Today I should have been at the Ekka, sampling goodies at the Gourmet Plaza and patting the noses of a passing cow or two, but like so many other events around the world, it has been cancelled because of a recent COVID-19 cluster in the city. In its 145-year history the Ekka has been cancelled just four times – most recently in 2020 and 2021.
OK, then, but what is “The Ekka”?
Australians have a great fondness for abbreviating place names, peoples’ names, events – just about anything, really … and then often adding “ie” or “y” to the abbreviation. Tasmania becomes “Tassie”, Brisbane is better known as “Brissie” and of course we are all “Aussies”. Other abbreviations of note are “Albo” – who is actually the leader of the opposition in the Australian Government, the Honourable Anthony Albanese MP, and “ScoMo” – our Prime Minister Scott Morrison.
“Ekka” is the abbreviated form of “Exhibition”. For many years the event, run by The Royal National Agricultural and Industrial Association of Queensland, was known as the Brisbane Exhibition and is now formally the Royal Queensland Show – or just The Ekka.
I was looking forward to going to the show today as it is perhaps fifty or sixty years since I last visited. My parents and brothers and I would all come in from the country where we were living, stay with our grandfather and grandmother for a few days, and visit some local attractions – one of which was always the show.
For country kids this was a huge outing.
Going to the Ekka
The throng of people itself was an attraction – as Goombungee, where we lived in the 1960s, had just over 300 people.
A lengthy visit to sideshow alley was a must with its usual thrills of the Haunted House, the place with the wobbly mirrors that gave visitors new perspectives on body shapes, sometimes there was the tent with the Bearded Lady (but fortunately no Elephant Man), and almost always there was a whip-wielding cowboy offering to cut in half with one deft crack of his whip the cigarettes nervously clutched in volunteers’ mouths.
There were huge men and skinny men chopping logs in half, there were wobbling clowns’ heads down which balls were carefully lobbed, hoping to earn enough points to carry off a vulgar plush toy of some sort, dodgem cars, the Big Dipper … and the food.
I am sure that even to a twelve-year-old boy in the early 1960s “chips” or “French Fries” were nothing new, but I remember keenly that one of the food outlets we always visited was Shannon’s for a wrapper of hot, greasy, salty – delicious – chips. My memories are that Shannon’s was a Tasmanian potato company – but all Internet digging today suggests they are a Queensland crew.
Then there were the Dagwood Dogs.
I don’t know when these gourmet delicacies were invented or by whom, but Internet digging suggests they are named for Dagwood Bumstead, the 1930s cartoon character famous for his huge appetite. In Australia a Dagwood Dog is a sausage of some sort – really doesn’t matter what type of sausage it is, considering what happens to it – that is impaled on a wooden stick, dunked into thick batter and then plunged into boiling oil until the batter is crisp on the outside, gooey and sticky on the inside and with all the germs in the sausage pulverised by the thermo-nuclear activity on the outside.
Then just when things couldn’t get any better, the whole appalling creation is dunked in a tub of tomato ketchup that has been sitting on the serving counter since daybreak. And then eaten.
Yes – there were tooth-shattering lips-sticking toffee apples, and there was the fairy floss (or candy floss for some readers), the strawberry sundaes and lots of nutritious fizzy red soft drinks and popcorn and sweets – but nothing could quite match the Dagwood Dog on a stick.
I mentioned sweets a moment ago – and these really deserve a chapter or two to themselves, as most of them came in the wonderful show bags – or sample bags – that were an important part of a visit to the show.
I seem to remember that our parents gave us ten shillings to spend at the show – quite a huge sum for a kid sixty years ago – and this made us hunt down the best and cheapest show bags on offer. The prices ranged quite a bit and I think two shillings (perhaps twenty cents) was about the top price. The bags really were sample bags – where producers offered buyers small samples of their various wares in an attempt to lure future buyers of rather larger quantities of their goodies.
Life Savers, Kelloggs, Minties, Cadburys, Heinz 57 – there were so many to choose from.
In 1970 the prices ranged from forty cents down to twenty cents a bag. In 2021 the chocolatier Lindt was set to offer Ekka visitors their show bags for $110.00. I do hope these extravagant show bags contained a Phantom or a Beano comic and a silly cardboard cut-out hat, as did all the best bags in the 60s.
Let’s be serious now
It was all a bit of an orgy for a kid – the rides, the food, the getting sick – but we were dragged by our parents to see other parts of the agricultural and industrial exposition.
- Now – if you get lost – don’t worry. Find a policeman and tell him your name and we will come to find you.
Massey Fergusson tractors several times my height loomed over me, and I marvelled at the “magic” tap that continuously poured water from nowhere into a large timber barrel cut in half. We trudged dutifully through display pavilions of exquisite arrangements of fruit and vegetables showcasing different regions of the State and yawned our way past glass cases filled with decorated cakes and fruit scones and gingerbread and shortbread biscuits and carefully stitched samplers and knitted furbelows.
I never managed to get lost or found by a policeman, but at times the endless cases of baked goods almost made me want to get lost.
Although I was living in a small country town, I was a “townie” rather than a country kid. At various times during my early years my father would lend me out as unpaid labour to various people, trying perhaps to toughen me up. I spent time milking cows, castrating sheep, diving into silos full of sorghum – and enjoyed every minute of it all – but to someone who was essentially still a “townie”, the Ekka’s animal halls were eye- and nose-awakening.
I recall the sting of animal urine in my nose and the piles of animal dung with steam rising off them, and the fabulous beasts that were BEST OF SHOW or RESERVE CHAMPION and those who had been awarded gold and silver and blue ribbons. I liked the farm animals on show – and liked less the family pets on show – but the grand parade in the central arena was fun, too, as it meant that we had at last reached the grandstand overlooking the oval where the fireworks were soon to start.
The 2020 / 2021 Tokyo Olympic Games have just finished.
They ended as they started, with massive and spectacular pyrotechnic displays. I imagine that everything these days is computer controlled and that Tokyo did not have a small army of small boys running around with cigarette lighters setting fire to the blue fuse papers of the massive rockets and whatnots of their modern fireworks displays. Spectacular as the Japanese fireworks were, they were probably no more or no less than what we expect today at such important events.
In the 1960s things were a bit quieter and a bit more modest.
In those days we still celebrated Guy Fawkes Night (5 November) in memory of the day when Guy Fawkes tried to blow up Britain’s Houses of Parliament. Today “cracker night” as it is more politically-correctly known has also been banned because of the bushfire danger it poses. But as kids we saved our pocket money to buy as many double bungers and skyrockets as we could afford and set them off as we sat around bonfires built in our backyards.
The Ekka fire show in those far-off days now seems to be a bit like a back-yard fireworks evening.
I recall a few huge Catherine wheels – and lots of “Ooohs” and “Aaahs” – and some skyrockets that were then tremendously exciting but best of all were the Roman Candles.
I was a pretty skinny little twelve-year-old kid, and in my mind’s eye those Roman Candles seemed to be the height of a young man but were probably much smaller than that. They were ranged – all ten or twelve of them – in a row in the centre of the arena and someone actually did run along with a cigarette lighter or something, flaming up all the blue touch papers and the coloured balls of fire started spurting up to the night skies.
The evening’s commentator got the crowd cheering for which fiery ball would fly higher than the others:
There was no prize for the section of the crowd that “won” the highest point, and there was no extravagant explosive ending. The last ball was shot into the sky, the crowd sighed, applauded the display and gathered their show bags and assorted tired kids and left.
Then it was time to trudge back to the gates to board a tram back to Grandpa’s house, show bags clasped in grubby little hands (perhaps just one more chocolate Freddo Frog before bedtime?) and the Ekka was over for another year.
The Ekka Part 2 will have to wait a year until we are COVID-19 safe again and I can see what has changed. Will I find Shannon’s chips again? Will I be able to afford a Lindt show bag full of chocolates? Will I be brave enough or foolish enough to ride the 2022 version of the tiddly 1960 Big Dipper?
Text © Christopher Hall August 2021
All photographs from Internet
In my blogs I try to present a snapshot of the places I have discovered during a brief visit. I am not trying to present a detailed picture of the whole city or the whole region or the whole country.
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If a man ascended into heaven and gazed upon the whole workings of the universe and the beauty of the stars, the marvellous sight would give him no joy if he had to keep it to himself. And yet, if only there had been someone to describe the spectacle to, it would have filled him with delight.