Red dust and rodeo

Julietta Jameson witnesses the guts and glory as Australia's outback cowboys gather in Mount Isa.

As certain as death and taxes, it is irrefutable that at the rodeo, the bull always wins.

This was one reason among several that I realised I liked rodeo and could sit all afternoon and into the evening in the scorching outback Queensland heat watching in all other ways sensible men pit their skill, wit, strength and will against surly untamed animals at the Mount Isa Rodeo.

In the middle of the red-dust ring and to the delight of the all-ages audience, I saw cowboys clutching their crotches in agony from, you would swear, well-aimed kicks by bucking horses. Others fell perilously under cranky stomping bulls after trying to hang on and ride. Clowns put themselves in barrels to be gored by rampaging bovine.

Teams of men pulled desperately on ropes hoping to tie down spirited brumbies that refused, in the most violent terms, to be fettered and cowboys were thrown around like a ribbon in the wind on the backs of feisty, unyielding, kicking and bucking horses.

And then I saw moments where the cowboy won (though never against the bull) and the backdrop of the rest of the farce and fiasco made their feat remarkable and something to vigorously applaud. There was grace as men and women with their trusted steeds raced around barrels in a show of skill and simpatico.

And there were moments of beauty when exhibition riders on glamorous show horses took to the ring for a change of pace.

I have to admit to moments of worry about the welfare of the four-leggeds during the less predictable rodeo events. Talk to the people involved, though, and they will tell you the animals that participate are among the most well looked-after in the land, although I have yet to see a bull's thoughts quoted in the media about that.

But this is no place for animal rights activists, vegans or the faint-hearted.


Now in its 51st year, the Mount Isa Rodeo is a place for country folk to get together over a festival weekend and celebrate their way of life. Which makes it also a place for city folk to come and do the same, if your sensibilities are the kind to accept the rodeo for what it is and not think too hard about what it isn't.

The Mount Isa Rodeo is the richest in Australia and the biggest. The organisers claim it to be the biggest in the southern hemisphere. About 30,000 people attend the three days of action and prizemoney totals more than $200,000.

Mount Isa the town is a huge producer of silver and lead, copper and zinc a mining town first and foremost.

But lying south of the Gulf of Carpentaria and west of Townsville, that's a massive 905 kilometres from Townsville, 1319 kilometres from Rockhampton and 1823 kilometres from Brisbane. It's out the back of outback and serves as a centre for farming folk over a wide distance.

The rodeo is their moment to come into town, put on their best clobber and socialise with neighbours they might not see from one month to the next.

They're also very happy to welcome visitors from elsewhere. The rodeo is the time when their version of the big smoke is in the spotlight.

The endearing thing about Australian rodeo cowboys is that they are usually working farmhands or farm owners who participate in the circuit in the hope of winning a little extra cash to pay off the mortgage or the car loan.

Sometimes they're so good, they go professional. And then they might take to the international rodeo circuit and make it all the way to the capitals of rodeo, Calgary or Texas.

They'll often return home for the Isa Rodeo, though. With its rich prize purse it attracts cowboys from all across the ever-expanding rodeo world. (There's now rodeo in Brazil and Malaysia, of all places.)

To those who say rodeo is an American sport that has no place here, it is true that rodeo began in North America and is one of the fastest-growing sports there. With its history and lore, it's been said that other than baseball, no sport represents traditional American values more.

But its translation to Australia is no real stretch. Like the US, with its enormous cattle ranches requiring men of strength, endurance and skill to work them, Australia's outback has spawned its own hardy bunch of cattlemen.

And while using the term "cowboy" is a no-brainer (it sounds a lot sexier than station hand), there's no denying that in other areas, too, rodeo is highly influenced by the North American icons the Marlboro Man, John Wayne and classic western movies.

You won't, for instance, find a station hand in Australia wearing fringed chaps around the back paddock. But you will find him wearing them at rodeo. Mighty big belt buckles, too.

And at Mount Isa, the US brand Wrangler is the cool gear to wear. There's minimal R.M.Williams in sight. Even the littlies are emblazoned with Wrangler. (If you're coming to the Isa and you don't own any, don't worry. There's plenty on sale at the fair next door to the rodeo arena.)

Clearly, it's not all about the shenanigans in the arena.

On the Friday night there's an opening parade they call Mardi Gras. No, Sydney's isn't the only chaps-festooned Mardi Gras parade in Australia. But unlike Sydney's parade, this one features children on the backs of trucks, lassies handing out lollies on behalf of Mount Isa public works organisations and students of the local English-language school marching to show pride in their adopted home. (The Isa has remarkable ethnic diversity with various groups drawn to the area by the mines.)

Everybody turns out and lines the road to the arena, cheering the floats no matter how makeshift they may be.

The funfair keeps the children busy all day. Dressed in their cowboy best, they spend hard-saved dollars on rides and fairy floss, trinkets and hamburgers. The fluoro colours of the rides pop against the clear outback sky, making the whole thing a surreal spectacle.

In the evenings, the stands of the arena turn into something of a B&S ball, with the Bundy and Cokes and XXXX flowing freely and the single young things from far and wide getting to know each other as the sun sets and the air cools.

Things heat up again when the band begins. There's lots of sweaty dancing. You will find big names in country playing at the Isa Rodeo and they'll be repaid for their visit with a highly enthusiastic audience.

Outside rodeo time, Mount Isa itself is quite a unique place to visit. What the town lacks in pretty, it makes up for in authentic outback town experience. With pockets of real old Australiana here and there, it's a marvellous scavenger hunt for photographers seeking atmospheric images.

Two hundred and fifty kilometres north-west of town are the World Heritage Riversleigh fossil deposits. And not at all far out of town is Lake Moondarra, Mount Isa's water supply and the place where locals go boating and fishing. It is well stocked with barramundi, so much so that at another time of year there is a fishing competition.

The mines themselves can't be visited but you can see them from pretty much anywhere, belching out smoke that is a whole other welfare argument, only for animals of the two-legged variety mostly.

But you can partake of a very interesting and value-for-money tour at the Hard Times Mine, where your laconic guides, all retired long-time miners, get you dressed up in orange overalls, gumboots and cap lamp before you descend in an Alimak Cage to gloomy underground tunnels and get the chance to have a go on the air-leg drill. (It pushed a few of my claustrophobia buttons but I survived.)

Mount Isa is home to several big clubs where the food is good and entertainment is on tap. During rodeo in particular, they're jumping.

And if, after all that rodeo rough-housing and revelry, you're fancying your own skills in the ring, there's always the mechanical bull, out back of the arena, not far from the sausage sizzle stand. It's a good place to start for any city slicker.

Just make sure you've got travel insurance.

The writer was a guest of Tourism Queensland.


- BOOKING The Xstrata Mount Isa Rotary Rodeo is on August 79. Three-day adult passes are $70. There are family tickets, single day tickets and other pricing structures. For bookings, all ticket prices, the program and information, go to or phone (07) 4743 2706.

- GETTING THERE Both Qantas and Virgin Blue fly to Mount Isa. See or

The Hard Times Mine is at Outback at Isa, the Mount Isa visitor information centre, 19 Marian Street, Mount Isa. Children are $26 and adults $45. See or phone 1300 659 660 or (07) 4749 1555.

- STAYING THERE The Spinifex Motel is Mount Isa's newest motel, offering very comfortable accommodation with large rooms ranging from standard to family suites, all with excellent facilities.

79-83 Marian St Mount Isa. See or phone (07) 4749 2944.

The writer was a guest of Tourism Queensland.