Gnomes on the range

GARDEN VARIETY: Gnomesville, Western Australia.
GARDEN VARIETY: Gnomesville, Western Australia.

About 2½ hours' drive from Perth is a strange sight: Thousands and thousands of gnomes clustered in a forest, beside a quiet country road.

It sounds like a misguided fairy tale and, indeed, I thought it might be, before curiosity got the better of me and I set off to discover the truth.

My destination was the Ferguson Valley, a little known Eden of rolling hills combed by vineyards and enlivened by restaurants, galleries and micro-breweries that seems more like a slice of England than Western Australia. I noted that Gnomesville - yes, it's really called that - was en route. There was no question: I had to stop by to confirm the miniature community wasn't just a local legend.

I pull up and, at first glimpse, it seems a sad little representation of grubby statues peeking from tufts of grass edging the bitumen. But stepping into the scrub, I almost have to rub my eyes and pinch my skin. What greets me is a bewitching sight: Gnomes of all sizes, colours, nationalities and occupations.

Gnomes with names, gnomes in planes; gnomes on ladders and in trees, gnomes standing, lying and on their knees. There's a football team, a school, a pink-hatted gnome club and even asylum-seeker gnomes fenced in the Gnomesville Detention Centre. Puns abound with every turn in the earthy path ("world gnomination"; "Gnoman empire"), as well as entertaining stories on pieces of iron and chipboard. Buddhas, frogs and polka-dotted mushroom figurines have joined for good measure.

The river of colourful, bearded beings seems to course through the forest in every direction, leading me further from my car as I try to find where the flow slows to a trickle. It's estimated there are more than 5000 of the shin-high critters, with newcomers silently arriving and settling in as if they've always been there. The threat of bad fortune keeps anyone from collecting a souvenir. The scene is as odd as it is enchanting.

Gnome-one knows how the first diminutive creature got to this country outpost - or at least that's the tale local folk are keeping up. It happened around the time a bunch of farmers were protesting a new road being built, though the ringleading resident denies ever depositing a stout, spade-toting gentleman to eyeball the offending spot.

The road went ahead with a slight concession - it became a roundabout rather than a T-junction - and the gnomes subsequently perched on the new infrastructure were regarded as a silent protest. Slowly, the population grew. And though it's been moved to the roadside bush, it hasn't stopped.

Those involved in the garden gnome liberation movement - where "imprisoned" stone folk are returned to the forest - will be heartened to know more were delivered to Gnomesville late last year, when a popular radio host in Perth decided to rally his listeners to bring in their gnomes so he could set them free. Three hundred were donated.

With gnomes also arriving from around the world - most are marked with the names and origins of their "owners" - it's expected this whimsical rural village will continue to flourish.

For me, what was meant to be a five-minute pit stop turned into an hour or more of incredulity and laughter. And, yet, when I ask West Australians if they've ever been to Gnomesville, or even heard of it, I'm generally met with wary looks that suggest they're reassessing my sanity. It seems the legend - and with it, WA's quirkiest attraction - will live on.

Sunday Star Times