Greg Boddy chases the gee-gees
Ah, the horse. Noble steed. Trusted companion. Quadrupedal ungulate. Truth be known, I know as little about our equine friends as I do about flower-arranging. But if you time-travelled back to 1908 (yes, a whole century ago!), despite steam power and the advent of a new-fangled thing at the time called an internal combustion engine, there wasn’t much the horse wasn’t essential for — industry, transport, communication. In fact, the last stagecoach in Australia ran in 1924 in Queensland! But I get ahead of myself.
There’s a ride that stretches from Ipswich to Toowoomba, away from traffic, with sweepy curves, open-country scenery, historic stops and quaint pubs/cafés. It follows the old Cobb & Co stagecoach run and it’s a little gem of a ride.
Imagine the services of Qantas, Australia Post and those interstate bus companies all rolled into one. Well, that’s what Cobb & Co was for our colonial ancestors from 1865, when the first coach mail-run began operating. At one point, Cobb & Co was running 30,000 horses across its services (that’s a lot of hp), changing steeds every 20km or 1.5 hours en route (five horses per coach), with this trip costing a passenger about $800 in today’s money. Anyhow, enough background. Let’s ride, shall we?
The run is well sign-posted, so a map (though handy) ain’t necessarily necessary. Throughout Ipswich you will see brown signs with a yellow wagon-wheel on them. Follow the wagon-wheel signs, Dorothy. They’re prominent and frequent. The road will take you west from Ipswich through Walloon and Rosewood, fairly closely following the railway line. This kind of makes sense, since the two were intimately linked.
Queensland Railway laid its first line in 1865 from Ipswich to Grandchester, which is an excellent first stop on this run. Cobb & Co would transport from Brisbane to Ipswich, then from Grandchester to Toowoomba and then beyond to the Darling Downs. Grandchester houses the oldest existing railway station in Queensland (1868). Always open, it’s worth a stop and exploration.
Out of Grandchester the road cuts through gentle risers and open twisties, and they’re not too butt-unfriendly considering these are back roads. Still, it beats riding in what were essentially sprung wooden boxes over saplings on wooden wheels. Teeth-chatter plus.
The gradient requirements for both railway and stagecoach were similar. They had to find the flattest way up to Toowoomba in order to spare the horses and coach (which carried up to 14 people). So when steam came, they naturally built the railway on the incline of least resistance, which turned out to be much the same path as Cobb & Co had been using.
So as you ride your iron-horse, it’s not hard to imagine what it must have been like to travel this route being pulled by the original owners of the term “horsepower” — the sound of clattering hoofs, snorting steeds and creaking wood-and-iron wheels. By the way, the most expensive seat on the coach was next to the driver. Why? Less dust and fewer rocks would hit you. Ouch. It was called the “box-seat” and you still hear that term today when someone claims the best spot or vantage-point.
Next stops on the ride are Laidley and Forest Hill. Laidley has a Pioneer Village that will let you re-live the life and times of the locals, and Forest Hill’s pub, abandoned cinema and dog-leg main street have to be seen to be believed. Gatton, first settled in the 1840s, is the biggest town on the way, with fuel and plenty of watering holes. Why does every country town have an Imperial Hotel?
After Grantham we hit Helidon and join the Warrego Highway for a tiny bit until a right turn takes us up through Murphys Creek and Spring Bluff. The latter is a vintage railway station and the principal stop on the range climb before we enter Toowoomba from the north.
A city nestled in a huge basin, Toowoomba’s name comes from the indigenous Tchwampa (which I like better, because it sounds like a hairy bunyip). Lord Lamington’s cook, when short of ingredients in 1896, improvised the now famous Aussie choc-coconut sponge treat, while Weis bars (the recipe invented by my better half’s mother and sold to the man himself) also originated here.
We end the trip at none other than the very comprehensive Cobb & Co Museum in Toowoomba.
It’s well laid-out and has excellent exhibitions, so you can visualise just what was involved in getting goods and people along the road you just travelled. With a café inside, live blacksmithing of coach parts and an old character called Michael who’ll wander up to you and regale you with stories about the exhibitions, it’s the perfect end to a great ride. And they’re expanding — the National Carriage Factory is being constructed next door to keep alive the traditional artisan skills that were used to build the old coaches.
So what replaced the horse? Those four-wheel cages, the automobiles? No. Something closer to your heart and mine.
Quick quiz: What has more in common with the horse than any other form of modern transport? It has a saddle, you swing your legs astride and ride it, it’s sometimes called an iron-horse, before the 70s you used to kick it to start it, you throw saddle-bags over it, some have “gunfighter” seats…
Sound familiar? Yep. Next time you get out there on yer bike, just remember that it’s the descendant of the horse — one-person transport, elegant, compact, powerful and, above all, like that which carried the lone cow-person of yore, a freedom machine.