August 2017 saw my husband Shaun and I on the road back to Borroloola for the 50 year Anniversary of the annual Rodeo. The Carpentaria Highway stretches over 700 kilometres travelling south east from Katherine on the Stuart Highway into the rugged Gulf country.
We had traversed this road many many times in our 14 years of living at McArthur River Station at the foothills of the Abner Range. Our children grew up and went to the one teacher school on the station and the Borroloola Rodeo was the most important social occasion on our calendar. This is where they learnt to ride and compete and met up with their little mates from around the district, just as we adults did.
Going back 23 years after we left in December 1994, was like going home. Travelling back into the ancient landscape, seeing the open savannah country roll into the rugged ranges and valleys where the magnificent McArthur River flows. We were able to book into the lovely accommodation of the Savannah Way Motel which has a fabulous restaurant with local seafood and a great wine list. A vast difference to any accommodation in the 80-90s when we took our swags to camp at the rodeo grounds.
The Rodeo grounds has grown from a dust bowl with two sheds, one for the bar and one for the catering and a set of old demountable style toilets donated by someone who once had a road building camp. Hot, smelly and not very good at flushing! these were the precursor’s to the porta a loos that one can hire now days.
In our years in the Gulf Country we participated in every rodeo with Shaun taking on the presidents job for a number of years and under his watch the rodeo extended into a regional camp-draft. The official name of the Borroloola Rodeo is Borroloola Amateur Race Club (BARC) but work health and safety saw the demise of the bush races years ago, however I proud to say that I competed in the ‘Ladies Race’ a number of times.
The camping grounds have changed from swags out on a dusty flat with an open fire, to hundred thousand dollar ‘goosenecks’ the American style horse trailer with state of the art kitchens and bedrooms and an extension for the horses, saddles, bags of feed and bales of hay. Air-conditioned with satellite dishes on the outside means that the many of the competitors disappear as soon as the sun goes down for a warm shower and a bottle of wine. No more standing around a bar under a hot tin roof, bare earth floor with a beer or rum that is cooled in blocks of ice in cut off fuel drums. Where the catering consisted of a choice of steak and sausage sandwiches cooked on a wood fired barbecue. The rodeo grounds now have a nice lawn area for the catering caravans and pop up shops with running water and electricity. There is now a vast array of food from fish and chips to Dagwood Dogs, Chinese, Thai, icy slushy drinks and fairy floss.
On arrival at the rodeo we soon found a group of friends, The Burke Family from Broadmere Station, with a tarpaulin strung between Toyota’s, chairs, esky’s full of cold beer and wine and a pile of little kids playing in the dirt.
Though things have changed massively since we left, some things haven’t changed and that is the rough and tumble of the rodeo where everyone has a go, from bull riding, to camp-drafting, barrel racing and kids novelty events and the meeting up with friends from years ago, where one picks up the conversation as if a few decades had not just passed us by.
Best seats in the house
The famous pioneering family, the Darcy’s of Mallapunyah still park their vehicle at the end of the arena for the best seats in town, Frankie Shadforth from Seven Emus Station, David and Margie Daniell from McArthur River, Bill and Cissy Bright pioneers of Kiana Statio , Roz Kerr keeping the rodeo flowing from the end of a microphone and her mother Mavis who has been to every rodeo in the last 40 years, all have ridden the test of time and kept the rodeo going, getting bigger and better each year. Jan Darcy the matriarch competitor of the rodeo who has been competing for over 40 years, with her beautiful smile and kind words of encouragement for everyone.
Borroloola Rodeo is probably the last of the real outback rodeo’s in Australia where you will see three generations of one family competing in a range of events, mentoring and encouraging and keeping an outback tradition alive. Borroloola Rodeo is not a place for the faint hearted – It is tough country out there and it is a long way from anywhere, but it boasts a proud heritage of cross cultural respect and survival.
It is a place rich in legends of crocodile hunters and the toughest horsemen in the country along with the traditional Mara, Yanuwa and Gudangi people who live happily between two cultures, who walk their country, hunting for dugong and barramundi and telling the stories of ancient days through song, dance and paintings.
The annual Borroloola Rodeo is held on the third weekend in August each year. A must see on your travels in Outback NT.
It is an action packed three days at the Rodeo.
If you would like to read more about Borroloola rodeo and the Gulf Country you can read it all in my memoir – My Outback Life