Campdraft at dawn - Brunette Downs 2010
Campdraft at dawn - Brunette Downs 2010

Brunette Downs is a huge cattle station – at 1,221 million hectares there can be no doubt of that – in the heart of the Northern Territory’s Barkly Tableland and this past weekend I’ve been at the 100th annual ABC Amateur Race Club meeting.

You can’t get much more remote than Brunette Downs – it is 850 km from my home in Alice Springs, 1000 or so km from Darwin and 450 km from Mt Isa in western Queensland. By comparison Tennant Creek – the nearest town of any size – is a short stroll away at 350km.

Brunette Downs is owned and operated by the massive AACo (the Australian Agricultural Company). AACo has had a difficult past few years, losing more than $38 million in financial year 2008, increasing to nearly $54 million in 2009 and hasn’t paid shareholders a dividend since October 2008. Add that it has lost five chief executives since 2000 and five chairmen in the last two years says much about how the company is traveling right now. And whether the latest appointment of director, incoming chairman and controversial former head of Telstra, Donald McGauchie will set things to rights remains to be seen.

AACo runs about 600,000 head of cattle on properties across the country and controls just over 1 per cent of the Australian land mass. Depending on the season Brunette Downs runs about 60 to 70,000 head of cattle and turns off about one third – upwards of twenty thousand – each year.

Anyway – back to the 100th running of the ABC Amateur Race Club races at Brunette Downs. Like many small country race meetings around the country it is restricted to “grass-fed” horses from local stations and ridden by local racers – no big-city million-dollar thoroughbreds here. And “local” is a term to be read broadly – horses competing at the meeting often come from many hundred of kilometres away.

There was a lot else to keep twitchy fingers and thirsty throats happy – even though Brunette Downs is a long way from Queensland I was less than pleasantly surprised to see that the only beer they had in stock was the barbed wire variety from over the border. When I asked the bartenders if they had any real beer – i.e. anything brewed outside of Queensland (other than the undrinkable Southwark!) – I was met with a very frosty reception. The punters around me kept muttering 36-6 – an unwholesome reminder of the absolute shellacking that the Queenslanders had handed out to my fellow New South Welshmen the night before. I accepted defeat and slunk away with a couple of maroon-coloured cans in hand.

And even though there was no mobile phone reception or internet on-site someone had worked out how to get the bookies on line so we could all have a punt.

Having a bet - and a beer or ten
Having a bet - and a beer or ten

Girl w blue shirt & hat  5519

And I’d never seen so many hats in one place at one time. There is just about every variety on show – predominant are the broad-brimmed stockmen’s hats – with Akubra’s the Bobby, the Bronco, the Outback and Rough Rider predominating and the new straw models from R. M. Williams also popular.

Girl w green shirt & hat  5518

Of particular note – hat-wise – were the hats of the “real” ringers – the stockmen and women whose grunt work lies at the very heart of any station and of whom it is said that “the stockmen rule, the rest serve“. One easy way to pick a real ringer – rather than the wanna-be’s, usedtobe’s or nevercouldbe’sbuttryinghard’s – in a crowd is to look for the amount of cow shit stains on his or her hat – if it has a generous spray of shit from brim to brow then they are most likely a real ringer – or stole the hat off one.

Jockeys were in their finests silks...and jeans
Jockeys were in their finest silks...and jeans

This year’s meeting wasn’t just about the horse races – just about every competitive activity associated with horses and cattle – apart from dressage and polo, which are a bit too genteel for these parts – can be found here. The meeting opened on the Thursday with an early (6am!) start for the campdraft – where for the uninitiated a bloke – or sheila – on a horse chases a calf out of a yard and gets points for steering it around a few poles in the campdraft ring.

He calls out "GATE!!" and out come man and beasts...
He calls out "GATE!!" and out come man and beasts...

There were a total of seventeen races held over the weekend – most of the runners and jockeys would never get a run anywhere near a city event but out here they put on a closely run show – except for the odd bolter…

The bolter leads the field home at the 200 metre post...
The bolter leads the field home at the 200 metre post...

For mine the highlight of the weekend was the Rodeo on the Friday night. Here it was all dust, barely ordered chaos, braying horses and roaring cattle, dust, lots of beer and rum as Dutch courage, more dust and a seemingly endless stream of animals – from the poddy calves to be ridden by the kids and juniors in the “led” sections, through to the scrubber horses used for the buckjumping, the bullocks and most impressive of all, the massive bulls used for the open bullriding. And all about bull-riders and buck-jumpers sit and shuffle in nervous wait for their best.

Boss of all this on the night was Brunette Downs local Andrew “Woody” Thies, the Rodeo Coordinator who ran the schedule with a loud voice and a sharp pen.

Roadeo Coordinator Andrew Thies of Brunette Downs call out the list for the Buckjumping
Rodeo Coordinator Andrew Thies of Brunette Downs calls out the list for the Buckjumping

I caught up with a few Bullriders and Buckjumpers from Borroloola outside of the ring an hour or so before the event. Here they are having a laugh about what was most on their mind for the weekend.

Borroloola buckjumpers and bullriders
Borroloola buckjumpers and bullriders share a laugh before the off

The little tackers got a go as well in the “Held” section – where they get to enjoy either the sheer fear or absolute fun of jumping on the back of a beast and the leaping into a ring surrounded by a thousands of screaming punters – but being safely led by helpers all the while.

MacKenzie rains from Sydney waits for his poddy-calf ride
MacKenzie Rains from Sydney waits for his poddy-calf ride
Athol Finlay from Borroloola gets ready for his ride
Athol Finlay from Borroloola gets ready for his ride
Milton Jone Junior and his Mum
Milton Jones Junior and his Mum