The walls of Ken Mander-Jones' bedroom at Carinity Brookfield Green are adorned with photos of him with sheep, koalas and kangaroos, while the shelves hold several Queensland Tourism Awards.
Ken was the founder and owner of iconic Brisbane tourist attraction, the Australian Woolshed, which operated from 1982 to 2006. Based on an outback sheep station it featured ram shows; sheep shearing; billy tea and damper; bush dancing; native wildlife including koalas, wombats, dingoes, emus and crocodiles; and amusements such as waterslides and miniature golf.
In its heyday the award-winning tourist destination, which was located at Ferny Hills, attracted visitors from around the world. At one point the Australian Woolshed hosted 1,000 ram shows annually, drawing 75,000 foreign tourists; served 100,000 meals a year in the on-site restaurant; and was the third-biggest user of Polaroid film in the state.
Ken’s vision for the Australian Woolshed – to bring the country to the city – was somewhat inspired by his days working on the land as a farmer in regional Queensland.
“I was running a sheep property at Dirranbandi and in the 1960s we had the most shocking drought that I’ve been associated with. There was 12 months where it didn’t rain. That made me start thinking that there had to be better things in life than running a farm in a drought,” Ken said.
After selling his farm and livestock and moving to Brisbane in 1979, Ken and his wife Margaret started working on their vision to develop a theme park, originally known as Rainbow Valley.
“I started a tourist attraction with a waterslide for a start – the first waterslide in Brisbane – to get a bit of cash flow. I always had the idea of a woolshed because I knew the sheep industry. It was always going to be the main part of the business,” Ken said.
“People told me plenty of times that they thought I was crazy. We were building it all on 22 per cent interest rate. It was always going to take a number of years to be viable, and that’s exactly what it did become.”
With the Crocodile Dundee movie exposing the ‘land down under’ to a foreign audience of millions, Ken notes “the Australian tourism industry became quite profitable”.
After a name change to Australian Woolshed, the tourist attraction welcomed a seemingly endless stream of overseas visitors, particularly people from Japan, China and Singapore seeking an Aussie ‘outback’ experience. The business was an Australian Tourism Award winner.
“What I enjoyed most was reaching the international markets and the pleasure we gave people that went there and appreciated it. That was most satisfying. I also loved the bush dances. Most nights we would have a full house, absolutely packed out with 300 people,” Ken said.
Ken’s favourite animals at Australian Woolshed were the koalas that would crawl up his leg and sit on his shoulder, which “people couldn’t believe was possible”. He also loved the rams “which would walk on stage by themselves” for three shows held each day.
Sixteen years after Australian Woolshed closed, Ken stills meets people who visited the tourist attraction – and he receives “always complementary” feedback about their experiences.