We usually stay home for Christmas. Prawns on the barbie, a nibble of smoked salmon, dips ‘n chips and a glass of wine or three over a game of Scrabble suits me just fine. But this year we decided to go away so somebody else could do the food preparation and the washing up. We threaten to do that most years, but we always leave it too late. Christmas lunch preparations have to start early. As it happens, we found a motel with a restaurant in Warwick at rather short notice (December). That sounded suspicious, and a phone call ascertained that the restaurant wouldn’t be open. Not to worry. It seemed the locals all went to the local Chinese on Christmas day. It was the only show in town, so the owners weren’t exactly silly. I made a booking for 12:30, we jumped in the new SUV and headed off.
Warwick is one of the larger towns in an area known as the Darling Downs. This means, obviously, that it’s much higher than the Queensland coastal fringe. (English is such an idiotic language) Because of the elevation, it’s much cooler than the coast, too – which was part of the attraction. Stanthorpe, another of the larger towns, is almost always the coldest place in Queensland. We’d been in Warwick once, many years ago, and the memory of the very cold night and the ice on the car windows lingers.
Because of the milder climate the Darling Downs is famous for its wineries, cheese and fruit. Up there they can grow apples, pears, stone fruits, berries and cherries. Everybody has cellar door sales, and restaurants or cafes. Don’t go up there for those things at Christmas time, though. On Christmas day we could have shot a cannon down Warwick’s main street and not hit anything. Boxing Day wasn’t much better.
The other thing the Darling Downs does very well is storms. Rising air from the coast mixes with the cooler air and if you add a deep depression threatening to become a cyclone hovering around up in the tropics it’s a perfect cocktail for another one of those regular storms. On the way to Warwick we listened to the weather bureau warnings about a large storm around Stanthorpe. It delivered tennis ball sized hail and gale force winds. One farmer’s entire strawberry crop was completely wiped out, and trees were stripped of branches and leaves, or torn out of the ground altogether. We were told that in other spots the hail wasn’t as large, but it coated the ground like a thick blanket of snow. The farmers factor storm losses into their budgets here. The picture below was of another storm.
This happened every day. Even when the weather started off fine, by late afternoon the clouds had gathered around the hills, piling up into ominous moving mountains.
Lunch at the Chinese was fun from a people-watching point of view. They’d prepared a buffet offering fresh prawns and oysters, and a range of Chinese food like Mongolian lamb, braised seafood and (because this is Australia) sweet and sour pork. The sweets table boasted a large pavlova, fruit salad, a huge bowl of local cherries, and a large store-bought tub of vanilla ice cream. The place was packed with families. Mum and dad and the kids, older couples with their parents – probably collected from their aged care centre – all enjoying lunch together. Although the place is licensed few people ordered much more than a mid-strength beer.
On the day before Christmas we took a drive up into the hills surrounding the downs. That’s where most of the rain falls onto ancient, eroding hills. From Killarney you drive up Falls Road past a number of waterfalls within short walks of the road. The clouds hung around the tops of the hills, stretching ephemeral fingers down the slopes.
From the top of the pass the view across the valley is spectacular. It’s sobering to think that the forest we drove through to get to this lookout would have covered that whole valley one hundred and fifty years ago. From there, we drove down to the plain and then back up again via Cunningham Gap. This part of the trip was my favourite. I love water. Maybe that’s because I’m a Scorpio?
There a number of national parks within an hour’s drive of Warwick and Stanthorpe. The one with Falls Road is Main Range.
Then there’s Girraween and Sundown, which illustrate why this part of the world is known as the “granite belt”. The forest is much the same as you’d find anywhere in Australia – dry sclerophyll forest. But many of the peaks are bare rock and if you look between the trees you’ll see rounded boulders everywhere, some balanced on top of each other. Others appear to be held back from the track only by a slim eucalypt. We walked along a made track to a waterhole which you can bet would have been popular with the aboriginal people back in the day.
We meandered our way home to Hervey Bay via Toowoomba. Just in case you thought I was kidding about the height of this area, this is the main road to Brisbane from the Downs.
From there we skirted around the glass house mountains back home. We’ll do another visit to that area some time next year, after the school holidays.