Fifty years ago, Alwyn Torenbeek was a teenage rodeo roughrider. Now he is the oldest endurance rider on the competitive circuit.
Story David Gilchrist Photos John Denman
Sitting tall in his saddle, Alwyn Torenbeek holds the reins in one hand, with his boots sitting slightly forward in his stirrups. He rides with the laconic ease that only outback horsemen display. At almost 70 years old, Alwyn knows horses, and he should considering he has spent more than 60 years in the saddle. Over that time his riding and stockmanship has become the stuff of legend. Inductions into the Australian Stockman’s Hall of Fame in Longreach, Qld, and the Rodeo Hall of Fame in Warwick, Qld, have permanently secured his place in bush lore.
Alwyn’s bush life has seen him managing several central Queensland cattle properties, droving, rodeo roughriding and running stockmanship schools for underprivileged youths. He is still an active endurance rider and participated in the 41st Tom Quilty Gold Cup in 2006, as he has almost every year since it started. Apart from being a tough competitor, Alwyn loves the idea of being the oldest competitive endurance rider in Australia still travelling the circuit.
After an early morning training session on his favourite stockhorse ‘Coal Dust’, Alwyn goes up to the kitchen door on Bonnie Doon Station, north of Rockhampton, Qld, and casts a mischievous eye over those gathered inside. “It’s only 8.30,” he says. “A bit early for smoko isn’t it?” The question is rhetorical and his tone playful, and those inside just smile and wish him good morning.
Later in his camp kitchen, with Coal Dust stomping on the doorstep until Alwyn gives him a sweet biscuit, he takes up his story. As a boy, he dreamt of more than mustering cattle on his parents’ property “Myella”, south-west of Rockhampton. He longed to ride wild brumbies or catch wild bulls. “At about 13 I’d carry my saddle four or five miles [six to eight kilometres] just to put it on a bad horse – I just loved them,” he says.
After seeing champion rodeo riders in Rockhampton, he decided he wanted “to be as good as those guys or good enough to ride with them”. Alwyn won his first state championship in 1956 (New South Wales title) and, at 19, became the youngest rider to join the new Australian Roughriders Association that R.M.Williams formed in 1945. At about the same time, Alwyn built a small rodeo arena on Myella so that he could practise. Within five years, he was Queensland, Australian and New Zealand champion.
There is no doubt that his rodeo days were wild times, both in and outside the arena. On seeing another rider bite the dust, Alwyn would add a positive spin. “You would be waiting for your turn and your mate would come by and he had had one hell of a ding, and you’d go ‘whoa, I should be right – he’s had enough for both of us’,” he says. As for action outside the arena, he admits to being “thrown out of town” on occasions.
At 22, Alwyn married Marion and they travelled together working stock, shepherding in New Zealand and picking fruit in Victoria, while he earnt good money on the rodeo circuit. Eventually Alwyn eased back on the circuit and started droving cattle in central Queensland. “We had the best time droving,” he says. “I used to be so proud of what we were doing. We would move 400 head of cattle with two stockmen, my wife and two kids.”
According to Alwyn, when droving he would draw Marion a mud map of where they were heading and she would drive the truck ahead of the drovers to set up camp. In 1960, after delivering 400 head of cattle to Chinchilla, north-west of Toowoomba, Qld, Alwyn made the 400km return journey with a plant of 14 horses without saddle packs in five days on his own. He is still not sure why he was in such a hurry, although he suspects he was worried about his young wife contending with a new baby.
Eventually, when the family had grown to five children, and road trains were making drovers redundant, Alwyn took a job as manager of Woolton Station near Theodore, in south-east Queensland. It was here that he suffered a head injury when a truck reversed into him and he was told he would never work again. “Blood was spurting out my ears and bouncing back up to my knees,” he says. But the tenacious bushman soon saddled up again and returned to mustering cattle.
In 1980, the Torenbeeks started a government-backed stockmanship school initially for Aboriginals, but it was later expanded to other disadvantaged youths. For nearly 20 years Alwyn ran stockmanship schools on the stations he was managing and helped turn around the lives of many troubled and suicidal youths by teaching them bush skills and, in his words, getting them “to a good place”. His memories of that time are refreshed by the many photographs and letters sent to him by appreciative parents and former students. After taking in and teaching these young people, Alwyn would often drive them anywhere in the state to find them work.
Now that his stockmanship schools have ceased operation, Alwyn’s passion is endurance riding, which he started 40 years ago after a challenge from R.M.Williams. “He claimed he had a horse that would take somebody like me to ride in the Quilty,” he says. This year he will be heading to Mundijong, WA, for the Tom Quilty Gold Cup, and he will probably take Coal Dust with him.
As well as the Quilty, Alwyn still takes part in 10 to 20 rides of varying lengths each year, which add material to his impressive collection of bush yarns. Get him talking and Alwyn will reminisce for hours. That is, as long as there isn’t mustering or an endurance ride to be done. The bushman insists, “You must never not go to your ride”.
This story excerpt is from Issue #52
Outback Magazine: Apr/May 2007