein, perhaps, lies its greatest charm.”

So said the Sydney Mail in 1935. While I agree with that description, what I like most about travelling the road to Cooma is the sky. It’s so BIG. Yes, the landscape is haunting and subtly beautiful, but the sky is magnificent. Looking at that sky is like taking a deep breath and realising that you’ve been shallow breathing for too long. So you spread your arms wide and fill your lungs all the way up.

To the south of Canberra runs a highway that goes down through a country as haunting as it is colourful. The Monaro road to Cooma and the Alps exemplifies many characteristics of outback Australia and points to the past as much as to the future. Therein, perhaps, lies its greatest charm. A painter’s road it is, tocooma-etc-031

The town of Cooma sits in a very interesting spot geographically. You can turn left just before it,  head off across the starkness of the Monaro plain and then down the wooded mountain to the Bega Valley and the sea. That’s one of my favourite road trips. If you feel like skiing in winter or alpine walking in summer, you can go straight through town and be in the Snowy Mountains in an hour. Or you can turn right and find yourself in apple-growing country, with hot springs and caves thrown in for good measure. I’m starting to sound like someone who works in the tourist bureau. 

I went to Cooma recently with a friend who used to live there, and we didn’t go left or right or straight through to somewhere else. We had a nice day in the town instead. I enjoyed seeing it through a local’s eyes, saying hello to people in the street and chatting in the shops. We started with coffee at the pretty Courtyard Cafe and Flower Pantry, which is very Country Style magazine. I often wish my life was a bit more Country Style. A more fitting magazine title, unfortunately, would probably be Suburban Bewilderment. Do you think there’s a market for that?

We went to my three favourite shops in town: the camping shop (I rarely go camping but I like to think that I will go again one day and I like looking at the stuff I might need), the hardware/kitchen/garden shop (paint, pans and plants in one place—what more can you ask for?) and birdsnest. Birdsnest is a brilliant idea and it sells very nice frocks. It started life as a little clothes shop on the main street but is now also an online business employing more than a hundred people. If you’re looking for ways to build a business in a country town, it’s a great example to follow. And did I mention the nice frocks?

 

From the architecture on the main street, it’s clear that Cooma’s been a service town for the region for a long time. It doesn’t have the moneyed feel of some country towns but nor does it have that slightly desperate, closing-down sale feeling of others. It feels like a place that’s comfortable in its own skin. There’s an interesting mix of people: farmers, business owners, and engineers from all over the world who’ve come to work for Snowy Hydro. Also, the ducks in the park are very friendly.

If you need a crocheted echidna or emu tea cosy, the tourist information centre can help you:

It also had all the information I need for the next visit to the Snowy Mountains, the one where I’m planning to turn right and eat apples and swim in the hot springs:

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A new discovery that will have to be added to my list of three (now four) must-visit shops was the little antique shop on the main street. It had a delightfully quirky mix of china and glassware and clothes and books. I was very restrained, but I did buy two beautiful books, both of which appear to have been written in the 1930s and, strangely, both of which are about a boys’ school set on a hill. I had to buy them because of the covers and because of the language: “Unspeakable bounder! I say, there’s going to be a ruction! Do buck up!”

Then I found this:

“Jezebel!” exclaimed the man at the counter when I went to pay.
“How could I not buy it?!” I said.
“I’ll put her between the boys,” said the man as he handed me the books.
“I’m sure that’s where she prefers to be,” I said.

After all that excitement, my friend and I were hungry, so we went for lunch at Rose’s restaurant, which serves up Lebanese home cooking. I highly recommend it. It’s not in an obvious spot, so you need to be a local to find it or you need to read about it in a blog post. There’s even a bellydancer (but not at lunchtime).

“Down along the highway we swung.  Sheep dotted the pastures and some cattle and many moundy hills there were, with gaunt ranges enclosing us — light and colour everywhere.”

That’s the Sydney Mail again, perfectly describing our drive home: light and colour everywhere and, over it all, that beautiful big sky. Thank goodness for country towns and big sky days.