Amid the Big Dry, rival towns eye giant boot and brolly

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 26 January, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 26 January, 2003, 12:00am

Australia may be suffering its worst drought - or the Big Dry - in a century, but that's not stopping two towns in Queensland vying for the title of the country's wettest place.

The towns of Tully and Babinda are 90km from each other on the coast of northern Queensland, in sugar cane country which once supported dense tropical rainforests. Both towns are distinctly soggy, receiving more than four metres of rainfall a year, but the argument over which is the wettest has been raging for years.

Now Tully has decided to stick the boot in - literally. Next month, the townsfolk will proudly unveil the world's largest wet-weather boot, in a gesture which they hope will once and for all establish their credentials as Australia's wettest spot.

The A$30,000 (HK$139,000) boot, which will be painted gold, will be six metres along the sole and eight metres tall, and adorned with a four-metre-long green tree frog.

Made of concrete and fibreglass, it will feature an internal spiral staircase which will lead to a viewing platform.

The townsfolk say the idea is to seduce tourists from the nearby highway, and revive Tully's flagging economic fortunes. Global sugar prices have taken a hammering over the past few years, and Tully is a town in decline.

'We're hoping to attract up to 12,000 people a year,' said project co-ordinator Ron Hunt, of the town's Rotary Club. 'We've lost banks and pubs in recent years, and the town is really suffering. The boot will be on the outskirts of town,' he said.

Not to be outdone, nearby Babinda is planning to build a giant umbrella in support of its rival claim.

'There's certainly a lot of rivalry between the two towns but it's fairly friendly,' said Babinda organiser Greta O'Brien. 'They must realise, of course, that we are the wettest town on record as recorded by the meteorological department, so they can't take that away from us.'

Complicating matters further, a third town, Innisfail, also lays claim to the title of Australia's wettest place. But there are dark rumours that ever since the town's rain gauge was moved away from the men's toilet at a local pub, Innisfail's rainfall has mysteriously dropped.

Local drinkers, it is said, were topping up the measuring gauge on their trips to the toilet.

Tully's giant golden boot taps into a strange fondness among Australians for building big objects as tourist attractions. Travel around the country and you will come across a big banana, a big Merino sheep, a big lobster - even a big worm.

On the road north of Sydney, there is a giant replica of Ayers Rock, or Uluru, while the tiny town of Dunedoo in outback New South Wales hopes to capitalise on its name and build The Big Dunny - the world's largest outside toilet.

The obsession with giant objects has a serious side. Across Australia, rural towns are suffering from a drop in the price of wool and wheat, increasing mechanisation in agriculture and declining populations.

Unable to find jobs, young people head for the coast and the big cities in search of opportunities and a better lifestyle.

'Towns like ours are fading lilies,' Mrs O'Brien said. 'It's very difficult when you rely on just one crop like sugar cane. When the farmers stop making money, everything else begins to fall apart.'

Entrusting your flagging economic future to a gigantic concrete pineapple or a monster mango may smack of desperation, but for many towns, it is the only hope they have.