On arrival, I did the obligatory Ekka walk through the Cattle Pavilion, holding my nose but still loving those pretty Ayrshire dairy cows. I recall turning a corner and stumbling upon a huge Brahman bull standing on a concrete slab while the farmer hosed shampoo off his shiny hide. However fascinating, I bet it’s out-of-bounds now. Other memories waft through, of sitting in the Woodchop Arena, the thunk of the axe and the smell of pine as I eat a Chiko roll with hot chips and drink cold lemonade. Where are the jam doughnuts? Afterwards, the lengthy queue for the toilets becomes a good opportunity to study the Ekka guide.
Apart from retaining the obvious things like farm livestock, sideshow alley and wood-chopping events, the Ekka has changed greatly over the years. It shrunk in size yet the slide expanded and just when the drought-stricken man on the land needs the most support he takes a back seat to fashion parades, Fine Art and strawberry sundae ice-cream cones. Time to reflect…
A Brisbane institution since 1876, the Ekka (a slang term for Exhibition) is officially known as Royal Queensland Show run by RNA The Royal National Agricultural and Industrial Association of Queensland. It is held in Brisbane for ten days each year at the beginning of August. Dates at the time of writing are 10-19 August 2018. The permanent Brisbane Showgrounds venue is situated in Bowen Hills and the State Library of Queensland holds an extensive collection of materials from past exhibitions which show many changes around the old grandstand building. Still, it does hold a special place in the hearts of Brisbanites.
♥ I make no apologies for the length of this retrospective, my stream-of-consciousness dictated the terms, I’m satisfied with what I have written and I hope you understand my sentiments.
A long-held tradition is a visit to the Showbag Pavilion which is always packed to capacity and resembles an apocalyptic movie set. Staring eyes seeking Valhalla, the perfect showbag, the one packed with the most goodies at the lowest price. Showbags are half-full of sample merchandise in small packets, mainly chocolate and unhealthy food, with a plastic kids game, latest movie trivia or blow-up hammer to whack your friend over the head with every two minutes until he agrees to go on a ride. In Sideshow Alley, instead of dodgem cars you choose a huge twisty, jerky ride. Ultimately it’s not a good idea because he vomits over the side of the ride, down onto a girl trying to score a prize with a wonky tennis ball.
Various outbuildings to explore; one overheated and smelling of sawdust accommodates Poultry, aisles of chickens and fancy birds in wire cages, biding their time until they are awarded a ribbon or packed off home to the henhouse. Outside there are flocks of people from all walks of life, all ages and every nationality clutching the latest silly novelty. Or wearing the latest silly hat, the ultimate in fast fashion, only ever worn once––thank goodness.
Babies in prams sleep through the pushing and shoving and manoeuvring to get into the Animal Nursery and, rudely awakened by a squealing piglet, find themselves eye to eye with a billy goat. The pedigree dog and cat judging is amazing, especially the cats because they actually like being groomed within an inch of their lives and they fluff up like puffer fish. I seem to remember sheep shearing rivalry, big blokes welding buzzing clippers, denuding a sheep in a couple of well-placed blows. The sheep is pushed outside and its woolly coat is flung onto a pile of other woolly oily off-white fleece.
If you can’t wrangle a seat in the Fashion Pavilion or would prefer not to ride a swaying gondola on the Ferris Wheel, there’s usually adequate seating on wooden benches around the Main Arena. Animals are good at ignoring schedules so this is where most of the unscripted action takes place. There’s high-speed chariot races, tent pegging, beef cattle judging, showjumping, Clydesdale draught horses and children with Shetland ponies––a recipe for disaster every Ekka and always good for a shocked squeal or belly laugh. A disgruntled animal can pull away, chariots have scraped walls and riders have fallen off their horses. Alternatively, breakaway sheep from the sheep dog trials have been known to bolt for the exit.
Years ago, with the space race wasting trillions of dollars, another venture wasted trillions of dollars; the Jet Pack. A man dressed like an astronaut strapped on a jet backpack with handles (not actual image) revved it and rose into the air. He cruised from one side of the arena to the other and then slowly landed. The noise was horrendous! The sound decibels of a jet engine taking off. Unfortunately the power was nothing like it. The hype wasn’t worth the wait and I can understand why jet packs never became a form of transport for the daily commute. It guzzled more fuel than V8 Utes and monster trucks arena race.
The nightly fireworks spectacular creates a photographer’s paradise and teenagers cuddle in the grandstands, saying ooh and aah at each burst of light but feeling queasy from all the Caramello Koalas they’ve consumed. Behind them sits giggling siblings who always want to tag along. The announcer’s comments jar, hardly necessary and often distorted, until the music takes over and tries to conquer the exploding light show. I feel a pang for the beasties trying to get comfortable in a strange stall so far from home.
The Wednesday in the middle of Ekka week is an official public holiday known as ‘People’s Day’. It is best to avoid Wednesday if you hate crowds. School children are granted alternate days off in the vain attempt to stop truancy although, more often than not, families take a long weekend. The side pavilions are busy on Wednesday, 550 exhibitor stands, and they house agricultural equipment and all manner of things like the latest farmhouse gadgets, trucks, harvesters, even fish tanks. Displays change with trends, one year healing crystals, next year heat packs and another organic drinks. Face-painting is perennial yet the children cannot see the artwork on themselves.
Horticultural garden displays are magnificent, themed and fragrant, and it’s taken for granted everyone haggles over which one should have won the Grand Prize. Actually, all blue ribbons throughout the Ekka are haggled over by crowd upon crowd of weary viewers with their own ideas of a prize-winner. In search of a favourite, people used to trudge passed stalls, either declining a leaflet or, in the case of the beekeeping section, taking a free honey sample. Then they would head to the Dairy Hall and the Butcher’s sausage-making display for a bit more sampling. Is that still going?
One of my favourite displays, and possibly the most spectacular, was the Produce section of fruit and vegetable art. Stacked high to the ceiling of a huge brick and corrugated iron shed sat row upon row of themed green-grocery: fruit ‘n’ veg in pictorial format. From the front to the back, bleachers sloped up and away, loaded with colourful mosaics of farm produce, patterns featuring a banana grower, a town or shire, an historic area or rural landscape in Queensland where produce is grown. Not all regions were represented and some were mixed goods, like pineapples and cotton and ubiquitous Bundaberg Rum sugar cane.
Throughout this kaleidoscope of colour, items of interest had been planted to explain a viewpoint, a nod to the growers or transporters of fresh food. It wasn’t all that fresh by the end of ten days but it was auctioned off or given away. I recollect struggling home on the train with a weighty pumpkin. Silly really…however, I will mention my Pumpkin Fruit Cake…
Last century, people ate things like plain fruit cake, a solid dried-fruit filled affair which makes a great base for wedding cake white icing. Alternatively, fruit cake was popular baked loaf-style in a bread tin with glacé cherries and almonds on top. A rich dark slice of home-made fruit cake was enough to sustain you throughout the afternoon or hiking for hours in the mountains. Baking runs in my family, I tried my hand at a dense fruit cake moistened with mashed pumpkin. It was a huge round thing, placed in a glass cabinet with an Entry Number plaque, surrounded by other Ekka cooking exhibits until heat and bright lighting eventually dried them out. It earned me a ‘Commended’ and I was proud of its success. Some cakes were sunken in the middle and I wondered why they were even entered.
Competition is fierce in the ‘domestic’ Craft exhibitions; patchwork quilting, floral arranging, cake decorating, painting and drawing. There’s also a Children’s Section with displays of school-made arts, crafts and beautifully hand-penned documents.
The Photography section always captured my imagination, so much so that I entered a Kodak Ektachrome slide (a small cardboard-framed transparency) taken while on holiday in England. It appeared in slideshow format on a huge screen in a darkened room and I was so pleased. In any photography competition, it was always disappointing when a perfect photo won First Prize. Deep down I knew it was taken by either a professional photographer or someone with heaps of money and expensive darkroom equipment. Digital has certainly altered that scene.
When gawping at human endeavour grew tiring, or you had ten showbags in each hand and had to catch the train, there was an overhead chair lift which transported you from one side of the Ekka to the other. This was scary fun, swinging way above the crowd; tempting too. A good time to forage in showbags for Bertie Beetles, fairy floss and toffee apples, and I guess many a sticky glob was accidentally dropped. Due to safety issues, or perhaps an uncool image, the chair lift was recently dismantled and removed. I’ve got to admit I was disappointed but I never liked walking underneath it.
August is the end of winter in Brisbane and during the daytime the Ekka weather is warm and mainly dry, often with westerly winds, but at night the temperature drops considerably. A hat, a jacket and a water bottle are necessary items. If you’re so inclined, you can chill out at the Stockmen’s Bar and Grill, but parents and caregivers are usually seen overloaded with supplies to the point of distraction. I found a ladies wallet left behind on a low wall and handed it over to the police Lost Property room. It’s one of those things you later hope had been claimed. At the time I didn’t give it a second thought––nearby was the Fire Brigade display with handsome fire fighters selling their latest hot-bod calendar.
A day at the Ekka is tiring yet it leaves you with an exuberant feeling and plenty to chat about next day.
A closing thought: Is the 21st century bringing improvements as the older generation fades away? On a new map, I notice a technology precinct, gourmet plaza, music stage and retail store; a bit like a shopping centre. The Ekka land adjoins the central business district, a situation which makes it a very valuable piece of real estate. The concept of ‘where the country meets the city’ shrinks each year, overtaken by commercialisation and globalisation, no longer a rare holiday for country families or a slice of wonderment for city children. Will I be visiting the Ekka this year? Perhaps the lure of an Ayrshire dairy cow or Caramello Koala showbag will tempt me.
♥ Gretchen Bernet-Ward
DEDICATION: To all my Ekka-loving friends past and present. Special mention goes to blogging buddy Life After Sixty-Five who also has Ekka memories.