The first thing that hits you when you step off the train at Exhibition station and pass through the gates of the RNA showground is the smell of cow dung. The second thing that hits you (or me at least) is the weight of many years worth of memories of coming here as a kid. Looking forward to it, preparing for it, going mental when you were in it. Also how the experience changed as you grow older – from the wide-eyed excitement as a kid too young to ride the rides who couldn’t get enough sample bags, to the early teens when sideshow alley became your playground, to middle and late teens when going to the Ekka meant being able to get close to your girlfriend in a parent sanctioned environment.
After all these things rushed through my head, I felt I needed a bit of a sit down to plan out my trip down memory lane. The Stockman’s Bar was the perfect choice to look over the map, orientate myself and check out the locals. My goal was to revisit all the things that made me think of the Ekka, the Ekka institutions.
Ekka Institution #1: The Animals
As mentioned before, the main reason for the Ekka is for farmers and cowboys to show off their prize animals, make some sales, network with other farmers and farm suppliers and have some fun as well. And the reason the place smells of bullshit isn’t cos of all the tall tales being told at the Stockman’s. There are literally shedloads of animals – horses, goats, dairy cattle, beef cattle, deer, pigs, dogs, chickens, fish, and sheep. And this is just the live animals, there’s also every variety of butchered meat as well, on display with samples. Enough to send a Eugene vegan into palpitations!
I’d arrived too late in the day to see any of the show animals being paraded about and frankly I wasn’t unhappy with that. Looking at all the cows in a circle might have been interesting when I was 3 but it’s lost some of its charm since. I’m a city-boy, sue me.
Ekka Institution #2: The Showbag Pavilion
I decided to take a quick wander through Sideshow Alley, but it was still too light to have the proper effect so I left there to take a look at the Showbag Pavilion. It was a pleasure to see not much has changed in here. The displays are still the same, most of the same bags were available and there were still plenty of kids running amok. Same old crap, 2004 prices. There were a few new set-ups in there, mostly aimed at adults, but I wasn’t there for those. It was while wandering around in here, seeing if I could be tempted to buy any sample bags when I ran across…
Ekka Institution #3: The Japanese Pearl Exhibit
Normally, this Ekka fixture was located in Sideshow Alley and has been a part of the experience for 40 years. They would let you purchase an oyster for a couple of bucks in the hope that there would be a real pearl inside that could be worth some real cash. I tried a few times when I was a kid and came up with nothing. But if you didn’t get a pearl, the consolation prize was a goldfish in a plastic bag filled with water. I swear, Ekka time must see more dead goldfish flushed down the dunny than any other time of the year.
These days, the Exhibit has moved to the Showbag Pavilion for unknown reasons and now they give the kids the goldfish in a small plastic tank that’s less likely to get squashed on the train ride home.
By this time I had picked out one or two showbags that I’d consider purchasing (for my neice & nephews, of course), but decided not to make a final decision on an empty stomach.
Ekka Institution #4: Dagwood Dogs
Dagwood Dogs are the Ekka and vice versa. I don’t know of another place you can get them any other time of year. Not that you’d want to really. They are fatty gut-bombs, but they taste so damn good and soak up the beer nicely too. Outside the Showbag Pavilion, I found one of the many vendors who were doing a lively trade (you don’t want to go to one that doesn’t get decent product turnover) and purchased my ‘Dog. For anyone unfamiliar with one, they’re basically corn dogs, dipped partially tomato sauce (ketchup). Mine had evidently sat under the heating lamp for a bit too long and had developed quite a mutation! I also picked up a Chiko Roll, but I’ll discuss that culinary disaster another time.
There were other delights to be sampled, but I stopped short of trying the very dubious sounding “Butter Sangers“. I wolfed down the Dagwood Dog and then staggered to the Commerce Bar for a beer before I passed out from salt-induced dehydration.
Ekka Institution #5: Buying Showbags
It had to be done. I couldn’t go to the Ekka and not buy a showbag. I wandered the aisles of the pavilion trying to decide which one it was going to be. Although I’ve got a sweet tooth I don’t often buy lollies (candy) and chocolate. Besides that, the last time I’d bought a bag was probably 1994 and the most expensive one was $10. Nowadays, you could pay up to $40. Most of the ones with chips and lollies in them weren’t more than $10, but it was still a shock to my system. And then something happened…
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Ekka Institution #6: Showbag Frenzy!
The inner child in me went nuts. As soon as I bought my first bag, the floodgates opened. First up was the Minties Bag – pricey, but I figured it was worth it for the very Australian Minties, Snakes Alive!, Fantales, Violet Crumble and the politically incorrect Chicos it contained. Next on the hit list was the Cadbury Bag. It had good reviews from Ging and I figured kids like chocolate (did I mention these bags were for my cousins? Ha, suckers!). More Aussie favs, like Flake, Crunchie and two (!!) bottles of chocolate sauce that I thought was chocolate milk. Disgusting. The Bertie Beetle Bag is another Ekka stalwart. It’s been $1 forever and still is. It’s also a piece of crap! You get 4 things in it – 3 BB choc bars and a small lollipop. It was a rip off, but I bought it anyway.
A tip for Ekka newbies: if you want bargains on showbags, go late in the day, or late in the Ekka week. At the end of the day the chip bags start going for a song – 5 for $10 – because they’ll go stale overnight. And towards the end of the week, it becomes a firesale as they can’t re-sell the showbags after the Ekka. Everything must go and you can pretty much name your price. Of course, your choices might be limited. Having to balance out the sugar with some salt, I picked up a 2-fer deal on the Twisties Bag and the Doritos Bag. Twisties are an old favourite of mine, but Burger Rings are the business. Both bags had a packet, so I was stoked.
I managed to rein myself in before the frenzy did too much damage to my wallet. I stopped short of buying the GI Joe bag even though all the other kids were running around with the toy gun and army helmet. I nearly bought this bag for Sean, but figured he’d probably read all the magazines already.
I stumbled back out into the fresh air (you’re inured to the bullshit by now) and found a bench to stuff my backpack full of my loot. Other kids were ripping into their showbags right next to me, but I’d learned from hard experience that only leads to a stomach ache and not being able to go on the rides later. I left them to their folly when I heard the first explosion crack overhead.
Ekka Institution #7: The Fireworks
I remember it always starting at 8pm, but tonight it was 7:30pm. No big deal, but I had to get over to the main arena quickly so as not to miss the show. I also remember it being the finale of the night too. Maybe I always just left after the fireworks as a kid to beat the crowds. Anyway, it was a good show and it’s always fun to be around kids when fireworks are going off.
Ekka Institution #8: Strawberry Sundae
After the fireworks I was peckish again and wandered over to the main Strawberry Sundae stall. I have no idea why these are so popular, but I can only imagine the number of these things they sell. The proceeds go to benefit a local hospital (and at $3 a pop, there should be plenty of benefit) and it looks like the stall staff go back to their jobs in the cryogenics lab after their shift at the Ekka. It’s pretty simple fare, really. Just a small cone with 2 halves of a strwberry in the bottom, topped with a slab of vanilla ice-cream, then a slab of strawberry ice-cream, a swirl of sweet cream and half a chunk of strawberry whacked on top. Mmmmmmmm, tasty. I chose to eat mine back in the main arena because….
Ekka Institution #9: The Holden Precision Driving Team
These guys put on a good show night after night at the Ekka, and I think they do the same tricks every year. Still fun to watch and I can’t help but laugh at the fools who watch from the front row of the stands. These stock utes rip around the circular dirt track at 70-90 km/h, a track that’s been trampled on, pissed, and shat all over by livestock during the day. The debris that gets kicked up by the vehicles might look like just dust, but I’m sure a scientific sampling would prove otherwise.
Ekka Institution #10: The Woodchop
Even though it was way too late for any woodchopping events, I passed by the woodchop area and it deserves mentioning as an Ekka institution. Normally full of tough blokes having a chop, it was empty now and the Woodchop Bar was practically empty so I didn’t stop for a pint. If you ever get a chance to see a woodchopping competition, I can’t recommend it highly enough – speed, physical strength, skill with a axe, and just enough danger to make it interesting.
Ekka Institution #11: Sideshow Alley
It was well dark and Sideshow Alley would be in its element. All other events had finished for the day and the showbag pavilion was closing up, so everyone left at the Ekka would be here. It was like nothing had changed in a decade. All the same rides were there. All the same carney games were there, all the weird carney folk were there. The ground was littered with paper, plastic bottles, random children, and losing tickets for the Red Cross mega-raffle. Walked past my unconquered nemesis, the Zipper, the too boring for words Matterhorn, the ever popular Ferris Wheel, and my old favourite the Hurricane.
It’s not much fun to go on rides by yourself, so after a half hour or so wandering up and down Sideshow Alley I decided to call it a night. Getting home was a breeze on the Citytrain, although it was quite crowded with kids trying to open their showbag toys and their parents emploring them to wait til they got home.
When I got home I spread my loot out:
All the goodies inside (doesn’t look like that much, does it?)
Hopefully the niece and nephews will come down and visit before I make a complete pig of myself on this…
Ekka Institution #12: Eating chips, chocolate and lollies til you feel sick