New South Wales: Getting star-struck with the King(s)

By Chris Pritchard

In 2007, Parkes held the distinction of having the most Elvis impersonators in one place at one time. Photo / Supplied
In 2007, Parkes held the distinction of having the most Elvis impersonators in one place at one time. Photo / Supplied

Elvis has left the building. But no one seems to have told the good people of Parkes.

Those I meet swear Elvis Presley - or, at least, his spirit - is alive and living in the central New South Wales town.

Parkes - sometimes dubbed "parched Parkes" - is no longer just another country town dependent on sheep, cattle and wheat.

It has become an important tourist destination for two reasons: the annual Parkes Elvis Festival and the presence of the CSIRO Parkes Observatory.

The renowned observatory - a critical link in obtaining pictures corroborating the first moonwalk in 1969 - anchored the hit Australian film The Dish, starring New Zealander Sam Neill.

The Parkes Elvis Festival - from January 5-9 next year - is so popular that all the town's accommodation is booked up months ahead, with many visitors forced to find lodgings in neighbouring towns.

What's more, Parkes earned a spot in the Guinness Book of Records for the most Elvis impersonators gathered in one place at a particular time after 147 lined up to be counted in 2007.

Since then, the extraordinary Elvis phenomenon - which began with a small festival in 1993 - has attracted even more wannabe hunka-hunka-burnin'-love performers to Parkes.

Elvis has helped put Parkes firmly on the tourist map.

Some impersonators are undeniably superb. Some are, frankly, terrible.

There's even a father-and-son duo - each of whom tries to out-do the other. "Two Elvises for the price of one," whispers a Parkes resident.

And then the are the female Elvis impersonators.

Street parades, concerts, buskers, pub shows, markets and other events are part of an Elvis-flavoured mix.

During a walk through this town of 11,000 people at festival time, curled-lip characters spring out at me at almost every corner and step from nearly every doorway. Rhinestone-studded white suits with flared trousers, beneath wavy Elvis wigs, become almost a uniform.

"You wanna hear me do All Shook Up, mate?" slurs a worse-for-wear Elvis as I manage to side-step him.

I find myself wondering whether the operators of Parkes' other big attraction will one day announce they've found Elvis - in outer space.

A 20km well-signposted drive through classic Australian countryside - complete with eucalypts and kangaroos hopping across farmland - takes me to the CSIRO Parkes Observatory.

Why is it at Parkes? Astronomers tell me two factors were critical: clear skies offering exceptional visibility and easy road access for researchers to major facilities in Canberra and Sydney.

So, the observatory opened in 1961 - but frequent upgrades keep it at astronomy's cutting edge, retaining its role as one of the world's leading facilities for keeping an eye on the sky.

The Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (similar to New Zealand's DSIR) observatory is dominated by a gigantic 64m dish that operates 24 hours a day and is Parkes' most photographed object.

Though most famous for obtaining pictures of the first moonwalk - by members of the Apollo 11 team after their spacecraft landed on the moon's surface in 1969 - the observatory boasts a string of other achievements, too.

For instance, its giant telescope has discovered more pulsars - collapsed remnants of stars - than all the world's other major telescopes combined.

Because researchers work around the clock, visitors aren't allowed internal access to "the dish" - as everyone in Parkes seems to call it.

Instead, an adjoining building - a Visitors' Discovery Centre - is used to explain activity to tourists.

Driving past one night I notice several amateur astronomers near the highway with their portable telescopes aimed at the stars. "It's as if they think proximity to 'the dish' will improve their chances of seeing something interesting," says a local resident, rolling her eyes towards the heavens.

Inside the Visitors' Discovery Centre I find two theatres: one screening a 3D film about outer-space exploration, another featuring films and lectures explaining Australia's role in astronomical research.

Outside the theatres is a large museum-like exhibition space showcasing the observatory's history and current work through photographs and memorabilia - including old equipment.

A film of the historic moon landing plays on a monitor screen in a corner. Recordings of the spacecraft's communications with earth crackle through speakers.

But this is the one place in Parkes with no sign of Elvis.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Air New Zealand, Pacific Blue and other airlines fly to Sydney daily. Parkes, 365km west of Sydney, is served by air (Regional Express: +61 2 6393 5550, rex.com.au), bus and rail. However, travellers on self-drive motoring holidays often break journeys in Parkes on Sydney-Melbourne or Brisbane-Melbourne itineraries.

Where to stay: Numerous options exist in all price categories - including motels, B&Bs, pubs and campsites. A centrally located, good-value, mid-market motel is Country Comfort Parkes, phone +61 2 6863 4333.

Further information: Parkes Visitor Information Centre, phone +61 2 6863 8860.

- NZ Herald

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