Each morning a bus arrives at Lightning Ridge Central School from a place called the Grawin. A load of kids get off, spend the day at the school, and in the afternoon they pile back on and head home.
People spoke to me about the Grawin as though it were some crazy Wild West town; like the Ridge but back in the Fifties, before the Gumment got involved and throttled the fun out of life. I wanted to go to the Grawin and see it for myself but at the same time didn’t want to look like the rubber-necking tourist that I would be, swaggering around and perving at the yokels. This weekend the Grawin Show announced its presence at the famous Club in the Scrub and so I finally had a legit reason to rubber-neck to my heart’s content.
The Sunday morning of the show was a gorgeous spring day. I headed south on the Castlereagh before turning west for Cumborah. The country round here is flat: semi-permanent swamps that only ever really fill up when it buckets down in Queensland. The road to Cumborah took me past huge open pastures on which vast flocks of feral goats skittered around the verge.
The place is verdant at the moment, and the goats, pigs, cats and dogs must be breeding like crazy. God help the poor sheep that stared out at me from beneath their heavy woollen coats.
The topography changed as I left Cumborah. As I headed upwards the soil colour became the same deep red as the sand in central Australia; cypress pines took over from the floodplain vegetation, and thick blankets of yellow-flowered cassias edged the roadway. It was absolutely beautiful.
Higher still I climbed, until the soil became paler and the vegetation scrubbier. By the time I was off the blacktop and near the Club in the Scrub, the venue for the show, the soil was a sun-glaring limestone white and the road a mixture of suspension-jarring potholes and washouts.
But that hadn’t stopped the show-goers. It was a proper show, with an ice-cream van and a pop-the-balloon and even those creepy clown things.
There was an Ugly Man competition and a Guess The Weight Of The Bull competition and Catch The Pig competition, but much as I wanted to see these freak shows I felt beholden to pay my dues at the heart of any rural show: the craft section.
There was a classic set of crocheted blankies in the pub’s back room.
There were sets of six eggs and plates of scones and vegetables. Not your ordinary vegetables, mind, but GIANT Grawin vegetables.
And, of course, vegetables dressed up in clothes!
It reminded me of every show I’d ever been to, from the late-summer shows of my Lakeland childhood to the frazzled Mother’s Day plate of the Alice Springs Show. It was great to see but, having seen it, I really wanted to have a look at the ugly men of the Grawin.
I headed out, grabbed a works burger and XXXX Gold and strolled around. Ugly men were ten a penny but they seemed to be between competitive rounds. Perhaps there was no formal competition; perhaps we were supposed to pick out our own favourite ugly man and pin a rosette on him. It was hard to pick one particularly ugly man among so many and so, being a stranger in town, I chose caution and did not pick any.
Beyond the bull (which did look very very heavy) was an area of star pickets and chook wire. Some signal went out, maybe like a dog whistle or something beyond my hearing, but within seconds the place was teeming with barefoot Grawin waifs. And … a man with a pig!
I’ve got to say that there are very few funnier things than a Catch The Pig competition. I’m sure that PETA or the RSPCA would contradict me on this but, by jimminy, it does bring out the olden-times person in me. I may well have chased the odd show-pig in my own halcyon youth, and as I clutched my warming stubbie I felt a pang of nostalgia mixed with a heady warmth that, in some parts of the world – even hipster, First World Australia, with its teeny-tiny biodynamic coffees and ever-expanding megamalls – a kid could still get barefoot in the dirt and freak the bejaysus out of pig.
There was a hundred dollar prize too. Bloody hell!
Of course the pig made quick work of the chook wire fence and went bolting into the bush, with two score howling Grawin kids in hot pursuit. (I heard at school, next day, that two Year 7s had pried it out from beneath a Hilux.)
I did another turn of the stalls: automotive parts, Aboriginal artefacts, $2 socks, Ugg boots, Jehovahs Witnesses selling the Watchtower. It was time to move on.
There’s a loop road around the Grawin so I headed towards the war memorial. It’s another landmark I’ve been told of but had yet to see firsthand so I bounced and thumped along past Jim’s Corner.
The memorial is quite a surprise. There are plaques to diggers past and present, to Aboriginal servicemen, to Vietnam Vets, to those who served from 1914 to (poignantly) no date, just an open line to allow for the conflicts that will take the barefoot Grawin children of the future.
Next to the war memorial is another famous Grawin landmark: Nashys Thong Tree. I have absolutely no idea who Nashy is, or what the significance of the tree. It’s just a Grawin Thing.
I pulled into the next pub along the track, Sheepyard. The previous night there’d been a Mexican fiesta and the place had the feel of a taverna where vast quantities of burritos and cerveza had been consumed. Next to the verandah, a huge wooden stump – the remains of a great night-time conflagration – smouldered in the afternoon sun. Sparkly decorations sagged from the rafters; a crocheted poncho hung limply from a fence post. The few folk by the bar had the slightly stunned look of people who’d been hit by a heavy bull. I finished another Gold, quietly humming that Marty Robbins song in my head, then kicked the Kwaka into life and headed off again.
The loop took me past the wonderfully named Grumblebum Lane and towards the famous Glengarry Hilton.
But by that time it was getting on, and I’d reached my two-beer limit. I hit the blacktop, descended through the white limestone to the pale salmon-pink and the red soil until I met the black soil of the flood plain.
Thick stands of canola hugged the roadside, causing me to slow down. The last thing I needed was to hit a tusker or a billy goat dashing stupidly out of the vegetation.
I was home by 4.30, in time to watch the Knights get thumped by the Rabbitohs on the telly. It was a thoroughly satisfying afternoon. The Grawin is indeed the Wild West of yore but it’s also its own community, a place with an obviously powerful sense of its place in the world.
Long live the Grawin!