Historic hotels and rows of old homes on tree-lined avenues immediately appealed to us when we drove into Roma in southwest Qld. The town has retained its aura of a rich pioneering past,while exuding the prosperity that modern gas and oil developments have created. There are also tourist attractions galore.
We booked into The Big Rig Tourist Park and made ourselves comfortable. Hospitable managers Lynne and Steve Hamdorf offered us a choice between three available sites and generously shared their local knowledge.
STRIKING IT RICH
The Hamdorfs' enthusiastic management of this tourist park was evident in the spick and span amenities (with disabled facilities), swimming pool and landscaped grounds. In the Bull Ring camp kitchen we heard visitors comment on the spotless barbecues and benches.
The park has a total of 52 powered sites (some drive-through),as well as a large camping area and several water points. Dogs are permitted, provided they are responsibly controlled.
A dozen cabins cater for travellers without mobile accommodation.
Sitting opposite the $7m Big Rig Information and Interpretive Centre, the park's location is a real bonus. By day, we enjoyed the information centre's Oil Patch interactive display covering the hardships and heroics of Qld's oil and gas industry, which originated in Roma 105 years ago when water drills instead exposed gas. We snapped the towering oil rig, visited Lenroy Slab Hut (1893) and walked the 1.7km Adungadoo Pathway beside Bungil Creek.A 1.4km ride on the Roma Express miniature train held multi-generational appeal.
At night we had planned on seeing The Big Rig Night Show - a spectacular light and sound production portraying local oil and gas exploration from the early 1900s. Unfortunately, a technical glitch had temporarily put the show out of action. However, a few people who'd seen it the previous evening gave us such vivid descriptions we didn't feel we'd missed out entirely.
Our next day was spent wandering around town and we again benefited from our park's location, with most attractions an easy stroll away. Early on we found Roma's biggest bottle tree, with an astounding girth of 8.9m. The Avenue of Heroes, where each of the 138 bottle trees bears a plaque identifying a local service man killed in WWI, was a more emotional experience.
The imposing St Paul's Anglican Church (1913) stands at the end of this avenue. As striking as the building is from the outside,the interior showcases more than 50 leadlight and stained windows dating back to 1875. St Paul's is only open on particular days, so it's worth checking first at the information centre.
On local advice, we visited the Cultural Centre to see its 3D clay mural. And we were glad we did. This skillful mural graphically depicts the region's cultural history, from its Aboriginal occupation by the Mandandanji people to today's cosmopolitan nature and industrial history of vineyards, sheep,cattle, oil and gas production.
At Roma's magnificent court house, a town resident told us about Roma's real life cattle duffer Harry Redford, who eventually became known as the legendary Bushranger Captain Starlight.
In 1869, Harry and three mates stole 1000 cattle from Mt Cornish and Bowen Downs stations, including a white bull worth £500. He and his cohorts then drove their catch 650km to SA, swapping "Whitey"the bull for provisions en route. They later sold the rest of the herd for £5000 and happily rode on to Adelaide with their ill-gotten gains.
Eventually, Harry was arrested and taken to Roma for trial, but the jury found him not guilty, despite overwhelming evidence against him. The judge's scathing report on the finding caused Roma to lose its Criminal Court jurisdiction for two years. Later,Harry's exploits formed the basis of the classic Australian novel,Robbery Under Arms.
Our last day was spent outside town, with our first stop at Roma's Bungil Saleyards. Normally, our interest in cattle only kicks in after it's placed in our butcher's display cabinet, but we felt it would be un-Australian to bypass this beefy icon - the largest cattle sales facility in the Southern Hemisphere.
A visit to Romavilla Winery - Qld's oldest - will likely be of more interest to many travellers. Samuel Bassett established the vineyards in 1863, sold his first wines three years later and constructed the winery building in 1878. Romavilla has not missed a single vintage since 1866 and has won more than 500 major wine show awards in that time. We quickly succumbed to temptation and left with a very pleasing cabernet merlot to enjoy after our barbecue dinner.
WHAT'S IN A NAME?
That evening in The Big Rig Tourist Park's popular camp kitchen, a regular Roma visitor told us how the town got its name. We would never have guessed it was named after a Greek Contessa.
Diamantina Roma, born into a privileged Greek family, married English scholar Sir George Bowen in Corfu in 1856. In 1859 they sailed into Brisbane, where Sir George immediately delighted the welcoming crowd by announcing Qld had been proclaimed a separate state and he had been appointed its first governor.
During her husband's eight-year tenure, Lady Bowen worked tirelessly for the poor, injured and terminally ill, earning widespread admiration and affection. In recognition of her goodworks, Lady Diamantina Roma Bowen's names were used all over Qld: "Diamantina" was used for a river, town shire and a hospital, while "Roma" was applied to a railway station, street and parks and - as we now know - the young settlement of Roma.
We only spent four days in her town, but reckon the countess would feel extremely proud if she could see Roma today.
Roma is 477km west of Brisbane.
The Big Rig Tourist Park, (07) 4622 2538, www.bigrig.net.au.
The Big Rig Information and Interpretive Centre, (07) 4622 4355, www.thebigrig.com.au/infocentre.htm.