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What a ring-a-ding ding of a small country town

In the mounting yard. Image: Ange Stirling Photography

Travel

What a ring-a-ding ding of a small country town

SHIRLEY SINCLAIR heads three hours west for a little flutter on the gee-gees at a quintessential country race meeting.

A small rural township at the foothills of the Bunya Mountains really knows how to ring in the masses for special events throughout the year.

The tiny dot on the map may not seem to have much appeal at first glance on any drive into the Western Downs – Queensland’s ‘Big Sky Country’.

But, like many small country towns, what lies beneath the surface is what is so special about the pretty rural enclave that is Bell.

The proud residents of the township and its surrounds – nearly 40 clicks north of Dalby, in the Wambo Shire – mostly make a living by farming beef cattle, sheep, pigs and grain.

The 500 residents work hard for their life on the land and might have been content to sit back and make their own fun in their downtime.

Instead, the friendly folk of Bell wear several hats as they volunteer to welcome visitors with open arms at a host of social occasions on the annual calendar.

At the time of publication, the most recent was on March 2 and 3, when the Bell Show Society celebrated 65 years of the agricultural show, along with the Show Ball and Showgirl and Rural Ambassador awards, rodeo and maiden campdraft at the showgrounds.

But the annual Bell Races, held on the first Saturday in January, is a huge crowd-puller and the only on-course meeting in the town each year. Busloads of racegoers and punters of all ages from Dalby, the South Burnett and Brisbane join fashionistas and roadtrippers from near and far for the big day out.

The 2024 instalment on January 6 celebrated 100 years of racing for the Bell Race Club Inc. with more than 2000 through the gates (but when Menindee beat Moscini by the slimmest of margins in Race 6, the 2024 Bell Race Club Centenary Open Plate over 1300m, it felt more like 3000 crowded around our trackside table!).

Judging by the numbers camping on course and taking advantage of campervan and caravan spots, as well as cabins at Bell Tourist Park, most people were making a weekend of it.

And why wouldn’t you, with a six-race program, bar, food vans and a kiosk, foot races, Fashions on the Field, and naming of the Bush Bachelor and Bachelorette, as well as the after-party until late.

Queenslanders love a good country or picnic race meeting.

And with more than 200 non-TAB events held across almost 100 clubs annually – from punter favourites including Burrandowan, Kumbia, Esk, Stanthorpe and Roma, to Birdsville, Rockhampton, Mt Isa and Mount Garnet – you can hit the road and immerse yourself in an authentic sporting and social experience in our rural towns and villages just about any weekend of the year.

That’s exactly what our merry band of seven from Brisbane and the Sunshine Coast decided to do.

What they say about country hospitality being warm and welcoming certainly rings true in Bell.

And it was demonstrated in abundance on the Friday night as we grabbed a drink at the bowls club.

The first friendly face we saw was Bell Tourist Park owner Emilia Wilson – this time taking food orders behind the bar.

Conversations between strangers flowed easily from an initial ‘Where are you from?’, as we sat down at long tables in the hall with our orders of homemade pie, chips, gravy and coleslaw or entertained ourselves (and others) under floodlights with a very dodgy game of barefoot bowls.

We thought we were up early on the Saturday morning, but the pet-friendly tourist park had long been stirring.

Hot breakfasts at the camp kitchen were on the boil, caravanners and campervan owners were tidying up awnings and annexes, while others enjoyed the birdsong and shade with a coffee on the cabin patios.

A stroll around the empty streets painted the picture of a proud Bell history in colourful murals and memorials, the Bell Station Precinct with its early model diesel locomotive and vintage passenger carriage, and quaint Queenslander homes and the RSL Sub-Branch with well-tended gardens.

The only bustling hub was the general store, already cooking up takeaway orders for the younger set sitting out the front.

But with the racecourse gates open at 10am, we didn’t have long to don our smart racewear, fancy headbands and fascinators, find our spot under a Your Mates Brewing Co-sponsored umbrella, sit back and enjoy the proceedings.

For most of the program, our group needed only to take a few steps forward for an uninterrupted view of the horses bounding down the straight – so close, we wore some of the dust kicked up by the closest gallopers.

For Race 4, The Gordon Family QTIS Maiden Plate 100m, the crowd started milling around us early, quickly blocking any chance of seeing the runners.

So, I stayed in my seat, allowing the crowd’s voices to pick me up and carry me along for the ride.

The cheers rang out, building to a euphoria in sync with the thunderous pounding adjacent to me as the pack took the final outstretched strides towards the finish line.

A goosebumps moment.

 Make sure you save the date next year – Saturday, January 4 – when Bell will once again resonate with punters and travellers wanting a great day at the races. Visit bellraces.com

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