In his book Strange Country, travel writer Mark Dapin takes us on a journey through a very different Australia a country that's eccentric, puzzling, big-hearted, small-minded, nostalgic and sometimes just plain mad, from the last travelling boxing tent and feral urban sewer rats to Vietnam Veteran bikies and the annual Parkes Elvis Festival. We join him for a very special Australia Day event: cockroach racing:
It has been never been called 'the race that stops a nation' but, while the Melbourne Cup is a public holiday only in Melbourne and the ACT, the whole country has a day off for Queensland's annual cockroach races.
This is because the races are held on Australia Day. The cockroach races take place at the Story Bridge Hotel, an ornate nineteenth-century pub set south of the Brisbane River in Kangaroo Point.
As a sport, cockroach racing has a long and distinguished history. It was founded at the Story Bridge Hotel in 1981. According to the founding myth of cockroach racing, Daz from Hawthorne and Gor (short for Igor) from Kangaroo Point were arguing at the bar about which of their suburbs was home to the biggest cockroaches. To settle the dispute, each caught a cockroach at home and brought it to the pub. For reasons not entirely clear, they then decided to race them.
Behind the scenes
I was lucky to be invited behind the scenes at the Story Bridge on race day. The gates opened at 11 am, and the first of the punters drifted in. Brisbane has never been called the fashion capital of Australia and, at the Story Bridge Hotel, it is as if Melbourne and Sydney's dress regulations had been reversed, with no man allowed entry without stubbies and thongs.
The races long ago moved from the pub car park into an area of land adjacent to the hotel, around which a small stadium is erected, complete with corporate boxes. The track itself is a four-metre-wide square, and within the square there is a circle. The cockroaches are allowed to cross the circle in any direction, and the first over the
line is the victor.
The cockroach stable is a big bucket, into which steward Danny Malony plunges his hand. Inside the bucket is a squirming mass of unhappy insects. A cockroach runs up Malony's arm, jumps free, scurries under the table and is squashed. The impressively dextrous Malony manages to grab the next one and keep it still while he writes the number on its back with a fine, clear hand.
How many tragic fatalities would he expect in an average year?
'There's a lot of tragic fatalities,' he admitted. 'In the end, it's all of them. We spray the entire area, so any of them that do manage to get loose will just die in the end anyway.'
So there is no glory for the winner?
'There's no glory for the winner, unfortunately.'
Osama Bin Liner
Like all great sports, cockroach racing provides a window into the social concerns of the times. The names of the immortals in the cockroach Hall of Fame often reflect the politics of their era. In 1996, there was Crawl Keating, but one year later he had been eclipsed by Crawline Hanson. Later, 2002 was the year of Osama Bin Liner.
The starter tipped the bin, and the roaches tore off in all directions.
Except some of them, who just lay on their backs, kicking their legs in the air.
The stewards acted largely as fielders, scrambling not always successfully to prevent the runners from fleeing into the crowd.
In a moment, it was all over, and Johnston raised the winner above his head. Most of the crowd roared, a few women screamed, and one man tapped me on the shoulder, but I couldn't hear what he was saying. 'It's on your leg!' cried a photographer. 'At the back.' One of the little brown sportspeople had escaped to climb up my calf!
A helpful spectator brushed the plucky competitor from my trousers, as I rushed to interview the winner's trainer, Lewis O'Brien from Melbourne. It must be a very satisfying moment for O'Brien. 'Absolutely,' he said. 'It was the combination of many years of hard work and effort in roach selection.' How long has he owned his winner? 'Oh look,' he said, 'I've been working on that cockroach for about ten minutes.'
Cold beer, wet breasts and roaches
A roar of appreciation erupted from a distant sector of the crowd. A large-breasted blonde woman had removed her bra from under her white T-shirt, in preparation for being dunked into a deep barrel of water. The dunking stool celebrates everything that is great about Australia Day: hot sun, cold beer, wet breasts and cockroaches…
The story above is an abridged extract from Strange Country by Mark Dapin, published by Pan MacMillan. To buy the book visit your local bookshop or the Pan MacMillan website.
Been to a cocky race? What did you think? Got any punter's tips for this year? Have your say using the comments form below: