Things to do
Blades, balloons and a beer or two
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.
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 Sundowner 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!”
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 Graeme, 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,” Graeme 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.
“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.
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.
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.
Words: Nikola Sarbinowski Pictures: Lachlan McKenzie and Nikola Sarbinowski