While, in the distance, the picturesque sight of Mt Roland dominates the landscape in this scenic region of Tasmania, the small town of Sheffield has in recent years come out of the shadows of its towering neighbour to show that it, too, can draw tourists by the thousands.
Back in the 1980s and 90s when the rural recession was hitting hard everywhere, this small township, like many others, was going backwards. People were leaving, businesses were closing, shops were empty, unemployment was sky-high and the outlook was for more of the same. Things indeed were looking pretty grim.
In those days, it was starting to be recognised that one way of getting things going again was through tourism. But how do you attract tourist dollars to a small, dying community? They needed something creative.
Already surrounded by other appealing and imaginatively named towns and communities, such as Paradise, Promised Land, Garden of Eden and No Where Else, the Sheffield locals had to come up with something really different.
Now, around this part of northern Tasmania, it is well known that the region owes its beginnings to the fighting, hardworking spirit of the mostly Scottish settlers who, with determination and endeavour, established the area as a prosperous rural community.
As it happened, a local resident, Beth Pagel, had recently seen a documentary about Chemainus, a small sawmilling town in Canada which had saved itself from a similar fate as that facing Sheffield, by starting a Murals Project. A crisis meeting in the town was called and the locals agreed to support a radical new plan to turn Sheffield into a giant outdoor art gallery and through it (hopefully) bring tourists and their spending dollars back into town.
During the process, Ms Pagel wrote to the organisers in Chemainus and obtained a few valuable ideas from them, and the rest, as they say, is history.
In the beginning, hard-hit farmers and struggling local businesses found it difficult to believe such a scheme could be the answer to their prayers. One old-timer, in fact, is reported to have said at the time: "You lot are trying to turn this bloody frog into Prince Charming."
There was a standing joke around town at the time which claimed that only about six tourists a year stopped in Sheffield and they only did so because they were looking for a toilet. For some it was hard to believe that a creative, art-led, tourist recovery could really work. True to form, however, most of the locals got right behind the concept and showed determination to make it work.
Local artists were convinced to donate their talents, sponsors covering paint and other costs were found, and the project was under way - all with the underlying theme of depicting the history and culture of the region and its people as well as the scenic beauty of nearby Mt Roland and the picturesque Cradle Mountain region only a short distance away. The first mural to be completed was by John Lendis, depicting one of the local legends, Austrian immigrant Gustav Weindorfer, a passionate mountaineer, naturalist and conservationist who came to the area in 1906. After his young wife died, he retreated to a hut he built on the slopes of Cradle Mountain where he lived in peace with his closest friends - the wildlife. He spent his life campaigning to have Cradle Mountain declared a national park, which eventually came about.
The mural, it seems, set the trend for others to follow, drawing out the rich history of the area and its people.
Other local legends and events depicted in the murals include the storms that claimed lives in the mountains, and the heroes, such as the local police Sen. Const. Harry Clark, who battled a blizzard to save many others. There's also recognition for the town's founders - devout members of the Brethren Church who, although dressed in black, were apparently very happy and thought they'd really arrived in the Promised Land.
Elsewhere, the walls continue to tell their story of local businesses, historic events, the mail coach which operated here until 1920, and the natural beauty of the nearby mountains and rural landscape. Even a depiction of the old post office tree, used as an official mailbox and providing a gathering place for lonely miners and cattlemen to stop, swap stories and pick up the latest news, has been included.
True to form, this sculpted fibreglass replica of the tree - somewhat resembling Ned Kelly's iron mask - is today used as a real postbox with mail posted in it specially stamped to show it was posted at Sheffield's Post Office Tree.
As you stroll around the town you have to keep looking backwards and sideways, as well as straight ahead as the murals seem to appear in the most unexpected places around every corner and down every alley.
Even the public toilet block hasn't missed the painter's brush and, if your need isn't urgent, it's worth pausing to have a look outside. Not to be left out, the local wildlife legends - Tasmanian tigers and Tasmanian devils - also take their place on Sheffield's walls.
In recent years a specially built Mural Park has been imaginatively constructed to house, on panels, a series of murals painted especially for Sheffield's Annual Mural Competition. Each year at the end of this increasingly popular event, most of the murals are available for sale and the park is then progressively set up for the next year's event.
It is already estimated that several hundred local jobs have been created by the project and Sheffield is booming with scores of visitors - sometimes hundreds (including tourist buses) - seen in the small town every day of the year. It seems Sheffield has painted itself back on to the tourist map.
Sheffield is 32km south of Devonport on Tasmania's north coast. The town's annual International Mural Fest is held in April. muralfest.com.au.
Sheffield these days not only attracts thousands of tourists, it is also becoming home to writers, artists, musicians, sculptors and others wanting a change from a busy city life in a tranquil country setting.An audio tour is available from the Visitor Information Centre. Phone the Visitor Information Centre on (03) 6491 1036.
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