Aussies can stage a show, but Ploughing's still the best

Home-Grown: The local produce exhibit at the Sydney Royal Easter Show.
Home-Grown: The local produce exhibit at the Sydney Royal Easter Show.
Ann Fitzgerald overcomes her fear to scuba dive the Great Barrier Reef, one of the seven wonders of the natural world
Ann Fitzgerald

Ann Fitzgerald

You know how it is with neighbours? They're grand but you'd wish they wouldn't follow you around, especially on holidays, and even more especially when you've gone to the opposite side of the world. But everywhere we went in Sydney we couldn't seem to escape Wills, Kate and George, their accompanying entourage and obligatory royal follower crowd.

First it was the Royal Easter Show, then they turned up at the same rugby union match, ditto the Opera House, with our paths only diverging when they skipped the most northern part of Queensland and headed straight to Ayres Rock where we are going this week.

As an aside, any royal visit to Australia inevitably reopens the debate about moving to a republic; and I was a bit chuffed when I flicked on ABC TV this week to a discussion about electing a head of state to hear complimentary comments about none other than our system in Ireland.

I had booked tickets to the Sydney Royal Easter Show, commonly called The Show, a couple of months ago, long before there was any public talk about the Cambridges visiting Oz.

How it happened to be for Good Friday in our case was because the city is almost otherwise closed down on this date.

Seems a bit surprising for such a secular society but turns out that this is not for religious reasons but rather because, as my Aunt Peggy Cochram who has lived in the country for some 50 years points out, the Aussies do love their holidays.

Apparently Good Friday is also traditionally the biggest day of the two-week show, irrespective of the royals, so their presence obviously meant even bigger crowds than usual.

However, while it was very crowded, the queues really did not seem too bad to us. Though I have no doubt that this was partly because we were first-timers, everything was new, and there was plenty of novelty to occupy us even as we were standing around.

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First held in 1823 to promote and highlight agriculture, the show is now located in Olympic Park on the western edge of the city. It is the biggest farming event of the year in Australia, the opportunity for city to meet country.

Except for the noticeable lack of machinery, it is broadly similar to our agricultural shows, with classes for livestock, bloodstock, poultry, arts and crafts, home produce, as well as traditional Aussie pursuits such as wood chopping.

Sight to behold

One of the most popular attractions are the district exhibits. They were one of the things I was most looking forward to and truly are a sight to behold. Every year a theme is selected and this is created pictorially on a large scale, using only the produce of the district.

This would typically include wool, wheat, sugar cane, cheese, various citrus fruits, vegetables and highly coloured jars of preserves.

I was also impressed by the efforts made to inform consumers about agriculture, to sell farming as it were.

There are a number of opportunities to handle farm and domestic animals and these are extremely popular, especially, but certainly not exclusively, with children.

A lot of information is presented in a fresh and accessible manner to all age groups. For example, one display offered the opportunity to 'Thank A Farmer'.

This was started as an opportunity for kids and now attracts up to 10,000 messages. Alongside the ubiquitous 'ban live exports' were the more typical 'thanks for feeding us', 'thanks for growing the wheat that makes my breakfast' and 'thanks hardly seems enough, we honour you' messages.

But, according a report in the Herald Sun, the stand is also being increasingly used by ladies looking to meet a farmer, with notes such as 'does the farmer want a wife?' and 'thank you, my daughter's phone number is ... ' Seems that, wherever you go, farmers are still regarded as a desirable catch.

Any such visit inevitably stirs comparison with what's on offer back home and, for all the attraction of the Easter Show, I don't feel that it bests our biggest agricultural event, the Ploughing, though they have some ideas that might be worth importing.

The show attracts 800,000 plus people a year, but when you consider the national population and the fact that it runs for two weeks, the annual 220,000 attracted by the three-day Ploughing makes it far more important nationally.

Of course the scale of the two countries is a significant factor.

The show is also an expensive day out. Admission to the Ploughing is €20, with accompanied children and parking free.

In comparison, stand admission to the Sydney Easter Show is Aus$38.50, children Aus$23.50, with a family of four for Aus$111 – though this does include excellent public transport.

However, even leaving the food out of it, this is unlikely to be the end of it.

The Sydney Show also has an important commercial element. So while many of the food stands dish out free samples there are plenty of other opportunities to spend, especially on what are called show bags.

These contain bundles of branded merchandise and the majority are aimed at children. Originally free, these now range in price up to Aus$25 and I saw plenty of kids carrying a number of bags.

Olympic Park obviously has a wide range of buildings to house the exhibits and the main arena used by the show is the Spotless Stadium, which has a capacity of 25,000 and which, thanks to the climate, hosts events throughout every day.

It also allows the holding of a popular night-time programme which includes a rodeo and fireworks.

Continual challenge

But, while there was a surprise around every corner for the likes of us, and I'm sure there are plenty of people who would never miss it, the organisers must face a continual challenge to keep it fresh.

This is where the mobility of the Ploughing wins out and hopefully will never be lost.

Every few years at least, farmers get to travel to a different part of the country so there is a new local audience to augment the regular core.

We have now moved on to Cairns and this past week I did something that I would always have thought I would have loved to do but would never have even have put on my bucket list because I never thought that I would have had the courage to; I went scuba diving on the Great Barrier Reef!

It is all down to our daughter Sarah. She was mad to do it and, even though I am a poor swimmer and afraid of water, I felt I couldn't let her go alone.

Turns out that she was too young to participate and then I was too stubborn to pull out. It pushed me to my emotional limit but it was absolutely fantastic, totally exhilarating ... one of the best things I have ever done.

  • Ann Fitzgerald can be contacted at afitzgerald@independent.ie

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