Citified Sydney Gets Rural

Take away the Australian accents, and you can imagine yourself at a state fair in Ohio

EVERY year about this time, Sydney forgets it's a city and turns into a big country town.

The Royal Easter Show has been the biggest thing in town since 1822, drawing upward of 1 million people over its 11-day run. With 35,000 exhibits spread over 28 hectares (70 acres), including a rodeo, animal judging, and produce displays, it celebrates the richness and diversity of Australia's farm life.

If you turned off the emcee's Australian voice at the rodeo and ignored the sea gulls, you might think you were at a state fair in Ohio.

The cowboys wore chaps and red bandanas; the hats, from a distance, looked like Stetsons (and many were, despite Australia's own famous Akubra-brand cowboy hat); and there was nothing exclusively Australian about riders trying to stay on bucking horses and steers for 8 seconds.

You probably wouldn't find a camel race at most state fairs in America, though. Camels have been in Australia since they were introduced in the 1860s. They played a major part in opening up the dry outback in the middle of the country because they could go for weeks without a drink. The problem here is that they don't race that well. They lurched off all right from a kneeling start, but by the end of the race they had left the track and were meandering about.

A reptile-handling demonstration might be a rare thing in Ohio, too. A handler showed a foot-long baby saltwater crocodile curled around his hand to rows of big-eyed children. The "salty's" open jaw revealed a lot of very sharp little teeth.

"Don't touch him," the handler cautioned. "They're born nasty, and they stay nasty. They can grow to 20 feet and are quite capable of taking down a cow."

Over in one jammed stadium, spectators gathered to watch five brawny guys compete for a $60,000 prize for wood chopping. At the signal, the men, dressed in white-and-orange singlets that advertised an Australian beer, raised their axes high and hacked away at a thick stump. They chopped from one angle, then another - with big chunks of wood flying - till they got a good notch cut. Then they started on the other side and chopped through.

Australia is a child-oriented society, and the farm show provided lots to do for families with children: pony rides, lamb-petting areas, horseshoeing demonstrations, and interactive science displays.

This year the festival tripled the amount of free entertainment, with street performers from the United States and Europe, magicians, ballroom dancing, and country bands.

But the main aim of the Royal Easter Show was to get back to the basics of agriculture, and that's where its heart was - from judging farm animals, to sheepdog trials, to a fashion show featuring cotton and wool.

The floor of the big warehouse housing the produce displays was sticky with watermelon juice. Trying to interview farmers about the displays was hopeless: Every few seconds we were interrupted by people wanting to buy apples for 40 cents or a piece of sweet, juicy watermelon for 30 cents.

This vast display for growers from each district in Australia had murals of farm scenes crafted out of different colors of wool - ranging in color from white to dark brown. Other displays used fruits and grains in designs as precise and intricate as Rose Parade floral floats.

Jars of preserved fruits and vegetables were lined up on shelves, featuring tiny flower-shaped pieces of carrot with smaller pieces of parsnips fitted inside them, cut string beans laid out like a brick wall, and S-shaped pieces of pineapple nestled together. It looked like the kind of elaborate - yet practical - country craft that no one has time to do any more. It is.

Some of the jars of preserved fruit belonged to Iris Wolsk, who started preserving when she was raising her five sons and one daughter. People back then bought crates of fruit for $1. Her tools are a sharp knife and some cutters for the fancier shapes. She says she goes through a lot of fruit to end up with just the right ones, then bottles the rejects for family use. Each jar can take up to three hours to cut and assemble; then it's filled with sugared water and put in the sterilizer for two hours.

It's a long process, she says. "But the amount of pleasure it gives makes the job worthwhile."

Yet it's also a dying art. "The young ones are too busy to sit down and do it. People just pop fruit in the freezer now."

But not all of the fair's events were old-fashioned. There was a Karaoke Club, in case you tired of all the farm life and had an urge to try to sing like Madonna.

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