While most people pass through this part of Queensland on the way to somewhere else, the outback region of Balonne Shire has plenty to offer those who choose to stay a while, from local characters to city-worthy pizza.
The Balonne Shire in Queensland’s south-west, about four hours’ drive from Toowoomba, isn’t exactly on everyone’s radar as a destination. Even the helpful lady at the RACQ office asked me where exactly it was when I requested a road map. The fact is, most tourists who come here are on their way from southern states via the inland route to the outback or north Queensland, or travelling west from Brisbane and the coast.
That’s a pity as there’s plenty to see and do, and the small villages of the Shire all have their own reasons for visitors to linger a while, take a break, and meet some really nice people. After all, that’s the beauty of regional Australia, and the reason that many of us keep heading there for a reality check. So whether you are on a road trip to somewhere else, or have decided to dedicate a few days to the area alone, here are the main places in Balonne Shire to hit up.
At first glance this is a typical outback town with a main street cluster of pubs, motels, a bakery, banks, servos, an IGA and a very helpful information centre for visitors (don’t miss the unique carved and illuminated emu eggs at Stavros’s gallery, The Unique Egg, nearby). There’s also a raft of country cafes with decent espresso machines and tasty pastries. Try Stevie-Jean’s, Farmhouse, DeliCate or St George Bakery, where Trent also dishes out excellent pizzas when he’s not delivering them in his 1917 Model-T Ford.
One street away is the Balonne River, an attractive shade of brown, backing up against the Jack Taylor Weir, famous for its golden perch and Murray cod just waiting to be caught by enthusiastic anglers. There’s a pleasant riverbank walkway and you can also take a relaxing sunset tour up the river and back on a Sandytown River Cruise, with Brett providing informative commentary on the history of the town named in 1846 by explorer Major Sir Thomas Mitchell.
A highlight is definitely a visit to the Shire’s only cellar door at Riversands Wines, a family-run business which evolved from table grape production into a fully-fledged vineyard in 1996. David and Alison hold court at the cellar bar with tastings of shiraz, merlot, sauvignon blanc, chardonnay and others, particularly their fortified wines including a yummy golden muscat and a moreish port.
From Riversands you can also book a Cotton Farm and Vineyard Tour where you’ll learn about cotton and grape production, as well as enjoying a tasty lunch. Well worth doing.
As you drive into this small, one-pub town you’ll be struck by the sight of the community’s pride and joy: the attractively painted grain silos which have brought photographic fame to the area. Then there’s another initiative, a huge sculpture of William the endangered northern hairy-nosed wombat which stands two metres tall, rivalling Australia’s other ‘bigs’ like prawns and bananas.
Close by is the multipurpose Francis Hotel, which serves as a pub, post office and general store as well as filling the role of the town’s visitor information centre.
Surprisingly, there’s a multicultural feel to Thallon with a contingent of farm workers, mainly from Fiji, bolstering the regular population of 55 people; if you’re lucky, as I was, they might serenade you with some island songs. According to Bullamon Plains station owner Bill Willis, they are an integral part of the Thallon community.
A short distance from Thallon is the tiny settlement of Nindigully, which has one claim to fame: it is home to Queensland’s longest continuously licensed pub, established in 1864, which sits on the banks of the Moonie River – a pleasant real-Aussie riverside location. Congenial host Burnsie and his team welcome campers and pit-stoppers to a convivial bar and beer garden where you can get to know some of the colourful local characters. If you can’t drive any further after indulging in an afternoon’s worth of ‘outback hospitality’ there are comfortable rooms available within staggering distance.
Another of the Shire’s mini-towns, Bollon has one not-to-be-missed activity: Nullawokka First Nations Gallery and Tours. Local legend Bill Speedy, a descendant of the Gwamu/Kooma people, escorts visitors on an educational walking tour along Wallam Creek, followed by a bush tucker tasting and a final stop at the historic post office gallery, where Judith will tempt you with a wide range of artefacts and souvenirs including painted emu eggs and Aboriginal art.
Deb’s Cafe and the Bollon Heritage Centre add to a satisfying outback day before you hit the pet-friendly Bollon Hotel for dinner and overnight accommodation if you need to crash.
Known as Dirran for short, this is one of the Shire’s little gems. The evocative Aboriginal name means ‘frogs croaking in a swamp at night’, although I must admit I didn’t hear any during my stay. After you’ve discovered the best coffee and pizza in this part of the outback at Tania and Russell’s Tucka Shack, and yummy pastries at the town’s Russian bakery, you can join Dirranbandi Outback Tours on a three-hour visit to Cubbie Station.
This is an amalgam of 12 former grazing properties founded in 1984 by the late Des Stevenson covering a massive 93,000 hectares, including the largest irrigated cotton plantation in the southern hemisphere; the commentary by tour operators Scott and Nikki details facts about cotton production and water management in this part of Queensland which give you a lot to think about considering the recent drought.
There’s been a great civic effort by the local Arts Council to preserve the original railway buildings in Dirran and create a sculpture park at the terminus of the last mail train to operate in Australia in 1993. It’s a must-see and a good place to walk off that pizza!
For more heritage and art, continue 45 minutes south-west to Hebel and check out artist John Murray’s trompe-l’œil murals at the quirky Hebel Hotel and public art piece, the Hebel Historical Circle.
Driving to St George takes about four hours from Toowoomba without stops; or less than six hours from Brisbane. You can fly from Brisbane or Toowoomba on Rex Airlines.
There are numerous hotels and pubs in Balonne Shire offering accommodation, as well as free and paid camping sites. Find out more here.