TRAVEL: Romping it up at the Esk Races
ANY country town will have a buzz in the air as a much-anticipated picnic race meeting looms.
The caravan parks and motels fill up. The restaurants and cafes welcome new faces.
Bargain hunters wander the main street looking for quirky homewares and antique curiosities.
And karaoke night at the local pub isn't quite music to your ears but the cheerful, friendly atmosphere makes up for tone-deaf singers who are celebrating a little too much.
And so it is for our visit to the Esk Races in March.
A lunchtime finish at work sees us head just under a comfortable two hours from the Sunshine Coast to the Somerset Regional Council town.
With the Glasshouse Mountains coming closer into view, we encounter leafy Peachester, cut out some of the windy range by using Commissioners Flat Rd and drink in the rural scenery of the Brisbane Valley.
We glide past picturesque Lake Somerset and its dam wall and arrive at our Esk Caravan Park cabin in time for an afternoon coldie with Brisbane friends who have already unhitched their campervans and set up a ring of director chairs.
Racegoers join the usual brisk weekend trade passing through to fill up the park cabins, campsites and caravan spots almost to capacity for the five-race meeting.
So we have to stake our claim early in the huge camp kitchen to take advantage of the barbecues and pizza ovens and secure prime position along the long tables in front of the "Fred Flintstone" fireplace and big-screen telly for our group of 10 for the Friday night football.
We have become acquainted with Esk over the years but only as a pass-through town. We stop for an early-morning coffee and breakfast at Enigma's Café on the main road on the way to Toowoomba for school state volleyball championships or a quick lunch on the way home at Esk Bakery.
It has been known for its large antiques shop in the main street but that has since closed, set to reopen as a new business in the middle of this year.
The Nash Gallery Café's magnificent old Queenslander has its veranda and front lawn usually packed with those partaking in lunch, brunch or scones and jam with tea and coffee.
And a number of old-world shops, giftware centres and boutiques still hold plenty of interest for a cackle of women with holiday money burning a hole in their pocket.
We've all assembled here for one main purpose, however: a day at the races.
The racecourse with a nine-hole golf course, stockyards and pony club in the centre of the track is a relatively short walk in high heels from the caravan park or Ipswich St through War Memorial Park and on to a stretch of the Brisbane Valley Rail Trail.
The walk takes us past the disused Esk train platform and offers a striking view of Mount Glen Rock (271m above sea level) as a backdrop to the town centre.
The mountain is popular with rock climbers and abseilers but the rail trail now attracts visitors from all over the world.
The original rail line was designed to provide supplies to the developing settlements of small farmers in the Brisbane Valley, and to transport milk, timber and stock to the Brisbane Markets.
The recreational trail follows the disused rail corridor from Wulkuraka, west of Ipswich, to Yarraman, west of Kilcoy.
The 161km trail gives walkers, cyclists and horse riders a unique experience of the rural landscape of the Brisbane Valley.
Though our shopping excursion has taken longer than expected, we soon arrive at the track and with our trusty souvenir race program tucked in our handbags, we join the rest of our party at a table under the sprawling tree near the mounting yard and winners' circle.
We have time to order a champagne before the race two strappers parade their charges.
To me, the fit, beautiful bay gelding has that winning look, as I tell my husband the seasoned punter.
And if we had taken that look, combined with the omen bet from the Broncos match the previous night, the Pat Duff-trained Lord Darius would have made us all happy punters as winner of race 2.
Emma Bell, 28, from Clermont, won with her first career ride - surely a race the young apprentice will remember the rest of her life.
The rest of the pleasant autumn afternoon was a sequence of drinks, snacks, conversation and study of form guides before heading to the fence to cheer on the local gallopers.
Punters who couldn't get enough of a good thing filled restaurants and the town pubs afterwards, long into the night.
And let me tell you, enjoying the Grand Hotel super-sized pizza, country steak or hearty burger is a much safer bet than attempting the karaoke after an afternoon of Esk Races' cheer.
UPCOMING RACE MEETINGS AT ESK:
THE Esk picnic races have been held at the Esk Jockey Club - an hour from Brisbane and 45 minutes from Toowoomba - since 1975.
The next race meetings are on July 1 and December 16.
BRISBANE VALLEY RAIL TRAIL:
Open all year round, the trail is all off-road and traffic-free - ideal for hikers, cyclists and horse riders.
At present, the section from Toogoolawah to Moore has not been completed but an alternate scenic route along country roads is available.
Most of the towns along the BVRT boast pubs, bakeries, shops and cafes for refreshments along the way.
Accommodation is available in Fernvale, Lowood, Esk, Toogoolawah, Moore, Linville, Blackbutt and Yarraman.
Water troughs for horses are provided at several locations on the trail.
Esk Caravan Park
Hassell St, Esk. Phone: (07) 5424 1466. www.eskcaravanpark.com.au.
Esk Grand Hotel
121 Ipswich St, Esk. Phone: (07) 5424 1141. www.grandhotelesk.com.
Nash Gallery and Café
212 Ipswich St, Esk. Phone: (07 ) 5424 2424. http://www.grandhotelesk.com.
1/137 Ipswich St, Esk. Phone: (07) 5424 1415.
ESK BAKERY & RESTAURANT
156 Ipswich St, Esk. Phone: (07) 5424 1652.