Just a short ride away from Brissy, Nikola Sarbinowski finds a provincial city on the brink of a revival.
Queensland sun glints off the glossy red body of our afternoon ride. Our chauffeur, Captain Mike, swings the doors open, inviting us to climb inside. After a civilised morning spent sipping tea and nibbling pastries on the manicured lawn of one of Ipswich’s oldest mansions, we have a thirst for a different kind of brew. We could just walk across the highway to the Sundowner Saloon’s Wild West-style veranda, which sits less than two kays away, but where is the fun in that? No, we’re set to make a whirling entrance.
“Amberley Air Force Base is active today. So if we muck up, they’ll shoot us down,” warns Captain Mike, kicking the engine to life. Hopefully the Royal Australian Air Force doesn’t consider three people in a chopper heading to the pub a national threat, but we’re prepared to take our chances. Blades above us grind as though the machine’s out of gear before they twirl into a purr, and we spin off above the bunya pines surrounding the Woodlands of Marburg.
Minutes later we’re clutching amber pots of Tooheys Extra Dry and Hahn Pale Ale and watching 22-wheelers rolling from Brisbane to Toowoomba along the Warrego Highway. It’s quiet inside the saloon, with just a few day drinkers clustered at the bar. Our Robinson R44 helicopter is stationed out back behind the trade utes and oil tankers.
A bloke called Choppa, with tatts on his knuckles and grey hair frothing from his shirt, wanders over to join us on the porch. “Whenever you come here I like to sit out the back and watch,” he informs Captain Mike, grinning as he takes another slurp. “Last time you flew off with the nose down,” he continues. “You know why I do that?” asks Captain Mike. “Just because I can!” Seems a good enough reason for Choppa, who settles back in to consuming his beer in solitude.
Choppa’s recall for detail might be top-notch, but I’m beginning to feel pleasantly fuzzy. Perhaps it’s because midday just trickled by and my beer seems to be evaporating, or maybe it’s because I was up before sunrise, taking in Ipswich from the comfort of an enormous wicker basket. The sky was bruised deep purple as we unfurled the hot air balloon onto dewy grass in a park in town and pumped it full of the same gas you pick up at a petrol station. Fumes crept through the air as raging heat propelled us above the treetops.
“Everyone brought their parachute?” joked Graham, our balloon master. “We’ve all got the same one, it’s attached to the basket,” my partner Lachie chuckled back. Bovines marching in single file below us broke rank, no doubt spooked by the groans that emerged from my fellow passengers.
“Over there’s the little knoll where Pauline Hanson lived,” Graham pointed out, shortly after we sailed over the rail yard where Queensland's first train departed back in 1865. More than 200 steam locomotives were constructed here, and during WWII it was the state’s largest employer. Catching a ride on a breeze, we swept in the direction of the Scenic Rim Region, while the rising sun burnt the sky behind Brisbane and our shadow raced to catch up. Wisps of cloud gathered on trees like cotton wool and dams transformed into metallic pools. By the time we bounced down into a field of grasses, leaving behind a smear of rusted earth and toppling a termite mound, I found myself convinced that dad jokes or not, balloon travel’s a superb way to explore the sights of Queensland’s oldest provincial city.
Doors open onto a wide verandah at the Cottage Restaurant, allowing a breeze to brush through former bedrooms of the National Trust-listed home turned fine-dining establishment. As we sup on plump gnocchi accompanied by a glass of French rosé, Captain Mike tells us about Pterodactyl Helicopters’ popular pub crawl, which takes in some of the region’s favourite drinking establishments. “The trip gives you a feel for what real Australia is like,” he explains. "We know the bar guys who are always there.” Perhaps our newfound pub-pal Choppa is actually on a retainer.
“Mike X-Ray Romeo… requesting clearance to become airborne,” Captain Mike radios in before we take off. By now more than one streak of bug blood graces the windscreen – the markings of a true rural Aussie trip. As it’s been at least a good half-hour since we’ve had our last drink, we’re destined for a vineyard where chardonnay and a cheese platter await on the porch of the 1920s miner’s cottage turned cellar door.
“Ipswich is coming of age,” Captain Mike muses. “There’s this beer culture that it’s really embracing,” he continues as we soar towards a tasting paddle at Tap’d, a craft beer bar considered the largest in the southern hemisphere. “We’re going to have a beer there… just because we can!” he chuckles. And we do. Many. But it’s the far smaller Pumpyard, home to the first brewery to open in Ipswich since 1903, that really takes my fancy. Shining vats of 4 Hearts Brewing fill one side of the industrial-style bar in an ornate brick building on Limestone Street, fermenting preservative-free frothies best consumed on one of the comfy leather couches. Bearing names like Ipswich Challenger light ale and Coal Miners stout, it seems as though head brewer and local bloke Wade Curtis is inviting punters to raise a glass to the historic mining town.
This isn’t the Ipswich I was expecting. And although it still doesn’t feel right referring to this collection of airy Queenslanders as a city, I’m beginning to understand why Captain Mike dropped the words “hidden gem” on more than one occasion. Themed restaurants and cafes serving single-origin espressos are setting up shop between bric-a-brac and clothes stores on Brisbane Street. A heritage-listed former church, now the Ipswich Antique Centre, brims with all manner of treasures. At Rafter & Rose we eye-off Alice in Wonderland-esque cakes by the cafe counter, their meringue mountains culminating in caramelised peaks, and pep up with a three-course flight of coffee.
Once the industrial heart of the city, the redbrick buildings surrounding ‘The Workshops’ sit almost abandoned, giving the old rail yard a Walking Dead kinda vibe. But new life is pouring into the expansive site. A rail museum housing restored steam trains opened in the boiler shop in 2002, and over the past year Museum Twilight Markets have created a space for local craft makers to sell their wares between food trucks and stalls proffering gluten-free doughnuts and gourmet burgers. Hopefully one day the entire hub will transform into an entertainment enclave, with cafes and boutiques filling the cathedral-like powerhouse and old machinery halls.
A day later, I’m flying through the air once more, only this time there’s no pilot to guide me gently back to land. While distracted by a spider web so elaborate it resembles a dreamcatcher, I’ve managed to crash my bike into a berm and catapult into a sandstone boulder. Ankle and ego smarting, I clamber back onto the frame and pedal hard to catch up, an outline of the latticed pedal creeping across my shin. Mountain biking clearly isn’t my forte, but with a 10-course dinner at Homage – Spicers Hidden Vale’s hatted restaurant – on the horizon, I’m determined to work up an appetite. More than a hundred kilometres of bike trails wend through bushland on the property’s sprawling 4800 hectares, about 45 kilometres from Ipswich. Guests staying at the retreat share the paths with hikers and riders from Brisbane and beyond, who fang across the red earth and sandy rivulets, tackling switchbacks in eucalyptus-shaded gullies and even passing an abandoned light plane rusting in a clearing.
Back at Hidden Vale, restored cottages, many with guests’ bikes parked out front, spread out near the old homestead-turned-restaurant. A wide, airy porch overlooks a valley and the distant mountains forming the Scenic Rim. Geese honk for extra feed and piglets rush to the side of their pens, pushing glistening little snouts towards human company. Head chef Ash Martin, who works magic in the restaurant, throws me a bemused look when I ask after their names. Despite the bucolic scenery, luxurious guest cottages, spa and tennis courts on site, Hidden Vale is a fully functioning farm. Fellow city folk take note; naming a creature that will soon become breakfast bacon isn’t exactly kosher.
Sloe gins in hand, we sink into a couch at Homage, with Frank Sinatra crooning above wood crackling in the hearth (it’s actually cold enough to need a jumper when outside). Appreciative gasps punctuate the air as waiters reveal new dishes like magic tricks. Behind us a man slices into a choice cut of meat, a nest of flaming rosemary on top sending scented smoke above his head. A lady cracks open her dessert by dropping it from a height.
For a fine-dining restaurant it’s far from stuffy, which is probably because its fare invites you to eat with your hands. Working our way through the Forage tasting menu, we pluck ‘truffles’ – mushroom pâté encased in choux pastry – from a bed of soft turf and lick gum leaves laced with honey caviar, the sweet nectar collected from hives on the property. Our fingers seek out morsels of cured duck, charred mandarin and spicy nectarine that adorn a gnarled tree root, and we snack on freshwater natives the size of a pinky that sit atop a scrap of hessian, arranged like an Instagram flat lay. Cod is served delicately poached in macadamia milk and a confetti of puffed grains garnishes a dish of kangaroo tail. After an hour and a half we’ve sampled just half of our evening’s meal.
Come morning, my belly’s returned to its normal size and shape, and we sit on our cottage porch, watching king parrots flash scarlet and emerald plumes, willie wagtails flaunting their tail feathers and a wallaby grazing beneath an enormous ficus tree. “Let’s go for a pre-breakfast ride,” suggests Lachie. Taking stock of the bruises decorating my limbs I decide that, for now, my mountain biking days are over. “You go ahead,” I tell him. “I’m going to sit and soak up the sunshine. Just because I can".
Ipswich is about an hour’s drive from Brisbane. Renting a car from Avis at the airport costs US$115 for a weekend. avis.com.au
Spicers Hidden Vale rooms start at US$290 per night but you’re not doing the experience justice if you don’t book a bed, dinner and breakfast package from US$400 per room, per night. spicersretreats.com