A town of about 2000 people in the Riverina region of New South Wales, Australia.
Gundagai (GUNdy-GUY) is one of those places that is, almost inexplicably, rather more famous than its size, residents or history would seem to justify. In literature the name Gundagai represents a sort of quintessentially Australian small town.
In pre-European times the Wiradjuri people used the name Gundagai to refer to a spot a little north of the present township. The name might mean 'place of budgerigars', which would fit nicely with the nearby city of Wagga Wagga, 'place of many crows'. It also may mean 'cut with a hand axe behind the knee', which would fit nicely with the location of the town at a bend in the Murrumbidgee River.
Founded in 1838 on the banks of the Murrumbidgee River, Gundagai was a pastoral town, surrounded by pleasant green (by Australian standards) hills suitable for both livestock and crops. The town was bisected and is now bypassed by the Hume Highway, which runs between Australia's two largest cities, Sydney and Melbourne. Being close to the halfway point on the Sydney-Melbourne road meant that Gundagai was always going to be a popular place to stop; perhaps the constant stream of travellers can account for the many authors and poets who have chosen to reference Gundagai in their work.
It takes two hours to drive from Australia's capital, Canberra, to Gundagai. This stretch of road has remarkable elastic properties: no matter how many villages are bypassed, how much faster the cars drive, or how many extra lanes of smooth highway are built, it always takes two hours to drive from Canberra to Gundagai. I have tested this theory every school holiday of my life and it is still holding.
The old town was built on the flat, lush stretch of greenery between the river and Morley's Creek. Now, when I say a river, I mean it's a river by Australian standards. In this ancient, dry landscape, any waterway may be designated a river if it runs all year round most years, and the 'Bidgee is, by Australian standards, one of the bigger waterways. Down by Gundagai the Murrumbidgee is between 50m and 100m wide - you might struggle to kick a footy across it, but you could hit a golfball over easily1.
Remember that lush, flat green bit? That's a floodplain. In 1852 the Murrumbidgee flooded and most of the town of Gundagai was washed away. 89 people, about a third of the population, died in the flooding; another third of the population was rescued by some local Wiradjuri men, Yarri, Jacky Jacky, Long Jimmy, and another whose name is forgotten. After the trauma of the flood, the survivors made a decision that shaped the town as it stands today: they moved the whole town up the hill.
Today's Gundagai, therefore, is a strangely lopsided town. The main street runs along the top side of Morley's Creek, elevated on a steep bank, lined with the usual array of post office, courthouse, pubs and shops. To the north, ranging up the side of a very steep hill, are the houses, schools, police and fire stations, and an impressive collection of churches (not all of which are converted into B&Bs). To the south, behind the shops on the bottom side of the main street, rickety stairs drop down the bank to the level of the creek's floodplain, empty of buildings save for the old mill, a solitary survivor from the old town. From this angle the town might as well be the film set of an old western, beautiful shopfronts propped up in an empty paddock.
In 1867 the Prince Alfred Bridge was opened, the first iron truss bridge in NSW and after a later addition, the longest bridge in Australia (until the Sydney Harbour Bridge was built, anyway). This bridge, an impressive 922m long, spans both the Murrumbidgee and the adjacent Morley's Creek, along with their floodplain, connecting Gundagai to South Gundagai, a 'suburb' of the main town. This bridge was part of the Hume Highway until the 1970s, but has since fallen into a state of specatcular and scenic disrepair. One small section over the river is still in use by local traffic, but most of the bridge is now closed even to foot traffic. It is a sad coincidence that this happened at about the same time as I reached a suitable age to want to walk from my uncle's house at the north side of the bridge to the bottlo on the south.
One benefit of a town built on the side of a very steep hill is that from almost anywhere in town the views are beautiful, and most people can get onto their roof pretty easily from the top side. The christmas lights are really good in Gundagai. And 'downtown' means what it says: the main street is downhill from practically everywhere. People in Australia will sometimes say they are going 'down the street' to mean that they are heading to the main street to visit the shops. Everyone in Gundagai says it. And it's a lovely stroll down the hill to visit those Australian country town institutions: the pub2, the turn-of-the-century cafe, the rissole, and of course the pool. Getting home afterwards is... less appealing, but very good for your glutes.
As one who has spent a considerable part of my life in Gundagai, I am not the right person to advise a visitor. Who can say how much of my affection for the place is the result of happy memories? Is the view from the hill really so beautiful? Perhaps it is that I spent so many hours sitting on the verandah with my grandfather, watching the trucks flying down the highway across the valley, the stars and the mosquitoes coming out to play as the sunset fades into the comfortable dark.
1 Tell you what, I'll test that theory at Christmas too.
2 The Family Hotel has been owned by three generations of Lotts. I thought it was called 'Lotts Pub' and that we only referred to it as 'The Family Hotel' because it was my family's preferred watering hole.