It’s amazing what a splash of colour can do to a space — or an outback town in this case. The long and winding roads in Western Australia's south-west have morphed into something of whimsical art experience.
Paving the way towards Australia's biggest outdoor art gallery is FORM. The non-for-profit art and cultural collective saw potential in the region's existing blank canvases — grain silos. Collaborating with grain handlers Co-operative Bank Handling (CBH) they summoned local and internationally renowned artists to transform the region's industrial towers into contemporary masterpieces.
Today, six massive murals form the PUBLIC Silo Trail, linking rural and coastal towns, from Northam to Albany. The once eyesores are now must-sees within these regional towns. This on-road art gallery experience hasn’t just brought world-class creativity to an industry dominated landscape, it has woven itself into the region's social fabric and rejuvenated tourism.
With my travelling crew, I was ready to embark on a gallery experience of epic proportions.
I came for the art, but the gallery experience of epic proportions became more vibrant when I saw what an outstanding paint job can do for these communities and their unique cultural flair.
FIRST STOP — NORTHAM SILOS
My GPS was set east to head Northam, 100km from Perth, the start of this grand trail. Northam first received its colour treatment back in 2015, with internationally renowned artists Phlegm (UK) and Hense (USA) transforming eight 38m silos into Northam's most iconic artworks.
As it remains a working site, the murals are to be admired from a short distance away. It's for the best, as the scale of Hense's block-colour abstract interpretation of the heritage town's landscape and Phlegm's imaginative cartoonish take on Western Australia's hot air ballooning hub was a work out for the neck.
The Aboriginal Cultural Centre, Bilya Koort Boodja, located along the Avon River foreshore in Northam's CBD, is another way to capture the essence of Northam. Opened in August 2018, the world-class exhibition centre celebrates the culture of the Nyoongar people, showcasing their historical and environmental presence in the Nyoongar Ballardong region through giant screens and interactive educational displays.
Northam's hospitality scene is also under the influence of traditional and cultural ties. At the grassroots level, there is The Hill Cafe Company. Not just a typical country bakery, the community cafe takes its inspiration from the land, serving indigenous flavoured tea, kangaroo meat pies, emu egg with roasted beets and feta tarts, kangaroo skewers and lemon myrtle curd. Better yet, the cafe trains to overcome addiction and re-enter the workforce as part of the Fresh Start Recovery Program. Knowing this made the obligatory country bakery pit stop that extra bit satisfying and the thought of going for seconds guilt-free.
A new lease on life has also been given to the Farmer's Home Hotel. Heritage champion Nigel Oakley has restored the once-notorious pub on the main strip to the town's flashiest meeting point, with bespoke accommodation, wine bar and expansive Dome cafe.
SECOND STOP — MERREDIN SILOS
It took three hours travelling along the Great Eastern Highway to arrive at Merredin, an open-air museum into WA's past. Built in 1893, the 15-metre-tall Railway Water Tower, advertising the now-defunct Kalgoorlie Bitter, shares the sky with the heritage town's latest cultural starlet.
Local artist Kyle Hughes-Odgers's geometric-heavy depiction of Merriden spreads across four 35-metre silos. The murals colourfully characterise Merriden's relationship with its community, agricultural practices and landscapes.
The flow-on effect from Hughes-Odgers last paint roll have continued to be felt. Self-proclaimed 'Wheatbeltian' resident Renee told my travelling group that, “the silos have created a conversation, both good and bad."
Despite featuring on opposing ends of the conversation spectrum, it has delivered on what was intended — making Merriden a focal point.
THIRD STOP — KUKERIN
The drive to Kukerin was made even sweeter by the vivid wildlife scenery. Its landscape is littered with white and salmon gum forests, seas of yellow and purple lupins. It provided a striking contrast to the west's bright blue skies.
But its natural beauty wasn't the only scenic attraction en route. Road trippers can hone their Greg Norman skills by swinging into action along a section of the Nullarbor Links, the world's longest golf course. The uniquely Australian outback experience encompasses an 18-hole golf course, spanning over 1300km from Kalgoorlie, WA to Ceduna, SA.
The quirkiness doesn't stop here. The moniker 'Tin Horse Highway' has been adopted for parts of the Gorge Rock–Lake Grace Road to pay homage to the region's annual Kulin Bush Races. 70 eccentric tin horse creations populate this 15km stretch, making this leg of the drive a stop-start scenario for the snap-happy and those who appreciate the community's good humour.
Kukerin is the centre of the world when it comes to snappy delicacies — WA yabbies — with family-run Cambinata Yabbies being the world's biggest exporter. The freshwater 'mini-lobsters' make for an exceptional outback foodie experience worthy of the stowaway fork.
FOURTH STOP — NEWDEGATE SILOS
We passed Lake Grace, a salt lake resembling a pearl white sea, to reach Newdegate, where Western Australia's native wildlife has reached new heights thanks to Perth's seasoned muralist Brenton Lee. The effects of Lee's bright silo illustrations of the region's flora and fauna — bearded lizard, thigh spotted tree frog, malleefowl and rare marsupial, the red-tailed phascogale — have been positive.
"Art has opened up Newdegate to everyone," resident Rocky commented, and local coffee vendor Happy Caravan is now brewing full time to meet visitor demands.
Another Newdegate attraction luring those in search for the quirky is the Hainsworth Museum, while the former general corner store, filled with relics from supermarket goods to clothing, trinkets and household goods of yesteryear (a century-old Australian Household Guide by one Lady Hackett was an amusing flick-through!), is a heart-warming window to the past.
FIFTH STOP — PINGRUP SILOS
Miami-based artist EVOCA1 summed up country life in Australia’s south-west perfectly in his homage to local farming communities. Colossal, life-like imagery of a jockey riding a horse, a dog on a tractor and a farmer carrying a lamb is splashed across three silos.
Locals saw the artwork as an opportunity to capitalise on the tourist market, resurrecting a former restaurant and turning it into a volunteer-run cafe. Sitting opposite Pingrup Caravan Park, The Store Cafe 6343 is changing the notion of what an outback cafe should be. It’s inner-city Melbourne meets bush, with its tasteful, trendy décor and gourmet food you would expect to find at an urban cafe.
The afternoon was fast-tracked with happy hour at Western Australia's most inland winery, Walkers Hill Vineyard. Despite being in an unusual locale for a decadent drop, the 7.5 acre winery delivers on taste.
SIXTH STOP — KATANNING
Katanning is experiencing a coming of age. A stunning series of artworks painted across the town and a refurbished flour mill factory has contributed to the town's newfound artistic allure.
The Premier Mill Hotel has also put Katanning on the map as a boutique luxury getaway. Heritage crusader Nigel Oakely's famous purchase of the derelict 1891 building for just $1 has ushered it into a new era. The sleek restoration was guided by the architecture of the building's century-old machinery. Sharing space with industrial artefacts proves to be a unique five-star experience.
Its dimly lit, basement Cordial Bar, formerly the engine room, was an easy pick for a cosy nightcap, but selecting what to sip wasn't so — 12 local wines on tap are enough for any wine connoisseur to go wide-eyed with enthusiasm for a drop (or three).
Proving that the old can be young again, Katanning's playground is also dangerously fun for all generations. It features a skate park, miniature railway, giant slides and plenty of BBQ areas.
SEVENTH STOP — DENMARK
A trip to the Great Southern is worth savouring in order to appreciate a different kind of art.
Denmark's boutique vineyard, Single File Wines, are the darlings of the Western Australian wine scene, having featured in Gourmet Traveller's 2019 ‘50 Top Wine Experiences in The World.’ The wineries' select pairings of innocent vices — wine and artisan Cuvée chocolate — is a gastronomic voyage with sugar highs from all angles.
The vineyard's rolling verdant hills provided a pleasant precedent to other green-lit splendours that lay ahead.
EIGHTH STOP — VALLEY OF THE GIANTS
Murals aren’t the only feature of the region, and, even though it was a detour, it was worth branching out as I climbed to new heights in the Valley of the Giants. The state's famous tree-top walk climbs 40 metres amongst towering red tingle eucalyptus trees, which can reach up to 75 metres. Cosying up to the natural skyscrapers and admiring the views of the ancient forest below your feet is nothing short of remarkable.
NINTH STOP — ALBANY SILOS
We reached the coast and came face to face with Ruby — Albany's tiny resident on a large scale. Albany's rare sea dragon has been immortalised across four silos at the town's port by dynamic Brooklyn duo Yok & Sheryo. The quirky 35-metre tall caricature joins other artworks to bring a flood of colour to Albany's streets.
Where life remains black and white is at Albany's National Anzac Centre. The award-winning museum overlooks the last port of call where over 41,000 citizens departed Australia to join the Great War. A stroll through the centre is a solemn affair, with the Anzac legend recounted in interactive multimedia displays.
Liberation comes in the form of Parisian-themed bar, Liberte. The bars' kitsch, bohemian décor is as refreshing as its French-Vietnamese fusion inspired dishes. Liberte is an excellent example of towns seeing the need to innovate and diversify their regional social fare. Liberte and Ruby add to Albany's intertwined historical roots and cultural fascinations.
It is a pleasure to see neighbouring towns also taking advantage of these iconic art installations. No one would have predicted the positive impact of a multi-hued makeover, and these communities futures are looking nothing short of bright.
There are many caravan parks (and one luxurious former premier mill) that you can find along the PUBLIC Silo Trail.
Northam Caravan Park
Phone: (08) 9622 1620
Pingrup Caravan Park
Phone: (08) 9820 1101
Katanning Caravan Park
Phone: (08) 9821 1155
Premier Mill Hotel Katanning
Phone: (08) 6500 3950
Albany Caravan Park
Phone: (08) 9844 3267