Australian Outback Spectacular!

I wish I could show you more pictures of this amazing show, but they told us at the start that flash photography wasn’t allowed inside the main arena. I really would have liked to take pictures of the food, too, but how are they going to judge what you’re taking a picture of? The flash could still startle the horses. Of course, I realized that I could take a picture without the flash, but I immediately realized that there are other lights on the camera, and they’d be extremely visible in the dark… especially with servers coming around regularly. Le sigh. And so, my pictures are only of the outside area, and if you want to see what it was like, you’ll either have to go see the show… or come visit me. I still have my program. Yes, the $10 program that I wouldn’t dream of buying at any show, when I’m at home. Shows like The Phantom of the Opera and Beauty & the Beast, I mean. But for a show in Australia? Ten bucks is nothing.

The weather turned quite chilly on Thursday evening, so I wore my Adidas jacket, instead of my leather jacket, because it’s warmer. It still wasn’t warm enough, when I arrived… but maybe that’s because I had showered recently, and my hair was still wet. But we had to stand in line, outside, for a while, and I was trying to keep from shivering. When we got inside, the large number of people warmed things up immediately. We had our tickets scanned, were told which section we’d be sitting in, and received a hat. If you were in Section B, you’re part of Warrego Station, and your hat had a red band. If you were in Section A, you were part of Bunya Downs, and got a yellow band on your hat. We were part of Warrego.

The Australian Outback Spectacular is a bit like a dinner-theatre, and yet it’s much, much more than that. With cavalry charges, cattle herding, helicopters flying through, amazing “movies” of the Outback on the big wall, music composed by Bruce Rowland (The Man from Snowy River), and plenty of audience participation, there’s never a dull moment.

We found our way to our seats, where covered plates were already waiting for us, with our salad. According to the menu, this was a Queensland-style salad, with mango dressing. I wouldn’t have known that it was considered a salad, if not for the menu, because it looked like a wrap. But the menu says it’s wrapped in a flat bread swag. So there you have it. Bushman’s Swag salad. It was really good, by the way. And it was the only part of our meal that you were able to see clearly, because the lights were still on, at this point. After the show got started, the main lights were turned off, and you could only see your food dimly. But it didn’t matter, all the food was excellent.

The intro involved glorious movie shots of the Outback, played on the back wall, which when it wasn’t being used for a movie screen, was the backdrop to all the entertainment sets. It had doors that opened to let in all the riders and livestock, as well as a rotating section for a house to spin around for some of the show.

The main actors were Johnno, a stalwart rider on his white horse, who was the boss of Warrego Station. The resident cook, Bluey, was a wiry man with an argumentative bent to his nature, often “barracking” for Bunya Downs. Johnno had a beautiful voice and sang us a slow rendition of “Waltzing Matilda”, at some point during the show. And while Bluey could argue with the best (and worst) of them, as well as grilling on the barbie, on the back of his truck, he could also give us a stirring deliver of the poem “The Man from Snowy River”. And as he spoke, a movie played on the back wall (though not the actors from the original movie), showing the action, as it went, and Bluey speaking for each character. Now, I’ve read the poem, and it seems to me that it had an interesting… meter, I guess, but Bluey gave the oration as if it were as natural as breathing. But then, he’s been doing it for years, now.

After the introductions, the main riders came in, riding those beautiful horses all over the arena, and then after that, the trick riding girls came in. There was a competition between stations, with the women hanging off their saddles, upside-down, practically dragging on the ground, and other marvelous feats.

And with the arrival of the main course, along came the music. The beautiful song, “Waltzing Matilda”, as I’ve never heard it sung before. It’s been a long time since I even heard it, but it was an unforgettable performance. For those interested, the closest I could get to this, on YouTube, is the version by John Williamson, which was used for a tribute to Steve Irwin. This one is a lot slower than most versions of “Waltizing Matilda”, and I’m working hard at committing the song and tune to memory, ever since hearing it.

Dinner was served, as I said. A delicious steak with gravy, veggies, and “damper” (the menu says that’s bushman’s bread). Oh, and during the entire show, the servers go around offering lemonade, wine, or beer. That was included in the meal, I mean. And the meals were all served at the same time, for around 1,000 people. Think about that. They announced dinner’s served, the servers come out, and within 10 minutes, everyone’s eating. And the food is still warm. Amazing.

Then, the tale of the heroes of the Australian Light horse began. It started off with telling us how the men in the bush roped wild brumbies and broke them, followed by Bluey’s Ride. This was supposed to be Bluey’s grandpa, who was desperate to go with the Light Horsemen to war, but knew next to nothing about horses. So, you watch as he attempts to climb onto the horse’s back, and then slides off when the horse sits down. How he climbs on backwards, and falls off. How the (unsaddled) horse lays down and pins him, as he was attempting to climb up. And finally climbs triumphantly onto the back of his horse. The entire performance was marvelous, as anybody knows that one misstep, and he could’ve been sat on or crushed. And something about the performance and Brett Welsh himself (Assistant Horse Master of the AOS team, who played Bluey’s Granddad) reminded me strongly of Donald O’Connor in Singin’ in the Rain, when he was performing “Make ‘Em Laugh”.

A little back story for those who have never heard of the Australian Light Horse Brigade. During World War I, the Light Horse were volunteer brigade of mounted infantry, rather than cavalry. Meaning, they usually fought on foot, but used their horses to carry their gear around. But there were exceptions to this rule, as you will see. Some of the men took their own horses overseas, and there were few horses or riders like them. Considered lax in discipline by the British, and yet they soon proved themselves with their riding abilities. Known for the “kangaroo feathers” (actually, emu feathers) in their hats, they were a very distinctive crew.

Then came Beersheba. The Allies had been unable to break through the Ottomans’ defenses, and the Light Horse Brigade (and others) were there, and had no water. The wells of Beersheba were within their grasp, but they could not fight their way through. Then, one of their commanders had a brilliant, or crazy (depending on how you looked at it) plan. The Light Horse Brigade were not cavalry, they were mounted infantry, but they could still be used like cavalry. He ordered the 4th Light Horse Brigade to charge the Ottoman defenses.

The Ottomans were not expecting a cavalry charge, so they lined up their weaponry for mounted infantry. When the Light Horse charged, they expected them to dismount at any moment. When they realized the truth, they didn’t have time to adjust properly, and the Brigade was coming too fast. For modern day readers, picture the charge of the Rohirrim, in The Return of the King. The Australians descended on the Ottomans, at full speed, and screaming like banshees, with the horses buoyed on by the smell of the water from the wells of Beersheba. The Ottomans didn’t put up much of a struggle after that charge, and of the 800 men of the Light Horse, only 36 died in the charge. An amazing true story, and what courage those men showed!

Ok, my rendition of the tale probably stunk, but I did try my best to relate what I remembered, with some double-checking on the history. For any historians out there, please forgive my pitiful telling of the tale, but please believe that I find it a story that everyone should hear about and remember.

And so, the AOS horsemen performed the whole thing, from training and breaking the horses, to galloping in uniform, and explosions going off in the arena, startling all of the audience members. You really felt like you were there. And intermittently, they left the battle scene, to remind you of the families that were left behind, when their boys went off to war, and how some of them never returned. A sobering reminder, between uplifting scenes of the men in uniform.

Back to the mundane… at the end of Act II, dessert was served, followed by coffee or “billy tea”, for those who wanted it. That finally explained to me why the coffee cup was painted silver, and a bit beat up. It was supposed to look like a tin cup you’d use when you went “waltzing matilda”.

Remember how I mentioned eating in the dim lighting? Dessert arrived, and I was completely uncertain of what I was eating. It looked white and round and fluffy, with something darker in the middle. When I took a spoonful, the feel to the texture made me think meringue, but it didn’t taste quite like meringue. Very sweet, a little crunchier on the outside, with something fruity in the middle. After the lights came up, later, I could see that the menu said it was a traditional Pavlova, with berry sauce and cream. Ok. All that told me was that I needed to look it up online, when I got home. Because I had no idea what a Pavlova was.

Apparently, a Pavlova is a traditional dessert in Australia and New Zealand, though they argue about who invented it first. It was created in honor of the dancer, Anna Pavlova, when she visited this corner of the world. I’ve heard that the defining feature to a Pavlova recipe, what makes it different from meringue, is the addition of cornstarch. Something to do with the cornstarch causes it to have the crusty outer layer, and a marshmallowy interior.

And it was very good, don’t get me wrong! But I do have to say that trying food, in the dark, is a very interesting experiment, because you have no idea what you’re eating. And you pay more attention to textures and tastes, rather than to looks and coloring.

Act III involved several races, with audience participation. Some children chased pigs across the arena, some adults had “boat races”, and such. And then the trick riders returned, with several ATVs, where it was a race to see who could complete the course the fastest. It turns out that the horse & rider teams beat the ATV riders by several seconds.

And finally, a patriotic conclusion, with the return of the Australian Light Horse Brigade, carrying the Australian flag, and riding in an amazing big of showmanship. A very worthy conclusion to a fabulous show!

So, if you’re ever in the Brisbane area, make sure you go to see this fantastic show. And that recommendation will be echoed by Australians that have seen it, as it shows them some of their own history (some of them not knowing the tale of the Light Horsemen), and reminds them what a splendid country they live in. My friends from Adelaide have seen it more than once, and would second my suggestion. Go see it!

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