Little Towns & Lively Locals of the Western Downs

When you’re on a country drive, there’s something new to see around every bend in the road. And you’ll make plenty of memorable discoveries on a touring holiday through Queensland’s Western Downs – a rural region that rivals Tasmania in size, just a few hours west of Brisbane and the Gold Coast.

The “Downs” are known for big scenery, but they’re also home to big-hearted people doing extraordinary things.

Take the little town of Bell, for example. This small but tight-knit community lies about a 20-minute drive from Dalby, at the base of the mighty Bunya Mountains. It’s a mere dot on the map – and yet little Bell has been named the third fastest growing town in Australia.

Its appeal (pardon the pun) isn’t limited to new residents. Bell gets a ringing endorsement (ahem… pun #2) from tourists and travellers – thanks to a surprising number of unexpected attractions.

There’s the Rail Heritage Park – with vintage rolling stock and cute station. Not far away is Popey’s Shed – a museum of old-time machinery collected over a lifetime by local man, Arthur Pope. And around the corner, you’ll find the Bell Bunya Community Centre and Bluebelles Gallery, celebrating the work of local artists.

But Bell’s best-known work of art is in the town’s century-old Catholic Church.

Long-time local and devoted parishioner, Megg Cullen, is the artist responsible for the huge, colourful religious murals that adorn the entire church interior – a testament to her talent and faith.

Megg spent several years creating the murals, dismissing claims she’s Bell’s answer to Michelangelo. But she admits inspiration came from visiting remarkable Renaissance art featured in European cathedrals.

Beyond the church, there’s more evidence of Megg’s creativity. Bell’s Biblical Garden, in the church grounds, was a labour of love for Megg and a band of fellow green-thumbs.

The garden features plants and trees mentioned in Biblical stories – including olives, palms and grape vines – along with stunning mosaics and religious sculptures that were also created by Megg.

Both the church and garden are open to visitors.

Right across the road from the church is Pips’n’Cherries Café – the perfect pit-stop if you’re feeling peckish. Owners Kate and Annette are professional caterers – and love nothing better than serving up home-baked cakes and hearty meals, including their signature steak sandwich. The café also features quirky décor – including chairs on walls, multiple photos of the Queen and unusual heritage touches. Both Kate and Annette confess to being lovers of “anything old and pretty” and they’ve pooled their vintage collections to decorate the café.

The café building was once Bell’s Masonic Hall – and it still hosts regular gatherings: craft and cooking workshops. Lover of exotic spices Lesley Bryce often hosts curry-making classes. She’s among the legion of townies who’ve made the tree-change to Bell – buying the town’s abandoned butcher shop and stone bakery, to create the Western Downs’ answer to an eastern bazaar! Rusty’s Spice Market is filled to the brim with Lesley’s home-made chutneys, curry blends and exotic spices sourced from Australia and distant shores.

From Bell, it’s a little over an hour’s drive to Chinchilla. A must-stop for tourists is the Big Melon – Queensland’s latest larger-than-life attraction. The giant pink slice marks the home of MelonFest – a biennial celebration of the region’s role as Australia’s melon-farming capital. Farm tours are part of the festivities – and sometimes include a visit to Terry O’Leary’s property.

Terry is a second-generation melon farmer – his blood probably runs pink instead of red – and he’s devoted to promoting our favourite summer fruit. So much so, that Terry offers this unusual serving suggestion: a watermelon roast! Take one large watermelon, skin and soak in spiced brine for three days. Then simply smoke on the barbecue for six hours, until tender. The “roast” slices like smoked salmon and looks, for all the world, like a baked ham.

If you’re coming to Chinchilla for MelonFest, there are several accommodation options. For boutique shabby-chic, you can’t go past The Laurels of Chinchilla. A cluster of rustic timber cottages surround an original Queenslander homestead – set in pretty gardens on the banks of Charley’s Creek. Each little hideaway is the clever creation of owners, Shara and Greg Spencer. Shara’s an interior designer and Greg’s a builder – but both see the beauty in abandoned things. They’ve used recycled timbers and found objects to create unique, and luxuriously appointed guest quarters.

About 40 minutes along the bitumen from Chinchilla, you’ll find the town of Miles – a thriving country community that sits at the crossroads of the Warrego and Leichhardt Highways.

In a way, Miles is a town within a town. Step inside the Miles Historical Village and be transported back to the main street of a 19th-century pioneer village. There are about 30 buildings in the complex – many original, some replicas – and each is a mini-museum featuring collections from the mid-1800s through to the 1950s. Coach house, general store, bakery, barbershop, old-time milk-bar and a slab hut are just a few of the sights. There’s so much to see, you’ll want to spend several hours exploring the village.

There’s a vintage touch to Miles’ popular Creek Café too – it’s housed in a red, brick building that used to be the town’s old bank in days gone by. The café is known for good coffee, great food, gifts, fashion – even flowers! At the rear of the main building is the “Flower Shed” where self-taught florist, Paula Toohey, creates magnificent arrangements.
Paula has always adored blooms – but it took a brush with death to turn that love into her livelihood. She was bitten by a brown snake while clearing out her trailer and was rushed to Toowoomba Hospital. The scare became the catalyst to encourage Paula to follow long-held dreams of opening a flower shop.

If you’re planning a stay in Miles, the Swagsman Motel is a popular and comfortable choice. No need to roll out your swag – the motel features 4.5-star suites that include kitchens and private courtyards.

The motel also has its own restaurant and bar, with a deck overlooking Dogwood Creek. Once a year, it’s the site of a quirky community event called the “Cray Catch”, held on the Australia Day long weekend. Members of the Miles Condamine Fishing Club slap on a crayfish cook-up – using crustaceans captured in local creeks and dams. It’s a great family get-together – with plenty of food and fun, including lively yabby races. The Miles Condamine Fishing Club run a series of competitions throughout the year – and newcomers are welcome.

Down the road from Miles is the town of Dulacca – best-known as the front-line in the battle against the invasive prickly pear during the 1800s. Dulacca is also home to the “Pink Pub on the Hill” – a watering hole that’s hard to miss thanks to its distinctive hue! Dulacca Hotel is “in the pink” again, thanks to new owners Natalie and Danny. Danny’s grandparents owned the pub 30 years ago – but it fell into disrepair after they sold. Eighteen months ago, the couple purchased the old watering hole and proudly brought it back into the family fold. Its original pink paintwork was reinstated, a deck was added, and the interior refurbished with rustic touches. The family-friendly pub is now popular with locals and visitors alike.

Dulacca Hotel is the closest watering hole to the property of grazier, Julie Mayne. Besides single-handedly running a cattle station, Julie’s also a celebrated local artist – and she’s currently working on a sketch of the pub as it looked in the late 1800s.

Handy with a blowtorch, Julie’s also a sculptor who uses discarded metal and found objects – like horseshoes and plough feet – to create abstract works of art. Julie’s works feature across her property and have been exhibited at Dogwood Crossing Art Gallery in Miles.

Julie also runs regular workshops for aspiring artists, including how to make a stunningly ornate chandelier from barbed wire!

By Carole Horne

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