When the dinner conversation turns to crocodiles, you know this is no ordinary music festival.

Crocodiles are a regular part of life in Townsville, North Queensland. One was recently seen loping down The Strand, Townsville's equivalent of Auckland's Mission Bay waterfront. The animal was 4.7 metres long and described by local police as "a bit snappy."

Away from its hungry reptiles, Townsville is the largest city brushing the Great Barrier Reef, known for its league team and V8s round, Australia's largest defence base, and holiday-makers fleeing colder climates. It's also home to one of the Southern Hemisphere's foremost classical music events, the nine-day Australian Festival of Chamber Music (AFCM), currently enjoying its 26th edition.

Star Australian pianist Piers Lane provides the artistic vision. Although living much of the time in London, Lane programmes the festival and with his name and contacts can attract genuine big hitters. This year's AFCM boasts international artists like Wolfgang Emanuel Schmidt - a winner of New Zealand's Adam Cello Competition - and the English violinist Tasmin Little, who's on her second AFCM.


Little and Lane work together often, and it was the pianist who convinced her to visit Townsville for the first time two years ago.

"I just had such a lovely time," Little says. "It wasn't too difficult to persuade me to return. The repertoire is always interesting and Piers always gets together a lovely group of people."

That conviviality extends to how the artists interact with the audience away from the stage. The musicians share a hotel with many of the concertgoers, and snatches of music-related conversation can be heard whenever you step in a lift. At one concert I spot Little chatting to a group of fans just minutes before she goes onstage.

"Festivals by their nature are usually less formal," she says. "But that doesn't mean you don't have to do your work and put on fantastic concerts, not a bit of it. What it means is that the audience are coming for the pure pleasure of it; they're not here to be seen, they're here because they're quite open minded and quite happy to try something new."

She's right about the open mindedness. At one concert I witness the audience clap enthusiastically for Mozart's Divertimento in E-flat but give a standing ovation for percussionist Claire Edwardes's powerhouse performance of Flash, a solo marimba work by contemporary Aussie composer Matthew Hindson. That reaction gives lie to the cliché about classical audiences being old and, by extension, conservative.

The audience isn't young - roughly the age of your average Rolling Stone, at a guess - but in the spirit of Keith Richards, this lot seem willing to try anything. It's a leap of faith most arts organisations would kill for.

In many cases, it again comes back to Piers Lane. Take Brisbane couple Jan and David Robinson, for example. They're self-described Lane groupies who come to Townsville every year. "If Piers has programmed it, I know it'll be worthwhile. I trust him," Jan says.

The Robinsons are latter-day arts patrons, and Jan admits that when they initially offered Lane financial support, they thought they were helping a struggling local artist, not one of the world's leading pianists. They opened a correspondence with Lane and now follow him all over the world.

"We don't take cruises; we follow Piers."

They're Tasmin Little's sponsors at this festival and, initially through Lane and now independently, they have a friendship with the violinist as well. There's a dedication to Jan in Lane and Little's new CD.

At a time of ever-shrinking government funding, the arts survive on people like Jan and David. There's also an army of volunteers. They help with tickets, shuttle artists to and from concerts, and do any number of those other little things that need to happen for an event like this to click. We hitch a ride with Judy. She tells us she's been coming to the festival since it started and when the call came for volunteers, it seemed natural for her to get involved. As well as helping the festival, Judy runs the Barrier Reef Orchestra.

Thanks to Jan, David, Judy and many others like them, the AFCM does a lot with relatively little. A full programme of chamber concerts is complemented by free events, including a gig in the park that attracts an estimated 5000 people. A winterschool is dedicated to gifted young musicians. And there is both an artist-in-residence - currently the Goldner Quartet - and, in Paul Stanhope, a composer-in-residence of some acclaim.

Stanhope's music is sprinkled throughout the festival. He says it's the sort of setting that works well for a composer, and allows space to air new compositions as well as offering the chance to dust off existing ones.

"It's fantastic for a composer to get some more performances," he says. "And to be working with musicians of this quality and revisit these pieces and refine things here and there is absolutely wonderful."

Stanhope proves his own point when his Three Lorca Songs is performed. Employing poems by the great Spanish writer of the title, two of the songs have been around for a while but the third is newly composed and has its world premiere at AFCM, featuring soprano Valda Wilson and Indira Koch (violin), Wolfgang Emanuel Schmidt on cello and pianist Timothy Young.

The work is a highlight of my festival. Stanhope's writing is inventive and expressive, giving the occasional nod to Lorca's homeland without becoming a souvenir shop of cheap flamenco flourishes. The versatile Wilson is excellent throughout, and Stanhope gives the instrumentalists ample opportunities to shine, too, notably in the cello and violin interactions of the opening Song of the Moon, and the cascading piano runs of the second song, Madrigals.

I speak with Stanhope following one of the AFCM's Concert Conversations, a delightful morning event where Lane interviews artists who then perform for an hour or so. Again it's clear how adventurous the audience is when a couple of hundred arrive at 11am on a Monday morning to hear this concert of mostly contemporary classical music. There are few places you'd find so many people gather with the knowledge that Psy, Luciano Berio's wonderfully unhinged work for solo double bass, awaits them.

As well as offering excellent music performed by top musicians, Concert Conversations is fun. A lot of the events here are. On our second night we embark on a concert crawl: three programmes at three different venues, with the audience walking between each. We form a slightly ragged bunch stretching down a main road at our various top speeds, with a flag-waving Pied Piper guiding us from building to building, but there's that aroma of collective purpose you get at festivals. There are worse things around which to build an imagined community than music.

The community that is Townsville benefits, too. The festival brings international-calibre artists and it also brings tourists. Two-thirds of attendees come from out of town; some have travelled from England. The person working on our hotel's reception - a travelling Kiwi who, as a flute player, seems thrilled to play host to musicians and music fans - says the place is booked out.

As we're leaving the hotel we run into a local wearing a thick leather jacket. I ask if that's necessary in a tropical climate.

"It's the middle of winter," he points out. "It's bloody cold, innit?"

No, it's not. The sun's gone down yet it's still 25⁰C; winter is the tourist season here but not because of the skiing. We've had nothing but hot days and blue skies since we landed.

Which is one of the reasons it's incongruous to find ourselves shortly thereafter at a concert called Winter Journey.

The centrepiece of the evening is Schubert's song cycle Winterreise, sung by the superb English baritone Roderick Williams, one of the festival's big drawcards. Tonight the music is interspersed with readings by actor Brendan O'Connor from diaries Captain RF Scott wrote on his ill-fated Antarctic expedition.

I anticipate that intertwining these two winter treks, Schubert's metaphorical, Scott's desperately real, will be overdoing it. That turns out not to be the case, with, as Piers Lane said at the day's earlier concert conversation, the reticence of Scott's writing complementing the economy of the music.

The arrangement perhaps benefits Scott more than Schubert - some of the sustained intensity of Winterreise is lost when broken up like this, while the gaps between diary excerpts actually increase the tension. But the composer has the final say with the frosted loneliness of Der Leiermann closing the concert. It's a fine end to my festival.

AFMC and others work hard to bring culture to Townsville, a place better known for its sporting events. While I'm there the city hosts a North Queensland Cowboys rugby league match, the Townsville Cup horse racing and a frankly insane swim from the nearby Magnetic Island to shore: "There's one paddler for every two swimmers. Because of the sharks and that. It got too expensive to keep giving each of the swimmers their own cage."

But alongside these is Dancenorth, among Australia's few professional contemporary dance companies; a couple of art galleries, one of which plays host on our 'concert crawl'; and there are plans for an arts precinct that will bring all of these things together, and give AFMC a new permanent home.

Throw in a couple of excellent restaurants and a nascent cafe scene and Townsville offers a satisfying lifestyle brew for its 180,000 citizens. And the occasional wandering croc.