Cairns, QLD. 7th July 2015.
After fifteen nights camping I needed some time and space to sort out my gear, do some washing and buy a few bits and bobs. The YHA hostel had a secure place to park my bike, a roomy dorm and a laundry. It was also just across the road from a shopping centre. Just the job.
Reception told me of a medical centre just down the road where I could get a medical organised, at short notice. Was I sick? No, but I wanted to learn to scuba dive and someone of my age needed the OK from a doctor. I walked down there and booked one for the next morning.
One of my roomies was a French women called Kristen. She was on a six week tour of Australia. She had an unusual means of transport in that she would fly into a town or city and then run around it to see the sights. She’s a keen runner, she said. You must be, I said tiredly. She rides a BMW1100R back in Paris, so at least we had motorcycles in common. She also had an interesting English accent. Something else we shared, possibly.
Next morning I went down to the medical centre and got thoroughly checked out by a nurse. He tested blood pressure, lung capacity, eyes, ears etc. All OK. Then I went in to see the doctor who gave me that crossed arms signal which means, as we all know by now, you go no further. It seems that because I take broncho-dilatory medication for asthma I can’t go diving. The risk of my airways closing up because of the unusual pressure, and the effects of cold water, are too great. I was very disappointed as I really wanted to have a try at something so very different but it’s just not to be. The only bright side to it is that a $55 medical saved me paying out for a $950 course and whatever other related expenses would have come along further down the line. One has to look on the bright side I suppose.
To lighten my load and my mood a bit I posted my Motorcyclists Atlas of Australia off to Phil and donated my Lonely Planet Guide of Australia to the hostel’s book shelves. I had given very little usage to either of them and felt much better for having shed a kilo or two from my luggage. Good to have something positive.
I also watched the third game in the State of Origin series on TV. NSW had won the second game, three weeks earlier, so this decider was necessary. And what a game it was, provided you were a Maroon that is. Queensland absolutely slaughtered NSW, with a score of 52-6. Considering how well they’d played in the second game, this was a defeat of some note. I really enjoyed watching it, especially as QLD is now my state of origin too.
On a damp Friday morning I headed out of Cairns, feeling a little guilty because I hadn’t seen much of it, and headed back to the Tablelands and Mareeba. The road there was one I was looking forward to riding. I didn’t need a motorcyclist’s atlas to tell me that. Just looking at the map would be enough to get any red blooded rider salivating. But in no way does the map do it justice.
Called the Gillies Highway, this road climbs from sea level to a height of eight hundred metres. It does this over a distance of twenty kilometres as it climbs up the Gillies Range. On its way up, this road takes you round two hundred and sixty three bends. Go back and read that again. No, I didn’t bother to count them! As I rode through the valley on the approach to the climb I was stuck behind a truck and two slow moving cars. But the clouds parted, the sun shone for a moment and the road straightened out enough to let me overtake the two cars. Then the truck turned off just before the climb started. It was mine! A nimble bike, even with loaded with luggage, is still a nimble bike and Doris and I had a fine old time as we hit bend after bend, of varying angles, at varying degrees of lean. I wasn’t out to break any records but believe me, we were having fun. I came up behind the occasional car but they pulled over when they could and let me past. Thanks guys, that was much appreciated. That was easily the best bit of riding I’d had since New Zealand and my grateful thanks go to Mr Gillies.
Back to a saner road and riding style, and soon I was in Atherton and a coffee stop at MacDonalds. Considering the town is the one the tablelands are named after, it didn’t seem to have much going for it and I didn’t hang about. Soon enough I reached Mareeba, one of the biggest towns in the area, and headed for the rodeo showground. It was $25 for a weekend pass and $10 per night for camping. I thought that was very reasonable for three nights camping and two days entertainment. Even more so when I looked at the programme of events and found they went on for two full days, starting at 8am each day. At the end of the normal events on Saturday was a Battle of the States, with competitors from QLD and NSW reliving the State of Origin rivalry. Something to look forward to.
I was shown to a pitch in the family area – read quieter – and just got my tent up before the rain came again. As the afternoon wore on the campground got very full and during the evening camp fires and loud music from the party area seemed to be the order of the night.
Saturday was dry and sunny and it wasn’t long after 9am before I was sitting in the stands experiencing my first rodeo. So what goes on? Well, it involves cowboys, cowgirls, horses, bulls, calves ropes and barrels. Here’s a brief description of each event.
Breakaway Roping – the rider chases a calf out of the trap, lassos its head and the rope breaks away from its connection to the saddle. Run against the clock.
Team Roping – two riders chase a calf out of the trap. One lassos its head then the other has to lasso its rear legs. Run against the clock.
Rope and Tie – the rider chases a calf out of the trap and lassos its head. He then has to bring it to the ground and tie its four legs.
Steer Wrestling – the rider chases a steer out of the trap, jumps off his horse and grabs the steers horns, then wrestles it to the ground. A second rider rides on the other side of the steer to prevent it breaking away sideways. Run against the clock.
Steer Undecorating – the rider chases a steer out of the trap and has to pluck a ribbon off its back. Run against the clock.
Barrel racing – the rider races their horse round three barrels set out in a triangle. Run against the clock.
Bucking Bronco, bareback – the horse is released from the chute with rider on board and he has to stay on until the klaxon sounds after eight seconds. Points are awarded for technique provided he lasts the eight seconds.
Saddle Bronc – as above but the horse has a saddle on it.
Bull Ride – as above but with a big, bad bull.
Many of the events had female and junior classes, and for the 8-11’s some assistance was allowed. The two events where the rider got thrown off a horse had pick-up riders who stayed close by and provided the rider with an escape route once the klaxon had sounded. With the bull ride the rider had to jump off and there were distraction clowns whose job was to keep the bull away from the rider. All of these techniques worked surprisingly well. There were various riders in the arena whose job was to capture stray horses and guide the steers, bulls and calves back through the gates into the pens. There were also a couple of comedy clowns who were easily the lamest, unfunny clowns I’ve ever seen. Half hearted attempts to get the crowd involved, very unfunny ‘jokes’, generally a waste of space. If I was involved in organising it I’d be asking for my money back.
As well as the arena events there was a woodcutting competition. Having read about these at Herberton I was keen to watch these guys in action. There was log cutting, horizontal and vertical, and log sawing. One man and his axe or two men and their cross cut saw, all done against the clock. The logs were stacked up ready for selection and preparation, and each competitor prepared his own log. For the horizontal cut he would mark any large knots, then select and mark a cutting zone. Next he would mount the log on a stand and cut flat areas at each end on which to stand. The five competitors had time handicaps applied, presumably based on previous performance. One competitor was eighty one years old and had been competing for sixty years. I think he was there just for luck as he wasn’t competitive any more.
The winner was a big Aboriginal guy who started last but finished first, cutting through his log in less than thirty seconds. The vertical log cutting and the sawing competition were similarly fast and furious. Technique is important but so is strength. The axes and saws are made from special steel and there is clearly a whole range of technical speciality sitting behind the muscle power.
Similarly, watching the rodeo events made it clear that skill with a rope and skill at controlling a horse is the difference between a lucky lasso throw and always catching the calf. I think there’s a fair degree of courage involved in hurling yourself off your horse and onto the horns of a steer before wrestling it to the ground, but even so, watching this event across two days made it clear that consistency pays off too.
As for the guys riding the broncs and bulls, I don’t know what protection they were wearing but it needed to be good otherwise the propagation of the species would surely take a nosedive in this area. Those broncs and bulls sure could jump! The riders were marked on technique but I’ve no idea how that manifested itself. To me it just seemed to be hang on and hope. All of it was interesting and some of it was very exciting. The crowd was supportive of all competitors and increased in size as the day wore on. As it was the last weekend of the two week school break there were plenty of families around too.
After the Battle of the States had finished on Saturday evening there was a very good firework display.
Outside the main arena was a good selection of fairground rides and any amount of food stalls. One sold baked potatoes and I took advantage of it on both days. A very nice selection of fillings at a very reasonable $10.
I was very impressed with the whole event. It was superbly organised, everything ran to schedule and there were lots of different things to enjoy. On Saturday this included live music which started about 9pm and went until about 2am. I surprised myself by sticking around until 1am. There were two bands on and when one completed their set, the other started up. They swapped over like this all evening so there was live music all the time. One was only so-so in terms of talent but the other was really good. They played plenty of rock classics along with some songs I’d never heard. They had the crowd really jumping and I was out there dancing too. A terrific way to end the day.
Sunday was a repeat of Saturday, rodeo wise, although everything was finished by 5pm. It was another day of absorbing competition and the final results were very close run. No entertainment on Sunday so I had a quiet evening in my tent reflecting on the weekend. I didn’t really know what to expect from it all beforehand. I’d only ever seen these events in films as a backdrop to a story, which doesn’t really mean much. There’s no doubt they’re exciting to watch and I enjoyed it very much.
The one area of doubt is whether rodeo events are cruel to the animals involved. The answer probably is ‘Yes, to some extent’. There’s no doubt they feel some stress during the events although I don’t suppose it’s long lasting. Animal welfare groups accuse the organisers of using cattle prods and so on to provoke the animals. I’ve no idea how true this is. Is it more cruel than other animal based sports, such as horse racing or show jumping? All of them have their detractors. The fundamental question is whether it’s right to use animals for entertainment of any kind. I’m not going to pass comment. I enjoyed what I saw and no animals suffered any obvious hurt, that’s all I can say.
Monday morning took me back down towards Cairns, along another nice, twisty road. Not so much fun this time as it was too busy. Once back down below I headed for the Australian Museum of Armoury. I’d been told about this place by the barber in Townsville so I thought I’d have a look. It was very impressive, with a wide range armoury from WW2 and just after.
British, Australian, Russian and American tanks, artillery, armoured personnel carriers etc. All very well laid out and with high quality information panels. I was approached by a guy who had seen my bike outside and we chatted about places we’d both visited in Britain and Europe. He was a mining engineer and gave me some useful info about some of the areas I was heading to.
Back at the YHA, I settled into the dorm and went into to the showering, laundry, shopping routine again. Familiarity and comfort once more. Nice.