This week marks the annual Ord Valley Muster Festival hosted in the township of Kununurra in the Kimberley region. From a simple outback dining experience under the stars in 2001, the Muster keeps on growing, each year with more fabulous activities and entertainment from street parties, comedy nights, digging for diamonds in enormous sandpits, cultural performances, yoga on a boat and of course the iconic Ord Valley Muster Rodeo.
Since first visiting my brother when he lived in Kununurra back in 2013 and hearing him rave about it I’ve wanted to go to the Muster. Now that I live in Keep River National Park (watch out for that blog!) located across the WA/NT border 50 km away, I finally get the chance. My main desire for attendance being the opportunity to crack my rodeo virginity. I’m not sure what it is about rodeos that had me so intrigued; is it the way the word makes you drawl like you are from the deep South…"Ro-day-yo” (constantly corrected by my husband who rolls his eyes stating “it’s Ro-D-O!” – tomato potato whatever). Is it the thrill of seeing a person bucked off a bull? Is it entertainment or animal cruelty? Do only the finest cowboys and cowgirls go to rodeos and would my Kmart tennis shoes be considered appropriate attire in lieu of riding boots? And who on earth would want “rodeo clown” as a job description?
Fortunately my tennis shoes did not restrict my entry into the rodeo and I was delighted to see that everyone and anyone was welcome – although I must admit I was jealous at how good the girls in boots and hats with wrangler jean looked…maybe I’ll work on that for next year. As soon as we reached the arena it was abuzz with excitement. The barrel racing was up first, usually an event participated in by women who race on horses as fast as they can from one barrel to another within the arena – such horsewomanship and control was amazing to witness, definitely wouldn’t mess with any of these fine Sheilas!
We found a spot on a slight hill that had a great view across the arena, immediately the kids wanted to sit down (doh!), note for next year bring the picnic blanket and a couple of deckchairs! First on the bulls were the juniors, the youngest competitor was only 14! These kids are brave and strong, they do ride younger bulls but it is truly tough going. We all cheer for the young cowboys and cowgirls all aspiring to make that crucial eight second buzzer to ensure their ride can be counted for scoring.
As the night continues the classes become harder and we move into the adult open section. This is serious stuff. I am also highly impressed by the fitness levels of the rodeo clowns who never slow down, their sole intention to ensure the rider when bucked gets safely out of the ring. I think these guys must be made of rubber, the way they bounce back after being trodden on, kicked and head-butted is beyond me.
Judges score each ride, interestingly not only is the rider scored, the bull is also scored! Depending on the arch of the back, the flicks and twists and turns, the bull has an opportunity to be awarded the highly celebrated “bull of the rodeo” which means it gets ridden more often. So the rider may fail but the bull can thrive and live to see another rodeo ride.
I was a bit concerned about the whole animal cruelty thing…so I quickly researched the topic and found there are codes of ethics honoured by various international rodeo councils. Despite common belief that the bulls have their (ahem) balls tied before they enter the arena, a “flank strap” is attached. Apparently the flank strap cannot touch the…balls but rather irritates the leg flank and the general “region” of the flank and makes the bull want to buck the rope off. Although still not a pleasant experience for the bull, it is over pretty quickly and it’s good to see that nowadays there are so many rodeo rules that need to be adhered to ensuring safety of both the bull and rider.
Sadly my very first rodeo experience was short lived, just as the energy of the crowd was rising, the drinks at the bar were flowing and the bigger bulls were being wheeled out, with cries of “I’m tired” the kids decided they’d had enough of standing and wanted to go home, which was probably a good idea because tomorrow was diamond dig day and I wanted that sparkler! I was stoked to see the local rag “The Kimberley Echo” on Facebook Live so I was able to keep watching more of the excitement once I got home.
The next morning the kids and I headed to Swim Beach along the banks of Lake Kununurra. This time it wasn’t bulls we were interested in, but diamonds! The Argyle Diamond Mine in the region and also the major sponsor of the Muster host a “diamond dig” where big sandpits full of various goodies including diamonds are dumped at Swim Beach. There are different pits with prizes to suit various age groups including a “grown-ups” pit.
As the countdown began, children and adults alike elbowed their way to the best spot to start digging. No tools are used, the digging is done all by hand. Competitors need to extract a wooden clothes peg, each peg is numbered and corresponds with a different prize. As the announcer finished the countdown, heads were down and bums were high in the sky as each person displayed varying digging technics from full excavation style to a flicking sand everywhere like a dog approach. Egging my kids on (that diamond was mine!) I was thrilled when my daughter jumped up with a peg in hand. “I’ve got one!” she squealed with joy as she ran over to the prize desk. A bit trumped, she returned with some glow-in-the-dark stick on the wall dinosaurs…oh well, it was all about the experience not the prize right? Knowing that diamonds are up for grabs, my mum has already confirmed her visit for next year’s event – to see us of course (and maybe leave with a winning pink Kimberley diamond).
The Dam to Dam Dinghy race commenced on the lake shortly after, a spectacle of impressive dinghies racing from the Lake Kununurra to Lake Argyle dam walls. We then spent the afternoon at the Muster Street Party which commenced with a parade and followed with a party of food, arts, crafts, local performances and festival rides. Exhausted, we headed home at dusk already planning our strategies for the Ord Valley Muster 2018, including getting to the rodeo early to be ring side armed with picnic blanket and comfy seats, and best digging techniques to use in the sandpit. The week of festivities continue, culminating in the Kimberley Moon this weekend, a night full of performances and guaranteed boot-scooting with the McClymonts, Daryl Braithwaite and Jimmy Barnes performing. I’ve only had a taste of the 2017 Muster, can’t wait for more next year.