Marrabel’s rodeo ground was about 200 meters down the road, behind a line of big old pine trees.
It was an eerie place.
In American horror movies from the late 1950’s, very early ‘60’s (I saw most of them as a kid), a familiar scene is a lone person wandering around a deserted fair ground. A wind is blowing, whistling down empty alleyways lined with abandoned burlesque attractions. Especially in black and white, this scene had a potent ability to create feelings of loneliness and strangeness.
And this is what I felt after we opened the gate and entered Marrabel’s rodeo ground.
There was a vast stretch of grass, covered with a liberal sprinkling of sheep droppings, and a grandstand.
Whilst Anya put her rucksack down and took a rest, I wandered around on a reconnaissance trip.
In front of the grandstand there was a ring surrounded by a wire chain-link fence. I ventured up into the grandstand. The ‘seating’ consisted of long cement ledges, one after the other, like steps. There were no proper seats as such. Sheep had wandered up into the grandstand and there were droppings everywhere. Swallows darted in and around the roof.
I descended from the grandstand and walked past the ring.
On the other side of the ring I found a large gathering of small galvanized iron sheds which served as stalls during the rodeo. The wind rattled the iron. In one of the sheds there was a loose door which banged loudly in the wind. At the front of each of the sheds was a long wooden counter. One shed had a sign above it: ‘Hot Chips’ and another ‘Barbecue Special’ and another ‘Beer’. Two of the sheds, without counters, were stacked up to the ceiling with empty 44 gallon drums. In another, there were four old ceramic bath tubs with cast iron feet.
I found the shed with the banging door and closed it.
Anya and I had just got the tent up – with the contents of our rucksacks spread all over the grass, a pastiche of bright- colored plastic bags – when a four-wheel drive appeared and pulled up next to us.
Out stepped a chubby, middle- aged man wearing overalls and a beanie. From under the beanie, long strands of hair spread over his shoulders in waves of grey.
‘G’day, I’m Worley, Bob Worley just call me Bob.’
He was on his way through Marrabel he explained when he got a call from Wendy asking him to stop at the rodeo ground and show us where the shower was. He lived 20 kilometers out of Marrabel (that was considered close). He was a kind of odd jobs man who amongst other things, was sometimes called upon to remove possums and snakes. The possums he let loose, but the snakes were a different matter:
‘Sell ‘em on to a venom lab. Milking snakes for their venom is big business these days’ he said, ‘big business!’
Images of a nouveau-riche of venom entrepreneurs.
We started talking about kangaroos, don’t ask me how. Like a lot of country people, this bloke could talk.
‘Gotta a pet kanga’, named him Mark.’
‘Mark the kangaroo?’
‘Named him after Mark Ricciouto, the captain of the Crows.’
The Crows were a popular football team in Adelaide.
Anya told him that we had seen an albino wallaby out at Irene and Ted’s. Irene and Ted had picked us up earlier in the day and taken us back to their place where we had had lunch and chatted. Irene was Polish; she had worked as a slave laborer in a Nazi aircraft factory during the war.
He knew Irena and Ted and had seen the albino wallaby.
‘There’s a big market for ‘em, albies (‘alby’ I take it is short for ‘albino’), the Japs love ‘em. I reckon if Irene and Ted wanted to they could make ‘emselves a bloody fortune breeding up them albies and exportin’ ‘em..’
Image of albino wallaby millionaires.
We got on to Marrabel and its rodeo.
‘I was 9 when I saw Curio for the first time’ he said rather dramatically, as if he’d witnessed a major historic event, ‘she was a legend ’
A legend as it turned out in more ways than one.
He recounted a memorable event involving the famous Curio: after throwing off its rider within a couple of seconds, Curio bolted out of the ring and ran amok:
‘There was no fence around the ring in those days’ he chuckled, ‘there were hundreds of people standing around the ring and Curio scattered ‘em like nine pins. People runnin’ in every direction….
Then she ran up into the grandstand! Bloody chaos! A couple of people got kicked. I was sitting near the front row and I thought me number was up!’
But the best bit was what happened after Curio bolted out of the grandstand. Worley loved this bit:
‘Curio ran up to me dad’s brand new Ford Falcon and booted the doors in. It was only three weeks old!
He laughed to himself.
After a short silence, Anya asked: ‘Did your dad have car insurance?’
That was a very Anya question.
He didn’t know about the insurance he said. What he did know was this:
‘There’d been a hullaballoo in those days about putting in a wire fence around the ring. Dad was all against it. ‘What’s the world comin’ to when ya’ gotta put a bloody fence around a rodeo ring? He said, ‘People wanna see the action not be molly-coddled with a fence….after he got his new Ford kicked in, Dad was all in favour of the fence’.
Bob took us over to the grandstand to show us where we could get a shower.
At the side of the grandstand near the rear end, there was door leading into a woman’s toilet (there was no men’s toilet on the opposite side of the grandstand). Worley had the key to it. He opened the door and flicked a switch. There was a long room with a row of toilet cubicles, two basins and a mirror and, incongruously, a row of old, attached wooden theatre seats.
There was another doorway. Worley opened it and flicked another switch. But the light was much weaker. We entered a room, like a cell, cast in a funereal gloom. There were stacks of toilet paper and hand paper rolls and a pile of signs on which words were painted in black: please pay at the counter, please cue, please use the litter bins etc. There were bottles of disinfectant, some brooms and a mop.
At the end of the room was a small dark cubicle with a pipe extending from a wall and beneath a wooden slat board. This was the shower.
There was no hot water.
Worley left and we took turns to shower.
With the cold nights, when the temperatures had fallen under zero, the water was like liquid ice.
But we badly needed a wash – including our hair.
Washing one’s hair in that ice water was no small undertaking; wet your hair, stand back, lather it, and rinse it out in instalments, standing aside from the water when the pain in your head got so bad you felt like you were going to faint. When the pain passes, you ventured back into the water and tried to do as much of the job as possible before having to take another rest.
What would we have given for a warm shower!
Yet afterwards, dry and clothed – thermal underwear, shirt, long pants, two pairs of socks, boots, two jumpers and a coat – and down at the pub sitting next to the open fire and drinking red wine, we felt fantastic; it was a real hit to be clean again.
In the evenings, the Marrabel pub got quite a few people, mostly workers, tradesmen, technicians and farmers, who drove in from the surrounding country, sometimes from 30 or 40 kilometres away.
When she brought our meal and wine, we chatted for a while with Wendy. She and her husband (his name was Robbie) were originally from the city.
‘The kids have grown up and gone their own ways. We took up the lease on the pub in Marrabel for a challenge. Its hard work running a pub, you’re always busy. What makes it all worthwhile are the evenings when all sorts of people turn up and we talk….
When we took over the pub, it was a run-down hole for pokie-addicts. The first thing we did was to get rid of the gaming machines. We wanted to meet the locals, not get them addicted to gambling. This place is for eating and drinking and talking. I won’t tolerate mobile phones either. You wanna talk on your mobile you do that outside same as with smoking…We’re going to buy the pub from the owner and build self- contained units at the back and rent them out to holiday makers passing through…’
Wendy and Robbie had their ideas about how to run a pub and what kind of pub they wanted. This was unusual. But it was successful. Their pub was for socializing. It was built around the idea of people talking to real people. It was already becoming a rare thing in those days. Today it’s infinitely worse. Few of us converse any more with real human beings of flesh and blood. All of our social contacts are via one or another form of electronic media. Speaking for myself I think an awful lot has been lost in the transition. On this night in 2006 in Marrabel I was struck by the convivial atmosphere. I’d been in enough Aussie pubs to know that I was witnessing something unique.
As the evening advanced, more and more people turned up many of them driving in from far away.
That night we heard about the animal rights activists and how Marrabel, that small town in the mid north of South Australia, had been in the news all over Australia.
This time Curio wasn’t involved.
During the last decade or so, an increasing number of animal rights activists had been turning up at Marrabel’s rodeo and staging protests – and doing a lot of filming which they later used to as evidence to have various charges brought against the rodeo organizers.
The animal rights activists were against rodeos and wanted the state government to ban them. The media had got on the trail. The politicians had got involved. Suddenly Marrabel was in the news. There was an incident when one of the animal rights activists had sat on the railing of a pen where the horses were stalled. One of the organizers had told her to get off and when she refused, he grabbed her and threw her into a drinking trough (ah, the bathtubs!) in order to ‘cool her off’. She had him charged with assault. The court had fined him six hundred dollars. The incident had made the news and been on TV talkback programs. One country state MP had created a furor when he had said that if he’d been there, he would have thrown the animal rights activist into the water trough too.
Meanwhile, the animal rights activists brought a charge against the chief organizer of the rodeo, a local farmer. He was charged with keeping a bull and a horse in the same pen, which was against the regulations for rodeos. He was fined a thousand dollars. He then quit the rodeo – it was a voluntary job – and since then, it had understandably been hard to find someone to replace him. Once, that job had been a great honor. Now, thanks to all the politics and media involved, no one wanted it. There was huge resentment amongst the country people against the animal rights activists. As one old lady I spoke to said:
‘Is a rodeo crueller than a horse race? Or a dog race? Of course not! The country’s got so little going for it. Why take this one day of the year away from Marrabel? How are we going to finance the footy and netball teams? Who do these city fanatics think they are to come and moralize to us?’
It seemed to me she had a point. It struck me that in a society where animals were raised en masse to be eaten, ‘animal rights’ was a slippery concept and that the activists had picked on the Marrabel rodeo because it was a soft target.
On the walls of the Marrabel pub were old black and white photos of the miraculous Curio and colour photos of Marrabel’s footy and netball teams. Near the doorway was a news board. It was covered in news clippings associated with the animal rights campaign against rodeos. Some of the articles were from regional newspapers, some of them from stock journals, and others from Adelaide’s main daily newspaper, ‘The Advertiser’.
The news clipping board was obviously Wendy’s idea. Each clipping had its date of publication written on it in biro.
My eyes caught a copy of the following article taken from The Advertiser and dated 11/7/06:
‘Animal Rights Activist Convicted of Mistreating Dog.’
That was a loaded heading if there ever was one. In the country, the lowest form of life is someone who mistreats a dog. An animal rights activist mistreating a dog was too good to be true: it was ample confirmation for country people that animal rights activists were twisted fanatics.
Under the heading was a photo of an old bent man in a long coat and a hat leaving court. His face was haggard and he was staring blankly in front of him. He was obviously devastated. I read the accompanying article carefully.
This man had been the director of the RSPCA (‘Royal Society for the Protection and Care of Animals’) for four years and he was the leader of the Animal Rights group which was pursuing the campaign against rodeos.
How did such a man come to be convicted of mistreating a dog? I wondered.
I read on. Here was the story: he was convicted for failing to fulfil his duty of care to his dog by not taking it to a vet. It was a very old dog. It was blind, it had lost the use of its limbs, it was incontinent and it was in constant pain. It was incapable of eating too, but it had been kept alive by its owner stuffing balls of bread containing vitamin pills down its throat. The man told the court that he didn’t take the dog to a vet because he knew that the vet would recommend that the dog be put down.
He didn’t believe in ‘euthanasia for animals’ he said.
That was a truly bizarre philosophy for someone who claimed that they were opposed to animal cruelty.
Here was a man who could get passionate about someone riding a rodeo horse for a few seconds and yet saw no contradiction in putting his own dog through years of unrelenting hell.
This was the man who had given the green light to an animal rights jihad against rodeos and Marrabel.
The contradictions fascinated me.
No doubt this man believed that in being opposed to ‘euthanasia for animals’ he was a moral being; it underlined the point that moral beings were capable of lunacy.
Yes, little Marrabel had lots of history alright, a history which in its own quirky way was a cameo of the history of Australia.
Once upon a time a mare was raised near Marrabel. For 8 years men came from all over Australia to try to ride her and no one had succeeded. One day, that wild horse named Curio had even jumped out of the ring and scared thousands of people out of their wits and booted in the door of a new Ford Falcon!
A horse had put Marrabel on the map. After her, came her descendants – all of them ‘successful buckjumpers’
But Marrabel had made history and not only because of Curio and her progeny.
When the animal rights activists had appeared on that One Day of the Year to put a stop to Marrabel’s rodeo, that diminutive town had suddenly become famous. A new set of issues had grabbed the headlines all over Australia: the country versus the city, the right to hold a rodeo and the right of animals to be treated with respect. A rodeo organizer was convicted of cruelty to animals – and so was the leader of the animal rights campaign. All over the country, the old ideas of society, of right and wrong, of the acceptable and the unacceptable, were being challenged. Racism and sexism were the catch cries of a new definition of Australia and what it ought to stand for. The rights of indigenous people, women, gays, immigrants, children and animals – to name of few of the major ‘rights’ issues – were championed.
Change, so needed, like rain on a parched land, had come and along with it, it had brought its own excesses, its own contradictions, its own injustices.
I left Marrabel feeling confused.
Where was the better direction?
I had a feeling it was like any other direction on the compass.
It was a place to head to, a goal, but what we would find there was another matter.