Around the bend

Bruce Elder returns to Australia's first 'big thing', still a working plantation and highway attraction after 46 years.

The Big Banana at Coffs Harbour! Ideal stopover when the kids are ratty, the caravan is dragging and the beaches of the Gold Coast still seem so far away. It has been one of this country's iconic landmarks for nearly half a century.

The merchandising alone is clever and a little overwhelming. Visitors can still gorge themselves on a banana milkshake ($4.50), banana smoothie ($5.50), banana-crunch blizzard shake ($5.50), banana crepe ($6.95), banana split ($6.95), banana-crunch megasundae ($6.95), chocolate-coated banana ($3.50), banana fritter ($6.95), banana bread ($4.50), banana cake ($4.50), banana muffin ($4.50), banana scones ($4.50) and, if that is not enough, a bunch of 30 ''sweet big bananas'' (and they really are huge) for $7.

But wait, there's more: banana jam, banana mango chutney, banana rum butter and banana sauce (all $5.95) and banana cream ($4.95). And, for superior souvenirs, there's a banana toothpick holder, a banana keyring, a banana water pistol, a couple of banana stubbie holders, a banana tea towel, a banana-shaped pen or, wait for it, a banana holder.

You might have thought that all bananas came in the holder that nature intended. Some entrepreneur disagreed with you and has created a yellow plastic banana holder. The function? Who knows? But it does help the Big Banana make the unchallenged claim that its gift shop has shelves stacked high with ''the most banana-related products'' in the world.

Of all Australia's ''big'' attractions, nothing quite compares with the Big Banana. In 1995 it was voted ''the most bizarre and grotesque tourist attraction in the world'' in a survey of young Australian travellers. Opened in 1964, it still attracts more than 900,000 visitors each year. And, most significantly, it is recognised as Australia's first ''big'' tourist attraction and therefore can be regarded as the precursor to every ''big'' thing in the country, from Tamworth's Big Golden Guitar and Tully's Big Gumboot to Victoria's Big Worm and South Australia's unforgettable Big Lobster.

It seems appropriate that the idea for the Big Banana was dreamt up by an expatriate Californian, John Landi, who, in 1962, bought a two-hectare banana plantation north of Coffs Harbour. Two years later he set up a roadside stall to sell bananas. Inspired by the success of the Big Pineapple in Hawaii, Landi decided that a Big Banana would attract customers. He commissioned a local engineer, Alan Chapman, and builder Alan Harvey to create a 12-metre banana. When launched on December 22, 1964, it was touted as ''The Biggest Banana in the World''. It was such an immediate success that within 12 months Landi and his partner, John Enevoldson, had bought an adjoining eight hectares.

Over the years the Big Banana has had a chequered career. Landi sold his share in 1968. The Enevoldsons ran the business for the next 20 years before selling to a local businessman, Bob Johnson, who spent $30 million on a redevelopment only to see the upgraded property go into provisional liquidation in 1989. It was bought by Kevin Rubie in 1993 and has since undergone a slow process of transformation into a Gold Coast-style theme park.

A visitor could quite easily spend a day at the attraction. Modelling it on the hugely successful NSW south coast attraction, the Jamberoo Action Park, the Big Banana's management has expanded the property (there are now 13 hectares of banana plantation) and added an excellent downhill toboggan run and a huge water park with a water slide, reputedly the largest inflatable water slide in the world. It will eventually be replaced by a more permanent structure. There is also an ice-skating rink, giant bungee trampolines and trike rides around the property.

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One of the theme park's most unlikely attractions is the World of Bananas. The idea of two theatre presentations of the history of bananas sounds, at best, like an activity of marginal interest. Yet the history of bananas as presented in the main theatre is fascinating. Did you know, for example, that Alexander the Great introduced bananas to Europe when he returned from India in the 4th century BC? Or that Fijian bananas were introduced to the Coffs Harbour region in 1881 and by the 1930s workers were being imported to pick the bananas? The first migrant pickers were Italians, then later came Punjabi Sikhs, which explains the large Sikh community just north of Coffs Harbour at Woolgoolga.

The second theatre shows a short program on ''the use and value of bananas''. Not something to get excited about, you might think, but in this display the characters appear as holograms and the illusion is so convincingly three-dimensional that when one of them slips on a banana skin, the audience laughs spontaneously.

For those who have had their quest for banana knowledge whetted, there is a short guided tour through the plantation, which explains how the fruit is grown, picked, packed and prepared for market. There's even a banana-intensive games room for children at the end of the tour.

The plantation is now so large and so productive that everything banana-related in the restaurant is made from fruit grown on site.

The theme park is owned by Kevin Rubie and the Village Building Company and the partnership is planning to build rental properties and a retail and dining precinct.

Although it might seem to have changed during the past 46 years, the actual Big Banana, which sits at the front of the complex and above the Pacific Highway, is the 1964 original. It probably deserves to be included on the list of National Treasures.

If the mention of choc-coated bananas brings back memories, it might be reassuring to know that those flashbacks are still shared by tens of thousands of tourists. Between 30,000 and 40,000 choc-coated bananas are sold each year. Who knows how many of them are to ageing travellers, seeking to relive an episode from their childhood?

FAST FACTS

The Big Banana is 565 kilometres north of Sydney and three kilometres north of Coffs Harbour city centre. It's open daily 9am-4.30pm. Entry is free but various attractions within the Big Banana have a range of entry prices and ticket options.

Big Bunch of Fun ticket includes 90 minutes in the ice-skating rink, 90 minutes in the Banana Slip waterslide and fun park, two toboggan rides and a World of Bananas theatre and plantation tour. Adults $33, children (two-13 years) $27.

Blockbuster Pass includes two toboggan rides and a World of Bananas theatre and plantation tour. Adults $16, children $14.

Chill Out! includes 90 minutes in the ice-skating rink and a World of Bananas theatre and plantation tour. Adults $16, children $14.

Cool Runnings Ticket includes 90 minutes in the ice-skating rink and two toboggan rides. Adults $16, children $14.

Slip'n'Slide includes 90 minutes in the Banana Slip waterslide and fun park and two toboggan rides. Adults $22, children $18.

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