COLOURFUL COWRA BECKONS

COWRA, once infamous for a WW2 break-out, the largest in modern military history, has blossomed into a favourite destination, offering vineyards and fine food, as well as history. JOY DODDS reports.

Delicious food and wine, stunning natural attractions and a fascinating military history combine to make Cowra a great place to visit. In 1944, more than 1000 Japanese prisoners-of-war attempted to escape from a local internment camp, 231 dying in the attempt. Cowra has since forged a remarkable friendship with Japan, with many tributes to this special relationship. (see below) Cowra’s World Peace Bell will be rung at dusk on August 4 next to mark the centenary of the start of World War 1. Other nations involved in the conflict, notably Germany and Italy, will be represented. War memorial carillons, including those at Sydney University and Bathurst, will also be rung. Wreath-laying and other commemorations may include re-enactments of the Kangaroo and Cooee Recruitment Marches.

Yet Cowra has evolved way beyond its Japanese links. Viticulture has become a major industry The first vineyards planted in the 1970s were predominantly chardonnay, but since then, a range of varietals have had success, including soft, ripe shiraz and verdelho. Cellar doors abound, including Hamilton’s Bluff; Cowra Estate; Squashed Frog; Spring Ridge: and Tom’s Waterhole, as well as organic vineyards such as Wallington Wines, Rosnay and Pig in the House. Food buffs can sample local gourmet food and wine available, amid that great feeling of country hospitality and many head for the Cowra Wine Show, staged in July, and the third largest in the country.

Culturally, Cowra offers much. Each year the town hosts an annual Festival of International Understanding, with parades and events showcasing a particular foreign culture. The annual Sakura Matsuri (Cherry Blossom) Festival is one major event held in the gardens during September. Celebrating the birth of spring, it attracts performers from across Australia and globally, with traditional elements of Japanese culture.

And the fun in the Cowra region don’t stop there. Check out the Age of Fishes Museum at nearby Canowindra and explore the historic gold mining town of Grenfell, to name a few local town attractions.

HISTORY OF COWRA:

Originally inhabited by the Wiradjuri people, the area’s first explorer, George Wilson Evans, first step foot in the Lachlan Valley in 1815, naming the area the Oxley Plains after the [then] Surveyor-General. At first deemed "unfit for settlement", a military depot was established not long after at Soldiers Flat. Bathurst settlers Arthur Ranken and James Sloan were among the first white settlers on the Lachlan, moving to the area in 1831. The township of "Coura Rocks" had its beginnings in 1844, morphing into the small village of “Cowra” by 1847. The population increased with the lure of gold around Lambing Flat and Grenfell during the early 1850s, prompting the building of the first school in 1857. Further growth was stimulated by the arrival of the rail head from Sydney in 1886.

JAPANESE LINKS:

On August 5, 1944, at least 545 Japanese prisoners attempted a mass breakout from the POW camp housing both Japanese and Italian inmates. Simultaneously, others committed suicide, or were killed by their countrymen inside the camp. The storming of the camp’s machine gun posts, with improvised weapons, had no chance of success. Four Australian guards and 231 Japanese died, with 108 prisoners wounded. The dead Japanese were buried in Cowra in the specially-created Japanese War Cemetery, the only such one in Australia. Some of the Japanese dead in the air raids over Darwin were also buried there. The War Cemetery was ceded to Japan in 1963.

In 1971 a Japanese Garden, a sign of thanks for the respectful treatment of their war dead, was proposed. The garden, designed by Ken Nakajima, a famous designer of such gardens, is in the "kaiyû-shiki" or strolling garden style. Stage 1 was opened in 1979, with a second stage opened in 1986. The five-hectare gardens at Cowra are the largest Japanese gardens in the Southern Hemisphere, with expert demonstrations in traditional Japanese crafts given.

WHERE TO STAY:

Paradise, a historic Cowra home (1883), with views across the Lachlan Valley and near the Japanese Gardens, offering self-contained accommodation.

Sovereign Inn, recently renovated, and In the main street. www.sovereigninns.com.au

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