Previously: Carcoory Bore and Homestead
Leaving Carcoory Bore
The van rumbles and rattles as we motor North up the mostly unsealed Eyre Developmental Road.
Not a specific rattle. Just a symphony of noises. The settling cutlery. Creaking cupboards. The suspension negotiating the bumps in the road. That other noise that sounds like polystyrene rubbing together that I’ve never been able to locate.
The pepper shaker that I forgot to put away at lunch finds itself in the sink, and soon the contents of the van reach equilibrium. Though every few weeks a rogue pair of socks will fall out of the ceiling net and strike a chord on my guitar.
Willow lifts her head, then continues her nap. She is no novice when it comes to outback roads. The commotion never seems to faze her.
Outside we pass the red gibber plains to the West. The gibber stones appear to be polished to perfection by the elements then expertly placed to form a desert pavement as far as the eye can see.
The recent rain has now completely dried up and the unsealed sections are in good condition. As we get closer to the next town the gibber plains give way to rolling dunes of desert sands. On the side of the road station horses graze in the afternoon sun.
The Oasis in the Desert
There are towns that you drive straight through. Towns where you stop for fuel. Towns where you while away an afternoon or evening. And then there are towns that capture a part of you for much longer.
The thing is, you can just never tell which town is which until you roll on in.
Bedourie is a town of about 120 people nestled between sand dunes and desert creeks. It has a roadhouse, a pub. A school and community centre. A swimming pool and golf course. A police station and health clinic. A visitor centre and a library. Quite a lot for a small town.
Oh, and a racecourse – the location of this weekends annual campdraft and rodeo.
The Royal Bedourie Hotel
We pull into town and park in the main street near the Visitor Centre. There is no central business district out here. The only distinguishing factor as to whether it was the main street or not was the fact that each end leads out of town.
I spot the Royal Bedourie Hotel, or simply ‘the pub’ as the locals call it. The outside is littered with relics from days gone, and some wafting wheelie bins that have been sitting in the afternoon sun.
I step inside. An assortment of merry tourists sat around the bar turn their heads to see who the new arrival is. Behind the bar is a Dutch girl serving drinks. I would later meet the publican Jim, an older gentlemen adorned with glasses and a truckers cap, but that’s a story for another time.
Now, you might think that I was in there to grab a beer and a counter-meal, and you wouldn’t be entirely wrong. But the main reason I was there was to check if my parcel had arrived. In towns as small as Bedourie the pub often serves as the post office.
Just because I’m nomadic doesn’t mean I can’t partake in some internet shopping. It’s easy to send stuff ‘c/o postoffice’ when you’re on the road. When I have a few things I need to order, I get them sent to my parents house and Mum kindly repackages them into one box and sends it out to me. If I’m lucky she even includes some treats.
The girl shows me to the tiny mailroom and empties a sack of unsorted mail onto the floor. Sitting on top of the pile is my parcel. My camera accessories and guitar strings are now safely with me. Oh, and some shortbreads from Mum!
It’s now time for a quick beer and a feed. I sit up at the bar and reach for the worn out laminated menu sitting on the counter.
“No meals tonight, we don’t have a cook”.
Bedourie’s Big Weekend
Campdraft is an Australian sport which originated in outback Queensland early last century. It settles the age old campfire argument of who has the best horse and the greatest horsemanship.
The rider starts in a smaller yard with a mob of cattle. The aim is to first cut one out of the group. Then to block and turn it as it tries to return to the herd. Once the rider feels that they have demonstrated their control they call for the gate to be opened.
Through to the larger yard, the rider must now manoeuvre the ‘beast’ around a series of points to finish the course. The judges award them points out of 100.
Riders have travelled from towns and stations all over Queensland to compete. The weekend is a big social occasion with old faces reunited and new friendships forged.
I spot the guy from the visitor centre, Taman. He’s also taking photos and we stop for a chat. He’s been posted in town for 6 months after studying in Melbourne.
I spend the day watching the events along with a small crowd of others. Every hour or so I walk back to my van to check on Willow. There is plenty of room to camp around the racetrack and we chose a spot about 300 metres from the events.
Willow is quite happy to snooze in the van whilst I’m away. It’s July so the weather is cool and there is no worry of the temperature inside becoming uncomfortable.
The campdraft events wrap up in the late afternoon as the sun casts that golden orange glow over the land. I cook dinner in the van and spend some quality time with Willow before venturing out again.
I feel that I need to add a little warning here. And as much as I try to find a different way of phrasing it or to skirt around the issue, the word ‘cruelty’ cannot be unsaid. The following section contains depictions in text and video of cruelty to animals.
The arena that hosts the campdraft and the rodeo is nestled on the inside of the racetrack. There’s a shed set up as a bar to serve the spectators and built overlooking the yards is an officials hut where they can see all of the action.
The last of the sun fades away and the place is now lit by floodlights looming over the arena. The movement of the cattle and broncs in the adjacent pens kicks up the dust which drifts off into the darkness.
Inside the arena stands a man dressed in a drover’s vest and an akubra hat, holding a microphone.
Along the sides of the arena the rodeo stars are preparing for their events. Laying out their bull ropes and protective equipment. But it’s not their turn just yet.
The man in the arena announces the first event. The 13 and under Poddy ride.
A young rider and calf emerges from the chute. A kid about 12 is gripping the flank strap with one hand and has another in the air. The calf bucks hard and 4 seconds later the kid hits the dirt with a roll as the crowd cheers. The calf struggles as the handlers remove the strap and staggers before exiting the arena.
Another 5 kids have their rides before the judges make their judgment and the ribbons are awarded.
The crowd lines the arena, accommodated by a small grandstand, or their own camp chairs and blankets. It’s July and the desert nights are cold. Along the top of the fence line, kids are perched watching the action. The bar is serving drink after drink.
The smell of cigarettes and cologne drifts through the air from where the rodeo stars are organising themselves.
Lawrence Sorbello, the self touted one man country rock show and Australian Idol runner-up, prepares for his set on a makeshift stage by the bar. But for the while he’s playing DJ and out of the PA system screams hits from the likes of ACDC, Bon Jovi, Survivor, and many a country song foreign to my ear.
The handlers open the chute and a saddled bronco comes out bucking. The rider lasts a moment before being propelled into the dirt, gets up nonchalantly and dusts himself off. Handlers on horseback tame the still bucking bronco and get it out of the arena.
I stand near the judges building with my camera. A beautiful white gelding moves into the passage before the chute. A young girl leans over the fence stroking his face. The rodeo stars each take risk with every ride. Broken bones. Concussions. The livestock are exposed to the same risks though not by choice of their own.
The gelding enters the chute. The handlers apply the flank strap whilst the rider, a man about 50, gets positioned. The chute opens and he cracks his whip as the bronco bucks under him. He lasts a good 4 seconds before the bronc has his way and ejects him into the dirt with a roll. The bronc hasn’t finished bucking and the man shields his body with his arms as it passes over him.
Under the clear desert night sky the bullocks exit the chutes throwing riders every which way, to the admiration of the crowd.
One rider hits the ground hard and lies motionless. The gates into the arena are flung open as the ambulance on stand-by rolls forwards. The two paramedics check him over as he comes round. They give him the clear and he stands to raised cheers.
The events run through without incident. No broken bones for rider nor animal. Though this isn’t always the case in rodeo. Occasionally an animal is injured. And occasionally they have to be euthanised. Something no amount of animal welfare policy set up by rodeo associations can seem to avoid.
The associations are quick to state that the animals do not suffer and that pain is not inflicted to induce bucking. Whether or not this is the case, surely the animal is bucking because it does not wish to have a human ride them?
I get the impression that for small town rodeos the focus is on the sport not the entertainment. Regardless, it might be some time before the modern ideals on the coast reach the hearts and minds of those in the outback.
For me, what I witnessed wasn’t horrendous, but I am left with a bad feeling. The only way I could enjoy this sport would be to accept that it does involve cruelty. But, I’m not sure if that’s something I can accept.
The ‘beast’ will buck and the riders will ride on. But which is truly the beast?
The days competition has ended but the night is far from over. Rodeo stars and campdrafters, tourists and locals – all gather around the bar and fire drums as the beers are flowing.
Lawrence picks up his guitar and starts his show as people wander onto the dance floor. He plays covers of country and rock hits. Every so often he plays something just not country enough for this far West and the floor empties only to slowly repopulate.
I spot my new friend from the visitor centre and also the girl who works at the pub, Laura. We stand around a fire drum making observations of our time in the town so far. Laura notices how much we stand out amongst the baggy jeans, cowboy shirts, and akubra hats. Outsiders stick together they say, strangers in a strange land.
At midnight they pull the plug, Lawrence deflates, is folded, and packed away in a box until next time, or so I imagine. The shuttle bus with P plates takes it’s last passengers back to town. And by ten-past the racetrack is silent except for a few quiet voices around campfires and the occasional moo from the yards.
Back at the van there is a sleepy little cat who has just woken up from her mid-to-late evening nap and is ready for a snuggle before bed. She jumps up onto my lap expecting a pat – oh and a midnight snack.
We stay a few more days at the racetrack. By the van is an old barrel which is the perfect stage for a little photoshoot. Later in the week we return to the town to catch up with our new friends, but it would be months before we leave again.
Next: Trouble in the Oasis
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What do you think? Does rodeo still have a place in modern Australia? Leave your thoughts below.