Late one afternoon in winter, Anya and I arrived in a small town called Marrabel.
We were hitch hiking north.
Marrabel was the ‘mid north’ and 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 which was semi-desert.
Most of the people who ‘lived’ in Marrabel didn’t actually live there, but rather, somewhere out of Marrabel, 10, 20, kilometres away.
Only 50 people lived in Marrabel itself.
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.
At the end of the ‘main street’, on the corner of a T junction was a pub.
On one corner of the junction, directly opposite the pub, was an electricity sub-station, a mass of wires and terminals behind a high metal bar fence glinting in the sun.
There was also a statue of a horse next to it but we didn’t see that.
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 – in preparation for a long walk in the Flinders Ranges – but we’d camped out the last few nights in some rough places 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.
But the Marrabel pub didn’t have any rooms.
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 bucking horses and yelling ‘yippee!
A rodeo was an American invention and I assumed it was something recently introduced into Australia, like grid-iron and basketball.
When I expressed this opinion, Wendy’s reaction was immediate and impassioned and I realised I had made a mistake:
‘Marrabel’s had a rodeo for 70 years! It’s famous all over Australia!’
I was intrigued: a town with no shops, no petrol station, whose official population was 50 – and it was famous all over Australia? For 70 years?
Seemed like local chauvinism gone mad to me.
But I was wrong about that. 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 next to the electricity sub station….’
Leaving the pub and about to start the trip down to the rodeo ground, we saw it: next 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.
We walked over there.
At the base of the statue, was an information plaque. I read that the statue weighed 2 tons and was dedicated to the memory of a remarkable horse raised near Marrabel and named ‘Curio’. Curio had quite a story behind her.
For 8 years – from 1945 to 1953 – no one could ride her.
Curio apparently had a very unusual bucking action I read, which no one could master. She became a national sensation on the rodeo circuit. Marrabel’s unrideable horse. 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.
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.
There was an another 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.
It 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 kilometres 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 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. 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 passed, 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, a jumper and coat – and down at the pub sitting next to the open fire and enjoying a mean and drinking red wine, we felt fantastic; it was a real hit to be clean again.
We thought that the evening was going to be a rather quiet affair. It was after all a Tuesday night. But we were in for a surprise and in more ways than one. There was another side to Curio the famous buckjumper. Decades ago, that crazy horse had kicked in cars beside tossing off anyone who dared to ride her. Now her ghost was still famous all over Australia but for very different reasons and Marrabel was at the epicentre of a political fire storm….