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….’