The Empire Theatre.
The Empire Theatre. Shirley Sinclair

Country comfort

A GREAT patchwork of farming land, dotted here and there by beige, brown or black and white cattle hides. Green pastures and strong maize stalks reach for the sun.

The deep brown of cleared grain fields. Golden wheat against a perfect blue sky. The backdrop of steel grey mountains of the Great Dividing Range in the distance.

These are the colours of Australia.

And they're closer than you think.

They can be found year-round in Toowoomba. That's one good reason to enjoy a good old-fashioned country drive to the hub of the Darling Downs.

But wait, there's more. And these reasons to visit have nothing to do with the long-established Carnival of Flowers that initially put Toowoomba on the tourism map, or attending a big country wedding in one of the many quaint little white churches on the Range, supporting your favourite team at the plethora of first-class sporting facilities, or watching the thoroughbreds go round at the turf club's new synthetic track.

A weekend of magnificent autumn weather recently was well worth the 2.5-hour drive from the Sunshine Coast on a Friday night for the new surprise packet of adventures on offer.

Here's a snapshot.


Darling Downs Zoo

If Stephanie Robinson thinks she married into a circus of a family, her life is now a zoo. And she wouldn't have it any other way.

Her menagerie of birds, mammals and reptiles from all four corners of the globe live harmoniously on just over 20ha at Clifton at the Darling Downs Zoo she runs with husband Steve.

White lions, black-capped capuchins (the organ-grinders and "smartypants" of the monkey world"), bleeding heart pigeons from the Philippines, Arabian camels, baboons, American alligators, a yellow anaconda and koalas - the impressive list goes on.

Steve grew up on a chook farm and had all manner of pets as a boy. He literally ran away to join the circus as a young lad and found plenty of opportunity to interact with the animals of Perry Bros Circus before founding Robinsons' Family Circus in 1975. Son Mark and his wife Karlene now run the show favourite.

Stephanie grew up with her own collection of mice, cats, dogs and rabbits, and had a history of working with all creatures great and small - including volunteering at Brisbane's Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary and working at an animal shelter. Between them, the couple has more than 50 years of animal-keeping experience stemming from their childhood and have devoted their lives to helping, protecting and raising animals.

Their seven-year-old zoo is the newest in the state, in a rural setting in the eastern Darling Downs, about halfway between Toowoomba and Warwick. The zoo is divided into four geographical zones - Australia, Asia, Africa and the Americas - and comprises four paddocks with an aviary in the centre.

Standouts among the 80 different species are a white red-necked wallaby named Billy, white-eyed ducks, crab-eating macaques, Shamana the tiger, three generations of tawny lions including the first cubs since 2003 (born in early October to mums Irene and Delilah), guanacos - the original species that created llamas and alpacas, tiny marmosets and African lions.

As Stephanie shows us around, she calls most birds and animals by name and informs us about their species and habitat, their cute idiosyncrasies and bad habits, their personal history, likes and dislikes.

We meet the cheeky and funny, the bold and beautiful, the injured and orphaned, the shy and retiring types, the loud and obnoxious, the cuddly and pat-able, the rare and endangered, and the downright ugly faces only a mother could love.

We are introduced to the highly talkative and excitable Sky and Yoda - the yellow crowned Amazon parrots. These two love to mimic children saying "Mum, I'm tired" or "Look, they talk" and will do their best to make babies cry just to cry back at them.

But as a big Kimba the white lion cartoon fan as a child, I am like a young schoolgirl with wide-eyed wonderment once we spot Shenzie.

She remains aloof, though - sulking, Stephanie tells us, because her mate Shaka has a broken growth plate in his knee and has been confined to bed rest for a couple of months in an enclosed shelter next door.

The pair are blonde rather than albino to blend into their desert habitat and are very family-oriented, hence the pining.

But Stephanie says they couldn't chance Shenzie hurting Shaka in their naturally rough play.

The Robinsons receive no government assistance and rely on sponsors and donations of visitors and supporters to run their zoo.

They see their role as promoting an appreciation of, respect for and concern for the preservation of the planet's biodiversity.

They do not aim to be the biggest, but simply the best little family-friendly zoo in Queensland.

And with the help of the white lions, it's already the pride of Toowoomba.


Bunnyconnellen Olive Grove and Vineyard

A beautiful drive in the country ends with us tasting locally produced olives and wines and sitting down to a scrumptious Mediterranean-style three-course lunch in view of the olive grove, vineyard and sweeping valley.

Spending a relaxing afternoon with a Bird in the Bush 2009 Rose, 2006 Wash-house Red Shiraz or perhaps a 2009 Second Generation Verdelho under a big shady tree sounds even more appealing. Just as well 102ha Bunnyconnellen Olive Grove and Vineyard has its own accommodation at The Studio B&B on-site for those who have indulged a little too much in its country hospitality.

The name "Bunnyconnellen" originated in Ireland and its Gaelic translation is "Connellen's thicket or small wood" but owners and hosts Peter and Janie Simmonds like to think it means "convivial pleasures".

They are certainly passionate about food, wine and nurturing their olive grove and vineyard on the former dairy farm of 1873 vintage that they bought 15 years ago. They love nothing better than to share their knowledge and

introduce visitors to their produce at the very rustic ambience of the cellar door at Crows Nest.

Five different varieties are among the 1350 olive trees on the property. The vineyard - a small parcel of cabernet sauvignon wine grapes - and wine production was added more recently. All the wine labels incorporate old photos of the property, including the deeds.

The Simmonds started out wanting to specialise in growing premium-quality olives for the production of extra virgin olive oil, table olives and other olive and gourmet products such as tapenade and bush mustard.

They now find themselves providing wine, table olives and oils to regional restaurants and delis, as well as to export customers and over the counter.

Peter says their initial idea "just sort of evolved". "The plan was to plant, pick, sell, retire. No. Fat chance," he laughs.


Bull & Barley Inn

I don't have a ghost of a chance of finishing my meal - but I do come close. The Barramundi Karumba - grilled barramundi fillet with grilled prawns, avocado, hollandaise sauce and salad - fills my plate.

I have been warned about the meal size and, thankfully, only ordered the dish as an entrée.

But it still defeats me.

Welcome to Cambooya's Bull and Barley Inn - a true country pub where the beer's cold, the food's big enough for Man Mountains and a ghost is said to inhabit Room 6 of the pleasant hotel accommodation.

The public bar this day already has its fair share of locals and the lunchtime crowd includes Harley-Davidson motorcycle enthusiasts.

Built in 1902, the inn has undergone renovations over the past 12 months and everything is fresh and clean from the varnished staircase and tongue-and-groove walls to the open verandas and fireplace.

But owner of four years Bruce Dell still has plans to further upgrade the hotel that has stood the test of time. The former Railway Hotel was one of three in Cambooya in the early 1900s but the other two - the Royal Hotel and the Cambooya Hotel - both burnt down.

Just across the road from Cambooya Store and News, the hotel still boasts an old photo of Aussie actor Geoffrey Rush's father and grandfather standing out the front of the then Baden C Rush Produce and Hardware.

Of the "freeloader" in Room 6, Bruce says: "I've never seen her and I don't want to see her but I've spoken to plenty who have."

But he admits he may have encountered the elderly-looking ghost who is said to wear a traditional nursing uniform from the early 20th century and is frequently seen at the veranda window. He was mysteriously locked in a hotel storage room once for three hours "and no one knows why".

With such great olde-worlde hospitality, it's no wonder the ghost never wants to leave.


Empire Theatre

Judging by the excited buzz outside the impressive white building, we are about to witness something special.

We think that only applies to The Wizard of Oz production we have come to see.

Certainly, the ambitious, fun and beautifully created spectacle with a seemingly endless all-dancing, all-singing chorus and wonderfully talented actors would have done Brisbane's QPAC proud.

But as a first-timer at the Heritage-listed Empire Theatre, for me, the jaw-dropping grandeur of a bygone era that surrounds us as we take our seats is the star attraction.

Even before the massive red curtain reveals Kansas and the Oz fantasyland, we have landed in another world - one that features opulent plasterwork, a 13m wide stage and orchestra pit, and a rainbow of colours back-lighting the grand proscenium arch (touted as the only one of its kind in the southern hemisphere).

The interior boasts ornate pillars and "dress circle" balconies, and a 20m opaque light (affectionately called the "bomber light" because it looks like a Second World War bomber plane) set into the ceiling as part of the house lights.

Beginning life on June 29, 1911, as a silent movie house, it is now the largest regional theatre in Australia.

Its uses range from wedding, corporate and function hire to being the centre of the Downs' entertainment universe.

The venue caters for shows for all ages: from international and national touring productions, opera and ballet to stand-up comedians, film festivals and drama workshops, from rock stars and morning melodies to big-band concerts and world-class classical musicians.

The grand old dame was almost totally lost to fire on February 22, 1933. Only the northern and southern walls escaped harm and these were incorporated into the rebuilt theatre, which opened on November 27 the same year in the art-deco style of the time.

Competition from TV and other forms of entertainment saw it close in 1971 and undergo a few different guises before falling into disrepair. The need for a regional performing arts complex saw its rebirth through an award-winning restoration, with the doors re-opening on June 28, 1997.

The Empire Theatre remains a fine example of how Toowoomba's history has been preserved in its buildings.


Transport and Main Roads Heritage Centre

One of Toowoomba's quirkier attractions is dedicated to the pioneers of Queensland's transport and road network.

The Transport and Main Roads Heritage Centre is much more than an educational journey, a trip down memory lane for past and present employees, or the department giving itself a pat on the back.

The centre, which opened in 2008, offers an interesting insight into the vital road and transport links that have allowed this huge state of ours to develop to its potential over the past century. Through interactive and static displays, a mini-

theatre, recreated on-the-road settings and campsites, models, historic photos and vehicles and old and new equipment, a great chunk of Queensland's history comes to life - from the earliest Aboriginal pathways that pointed the way for our roads to follow, to the proposed Toowoomba bypass.

Visitors can also hear past employees and their families tell of their experiences of various aspects of the department.

Heritage Coordinator and former Sunshine Coast Council employee Deborah Meyer conducts tours and shares her knowledge on the centre.

While the centre employs one full-time staff member, volunteers from Toowoomba and Brisbane can often be found pottering and tinkering in the on-site workshop. They have restored and maintain to full working order the historic road construction machinery showcased in the open gallery.

The writer was a guest of Toowoomba, Golden West and South Burnett Tourism.



The 125-year-old city lies at the crossroads of the New England and Warrego highways on the edge of the Great Dividing Range.

At 700m above sea level, it is the hub of the Darling Downs. More than 100,000 people now call Toowoomba home.

Known as Queensland's Garden City, Toowoomba has more than 150 public parks and gardens.

The city is renowned for its pioneering history on the land, beautiful architecture and parks overlooking the Lockyer Valley.



The 125-year-old city lies at the crossroads of the New England and Warrego highways on the edge of the Great Dividing Range. At 700m above sea level, it is the hub of the Darling Downs. More than 100,000 people now call Toowoomba home.

Known as Queensland's Garden City, Toowoomba has more than 150 public parks and gardens. The city hosts the annual Carnival of Flowers in the last week of September to take full advantage of spring blooms. From mid-March to May is the "Autumn Showing" when residents and visitors alike walk through Queens Park to see the red and gold oak and willow leaves on the branches high up in the trees and blanketing the ground.

Renowned for its pioneering history on the land, beautiful architecture and parks overlooking the Lockyer Valley. Famous vantage point: Picnic Point. Among the preserved buildings are City hall, National Trust Royal Bulls Head Inn and Heritage Street, and historic Russell Street. The Cobb&Co Museum houses Australia's largest collection of horse-drawn vehicles and is home to the National Carriage Factory.

Other tourist places of interest include: the University of Southern Queensland's Japanese Gardens, Jondaryan Woolshed, fishing at Lake Cressbrook and Cooby Lake; camping near the edge of Lake Cressbrook and Crows Nest National Park, weekend markets and antiques hunting, hot air ballooning, skydiving, wine tours, country touring on the back of modified motorcycles, 4WD tours, wine tours, museums and galleries.

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