Go Big, Young Man

Part exercises in sublime kitsch, part monuments to national pride, and 100 percent Australian: David Prior on The Big Things that taught him about travel, exploration, and nostalgia.

It’s looking very likely that this coming summer for many of us is going to be the season of the road trip; we’ll be rediscovering our own country, wherever we live.

This, for me—an Australian, born and raised in Queensland—is funny and nostalgic and poignant in all sorts of ways. In the ‘80s, when I was a kid, road trips were what Australian families did. It was the quintessential middle-class vacation. Jaunts to Europe, beaches in Southeast Asia, skiing in Japan: all these trips that Australians now go on so conspicuously, were then the preserve of only the wealthiest. Most of us piled into our cars a couple of times a year and went.

And actually, I hated road trips. It was my worst nightmare, to be in a car for hours and hours. Travelling what I then often thought of as dry nothingness, so far away was it from the landscapes of Narnia or some other foreign book or film that had captured my young imagination. We need to remember here that Australia is gigantic, bigger than the continental US; and everywhere was hours upon hours away by car. And air travel was absurdly expensive, especially for a family of six. We often drove the half-day to the deeply un-cool beach town where we had a flat for three weeks every summer. We regularly drove the 13 hours to Sydney—that impossibly faraway Emerald city, so it seemed to the mini-Dorothy that was me. And we’d drive the even longer route to Melbourne (which was really far, and the city of intimidating culture: Cafes. Galleries. Museums!)

I was the youngest of four and so was relegated to the very back seat, where I watched the vast countryside go interminably by. I didn’t have a mature enough understanding of distance calculations to say to myself, “We must be about a third of the way to Sydney by now.” What I did have, though, was The Big Banana.

The Big Banana is said to be the oldest, and is definitely one of the most famous, of what are known as The Big Things of Australia. Wikipedia defines them as “a loosely related set of large structures, some of which are novelty architecture and some are sculptures.” It’s estimated there are about 150, scattered across every state and region of the country, most of them along or close to major highways. They’re usually made of fiberglass, and they are always massive. They’re a weird, singular and quintessentially Australian phenomenon, whose existence no one can definitively explain or justify: kitschy-hilarious-charming symbols of a town’s signal farming or agricultural industry, the pride of its enterprise.

You find quite a few of the better-known Big Things along the Bruce Highway—a kind of uber-Australian hybrid of California’s Highway 1 and Route 66, that runs along the coast of Queensland. There’s The Big Pineapple, another of the markers of my childhood (I couldn’t have told you how many miles it was from our house to the town where we rented a place each summer; but I knew that when we spotted The Big Pineapple, signalling our exit, my summer got started in earnest). There’s The Big Orange, and The Big Mango, and The Big Barramundi, and the Big Macadamia. In New South Wales, besides the beloved Big Banana (constructed in Coffs Harbour in 1964), there are the Big Avocado, The Big Wine Cask, The Big Oyster. And, in Ballina, near Byron Bay, the iconic Big Prawn.

When I was a kid, The Big Banana was more than just a huge fibreglass fruit sitting incongruously by the highway: it was an attraction. There was a small banana plantation which you could tour, and a banana-themed gift shop, and a café where my mother would buy us banana smoothies (not today’s acai-protein supplement-green variety: this was vanilla ice cream with a candy-stripe straw all the way).

In my mind, though, and the minds of myriad Australians, what The Big Things were most of all, were signposts of the travel experience as we knew it. They represented the Australian road itself; they demarcated for us the act of exploring our country.

To understand where The Big Things sit in the Australian consciousness, it bears noting that Australia was a different place then. It was a very egalitarian, good-natured place—a middling world power at best, but with a quirky exoticism that somehow managed to resonate abroad; we were distant caricatures. It was the era of Bob Hawke and of Crocodile Dundee.

The tall poppy syndrome was in full effect then; modesty was inherent to the national character, but so was a larrakin humour that suffused everything, and I hope still does. Back then if you had posted a picture of yourself flying business class to Italy for a week on the Amalfi Coast, you’d have been crucified by your friends. Wanker would be the precise word for it. But The Big Things were—are—a manifestation of that slightly forgone national identity. They were a funny nod to genuine pride, delivered with self-deprecation—or at least, with a big wink, as witnessed by their design and execution. (Where else in the world would 33 tonnes of fibreglass be deployed in the creation of a 40-foot-tall prawn next to a highway?)

Later, when the economy started to boom, and enormous wealth arrived in Australia—and Australians started to get real fancy—the Big Things became part of what we used to call the cultural cringe (Wikipedia: “an internalized inferiority complex that causes people in a country to dismiss their own culture as inferior to the cultures of other countries”). Capri and Niseko and Bali became much more the norm; Sydney and Melbourne became ‘world-class’ cities, where Australians and tourists both wanted to be. Somewhere along the way, Australians stopped taking nearly as many road trips.

But many Australians cringed, few actually lost their love for The Big Things. They’re a bit chipped and a bit daggy, but the national affection for them I suspect still runs deep: witness how in 2014 investors stepped in to save The Big Prawn in Ballina from demolition, donating $400,000 to its relocation and restoration; and witness how a handful of them have achieved heritage recognition.

More recently two major events have caused Australians to turn a bit inward for the first time in decades towards their own country. First, the bushfires, which drove home with brutal force how deeply our identity is linked to the land. Australians may dwell in cities, but our coordinates as a nation are in the deep in the bush. Then, Covid-19—to which the collective national reaction was amazingly coherent. It had the effect of binding Australians to a common cause; it felt from where I was watching like the Australia of my childhood road trips. Egalitarian. Everyone hunkered down regardless of political stripe or income bracket, just like everyone has posed for a family photo in front of one of The Big Things.

Now, whether for economic reasons, travel-restriction ones or a combination of both, Australians are, for the immediate future at least, going to be staying in Australia. And Australians are not alone; many of us will this season be exploring our own backyard anew. This will likely be only one season, after which we’ll all be off exploring the world with renewed vigour.

However this year may be the rediscovery of the great road trip. It will be rediscovery by necessity of course; but in the process we can all tap some of that identity of old. We can stop at the side of the road and remember the simple pleasures of a banana, pineapple or even a giant prawn.

Co-Founder and CEO David Prior was formerly Contributing International Editor of Condé Nast Traveler and Contributing Editor at Vogue Living. David was named by Bloomberg Businessweek as “One to Watch” in 2018 as part of the publication’s prestigious Global 50: the people who defined business in 2017.

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