Aussie Bicentennial: the events the tour guides forgot

Australia Day 1988. The Bicentennial Bash to end all bashes. I reveled alongside two million jubilant Aussies crammed along the Sydney Harbour foreshores, gaily waving the national flag, and alternately belting out ``Waltzing Matilda'' and ``Advance Australia Fair.'' Seldom have Australians displayed such pride, I was told.

But whilst whooping it up with the Harbour hordes, I must admit, significant Bicentennial events escaped my attention:

In Australia's dusty Red Centre, an Alice Springs hotel held a gumboot throwing contest. This event, rumored to be part of the qualifying tests for Australia's Olympic discus-throwing hopefuls, requires participants to hurl large rubber galoshes as far as possible.

The same innkeepers sponsored an Outback Iron-man race. Between push-ups and a two-kilometer run, contestants were required to guzzle beer, eat cold meat pies, raw eggs, and cake. The winner was a ``thin, rangy entrant known only as Cookie,'' according to eyewitnesses.

In Frankston, near Melbourne, youths raced wooden soapbox ``billycarts.'' And in Freemantle, 2,000 residents started their Australia Day festivities with a free ``frontier'' breakfast of baked beans and ``snaggers,'' or sausages.

Where was the international press when all this was going on? Queries to my colleagues produced no satisfactory answers. One gamely suggested Qantas had mislead him as to the importance of the Sydney happenings. The Australian airline was selling $750 (Australian; US$530) seats for two hours of harbor flybys on Jan. 26.

The Tourism Commission and the Bicentennial Authority both politely pleaded ignorance of ``unofficial'' activities. I sensed a cover-up. Or, at least, a big city bias.

Here, the Australian government (via Paul ``Crocodile Dundee'' Hogan) has been actively courting tourists for several years now. A record 2 million are expected to take the long journey down under in 1988. And those visitors are expected to leave with their wallets $3 billion (Australian, US$2.1 billion) lighter.

Why then aren't tourists being made aware of momentous activities outside of Sydney?

The response to my inquiries landed on my doorstep the next day: several pounds of Bicentennial publicity material. At first my consternation grew. Sure there were an estimated 3,000 Bicentennial events listed. But the Asia Pacific Bicentennial Orienteering Championships had come and gone. Imagine, some 1,000 contestants wandering around the Tasmanian forests, with nary a notebook-toting journalist, film crew, or ice-cream lapping tourist in sight.

But sifting through the brochures one finds there are still a few 200th Anniversary spectaculars are yet to be held.

Later this month, the Coominya Grape and Watermelon Festival will get underway. This crowd-pleaser features a Melon Marathon, Melon Loading, and the Pro-Am Seed Spitting Championships.

March will usher in the Advance Australia Fingal Valley World Coal Shoveling Championships. Already ``miners in Australia, Asia, and New Zealand are buzzing in anticipation,'' says organizer C. Summerfield. The title, as always, will go the man, woman, or child who can shovel a half-ton of coal onto an empty scale fastest. Tasmanian Wayne Miller is the defending champion, with a record of 40.63 seconds.

And, a bonus Mine Roof Bolting Championship has been added to event this year. Incredibly, Mrs. Summerfield confirms the television rights to this contest have not yet been sold.

For aquatic fowl lovers, the highlight of 1988 has got to be the Great Katherine Duck Race. On April 2, some 5,000 (numbered) plastic ducks will be launched from a bridge into the Katherine River. Duck entry fee is $2. Prize money will be awarded to the first 13 faux mallards across the finish line. The challenge of this fund raising event, say race officials, is avoiding hungry crocodiles.

The Japanese may have their sumo wrestling champs. And American couch-potatoes may have their World Wrestling Federation heroes. But Ulmarra residents play host to the titans of the annual Goanna Pulling Championships, June 11-13.

Two men compete in a tug-of-war, strapped together by large leather belts around their necks. ``One bloke's gotta pull the other bloke across the line. Like a goanna [a large Australian lizard], they do it on their hands and knees, and sometimes on their stomachs,'' says Bill Martin, a rabid Goanna Pulling fan.

There are other Bicentennial events ahead that may draw large crowds. The across Australia hot-air balloon, horse, and stage-coach races would be contenders. Not to mention, the around-Australia yacht and airplane races or, the conventional cricket tests.

But, this reporter, isn't going to be swayed by popular opinion - at least not on March 12. I'll be on Bribie Island, off Queensland, covering the Great Gumnut Underarm Throwing Competition. Or tracking down the rumored but unconfirmed Brick Holders Competition: Hold a brick between your thumb and forefinger as long as possible.

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