From Hay to Temora, the tiny towns that are worth a stopover

The sunset viewing area near Hay offers views across the flower-filled fields. Pictures: Michael Turtle
The sunset viewing area near Hay offers views across the flower-filled fields. Pictures: Michael Turtle

About 16 kilometres out of the south-west NSW town of Hay is a designated sunset viewing area. Not long after I arrive at my accommodation, with the clock ticking towards the end of the day, I head out there.

I have to confess I was a bit sceptical heading to an official sunset viewpoint. After all, this is the Hay Plain. If you've ever driven it yourself, you'll know that it all looks almost identical along the seemingly endless highways that cross it. I'm told the Hay Plain is about the same size as Switzerland (40,000 square kilometres) but there's not even a bump, let alone a mountain, on the vast flat tracts of fields.

But when I get there, I discover a large parking area, some outdoor furniture, space to lay out a picnic or some near-evening drinks. Whether the view at this spot is any different to other places in the Hay Plain is irrelevant. As I watch the sun dip below the horizon, turning the smattering of clouds pink and casting a golden blanket over the flower-filled fields, I realise it's worth stopping somewhere for this moment!

 The walking trail along the Murrumbidgee River in Hay

The walking trail along the Murrumbidgee River in Hay

In the US, they talk about 'flyover cities', the places your plane passes over on your way to somewhere better. In Australia, I think we have 'drive-through towns' but, more often than not, this reputation is not deserved - and Hay is a great example.

For a town called Hay, there isn't much of it grown here. This is sheep country, one of Australia's leading wool-growing regions. It's an industry with a long history and much of it is immortalised at Shear Outback, a modern museum that offers an insight into the heritage of shearing here. The clippers, the characters, the country life - it's all on display. But the highlight is the real shearing shed and regular demonstrations, where you can see close-up how hard this work is.

Jack Walliss is doing the demonstration when I pop in. He was a shearer for 33 years and would do about 150 sheep in an eight-hour day.

Jack Walliss demonstrates sheep shearing at Shear Outback in Hay.

Jack Walliss demonstrates sheep shearing at Shear Outback in Hay.

"You've gotta be really fit, but it's a different fitness from someone jogging around or doing push ups," Jack tells me. "A lot of young blokes don't want to do it today because it's just too damn hard work... and the sheep are getting bigger!"

Aside from Shear Outback, Hay has historic buildings from the late 1800s, a museum of the town's WWII prisoner-of-war camp, and stunning walking trails along the mighty Murrumbidgee, past camps where you can stay overnight for free. I make a mental note to spend longer here next time.

Continuing on my road trip east along the Sturt Highway, I next reach Altina Wildlife Park, one of the most unexpected stops along the way.

One of the vehicles taking a tour through the Altina Wildlife Park.

One of the vehicles taking a tour through the Altina Wildlife Park.

From the highway, it looks like a small roadside zoo, perhaps a hobby or a money-making scheme. But beyond the entrance is an enormous 207-hectare property with some of the world's most exotic species. In large open-air enclosures, there are lions, hyenas and giraffes. There are Mongolian horses, Himalayan Tahr, and Indian antelope. Almost all the animals here are threatened species - and that's the point of Altina Wildlife Park, to be a breeding centre for those that are at risk. Tourism is almost an afterthought and the only way you can visit is by booking a two-hour tour in advance. You'll be driven around the zoo and at each enclosure the guide will share information and possibly feeding.

Up close, I stare right into the mouth of a lioness that has been trained to roar so the keepers can check her teeth. I see the way the African wild dogs work as a pack. A baby bison is just as adorable as you might imagine. It's quite incredible to find something like this hidden away in the Riverina of New South Wales.

Checking the teeth of a lioness at the Altina Wildlife Park.

Checking the teeth of a lioness at the Altina Wildlife Park.

It's not the last of the fascinating discoveries I make along this stretch of the drive. These attractions are well known by locals, probably fondly remembered by those who've visited, but I suspect unknown to the majority of Australians. One of the real hidden gems is the Temora Aviation Museum.

In the small town of Temora, population 6600, is one of the world's best collections of historic military aircraft, with about 14 planes representing the range that defended Australia, the oldest being a 1925 Gipsy Moth. But what makes them even more special is that they can all still fly! There's the world's only flying Hudson and only flying Canberra, and normally they would be taken up into the skies above the museum for regular showcase events.

Volunteer Malcolm Chaplin gives a tour at the Temora Aviation Museum.

Volunteer Malcolm Chaplin gives a tour at the Temora Aviation Museum.

I'm shown around by volunteer Malcolm Chaplin, who worked in aviation but describes it as his passion. He's obviously picked me as someone who is interested but doesn't know too much about military aircraft, and offers just the right level of information.

"Just to see the aircraft restored and in operating condition and maintained that way, the stories involved with them, and the people that used to fly them - it's incredibly satisfying," Malcolm tells me.

The machines are, in many ways, the avenue to be able to tell the stories of the people who fought for their country, and that's a big focus for the museum. What still amazes me, though, is that this huge complex with multiple hangars and a world-class collection is in such a small 'drive-through town'.

Whether it's for the planes, the wildlife park, the shearing museum, the sunset, or the countless other attractions across regional Australia, it's definitely worth stopping.

WHAT TO DO:

WHERE TO EAT:

WHERE TO STAY:

  • In Hay, there are wonderful unique rooms in a heritage building at The Convent.
  • In Temora, you can have the whole place to yourself at Thelma's Cottage.

Michael Turtle was supported by Destination NSW. He will be bringing you new ideas each week for travel within Australia. You can see more details on his Travel Australia Today website.

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This story The drive-through towns that will make you want to stop a while first appeared on The Canberra Times.