Late one afternoon in the winter of 2006, Anya and I arrived in a small town called Marrabel.
We were hitch hiking north.
In South Australia, north could mean many things.
Marrabel was in what was known as the ‘mid north’.
We were on our way to the Flinders Ranges which lay in the ‘far north’.
The mid-north was lush country in comparison with the far north. There were rolling hills which in winter garnered enough rain to make planting wheat and grazing sheep possible. Many of the gum trees were large, quite a contrast to the stunted versions in the far north. Everything was relative. Mid-north was a good country. Another 100 kilometers further north where the Flinders Ranges began it was a different matter. And 200 kilometers further north, where the Flinders Ranges petered out, well, that was something else again.
See the thing is: you could go further north than ‘far north.’ Believe me, there was still plenty of north beyond the Flinders Ranges: far too much north.
North of far north: it was something to be feared.
There was the biggest salt lake in the world followed by what was known in colloquial terms as the ‘GAF’ – the ‘Great Australian Fuck-All.’ Seen properly, the GAF included most of Australia really. It was only the margins along its enormous and splendid coastline which were habitable. No wonder the Aussies had such an ironic, irreverent sense of humor.
There’d never been a frontier to open up, an American West.
There’d only been a north, a north of north and dead center: a graveyard for Man’s capacity for dreaming big dreams, for harboring grand ideals.
North, real north: there’s nothing out there mate.
Marrabel: it was a typical Australian country town.
Most of the people who ‘lived’ in Marrabel didn’t live there, but rather, somewhere out of Marrabel, 10, 20, kilometers away. Only 50 people lived in Marrabel itself, so to say: near the pub.
The pub was on a T junction. Opposite the pub was an electricity sub-station, a mass of wires and terminals behind a high metal bar fence. Surrounding this small outpost of human existence was open country: immense fields waiting to be sown and cropped.
We arrived late on a blustery, sunny, winter’s afternoon. Along the ‘main street’ – the only street – were some old colonial era houses on one side and a small park on the other. There was not a single person to be seen anywhere. The only noise to be heard was the wind whistling through the trees.
We came to the pub, eased off our heavy rucksacks and left them outside and walked inside.
There was no one there except for a woman standing behind the bar wiping glasses. We made our way past tables and chairs and approached the bar. Behind the woman was a sign above a row of spirits bottles which read: ‘When I die bury me under the pub, that way my husband will visit me every day’.
Her name was Wendy. She was tall, middle-aged, with short blond hair. Unlike so many Australians, she was not overweight.
We asked about accommodation.
We had our tent with us – and heavy rucksacks – in preparation for a long walk in the Flinders Ranges. We’d camped out the last few nights and now we wanted to have an easy night: dump our stuff in a corner, not have to put up the tent, have a shower, sleep on a bed and watch TV (Anya wanted to watch the Australian Rules Football).
But the Marrabel pub didn’t have any rooms. We were disappointed to say the least of it.
Wendy was apologetic and made a suggestion:
‘You can put your tent up down on the rodeo ground and I can make you a meal tonight.’
She wasn’t sure, but she thought there was a shower somewhere on the rodeo ground.
I knew nothing about rodeos. I couldn’t imagine ever going to one. My idea of a rodeo was from my childhood when I was raised on diet of American westerns: check- shirted cowboys with ten gallon hats riding wildly cavorting on bucking horses and yelling ‘yippee! Rodeos went with other images: six-shooters, branding irons, John Wayne and Roy Rogers.
A rodeo was an American invention and I assumed, something recently introduced into Australia, like grid-iron and basketball. When I expressed this opinion, Wendy’s reaction was immediate and impassioned:
‘Marrabel’s had a rodeo for 70 years!
I hit a sensitive spot.
‘Marrabel’s rodeo is a part of our history!’
Those last words were delivered with great emphasis.
I was intrigued: a town with no shops, no petrol station, whose official population was 50 – and it had a history?
Yes, indeed it had.
History: every year, in October, Marrabel, a nothing little town in South Australia’s mid-north, became a major stop on Australia’s national rodeo circuit. On that one day of the year it underwent a Cinderella-like transformation.
‘We can get anywhere up to 7, 8,000 people’ Wendy said ‘from all around Australia. From that one day in the year, we make enough money to finance our football and netball teams.’
Just how did this one-horse town get onto the national rodeo circuit?
As it turned out: because of one horse.
Wendy pointed in the direction of the door:
‘There’s a statue just outside at the corner of the intersection’
Before walking down to the rodeo ground, we went out and to take a look at it.
Incredible: during our walk along the ‘main street’ to the pub, we hadn’t even seen the statue. But there it was, on the opposite corner of the T junction to the electricity sub station: a big brass statue of a bucking horse with a man precariously perched on its back shining brightly in the sun. Behind it, the long silvery threads of the high-tension wires.
At the base of the statue, there was an information plaque. I read: that the statue weighed 2 tons and was dedicated to the memory of a remarkable horse named ‘Curio’.
Curio was a mare raised near Marrabel. For 8 years – from 1945 to 1953 – no one could ride her. Curio had a very unusual bucking action I read, which no one could master. She became a national sensation on the rodeo circuit. Australia’s top rough riders turned up in Marrabel every October and competed to be the first man to ride Curio. This required staying on Curio for 10 seconds. Most riders were unceremoniously bucked after 3 seconds. Then in 1953, history was made when a man named Alan Woods managed to stay on Curio for the whole 10 seconds.
Yeah, Marrabel had a history alright. Thanks to Curio, Marrabel was put on the national rodeo map – a kind of map which I never knew existed until we stopped in Marrabel.
An added gem of information: ‘Curio had five foals including Curiosity, Curio’s Farewell and Curio Special, all of whom became successful buckjumpers’.
‘Successful buck jumpers.’
We left the statue and walked down the road to the rodeo ground. Like the rest of the place, it was full of surprises.
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