Mount Isa Rodeo photographs show drought stricken Australian communities holding on
By Dominique Schwartz and Emily Clark with photography by Brendan Esposito, Fri 23 Aug 2019
A strong grip is a bull rider's best friend, but at this year's Mount Isa Rodeo, cowboys weren't the only people hanging on.
Every year, hundreds of cowboys and cowgirls converge on the outback Queensland mining town of Mount Isa for the biggest and richest rodeo in the southern hemisphere.
It's a seriously competitive event, with $230,000 in prizes at stake, but it's not all about the money.
For thousands of people who walk through the gates, rodeo is a celebration of the grit required every day to make a life Ã¢â¬â not just a living Ã¢â¬â in the bush.
After a year dominated by devastating floods and drought, rural Australians understand the cowboy mantra better than most Ã¢â¬â "hang on no matter what".
The roots of rodeo run deep. There's a noticeable American flavour to the event, but locals will remind you rodeo has long been an Australian thing.
It was born in the bush, plays on our sporting spirit and, as one veteran cowboy notes, rodeo teaches you survival too.
"Never lay on the ground. Doesn't matter if you broke your neck Ã¢â¬â get up and go.
"If he throws you off, take a roll and keep going."
That's the gospel from Bob Holder, the oldest cowboy on the professional rodeo circuit.
"I do 25 [rodeos] a year," he tells the ABC. "Supposed to be the oldest in the world doing that, so the Yanks tell us."
The Cootamundra cowboy has been roping, wrestling, and riding horses and cattle Ã¢â¬â inside and outside the rodeo arena Ã¢â¬â for most of his 88 years.
He went droving with his dad at five years of age, won his first bucking bronc ride aged 14, and in 1959 was one of the first Aussie cowboys invited onto the professional American rodeo circuit, with a tour that finished at Madison Square Garden in New York City.
In Texas, he entered the bronc ride, but instead found himself on the back of the biggest bull he had ever seen.
"And I said, 'Christ, I'll never see Australia again'," Bob says.
He says being a cowboy is "the greatest thing you could ever be".
"It's the thrills and spills and the nice people you meet, and a good way of life. A wonderful way of life."
Despite attending school for only a few years, Bob became an award-winning real estate agent.
But rodeo has been his life's constant Ã¢â¬â and his teacher.
"It taught me a lot. It taught me how to treat people, how to treat animals and be a quick thinker," he says.
"It taught me a lot of respect for animals ... treat them right and they'll treat you right."
Bucking bulls are born, not made
Cowboys would be nothing without the cattle and horses Ã¢â¬â the real stars of rodeo, according to Dakota Brandenburg.
The 23-year-old breeds and trains bucking bulls. Her family also supplies steers and calves for rodeos around the country.
"We can train them, we can help them... but there's nothing you or I could do to make a tonne-bull buck," she says.
Hurting them, she says, is never an option.
"These are our pride and joy," Dakota says, scratching the neck of her favourite bull, Slam 'n Jam.
"We do our best by them and I feel we get the best out of them."
Animal welfare groups say rodeos exploit animals for entertainment, leading to stress, injury and sometimes death.
Rodeos are banned in the Australian Capital Territory and the governments of South Australia and Victoria do not allow calf-roping events.
A mandatory code of conduct for rodeos in Queensland is under negotiation.
RSPCA Queensland wants rodeos to end.
"In 2019, I can't understand how people can enjoy seeing animals get hurt for entertainment," RSPCA Queensland chief Mark Townend said. "But if the government is not going to ban them, we'd much rather see professional rodeos with vets on site, like the one in Mount Isa."
Dakota said it would be a "real shame" if rodeos were to be banned.
"This is our heritage, what we grew up with, what we know.
"Rodeo is growing ... money's getting bigger, we're getting more and more professional about it."
For a bull ride to count in competition, it has to last eight seconds. If the rider can hold on, they're in with a shot at the buckle.
At this year's Mount Isa event, Cody Kelly, 22, was the last rider in the arena for the second division bull ride and he knew the title was his if he could keep his grip.
He had been in that position before and "stuffed it up".
"You've got to try and block every bit of it out. If you're thinking when you're on a bull, it's all too late. It's about muscle memory," Cody says.
Here are his eight seconds on the back of the beast.
"You've got to get on with a clear mind."
"That first jump is really just your body finding what that bull is like."
"Your body has to react straight away to how he feels because they all feel different."
"One thing I remember Ã¢â¬â that bull hit me twice with his horns.
"I think he'd learnt that one before. And he had pretty big horns, he could get me."
"After that it's counteracting what he's doing.
"If he's going forward, you're going forward."
"When he's kicking up at the back, you sit down."
"There you're just holding on to finish it off ... just to get to that eight seconds."
"You're taught to get off a certain way, but the way I landed on my head is probably not the way you're supposed to."
"Under different circumstances it would probably hurt, but when you're feeling as good as I was ... it doesn't."
Ten years ago, Cody's brother Chris won the buckle for the same event at the Mount Isa Rodeo. He was also 22 at the time.
Cody won more than $1,000, but that buckle is worth a lot more.
"It's more of a pride thing. Since I was two years old and getting on bulls Ã¢â¬â that was my dream Ã¢â¬â to win a buckle," he said.
"I probably put too much pressure on myself, but I finally did it. At the biggest one in Australia."
Sixty years ago, two Rotary clubs started the rodeo as a not-for-profit event to put Mount Isa on the map and raise money for charity and local services.
Now, as well as generating $12 million a year for the region, the event attracts riders from all over the country as well as from the USA and Canada. It's also broadcast to 30 million American viewers on a dedicated cowboy cable channel.
Blowing off steam
Rodeos traditionally celebrate the toughest of the tough. Those who face their fears, have a go, and get up after a fall.
It's a description which fits many rural Australians who are doing it particularly tough at the moment.
In north-west Queensland, families have hung on through years of drought, only to see their remaining cattle washed away in this year's devastating floods.
And across eastern Australia, crops have withered, along with livelihoods.
For the weary, the rodeo and the carnival it creates, is a welcome Ã¢â¬â even necessary Ã¢â¬â distraction.
Merinda and Wylie Roll and their five children drove 1,600 kilometres just to "close the gate" on their drought-hit property for a few days.
"It's been the right choice, we've walked in ... turned off, had fun, just love all the action, it's great," Merinda says.
Their cropping farm near Narromine in New South Wales has not produced a harvest in three years.
"It's been quite a trying couple of years," Wylie says. "I had to go away carting fodder interstate, just to keep things rolling."
Rodeo tickets are not cheap, but mental health is priceless, so in May Merinda paid for the tickets, knowing they couldn't back out.
For the family, it's been worth every last kilometre and cent.
"It's a good excuse to get away, forget about it for a weekend," Wylie says.
"Just seeing the smile on the kids' faces is enough".
Sideshow alley provides some clean family fun.
But across town, adults can blow off steam in a way that's a little less friendly.
For 35 years, the Fred Brophy boxing tent has been the place to go if you are literally looking for a fight.
The tent is a travelling act, but Fred says it's his Mount Isa appearances that have made him a legend in country Australia, and so he will always be in town during the rodeo.
"In Mount Isa, you've got the cowboys, you've got the miners, you've got the locals, you've got the tourists, you've got the ringers, you've got the people from the Aboriginal communities Ã¢â¬â they all come into town and they all want to have a good weekend," he says.
"And if they're a little bit frisky, the coppers or the locals will say 'well wait until Brophy is on and go down there and you get paid for it and you can do it legally.'
The boxing tent Ã¢â¬â the last of its kind as Fred will tell you Ã¢â¬â is set up on the other side of town to the rodeo arena, but it still draws a crowd.
Audience members can fight each other or a member of the boxing troupe and of course, there's prize money.
Fred says having a place to fight "takes the sting out of them".
The showman has got a bit of a beef with how the rodeo is run these days. He thinks it's been too heavily influenced by the professional circuit in the USA, but there's little chance he would miss it.
"Look I could be doing the Brisbane exhibition when that's on if I wanted to, but I don't because I want to go out there to Mount Isa," he says.
In the tent, the audience is the show and "whether they win or lose, that's irrelevant".
But it's the rodeo which is the main show in town. Ahead of the open bull ride, cowboys secure their gloves and buckle their boots.
Bob Holder would love to be clambering over the chutes and onto the back of a bull or bronc.
"I'd love to," he says, "but I know I'd knock myself around too much."
"I wouldn't be able to walk the next day. My bones can only take so much, I know that. I gave them a hell of a hiding all my life."
But Bob reckons he'll be competing in the roping events for a while yet.
"Another 10 years at least," he says. "I should get that far. That's not far away."
Reporting: National rural and regional correspondent
Photography: The Specialist Reporting Team's Brendan Esposito
Additional reporting and digital production: The Specialist Reporting Team's
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