Graeme Mackay turned tragedy into triumph when he launched a rodeo following the Ash Wednesday bushfires. Now he wants to do it again, throwing a lifeline to troubled youth in the process.

Story By Rex Mitchell

The Cockatoo Rodeo literally grew out of the ashes of the Ash Wednesday bushfires. On February 16, 1983, when 2,000 homes were destroyed and 42 Victorians died, 120 of the town’s children huddled under wet towels as the firestorm raged overhead for more than an hour – and they survived. Cockatoo, at the base of Victoria’s Dandenong Ranges, was dubbed “the miracle town”. It was decimated, but one resident, Graeme Mackay, was undaunted.
In 1986, to raise funds to buy a much-needed fire truck for the local Macclesfield Country Fire Brigade (CFA), he rallied seven CFA brigades to help him stage a rodeo. He achieved his aims, and from those humble beginnings, Graeme’s annual event is now the feature of the regional calendar. This year more than 4,000 fans came from far and wide to help the Cockatoo Rodeo committee celebrate its 21st anniversary.
Nick Dowsett and Ben Allen were two such fans but they came to the rodeo for very different reasons. Nick, 27, is a professional cowboy coveting the $800 Open Saddle Bronc purse – for an eight-second ride. Ben, on the other hand, didn’t even have to pay to get in. The seven-year-old came with his father, and he’s already up to the top of his cowboy boots in the action. This is Ben’s fifth rodeo and, if his Dad’s interest doesn’t wane, you’ll see him at many more. “My dad comes with me because I like seeing steer rides, bull rides, bronco riding, barrel racing, steer wrestling and steer roping,” Ben says. That’s quite a list of interests for one so young, and apart from sideshow alley, Ben has covered the entire program.
Nick, a diesel mechanic in West Wyalong, central NSW, has just returned from six months on the Canadian rodeo circuit. “You just can’t give up, you’ve gotta keep positive,” Nick says. “It doesn’t matter whether you break bones or whatever, you’ve got to realise your dreams and aspire to them.” But those dreams have been hard earned. The first year Nick went to Canada he broke his foot, collarbone and nose, and tore the cartilage in both knees. He recovered in time to get to the finals in 2004. “I did the amateur circuit, finished fifth in one, and made two other amateur associations in seventh and eighth positions. The horses are bigger [in Canada], stronger, and a lot more consistent, because most of them go back to the Calgary Stampede bloodlines and they’re bred to buck.”

This story excerpt is from Issue #54

Outback Magazine: Aug/Sept 2007