May 13, 2022

What's Cooler than Coolamon? We revisit the NSW Riverina

While our international borders were closed, I racked up many thousands of kilometres crisscrossing the country and exploring roads and regions that have escaped me over the years.

My most common route between Adelaide and Sydney takes me south of the boring Hay Plain, through Deniliquin. But on this occasion, I thought I’d explore the roads north of Wagga, avoiding the crush of semitrailers and B-doubles that frequent the Sturt Highway (A20).

The colloquially named ‘Canola Way’ begins at Old Junee at the eastern end and terminates at Griong Grong, 70 kilometres hence, where it joins the Newell Highway.

Referring to that bible of regional touring, Bruce Elder’s ‘Aussie Towns’, the midpoint is a quaint 120-year-old township named Coolamon, a name derived from the Wiradjuri language and their word meaning water basin or water dish. 

Bruce writes: “Coolamon is a small wheat-belt town with broad streets and verandas along the main street. It is known as the 'hay and chaff' capital.”

Some 20 years ago on my last visit, I remember photographing the ornate Hotel Coolamon (main pic above) at the roundabout and thought it could serve as a template for any beautiful Australian country pub. Alas, the hotel has fallen on hard times and is in dire need of a refurbishment. 

But the state of the poor old pub is not an indication of the town itself. A short detour through the main street reveals an elegant shopping precinct retaining much of the rural charm that has permeated Coolamon for more than a century.

The Up-To-Date Store in the centre of Coolamon (RE)

While Bruce points out the excellent birdwatching in the nearby Kindra State Forest, I’m also intrigued by his other recommendation: the Up-to-Date Store. Located prominently in the centre of the town, the former country emporium now serves as a cultural hub with displays and interpretation panels dating back to the 1920s. Push a button on one of the antique radios and listen to locals tell their stories with recollections of rural life in the mid 20th century, before TV and the Internet. 

Rustic Pantry
Out the back door, past the town library, is the charming Rustic Pantry where wholesome country fare can be enjoyed. My recommendation is the hearty breakfast selection and excellent coffee.

With my thoughts of an overnight at the pub dashed, I was overjoyed to find a most rewarding alternative at The Ark, a fascinating boutique B&B built into the former Methodist church. The brainchild of Merrin Glasgow and partner Phil Shulz, two semi-retired schoolteachers who are both staunch supporters of the region and the local community, the old church is now a superb sleepover of the highest standard.

Sitting out on the verandah amongst ornamental flowers and fruit trees, I enjoy some local wine with my hosts.

“The buildings were largely empty and underutilised, so we took ownership of the dwellings here on the site in 2005 turning the weatherboard church - where we’re sitting - into our house and the brick church into the accommodation,“ Merrin tells me while Phil clatters in the kitchen preparing steaming trays of spicy Thai beef curry. “We marvel daily at our surroundings, the craftsmanship and wealth of stories held within these walls.”

The massive main room at The Ark (supplied)

The main room of The Ark is cavernous by B&B standards, offering more than ample living space for guests. A fully rebuilt bathroom with pearl white and ebony black tiles adjoins, while a mezzanine above the main space contains the big double bed and a smaller ensuite. All throughout is tasteful period decor, much of it recycled from previous lives. A neat stack of antique suitcases, a solid timber desk and dining table as well as a full kitchen for those wishing to self-cater.

The quiet within these walls is bewitching and as I lay my head down after a generous dinner and a day’s driving, I drift off to a perfect slumber undisturbed by the usual traffic and suburban noises of the big city.

Next morning my journey continues, but I leave Coolamon behind with the satisfaction that this delightful Riverina town has not gone unnoticed. I make a mental note to return to see the renovated Hotel Coolamon of my memories.


Stay: The Ark, 37 Loughnan St, Coolamon. Phone: 0411338842. from $260/night
See: The Up-To-Date Store, 127-129 Cowabbie Street (the middle of town)
Eat: The Rustic Pantry (adjoining the Up-To-Date Store)

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