Keeping the Toowoomba carnival afloat


Photo: Macca amongst the people at the Toowoomba carnival of flowers – by Bob Wilson

So there we were at the unaccustomed early hour of 7am in Laurel Bank Park, Toowoomba, trying to catch Macca’s eye to say, “Mate, we’re here.”

Ian McNamara,* the host of Australia all Over, who sometimes plays music by our band, The Goodwills, had invited us to attend his second OB (outside broadcast) of the year.

Laurel Bank Park was pretty as a picture, thanks to a big team of gardeners and a decision by the Toowoomba Regional Council to water the town parks, despite the drought. It makes little sense to have a famous Carnival of Flowers without making some attempt to preserve the gardens.

The Toowoomba Carnival of Flowers has been going for 69 years, attracting ever-larger crowds each year to take tours of the prize-winning gardens, watch the grand parade and dine out in the city’s eclectic ‘Eat Street’. It was sentimentally appropriate that we were in Laurel Bank Park, where rumour has it we (She and Me) once had a re-affirmation of vows ceremony, cunningly disguised as a bush dance. We lived in Toowoomba in the 1980s (and my how this sprawling country town has grown).

Last weekend, we stayed with old friends at Highfields, now a satellite suburb 10 kms north-west. Our friends bought an acre of land and a house there when it was still in the bush. Now there’s a service station on the corner (and traffic lights). We drove into town to watch the Grand Parade on Saturday, parking in a secret place known only to locals. On the way we detoured up Bridge Street, past what used to be the Toowoomba Foundry, now home to the biggest Bunnings store I’ve seen for a long time. The Foundry facade on Ruthven Street has been left standing, along with remnants of the old saw-tooth factory roof, which you don’t see much of in this era of tilt-slab concrete industrial sheds.

Toowoomba has certainly become not only bigger but more multicultural since we lived there. Walking past St James Anglican Church on Russell Street, we saw many Sudanese people gathered outside. They had just returned from the funeral of the Rev James Ajak, a respected priest and community leader among Toowoomba’s large South Sudanese community. A thousand people, some who came from as far away as Western Australia, attended his funeral at the Centenary Heights State High School Assembly Hall.


Multicultural Toowoomba carnival

Multicultural groups were well represented in the grand parade of floats, bands, vintage cars and dancing schools. Our host told us an amusing story about a grand parade from years gone by when it rained relentlessly. There were two elephants on a flat-bed truck, he said, and one of them heeded nature’s call, leaving a wet pile of dung for the people following behind to negotiate.

It wasn’t really the right mental picture for a lovely Spring day with a big crowd of good-natured people enjoying the hour-long parade, led by the Toowoomba Caledonian Pipe Band. I was never very good at estimating crowds, even though I was given a few tips by Toowoomba police back in the day when I worked at The Chronicle as a general reporter and columnist.

Thousands, let’s say, drifting down Margaret Street to Queens Park where floats were lined up for inspection (and judging). Our host’s grandkids cunningly detoured Pop to sideshow alley, while we strolled hand in hand through one of our special places. If Queens Park had been watered lately, it was still thirsty, not surprising given the city has had only 70mm of rain in the past six months. Only one of those rainy days amounted to much (20.8mm). As gardeners would know, this is when you have to think about what to water and when.

Nonetheless, Laurel Bank Park, with its topiary, flower beds, scented garden, flowering peach trees and bowling green lawns was at its showcase best. We did catch Macca’s eye, as he roamed among the 600 or so people who showed up to listen to his four and a half hour live Sunday morning broadcast.

We sang a couple of songs and listened with admiration to local duo Kay Sullivan (accordion) & Peter Freeman (double bass) accompany Mimosa, a gypsy jazz duo from Terrigal, with Toowoomba trombone player Ian Craig chiming in as required. Macca sang a couple of songs and the band played along – as if they’d all had rehearsals. It was impressive.

Later I was reminded of the column I once wrote for the Toowoomba Chronicle in the 1980s. It started life prosaically as This Week with Bob Wilson and later became Friday on My Mind. We were reminiscing about the time our local folk club built a scale model of the Glenrowan Pub on the back of a truck and entered it into the grand parade with a bush ranger theme. I satirised this in one of my old columns (September 1984). Such fun to quote yourself:

“The float-building gang were having a right old bludge. There was Bluey swarming all over the back of his smash repair truck pulling ropes and lugging hay bales while the gang of nine procrastinated beneath a tree where someone had thoughtfully erected a makeshift bar, keg and 10 seven ounce glasses. Ted and Hughie arrived with their contribution to the float – a four-metre high model of the Ryebuck Shearer complete with black singlet, hand shears and a big placard which read “One out, all out”. Bluey inspected the newcomer and tapped its 44-gallon drum chest.

“Good welding job. Thing must weigh a ton.”

“He used to shear 100 sheep a day, mate,” said Molly.

Ben turned up in his bright green Ute with two sheep in the back. Hollering things like ‘Bewdy’ and ‘Have a go’, Ben carted the bewildered animals (one under each arm like Colin Meads), and plonked them on the back of the truck.

“I’ll bet we need a permit to transport live sheep on an open truck during a street parade,” said Cautious Col.

By midnight the day before the grand parade, the Ryebuck Shearer had been bolted to the back of the truck cab, a sheep chained to each of his formidable legs.

“You’re not going to leave them sheep here all night are you?” Bluey said. “They could clean up my back yard before tomorrow.

“It is tomorrow,” said Molly, “And I’m going home.”

Later, about noon, the Rybebuck Shearer was disqualified from the parade because stewards ruled that neither he nor his placard could pass safely beneath overhead power lines. Ben’s sheep (Banjo and Henry), were also pulled out of the race. Rain fell on the parade and the bloke who’d lent the hay bales said they weren’t worth a pinch of sheep now and charged them $2 a bale. Bluey’s truck got a flat tyre as he tried to turn it round in the marshalling yards. Molly started crying into her rum and coke and the barmaid from across the road came over and said anyone with pub glasses please take them back or she’d lose her job.

“I told you so,” said Col.

*Rebecca Levingston interviews Ian McNamara on South Bank’s Ferris wheel, August 2017 (log in to Facebook first).

Clarification: Last week I referred to the cost of a visitor visa to Nauru as $800. It is $8,000 for a journalist.


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