Mount Isa Mines Rotary Rodeo delivers spills and thrills for the ultimate outback getaway
The chute gates burst open and the crowd in the Buchanan Park stadium roars as yet another rider is thrown to the red dirt of the enclosure floor. The bull, a tonne of raging muscle, circles the arena as the rodeo clowns attempt to distract it, to get it away from the limping rider and back in the gates before the next round.
It is opening night at the Mount Isa Mines Rotary Rodeo, the biggest event of the year for the Queensland mining city and the largest rodeo in the Southern Hemisphere. Around 30,000 people flock to the rodeo each year, a veritable sea of cowboy hats, boots, belt buckles and thousands of cans of beer. They come from all over the state, from all over Australia and the surrounding towns, driving thousands of kilometres just to take part in the annual bonanza.
Contrary to the saying, this is my first rodeo and I feel a little out of my depth, but everyone I sit beside in the stands is happy to take the time to point out the rules.
Eight seconds, that is how long each rider has to last before making it to the next round of the bull riding competition. They get scored based on their style and how the animal performs, namely how hard it bucks to dislodge the rider and the flank strap wrapped just in front of its hind legs.
* The outback's wildest party
* 20 things to do on Fraser Island
* Tropical North Queensland adventure
Old rock music blares as the commentators work the crowd, feeding the hype, the surge of electricity that sweeps the stadium whenever another bull rushes out of the gates.
Heading out to the back of the stands, where the rows of food carts and stage sits, I get talking to a former rider, Andrew Dineen. He compares bull riding to cricket, long periods of waiting and then absolute adrenaline, for both the rider and the spectators.
They start young too, an event on the third day involves children, around 10-years-old, getting on poddy calves and bucking in miniature. One gets stretchered off with a broken arm, leaving the arena to a round of sympathetic applause from the audience.
"Some kids grow up with footy and some kids grow up playing with animals," Andrew says.
Bull riding, he tells me, is just showing off, but other events at the rodeo like steer wrestling are examples of the kind of skills country people need on the farm.
The rodeo also gives people a chance to come together, Andrew says. For some outback farmers their nearest neighbour might be hundreds of kilometres away, so the rodeo gives them a chance to catch up and celebrate.
One rider who went the extra distance to make the rodeo is Haider Alhasmawi, the son of an Iraqi refugee who moved to Australia in 2009. I get a chance to speak to Haider on the third day of the meet, under the blaring Queensland sun that does away with any idea that it might be winter.
Talk about dedication, to attend the rodeo the 17-year-old sold his road bike and bought a secondhand car to drive nearly 1400 kilometres from Catherine, a small town near Darwin. He got into bull riding at the age of 15, when one of his friends bought him a ride to another rodeo.
That first time he admits to being nervous as hell, but he was hooked so the next rodeo that came up he bought a bus ticket and went along by himself. I ask him what exactly he likes about it, the adrenaline of course is the answer, and what he thinks about in the chutes.
"If you think too much it messes with your head, so you try block everything out, just focus on getting on and riding the bull," he says.
"You just go for it, you just hope to ride him and stick with him buck for buck."
As well as the stadium events, the Mount Isa rodeo also boasts a host of other attractions, like the carnival, the music at nights from popular country artists, and lots of food carts and the market.Taking a wander through the carnival area, set behind the animal holding pens, is a pretty amazing experience, like going to an A&P Show but on a much larger scale. The rows of rides include shooting galleries, big mechanical rigs hurling people through the air, and scare tours inside grotesque looking haunted houses.
My favourite, and perhaps the most bizarre experience of the rodeo though was a trip to the last remaining travelling boxing troupe in Australia and, perhaps, the world. Perched on a wooden platform, Fred Brophy looks down at the assembled crowd waiting to enter his tent. It is the second day of the rodeo, and I had been looking forward to this since I met the grumpy old fighter earlier in the day. Painted onto the big canvas walls behind him are images of his boxers, fighting legends who have duked it out with anyone brave or drunk enough to get in the ring with them.
"Give 'em a rally," he cries, banging a drum.
Further down the platform a stocky woman in a boxing gown stands ringing a bell. Pointing to her, Fred introduces the sole female fighter in his troupe.
"The Beaver has hairs on her legs that would spear a rat, she'll fight and sheila here tonight," he bellows.
"Give 'er a rally!"
One by one, the challengers from the crowd mount the platform and line up alongside the other boxers, who sport names like Billy the Kid and The Cowboy.
When I met him earlier I asked Fred to describe the experience of his boxing tent, which has been in his family for four generations.
"You can't describe it, someone's going to ask you, 'how were the fights last night?" and you won't be able to describe it," he says.
"There's nothing like it in the world."
Fred and his troupe travel Queensland, which he describes as the last true frontier of Australia, putting on fights at other big events around the state.
"The reason why you've got to come up to Queensland to see the real thing is because the politicians and the bureaucrats, they want me to change this boxing tent to suit them and their rules, but I'm not going to do that, this tent belongs to everyone in Australia and I'm keeping it going," he cries from the stage.
The crowd filters in through the tent doors, surrounding the ring in the centre, which Fred strides around imperiously dressed in a red satin shirt.
Each fight lasts for three rounds of three minutes a piece, as the challengers, mostly burly Mount Isa locals throw punches hard and fast at the boxers, whose skill and footwork quickly becomes apparent as they tease and feint their way to easy victories.
But win or lose, it doesn't matter, Fred says.
"It's the Australian way, and they can say they've had a fight in my tent, and whether you win or lose that's irrelevant, you've had a go."
The Mount Isa rodeo, spread over the course of three days, nearly doubles the population of the mining city, injecting millions of dollars into the local economy. It was started in 1959 to raise the profile of the city, and since then, helped largely by an army of volunteers, it has become the largest rodeo in the Southern Hemisphere with the richest prize pool in Australia.
By the end of the three day event, I was as much caught up in the drama and thrill of it as the other spectators, shouting down at the riders and having a fine old time.
If you only ever go to one rodeo, make it it this one.
Doing there The next Mount Isa Mines Rotary Rodeo will take place on 11-13 August 2017.
Getting there There are direct flights to and from Brisbane, Townsville, Cairns, Gold Coast and Darwin. REX Airlines, the Rodeo's official air carrier, has connecting flights throughout Queensland and regional Australia.
The writer travelled courtesy of Tourism and Events Queensland.