Walgett Show

Whadda we want? Big hats! When do want ’em? NOW!

Damn right we do, and the place for big hats, big belt buckles and big (no: little) motorised jeeps that double up as mobile PA systems is of course Walgett Show!

It was a glorious May afternoon when S and I cruised down the Castlereagh to the show grounds. S had worked in Walgett and so seemed to know everyone from the people collecting the gate fees to the kids in the cake decorating section of the produce sheds. She took me on a guided tour, which is helpful as I have absolutely no sense of direction (fact).

We started with the sheepses. Australia was built on the sheep’s back (or is that sheeps’ backs), and in Walgett they still breed champion fleece-bearers.

There was an entire shedful of fleeces. I know as much about fleeces as I do about surfing (nothing) but I did enjoy this display. They’re very tactile, and the odour of lanolin was rich and heady. I could have stayed in there all afternoon, but there were other things to be overwhelmed by.

The fowl, for instance. I’m not mad on ducks as a show item. My sister has chooks and ducks and prefers the ducks and, sure, maybe they have quirky personalities and so forth, but I find them a bit meh. Chooks are the go. There were all kinds of show ponies (if a chook can be a show pony): ones with iridescent colouring or bizarrely arranged plumage, but this little guy quietly took out the large hardfeather category. Go champ!

(No, I don’t know what a large hardfeather is either. Google it.)

Outside was a row of white bulls with the most unfeasibly large testicles I’ve ever seen. They were breathtakingly large (the testicles, though the bulls were pretty humungous too) and I physically shuddered at the thought of having to walk around with a pair of gigantic cajunas clattering against your kneecaps all day long.

Feeling faint and a little queazy, S supported me by the elbow and led me to the indoor displays. Refreshed by the cooler environment, I took a calming stroll around the dressmaking, embroidery, quilting and other lady crafts. (I did look to see if any of the entries were created by men: none were.)

I was briefly startled by a collection of painted skulls, a Walgett novelty. There should be more of this. In fact, it’s disappointing that there were only four entries. Surely there are more abandoned skulls around the Walgett Shire than this? Shame, Walgett, shame!

There were cakes. Lots of cakes. They all looked good to me, but then I know as much about cake making as I do about fleeces and surfing.

I’m not much on roses either, but this one was very impressive, especially as it must’ve bee sitting in a wee jar for a day or so. (Note: I’ve been influenced by S here; she’s a Scot, and so when I say “a wee jar” I mean a small jar, not “a jar of wee”.)

The class of Ms Martinez, art teacher at Lightning Ridge Central School, was well represented in the portraiture section.

What is the collective noun for solar systems? A galaxy? There was  a galaxy of them in the science section, some of which were seriously well put together. I do like a good school project in a show. Someone had done a poster on Mongolia. I wonder if, on show day in far-off Ulaanbaatar, there’s a kid putting together a poster on Walgett. Please let it be so.

Not everyone, I think, had scheduled the creation of their project quite as well as the solar system group. Having said that, thumbs up to Kristian for having a go. It’s labelled, colourful and accurate. What else do the judges want?

Fully recovered from the testicle incident, S led me to the canteen. I have to say that this was quite easily the gourmetiest show canteen I have ever EVER seen. EVER. They had sushi! SUSHI! W.T.F.!

Is that really “home cooked asparagus & cheese quiche with garden salad”?

S got the ham roll, which she declared “delicious, but a bit bready”. I can see what she means; I’m guessing that that bread isn’t Newtown-quality Turkish, but then that is such a snarky and niggling criticism I’m not even going to think it. A new benchmark has been set in agricultural show catering. I can’t see anyone knocking Walgett off in a hurry. (Yes, that is a challenge.)

We wandered over to the ring, where little urchins were shinning up and down a climbing wall. We bumped into J, from school, and she told us that Walgett Council had put this on for free. How good is that?

On the news that evening was an article on how the government was targeting obese kids and their parents in a campaign to encourage more exercise and better diets. I hardly saw any overweight kids at the show; what I did see was little kids in big hats, denim and belt buckles as big as their heads, and none of them were outside their recommended BMI. Bush life is good.

A huge line up of Harleys ringed the race track. The Wandering Walgett Wildcats were handing out awards for best bike, best dress up and so on.

Is it a feature of the modern world that, while there were about 35 motorcycles, I could only count about seven horses in the actual oval for the quarter horse trials.

They were fascinating to watch, though I didn’t know what a quarter horse is, was or does. This time I’ve Googled for you, it’s “a horse of a small stocky breed noted for agility and speed over short distances”. The event was a kind of cowboy dressage, but instead of English gents in red jackets and that sitty-uppy posture these guys had Akubras and a long, straight-legged riding style. Their horses had to do all kinds of quick turns, and tricks like walking sideways and backwards, the the riders cracked a whip by their heads to show that their mount was totally unfreakable.

We headed back to the main area to watch a fashion display sponsored by Walgett dress shop Frock On. The catwalk was the grassy area by the guinea pigs and rabbits; local women strutted their stuff as gamely as possible, given that mums obliviously pushed buggies right past them and kids, engrossed in their fidget spinners, nearly careered into the models.

After that it was a mosy down showbag alley and past the dodgem cars. It was still daytime and there’s something sad about carnival rides in sunlight. They’re like washed-up old rockers: they need darkness and coloured lights and a couple of lines and don’t wake up till late. As we drove out the gates, small knots of Walgett youth were making their way down Come By Chance Road to the show, twitching with anticipation. I remember that feeling. There’d be the thrill of trying to get on rides without the carnies seeing you, of filling up on junk, of boys showing off to girls and girls showing off to boys, of the smell and colour of the fireworks at the end of the night, of the long walk home in the dark telling stories of who did what to whom and why.

As for me, I had homemade vegetable soup and watched Gardening Australia and the news. Pushed a few lesson plans back and forth on my desk. Played cowboy songs on the mouthorgan.

S told me the show wasn’t as big as it had been in the past but I was impressed. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that it was in the top 5 shows I’ve ever been to: big enough to have lots to look at but small enough that you got to see everything; outstandingly catered; and the most well-endowed bull south of the Barwon River.

Walgett Show: Star value 9/10.

Food Safari 9: Narran Lake Open Day

Narran Lake is a vast, flat, open area to the north of Walgett and to the south-west of the Ridge. On maps it appears as a lake, a body of water, but it’s ephemeral and only fills properly after deluges in Queensland pour down the Condamine–Balonne catchment. There’s an important creation story that involves people being eaten by crocodiles, which seems odd for this part of Australia but (in a remarkable testament to the durability of oral storytelling traditions) fossilised crocodile skeletons have been discovered in the area.

I went there with a group of Year 8 Yuwaalaraay language students for the annual open day. These days the lake is co-managed by NSW Parks and Wildlife Service and local elders. There were dances and songs and boomerang throwing and tours of the dry lakebed. Tommy Barker’s remarkable artefact collection was on display.

But most importantly there was weird food: emu rissoles, crocodile kebabs, goat and gravy and roo tail soup. Mmm!

I got stuck into a goat and gravy roll first because, well, that was the first thing to get served up. There are quite a few people farming the goats around the west of the state; I don’t know if these were farmed goats or feral. But it was good meat, nice and tender, and the gravy was proper gravy – not that prissy “jus” you get in fancy restaurants. All served up in a sop-absorbing white bread bun.

I didn’t get anywhere near the crocodile kebabs: as soon as they came off the barbecue they were pounced on by the kids. Opinions ranged from “awesome” to “disgusting”, but that could mean anything.

I went in search of emu rissoles. Too slow, old man.

But there was bucket-loads more goat-in-gravy and beggars can’t be choosers.

We dragged ourselves away from the food to take a walk of the lake. I’d been down here before to see the amazing archaeological work that’s being undertaken by the team from the University of New England. We got a good sandalwood smoking before we set off.

I could come down again and again; it’s such a multi-layered place. On the walk were a few old blokes who remembered harvesting crops on the lake in the years before it was gazetted by parks. There are still plenty of remnants of the lake’s time when cattle ran freely.

We got back in time for the most important course of the day: fried scones. There was a frenzy of margarine and syrup and kids licking slithery goo off their hands and forearms. The scones were good, but I have to say that Goodooga’s were better.

I did manage to get a late-entry emu rissole though, and I’d say that that was my food highlight.

Narran Lake open day: do yourself a favour in April next year and get down there.

Goat races

Today – 6 April 2017 – is the 40th anniversary of the first ever Lightning Ridge Goat Race!

To commemorate the event the Lightning Ridge Historical Society held an open day at the beautiful old nurses’ quarters, just behind the LRHS HQ on Morilla Street, last Sunday.

The quarters are themselves worth a visit: a tiny cottage with an interior made of cypress pine and a delightful mansard ceiling. The building has been restored and maintained but the ceiling rose is not the original, due to bullet damage. Of course. Ask Barb: she’ll tell you the full story.

It was quiet when I got there, but then four other people turned up and it was packed to the rafters. Charlie and Cindy arrived and, to huge excitement, brought along a winning sash from the 1986 Ladies Challenge – and donated it to the Historical Society!

Part of the reason for having the open day was to help the LRHS fill in the gaps about the goat races. Who won what, and when? Who were the riders? The trainers? The sponsors? The … erm … goats?

The original winners’ roll of honour had, at some point in the recent past, been retrieved by Barb and co from the RSL. Then, by trawling the back issues of the Lightning Flash, the names of winners had been added to the board up until the last running of the race, in 2010.

It was lovely to sit back and listen to some of the yarns from the glory days of the goat races: the huge numbers that would turn up for the event, with buses disgorging tourists into a tent city on the oval; the feral goats that would go careening into the ranks of people on Morilla Street, packed in as they were like housecarls at the Battle of Hastings; the high-stakes punting; the bad blood that was caused when crews started coming up from Gilgandara, with their cunning electric prods. So many stories!

Slowly, gaps were filled in. Barb and the team have created a gallery of pictures from back in the day, and people are asked to fill in the names of those they remember. Surely that couldn’t have been Mick C dressed as Santa on that goat buggy? He was way too big! It must, of course, have been Mick the Midget!

The display fills most of the quarters, and a good part of the verandah. Bibs and buggies collected from entrants and donors pack every nook and cranny.

Barb disappeared for a few minutes and returned with Cindy’s winning sash neatly pressed. Because every Historical Society keeps an iron warming on a low heat in its back room for such an event.

The sash was pinned up in pride of place, above the honour board and a ye olde original souvenir T-shirt.

Even after the immense rush of four people there were still some gaps. Do you know any of these missing names?

Please get in touch if you do. And, if you haven’t visited the Historical Society yet, do yourself a favour and drop in. They’re open every Sunday when the markets are on. No kidding! (boom boom)

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Progress has been slower than I expected. This one was an absolute bugger and I kept looking at it and coming back and buggerising it up a bit more then leaving it then coming back to it. I’m sick of looking at it now and it’s time to have a go at a new one, so here it is anyway.

It’s of a windlass set-up that I saw out on the Green Car Door Tour. When I took the photo (below) it was on sunset and so I filled up the picture with lots of sky: pale metallic blue fading into rose. Unfortunately this was not such a great concept or frame for a black and white drawing. And I started too low on the page so there was even more sky than there was on the photo.

I’m learning.

Saint Patrick’s Day

I don’t have any young Irish friends, just ones like me, so I don’t know what young Irish people think about Saint Patrick’s Day. My older Irish friends are perplexed and bewildered by the modern-day celebration. In the Ireland of their childhood, Pat’s Day was like the most boring Sunday afternoon you could ever imagine, times a million. Everything was shut and nothing happened. For one friend’s father it was particularly traumatic because the only open bar on Pat’s Day was the Protestant club, which resulted in ethical turmoil and moral conflict. Needless to say, beer trumped his Catholicism.

Pat’s Day has become something of an institution, a day when we all become a bit Irish. It’s an excuse to drink Guinness in the morning and wear a leprechaun hat and generally behave like a good-natured goose.

The club had made quite an effort. The staff were decked out in funny hats, oversized sparkly bow ties and other things that I’m sure real Irish people never wear. Top o’ the mornin’ to you, Kaycee!

A whole load of Irish activities had been organised, including that grand Hibernian tradition “hitting each other with big foam sticks on a bouncy castle”. What would Finn McCool say?

There were warning signs. It seemed a bit unfair to me, like leaving a loaded revolver on the table and then shrugging your shoulders when some punter gets plugged. Anyway, what kind of injury could result from being donged on head by a foam ball and falling onto an inflatable mattress? While drunk? Hmm.

It might have been Pat’s Day but we still had to have the meat raffles. I’ve had a moan about the meat raffles before, which seem to go on for about 96 hours. I think it’s the endless calling out of numbers over the tannoy, the failure to claim, the redraw, the further calling out of numbers over the tannoy. I think it’d be better if we just blindfolded a child who then stumbled around the room until they bumped into someone, who was then presented with a meat tray. Or perhaps we could tie them to drones and drop them from the air on unsuspecting customers. (The meat trays, that is, not the blindfolded children.)

I doubt this will happen. Barry was very happy. He won two – yes, two – meat trays. They weighed more than he did.

Meanwhile, the bouncy Irish activities had moved outside. A cheerful leprechaun had inflated a game that involved people whacking a ball on a rope at one another. I would liked to have seen Miley Cyrus on there, she’d have been an act.

I bumped into a couple of coppers. They’d come from Goodooga, which was quite startling. Either Goodooga on Pat’s Day is so excruciatingly boring – like Dublin in the 1950s – or the Ridge’s police were terrified of bouncy castle bedlam and called for back-up. This young fella was charming.

His older colleague was less so. I think he may have chucked a sickie on the day they did “community policing” at copper college.

Back inside, people were still donging each other with the foam stick-balls. I’m guessing it was more fun to do than to watch.

To go back outside to where we were sitting you can go through the glass-walled smoking area or through the TAB Pool Room. This latter pathway always feels like some kind of airlock or sterilisation chamber.

I was trying to find the words to describe the feeling I get whenever I go through this room. The banks of unattended screens look dull and defeated without people to animate them. I thought of “poignant”, but that doesn’t quite hit the mark.

I despise the semi-industrialised extortion that promotes itself under the jolly title “punting”. Go on, have a punt! You know you want to! Surely only a sour-faced wowser with a stick up their backside would get upset at the prospect of a good punt.

The only good thing about this gambling room is that it wasn’t full of people gambling.

Back outside, a crowd had gathered around the Miley Cyrus bouncy castle, though no-one was game enough or drunk enough to actually get in there and start the donging.

We settled into our pints and wondered about Stuff In General, such as “How Irish was Patrick anyway?”

I got my sister a DNA test for Christmas. I’m guessing I’m pretty much like her, sharing the same parents and all that. We expected our heritage to be a combination of Scots and Vikings so we were both taken aback at the result: 69% Irish! Bejaysus and begorrah!

Strangely, the news did not make me feel any warmer towards Pat’s Day, which has always felt a bit forced and lame. I like that people dress up, and think we should all wear hats with leprechaun ears on more often.

Something deep inside me also likes the idea of a day when everything closes, even the pubs. But I also know that, like my friend’s dad, I’d find a way to overcome my ethics and find a place that served beer. It’d be un-Irish not to.

Sláinte!

I’ve drunk in some queer places, but this . . .

The England of my youth had more pubs than New Zealand has sheep. On a Friday night you could have a pint in any one of a dozen boozers and not even scratch the surface of what was on offer.

Times change and people change. Friday night these days means the stark “choice” of the pub or the club, but the urge to wander runs deep.

This Friday I found myself at Lightning Ridge Bowling Club. At the club’s core are the two large rooms devoted to (1) eating and watching the big telly and (2) drinking and watching the monster telly. Room 2 also doubles up as a venue for the occasional live act (think Rodney Rude).

I was sitting at the comfy lounges in Room 2 with the usual crowd but we were twitchy and restless. I took a Year 10 Science class this week and we were looking at how molecules vibrate more quickly when subjected to heat, and maybe the warm weather was causing us to turn from solids to liquids to gas. Either way, the group – already hypersensitive to noise and light – was spooked by a sudden movement near the Kino and rose as one, like a herd of startled wildebeest crossing the serenghetti, and headed towards Room 1. I was finishing a schooner and so I didn’t immediately follow which was lucky because, by the time I’d made it to the bar, the herd was on the move again, this time back through Room 2 and in the direction of the smoking area by the bowling green. Which is where we settled into a distracted stillness.

Our idyll was disturbed by an announcement that, following the meat raffles, everyone would have to leave Room 2. This was not a drill. It was prep for the Big Act of the night: Adam Harvey. (No, me neither.)

With everyone now squished into Room 1 we had to find a new venue, which is how I found myself in one of the queerest places I’ve ever had a beer: the Pub in the Club.

This enormous air hangar is part of the club. I didn’t realise it at first but I had been here before: it’s where they set up the stalls during the Opal Festival.

The feeling now was very different. The late afternoon sun slanted in through the shade cloth, lending an ethereal tint to the light. Sound disappeared into the rafters as the place is so high you could build submarines or airships in there. Although we were right next door to Room 1 we couldn’t hear a thing. The atmosphere was like one of those creepy abandoned Russian theme parks you see on BuzzFeed.

It put me in mind of the sets of Fifties sci-fi flicks about Roswell or Area 51. And yet … it was unnervingly attractive. Perhaps it was the ersatz urbex vibe, like we’d broken into a disused branch of the London underground and found a tube stop that no-one had visited in decades. We could have done anything in there; acid raves were suggested, as was an illegal cock fighting pit. It all seemed entirely possible in the plausibility-free zone of the Pub in the Club.

We ate chips and gravy, wandered around smoking rollies, marvelling at our good fortune.

The decor added to the visual dissonance. John Murray murals sat next to an olde worlde outback-themed bar, with super-low-quality tellies and a pair of speakers repurposed from a 90s hi-fi.

Piles of stuff sat around: kids’ sumo suits, crates that looked like they may contain body parts, cans of cooking oil.

And, of course, a genuine Louis Quatorze throne, of which we availed ourselves.

Even the men’s bogs were extraordinary. Is it just me or is that a big surprised face?

There was some discussion as to whether it looked like the digital animations to Dire Straits’ Money for Nothing video. That seemed possible when trying to remember it while drunk, but when you’re sober the next day and you look at the video it doesn’t. Trust me.

Could I ever go back to the Pub in the Club? I’m not sure I could. It was such a surreal experience that perhaps it’s best left in the realm of one’s past, the kind of thing that one looks back on and wonders: did it actually happen or did I dream it?

Even with pictures I think it was all a strange – a very, very strange – dream.

Food Safari 8: Hebel Seafood Extravaganza

If the semi-arid, remote, inland of Australia is famous for one thing and one thing only, then surely that one thing is the quality of its seafood. It’s a no-brainer, therefore, that each year the P&C at the Queensland town of Hebel (just up the road from the Ridge) should put on a seafood fundraiser for its tiny public school. This year, a record seven families sent their children to the school. Go Hebel!

It’s a big deal, the Hebel seafood thing, as it raises funds for the students’ annual trip away. It’s such a big deal that both buses left from the Ridge: the big one and the little one (I know). We boarded the little one and headed up the Castlereagh Highway, which in parts is the bumpiest stretch of bitumen in the whole of the southern hemisphere. We all had jogger’s nipple by the time we’d reached the Nine Mile.

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The day had been cool and overcast, threatening to rain but without really following through. When I did my laps at the pool this morning (20, since you’re asking) I was the only one there apart from the kiosk lady and the lifeguard. It was odd, after so many hot weekends crowded with students, to plough up and down the black line under a heavy sky and a thin drizzle.

The ominous clouds still hung over Hebel as we mooched over to the community hall. We’d crossed the border and so there was a one-hour time difference. Of the many things that I’m not good at, maps and time differences are two of them. The hall was locked and the people inside couldn’t find the key. They mouthed through the window, “It’s only 5 o’clock!” I thought it was 7, when maybe it was 6. I kept quiet. There was a Maths teachers and an intimidatingly over-qualified biochemist Food Tech teacher with us and I didn’t want to say anything that would show exactly how ignorant I am of how clocks work.

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Eventually someone found the key and they let us in, or themselves out. It was your typical small-town country hall, set up with tables and a small stage displaying the raffle booty. On the wall was the list of sponsors: The Linen Cupboard at Dirranbandi; Mr Cheap and Lost Sea Jewels at the Ridge; Eclect. Chic Vintage at Goodooga; and, inevitably, John Murray Art Gallery. That guy must get hit up for every single fundraiser in north-western NSW.

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A hardy team had been at it all afternoon, setting up tables inside and out for the ravenous hordes. It all looked very beautiful and very promising.

Perhaps too promising.

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We’d settled into our second stubbies of Gold when the change hit. Chairs went flying, table decorations blasted around like shrapnel from a pipe bomb, and every burly cocky within 50 kilometres was called upon to dangle from the foldable shade tents. The Ridgites stoically remained seated, hanging onto our lucky door prize tickets and our beers, not helping in any useful way. What could I have done? I’ve never in one place seen so many men capable of knotting down a tarp. I would have used neat bows and granny knots and looked like the feckless, soft-palmed teacher that I have become.

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The time difference thing may have taken the Maths teacher and the biochemist by surprise too as we sat for what seemed like a trillion years waiting for the food to appear. Or maybe time slows down in Queensland and it was only quarter of an hour.

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Eventually it came, and the ravenous hordes fell upon the glisteningly icy cold seafood. There was salad and ham and bugs and crabs and fish and calamari: the works. My God, it was bloody delicious. BTW I know that ham is not a seafood but it was there.

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Someone said it was flown in to St George this morning. Someone else said it was bought from the freezer shop at Walgett but I think that was sour grapes. I had salads and oysters and bugs and a bit of everything. I went back three times.

A CD player plugged into the PA provided a thoughtfully curated playlist: Aqua’s Barbie Girl followed by Johnny O’Keeffe’s Shout followed by Survivor’s Eye of the Tiger followed by Billy Joel’s The Piano Man. Spotify and Pandora really need to get their shit together. When I’m relaxing at a seafood dinner I find that the theme tune to Rocky II really hits the spot.

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Outside, the tarps flapped and cracked in the wind. Inside, I caught a glimpse of the tables for Visiting Celebrities and the local Rotary Club and the sponsors. Perhaps the actual Mr Cheap was in there? I’d always thought that it was just the name of a shop but maybe, maybe, there really is a Mr Cheap from Lightning Ridge. The thought gave me tingles.

Just as we finished our meal the rain, which had huffed and puffed in clouds the colour of gun metal, eventually threw itself down upon us. We scuttled inside, but weren’t game to cross the threshold into the Big Room. Instead, we hung around the bar, shuffling from foot to foot and feeling slightly self-conscious.

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We had all eaten way too much. And then dessert came. I didn’t have any but I did use the suddenly cool weather to my advantage: I bought a red wine. The stubbies of Gold were 5 bucks but a brimful glass of wine was only 3. You beauty. The only downside was that I had stand at the bar and ask for it. The first time I said, “Could I have a red wine please” I’m sure the PA stuttered into silence and tumbleweed blew down the middle of the hall. A man with an unfeasibly large belt buckle and a hat with a brim as wide as a small planet looked at me askance. I blushed, but held my nerve. My reward was to be the envy of everybody.

 

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At last the raffles came on. It’s a golden rule of events like this that the prizes should range from the highly desirable blockbuster first prize to the strange assortment-of-things-in-a-basket-wrapped-in-cellophane 15th prize. The blockbuster was a car fridge and I didn’t win it. Second prize was something to do with gardening (a hose? some seeds?) and a John Murray print, which I didn’t win either. By the time we were at 7th prize the goods were grouped into increasingly random combinations: a set of screwdrivers, a flashlight, a bottle of Jim Beam and a John Murray print. A gigantic box of washing powder, a John Murray print, a pair of nail scissors. Didn’t win anything.

We were all quite relieved when it was time to go. We’d had a good time but we were stuffed with food and drink and getting sleepy. Everyone stumbled out of the hall. As we headed over to the buses in the park across the highway the air became filled with the sound of Toyota diesels firing into life as the locals headed back to their properties.

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It was a cracking night. Numbers were down due to the weather but hopefully the P&C raised enough to send the kids somewhere lovely.

Forever now, when I think of seafood I will think of Hebel.