New Year's Day in the bush

My last visit to Yandackworroby was to visit that most unusual event, the Yandackworroby and District New Year's Day Picnic Races. Back in 1977, Ernie Rutherford dreamed up a few silly events one night, all based on country life. Chatting in the pub on a winter night, he proposed a sock-darning contest for the women and a goanna-catching contest for kids between the established horse races at the "Picnic Races". Ernie is a potato farmer who has the farm nearest to the pub, and he runs a few hundred sheep. as well as breeding assorted beasts to sell to the hobby farmers who are beginning to move into the area.

Australia has a long tradition of silly sporting events, like the Henley-on-Todd Regatta, where the boats have no bottoms, and are carried by their crews along the dry river bed of the Todd River. One year, that regatta was actually cancelled because rain outside the town had flooded the course! The Bondi Icebergs swim throughout the year, and start their season in May with a dip among ice blocks in their outdoor pool. The Yandackworroby Cup is in this same rough and humorous tradition.

The first year, everybody joined in the purely local fun, with contestants coming just from the local district, up to 100 km away. Soon their competitive spirit blossomed, and the "novelty" events began to be taken seriously, with hamlets and old families engaging in friendly feud. More events were added, and in 1980, these were combined into the much more complex Yandackworroby Cup.

The modern pentathlon is supposed to simulate the main requirements of a cavalry officer: riding a horse, shooting a pistol, sword-fighting and so on. In the same way, the Yandackworroby Cup is a simulation of the life of a "typical cocky's family". Of course, there is an element of romance in this, but at least it gives a sound basis for the events that make up the Cup events, and the cocky's life is an old Australian tradition, celebrated in literature and song.

Etymological digression: a small farmer in Australia is known as a "cocky" because many small farmers would plant a crop, only to see the cockatoos, ("cockies"), move in to dig up and eat the seed, leaving the farmers to complain that their only crop was cockies. So we got "cocky-farmers", until the second part was dropped, and now by transfer, we have cow cockies and various other sorts of cocky, all of them farmers.

On a small farm, everybody must to be able to turn their hand to everything, so the Cup is open to teams of four who follow the 1981 scenario that I describe below. The characters' names are less than original to anybody who knows their Australian folklore and cinema, but if anybody wants to get offended by the implied gender specificity, fear not: any sex can (and does) play any of the roles.

In the 1981 story-line, "Dad" is about to shear a sheep, but a goanna has run off with the shears. "Dave", his son, has to chase the goanna till it runs up a tree. Then Dad comes with an axe, chops the tree down, "tags" the goanna, and so collects a set of hand shears from the judges.

Meanwhile, "Mabel", his daughter, has sent a dog out to select a sheep from a neighbouring paddock. The dog has to bring it back so "Dave" can shear it with the hand shears, so "Mum" can spin the wool into yarn, so it can be used to darn a worn sock.

That, at least, was the original story-line. Over the years, a number of extra and rather unlikely components have been added to pad out the slightly boring period while the wool is being spun, and the sock is being darned. By 1984, we had a horse-ride down a 60 degree slope and abseiling down a cliff, all within Ernie Rutherford's larger potato paddock, next to and behind the pub.

To achieve this, a few liberties have been taken, and the "trees" are actually 30 cm (1 foot) diameter seasoned hardwood poles stuck in the ground, inside a temporary fence of corrugated iron to keep the goannas from escaping. The cliff and the slope have been located in the remains of an old open-cut mine just down the road, and in view of the temporary stands.

In the present-day version, we can also see the "Mabel" character running down (on foot!) a kangaroo to take a ribbon from around its neck, the conversion of the "tree" into firewood billets which can pass through a hoop 10 cm in diameter, and the digging of a hole which is able to contain all of the firewood. With the present relay rules, there are always three members of each team engaged in completing tasks from the list.

The main excitement still comes during the goanna chase, for chasing a kangaroo is more of a gruelling endurance event. Goannas are impressive reptiles, 1.5 to 2 metres in length, and very fast runners over a short distance. When they are chased, the sharp-clawed reptiles run up the nearest tree: on a treeless plain (or a potato paddock!), they have been known to run up people, to the climbees' considerable discomfort!

The colour-coded goannas are released when the audience is seated in the stands (with the guests of honour on the roof of the pub), and the "Dave" contestants must "down" two full pints of beer before leaping into the "goanna pit" (I note without comment that this rule was brought in the year after Ernie bought the licence for the pub, and handed the running of the farm over to his daughters.) At this point, an element of chance is introduced, for if your goanna runs up an already occupied "tree", you must wait until that "tree" is brought down, then chase your goanna up another tree.

At least, that is how it used to be. The rules this year allowed for the first time that, if this happens, the waiting axeman or axemen may help fell the multi-goanna tree. This year, we watched in trepidation as three champion axemen were all working the same pole at once. Happily, there were no injuries, or if there were, the injured were too happy to notice.

I am told that a limited television coverage is being negotiated with the cable TV people, so the event is probably about to become world-famous. Sadly, this success may spoil the whole joy of "the Cup", as more "outside" teams enter. This year, a team called "The Dapto Dogs" came up from the coast and easily took out the event. Teams from Brisbane and Tasmania are expected next year, and a New Zealand entry cannot be too far away.

Australian teams, and especially local teams, will still have one advantage, since the introduction of a polyester-herding competition as a component in the Yandackworroby Cup, starting next year. Several teams of high country people from Cootaburra are already in training, and those with relatives around Yandackworroby have been taking them on training rides through the Corella Ranges in the last couple of months.

Perhaps the "Yandackworroby Pentathlon" will one day be an event at the Olympics. Indeed, some of the locals are already talking about setting up a demonstration for the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. I hope they succeed, for it is very much an Australian sport, and it has the competitive aspect that most "demonstration sports" entirely lack. Now if only they could fit fighting a small bushfire into the story, for now the bushfire season is in full swing, and we desperately need to be able to laugh at the old summer enemy of all Australians.

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