In March this year One Small World will be heading off to discover Europe’s strangest festivals. Yet how could it be appropriate to look beyond the borders of my own country without having first turned a critical eye on Australia’s own taste for the strange…?
In a country that loves to build large-scale pseudo-shrines to its endemic animals (see The Big Merino, The Big Lobster etc) it’s probably no surprise that Australians have devoted one of their strangest cultural events to our favourite adopted animal; the cow.
Driving the winding eucalyptus-fringed roads south from Adelaide, you could be forgiven for considering the town of Mt Compass to be just another rural hamlet conveniently placed across the country to deliver pie/pastie top-up options for your Australian road trip.
But spend a moment here and this sudden density of shops, amid the pastoral fields of South Australia, suggests a level of town pride missing from your general blink-and-you-miss-it outback towns.
The decorative, mosaiced cows that benevolently welcome you to the town offer a clue.
Mt Compass is Cow Country, surrounded on all sides by beef and dairy farms, so it’s only fitting that every year Mt Compass plays host to Australia’s only cow race, the Fleurieu Milk Company Compass Cup! Yet the Cup, this year in its 41st running, is just the cream that tops off a day devoted to a uniquely Australian brand of ridiculousness.
Having successful found a shady (and somewhat perilously sloped) parking place – Australia may have all the space in the world but small towns are rarely designed to cope with dramatic influxes – we join the trail of people making their way to Mt Compass’ community sports ground.
Out here, away from the myriad distractions of the city, local sports are the ties that bind. And given that the only church I’ve seen in town seemed to have been turned into a supermarket, it was fitting that the football oval and pavilion enjoyed pride of place elevated above the town – a real force of social cohesion. Yet little did I know how important this patch of land actually is to the people of Mt Compass.
Emerging up onto the rugged green grass of the oval we’re flanked to our right by stall-holders selling everything from cupcakes to laser tag in their purpose-inflated battleground. To our left lies a large fenced off arena and beyond, the stoic stone brick pavilion, disgorging your typical Aussie hot food to a willing public. And there, penned at the end of the arena closest to us, are a herd of 10 or so, black and white dairy cows.
Already the day’s events have begun. We’ve missed the Dung Fling – not actual cow-cakes but a chocolate bread substitute – and a wall of people are pressed into the fence to watch the Milk Loading. Teams are splashing between a large plastic pond filled with ‘milk’ – actually white-coloured water – and their team’s respective garbage bin. The first to transport enough ‘milk’ to fill their bin wins, having repeatedly navigated the wet and slippery plastic sheet that lies between the source and their goal.
It’s obvious from the cheering and hooting from the crowd that they’re enjoying the spills and the reckless abandon with which the milk seems to continually end up in the air rather than in their containers.
Outside the arena, amongst the crowd, it’s even more chaotic. There seems to be several times more children than there are adults, zipping around like exactly what they are: overstimulated children with space to play. Close by a line of camels trudges past, their little cargo waving down at parents with cameras while herds of people wash through one another as they move between the food stands and the iconic BBQ and sauce-splattered trestle-table set-ups synonymous with Australian fetes.
One interesting fact stands out: the youth of the crowd and the organisers. Contrary to the image of country towns slowly dying due to the cities’ gravitational force on their young people, Mt Compass seems to be bucking the trend. The Compass Cup committee, easily identifiable in their event branded t-shirts, are primarily an equitable mix of young guys and gals.
Committee president Nick Brokenshire exemplifies his young team, a lifetime local working on his family’s dairy property a stone’s throw from town.
“The main focus and the original idea of the day was to have an event for the community, for them to have fun, socialise and enjoy themselves,” Nick says from the pavilion’s back-bar where we manage to escape some of the crowd’s noisy enthusiasm for the current arena event. “It’s a great thing for our town to be able to come out and do this sort of thing.”
“Second role of the day is to raise a bit of money for the local community and to build assets and capital investments that are going to help the community prosper.”
As Nick explains, Mt Compass’ young, vibrant and proud community spirit becomes less mysterious. This was a town actively engaged in making their own future, refusing to lie down and accept the rural decline the media tells them they should be suffering.
In most rural towns the local oval is owned by the region’s council, whereas in Mt Compass the sports ground and pavilion belong to the community. Though the Fleurieu Milk Company throws in money to support the event, it is the community that does all the work to put the day’s events together.
Each year a rotating calendar of the local sports clubs are given the opportunity to have food stalls at the Cup, directly raising money for their coffers. The money raised by the entry fee, from the cow race itself and from the stallholders that pay to attend, all goes into a community trust that is used to pay the costs of the event.
Any money in excess of these costs is then used to build necessary infrastructure for the town, to maintain public property, such as the tennis courts, or allocated via grants to various local causes. None of the profit ends up in anyone’s pockets, except that of the community at large.
Though the day’s individual events border on the surreal, the premise behind the Compass Cup is extremely lucid.
“The highlight of the day is definitely the Fleurieu Milk Company Compass Cup.” Having been involved with the Cup for almost nine years, there’s a definite sense of pride in Nick’s eyes. There is also the mischievous glint of a man who knows what to expect from the event.
“When you see guys on a cow getting chucked off or someone gets trampled, and run over or squished…” he chuckles and leaves the sentence hanging. Yet despite it sounding violent, one can only assume that the Cup has avoided the eyes of overbearing safety reviews because any woes have only ever been superficial.
It’s a triumph of the Australian ‘She’ll-Be-Right’ attitude.
“Or if someone rides their cow all the way to the finish line, that’s also really good. I guess the event is a bit of a curly one, but it’s something different and no one else does it.”
“Probably another highlight is the Fleurieu Milk Company Skull off, that’s quite funny because you do see a bit of the milk come back up generally.”
And Nick is right about that. We make it back into the fray just in time for the Milk Skull, which involves imbibing a litre of milk, running a short obstacle course, drinking a second litre of milk and then running to a questionable victory.
To many Australians, the challenge is known as ‘White Fear’.
Needless to say, the sudden impact of 2 litres of Fleurieu’s best, followed by vigorous gyration, ends as you might well expect. Without a doubt the crowd favourite of the day was a Japanese tourist who performed admirably in the Milk Skull, managed to regurgitate far more than his 2 litre share, then went on to compete in the Rubber Boot Marathon. And he did it all with the smile of a person having the time of their life.
Along with the Rubber Boot Marathon, which involved an obstacle course wearing water-filled wellies, rolling a hay bale and being pelted with wet sponges, the day also sports a Ute Muster, Tractor pull for the kids, sheep-shearing demonstrations and more.
Yet the real drawcard is the Cup itself.
There is a reason that cow racing has not taken off like horse, or even camel, sports. Cow racing – like cows themselves – can hardly be called fluid and graceful yet even so, the Fleurieu Milk Company Compass Cup proves that cow racing can be far more entertaining.
Each race includes 6 teams and each team consists of a rider, a cow, and three coaxers. Together they have to push/pull/hang-on-for-dear-life until their rider has stayed on their mount for the full length of the arena. This involves frantically grappling riders being tossed into the air, coaxers being dragged behind their runaway animals and a lot of futile attempts to push a 600kg beast in a direction it does not want to go.
It is watch-through-your-fingers, ouch-that-must-have-hurt viewing. Which might explain why last year the event attracted a TV crew from a Japanese game-show who broadcast the event back to their notoriously voyeuristic audiences.
After two heats and a final, a team of local boys rode to victory on their cow ‘Miss Bet’. Other than considerable bragging rights, the boys also scooped the $500 prize money, which looked like it was going to be thrown straight back over the bar during the course of the evening. Given the importance of the race in bringing money into Mt Compass, and keeping it there, this organic recycling of funds into the local establishments could hardly be more fitting.
As the sun throws its lengthening shadows over this community’s own little field of glory, we watch as the evening’s musical entertainment is driven up on their stage in the back of a huge B-Double truck.
I have to laugh; seeing the band pull up in a road train more used to hauling cargo than acting as a mobile stage, it is at once utterly ridiculous and yet eminently practical. And there is something very Australian about those contradictions.
Much like the Compass Cup itself.
And check out the Compass Cup 2014 video! Copyright: Lily Hirsch
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