Rodeo Clowns

Nestled off the Peninsula Development road is the now almost forgotten town of Laura. While this sleeping hamlet may have handled over 20 000 passengers a year in the hey days of the Palmer River gold rush, today it boasts a pub a, police station and a not much more. It is truly a ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ township. You know the type of country town – those places you can spend a week in an afternoon. Not much to see, even less to do. But on a weekend every late June/early July this little country village really does come to life.


The Laura Races and Rodeo is an annual event show casing Cape York’s courage, hospitality and skill. Organised by Karlene Sheppard, a local landowner, the Laura races and rodeo have become part of Cape York folklore with numbers of spectators and competitors growing each year. While the action really doesn’t get underway until Saturday, by lunchtime Friday, the camp grounds are chock-a-block with land cruisers and horse floats. For the past two years, ‘our camp spot’ near the large mango tree, has been well and truly inhabited by the time we’ve arrived. This year we are aiming to arrive on Thursday – just hope the boss doesn’t find out!

Friday is devoted to horse sports with competitors from all over North Qld challenging. The usual drafting events are on the card – testing the skill and acumen of local ringers and stockmen and women. While some of these competitors might seem a bit long in the tooth, believe you me they are desperate to avoid being left in the long yard by the youngens. Look out for Ron Simpson, a veteran of numerous Laura events. He might be a sprightly 50 something, but on the back of ‘Me Gift” he is as agile as ever. Ron’s nephews, Michael and Rowan are keeping the campdrafting tradition alive as are the Quaids, Elms, Sheppards and Quartermains.

Saturday morning sees the start of the real action – the bull riding, steer wrestling, barrel racing and bronc riding. Stock for the two day event is trucked in – some of the best bulls from Glen Simmonds, Biboohra and broncs from Teece’s Rodeo & Rough Stock. The arena is large enough to showcase the action, but small enough to afford everyone a bird’s eye view. (Don’t forget your hat and sunscreen though -the sun beats down even though it’s the middle of winter).

For the past few years a young bloke called Ted, (yep, short name, short bloke) has been the all round cowboy. Ted’s dad Ron still competes in the horse sports and his younger brother Bill (another short name, short bloke) gives Ted a run for his money on the bulls. If you don’t get how much of a family affair this is, Ted’s daughter Georgia had her first calf ride at Laura last year. No doubt we will see more of her in action later this year. That’s the great thing about Laura, as kids from all over get a chance to have a go in a safe and supervised situation. It’s rather reassuring to see kids leave the iPods and mobile phones behind and get involved.

About 1pm Saturday, the campdraft is over everyone heads up the hill to the race track. This five race meet boasts some of the fastest horses and jockeys that North Qld has to offer, and like all race meets features fashions on the field. It never ceases to amaze me how many women make the effort to dress up in their finery – stilettos and hats being the order of the day, and how every year, there’s some young wag in drag to keep everyone amused.

Once the fashion stakes are sorted, the racing and betting begin in earnest. Local bookies take bets on the races -the locals usually bet on the jockeys rather than the horses and then take their winnings down to the bar at the night time cabaret.

The cabaret is an open air affair complete with a live band. Watching folk from Cape York let their hair down after a day on horses and bulls is the most eclectic display of dancing, music and dress one could ever imagine. Needless to say, if you don’t enjoy yourself it’s your own fault. A word of advice though – the cabaret area is built above the race track – there’s a three metre drop to the ground if you happen to decide to take a short cut out the back.

The action resumes early Sunday morning. Many of us are awakened by a booming voice reminding cowboys and cowgirls of the days program. Thankfully the local ladies provide a hearty breakfast and decent coffee if one is too tired to cook.
Sunday’s program is fast and furious. There are usually two rounds of bull riding before the final. Some of north Queensland’s best riders battle this out. Riders to keep an eye on include Ted and Bill Simpson, Vincent (Porkie) Harrigan, Barry Bowen, Frankie Ward and Grant Ouantock. As courageous as the Cape York cowboys may be, they rely heavily on the skill and daring of the rodeo clowns. For many years, Des Burns and Mook Trimble have been keeping the riders, and the spectators, safe.

But it’s not just about the boys. The ladies barrel race is a hotly contested affair with some fine horses and riders including Kylie Corkhill, Karlene Sheppard and Erica Elms battling it out around the barrels.

The Laura races and rodeo week-end is a time when people from the Cape catch up. It’s a time when these people proudly display their heritage and hospitality. The week-end reminds us about life on the land, Slim Dusty and looking out for your mates.

If you have ever wondered about the bush spirit, the closing ceremony at last year’s event will leave you in no doubt that this spirit is alive and well. After the trophies were distributed and congratulations over, a quick pass the hat around was organized to support one of the local families who were doing it tough. I’m not sure how much money was collected, but it was given with love and there were few dry eyes.

If you are heading up the Cape this winter, do yourself a favour and plan a stop over in Laura. The dates for this year’s event will run from the 21st to the 25th of June.

Profile of a Bull Rider
Name: Ted Simpson
Age: 27
First calf ride: Mt Garnet Rodeo age 8, 1st place
First open bull ride: Chillagoe Rodeo age 15, 2nd place after falling off “Huey”
Career Highlights:
1997:ABCRA Junior Bull Riding Champion (North Qld Zone)
1997: traveled to Tamworth for ABCRA National Junior Rodeo Finals, coming 3rd overall and winning the average (means he won that particular rodeo even though he didn’t win the competition.),
2003: traveled to Sydney Royal Easter Show to compete for Australia and Qld 2003, winning the Champion of Champions Bull Riding competition
During this competition he stepped in for an injured team mate, riding his bare back horse (3rd time ever) to come 3rd against Australia’s best bare back riders,
2002: Winner of the Cape York Series
Regular chosen for the State of Origin Series held at the Annual Mareeba Rodeo
2007: Laura All Round Cowboy