Gundagai, NSW: Track winding back gets busy as country town enjoys a renaissance

When celebrated Australian songwriter Jack O'Hagan penned his classic tribute to Gundagai a century ago next year, the road to the town he immortalised was merely a track winding back. But that famous, though then less frequently travelled, thoroughfare now seems paved with yellow bricklets.

Ever since the pandemic was declared, we've been drawn deeper into our own backyard to long-forgotten places like Gundagai and the nearby Snowy Valley township of Tumut.

By Gundagai, I'm not, of course, referring only to that underwhelming canine atop the meal container off the Hume Freeway, five miles (or, conversely, a much less romantic 7.6 kilometres) from the town snuggled in the generous cleavage of bucolic hills, harbingers of the Snowy Mountains peaks further afield.

The renaissance along the fabled road to Gundagai still has a way to go. But not only does the region now boast some superior accommodation, restaurants and cafes, its true tuckerbox is even set for a comeback.

The Niagara, which dates to 1902, is an art deco Greek milk bar and cafe on Sheridan Street, Gundagai's main drag. It was recently bought by a publicity-shy couple who plan to refurbish it and reopen it as a milk bar and cafe. The sale came as a relief to many in the town who feared it would stay closed forever after it languished on the property market for 18 months when longtime owners, the Loukissas family, put it up for sale for the first time in 100 years.

It was at this cafe during the 1940s that Prime Minister John Curtin tucked into an impromptu midnight repast of steak and eggs.

"It is essentially, the finest remaining specimen of its kind," says Leonard Janiszewski, who co-authored the book Greek Cafes & Milk bars of Australia with Effy Alexakis. He describes it as "a jewel of the period when Greek cafés nourished the nation's appetite for a good feed after a long country drive, or before or after a night out at the flicks."

Now, with long country drives back in a big way, the expected reopening of the Niagara later this year will complement an inspired main street redevelopment which features lyrics from the Jack O'Hagan song emblazoned along landscaped retaining walls.

Although Gundagai does lack a standout restaurant, the arrival of the fashionable Three Blue Ducks collective at Nimbo Fork, a luxury lodge in the nearby foothills of the Snowy Mountains, half-an-hour from Gundagai, has finally helped fill the local culinary chasm, as has the popular Sir George Hotel in Jugiong, half-an-hour up the freeway.

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In Gundagai and around, the smart, more urban-style accommodation choices are a far cry from the "old-fashioned shacks" of O'Hagan's ditty. They've been drawing a different style of visitor to Gundagai, including roadtrippers travelling between Sydney and Melbourne along the otherwise dull Hume Freeway.

Boutique hotel Flash Jack is set off the main street which is studded with historic buildings, including the grand 1928 Gundagai Theatre. It's also around the corner from the Old Gundagai Gaol.

The hotel, operated by the same owners as the perpetually booked-out Kimo Estate, luxury accommodation set on a working sheep and cattle farm, is built in a restored convent with plans for the vacant schoolhouse to eventually become an eatery.

But, in a cautionary dietary note ahead of the Niagara's reopening, Prime Minister Curtin, who was accompanied by his war cabinet during his 1942 visit, died of heart disease. Best go easy on the steak and eggs when Niagara finally reopens and tuck into the signature butterfield trout with capers, garlic, lemon and dill at Nimbo Fork instead.

THE DETAILS

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STAY

Elm Cottage, set on a farm outside of Tumut, bills itself as the "Snowy Mountains' best-kept secret" and the river views from its self-contained accommodation are superb. Rooms at Flash Jack's of Gundagai start from $360 per night. At Nimbo Fork, a luxury fishing lodge open to all-comers, rooms start from in the main lodge building from $320 per night See flashjacks.com.au; elmcottage.com.au; nimbofork.com.au

EAT

The laid-back Three Blue Ducks is open for dinner between Wednesday and Sunday and lunch on Saturdays and Sundays. See nimbofork.com.au The Tumut River Brewing Company, half-an-hour from Gundagai, is a good choice for a casual meal downed by local craft beers. The best places for breakfast and coffee in Gundagai and Tumut are the respective branches of the Coffee Pedaler See trbc.com.au; pedaler.coffee

The writer travelled as a guest of Destination NSW and Visit Riverina.

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