Friday, August 11, 2006

Ekka 2006

The 129th annual Royal Queensland Show started yesterday. The show, also called the Exhibition but beloved by Queenslanders as the "Ekka”, is a ten day amalgam of exhibits, entertainment and agriculture that take place at the RNA Showgrounds every August in the Brisbane inner city suburb of Bowen Hills. Its the time when the country comes to the city and just about the only time of year that anyone frequents the austere looking Jubilee Hotel on nearby St Pauls Terrace.

The Exhibition grew from the formation of the National Agricultural and Industrial Association of Queensland in 1875. This group was formed to organise the first Queensland Intercolonial Exhibition as a showcase of Queensland progress and prosperity. This occurred in 1876 at the present site. Admission was 5 shillings on judging day, 2/6 for the opening ceremony and one shilling for admission after the opening ceremony. School children were admitted free. A public holiday was declared and the first Show proved a triumph beyond all expectation. The Association's first Show was called "The Intercolonial Exhibition of 1876" and was held from August 22 to 26. On the opening day 17,000 people attended - not a bad turnout at a time when the total population of Brisbane was only 22,000. The first actual "Brisbane Royal Show" was held in 1921, when the Association was granted the prefix "Royal" under warrant from His Majesty King George V.

This year’s Show marks the 130th anniversary of the first annual celebration of Queensland’s “progress and prosperity”. In that time The Ekka has only been cancelled twice. This was in 1919 during the international Spanish flu epidemic, when the grounds were used as an emergency hospital and again in wartime in 1942 when the Showgrounds were used as a staging depot for troops moving north.

The Ekka is organised by the Royal National Agricultural and Industrial Association of Queensland (RNA). The showgrounds are served by Exhibition railway station on the Exhibition railway line on which special QR suburban passenger services operate during the ten day event. The first railway station opened at the Exhibition grounds in 1882, following the opening of the Brisbane-Sandgate railway. Many show-goers arrived by trams, running down Gregory Terrace. The tram tracks remained in the road long after trams were withdrawn from Brisbane in 1969. The large concrete viaduct of Bowen Bridge Road bridge across the Exhibition railway line, backing onto Sideshow Alley was completed in 1940.

Because of the cultural significance of the Ekka, the city of Brisbane holds a public holiday on the Wednesday (the 7th day) which is known as "People's Day". The Ekka is the largest annual event in Queensland and attracts more than 600,000 visitors each year. The Show features more than 25 competitions ranging from cattle and horses to fine arts and horticulture. Approximately 30,000 entries are received each year from throughout Queensland and Australia. More than 4,000 cubic metres of manure is collected from the Showgrounds each year some of which is recycled to enrich the gardens at New Farm Park, Mt Coot-tha and Government House. More than 500 volunteer judges and stewards participate in the Ekka each year, supporting the RNA’s 52 permanent staff. There are also 60 sideshow attractions as well as food, beverages and other products and services amounting to 500 exhibitors in total.

The Show is renowned particularly for three indigenous food forms: Fairy floss, Dagwood dogs and strawberry sundaes. Fairy floss is cotton candy, a form of spun sugar that is produced in a special machine and sold at fairs. Many people consider eating it, along with toffee apples, part of the quintessential experience of a visit to a fairground. Eating it is only part of the attraction, however - watching it being made often fascinates children and adults alike. It is sweet and sticky, and though it feels like wool to the touch it readily melts in the mouth. The meat in the “Dagwood Dog” has long been considered suspect (stories of greyhounds and horses going missing are part of the lore) but it is essentially a hot dog on a stick drowned by batter and coated with tomato sauce. Death by Dagwood Dog is considered a legitimate demise by the Queensland coroner. Strawberry sundaes are the preserve of volunteers raising money for a welter of charities. The sundae is a concoction of ice cream, strawberries and cream served in a cone. Sideshow Alley has always been a favourite part of the Ekka for children. In 1891, local press attracted show-goers with the promise of seeing ‘the Lady in spangles and tights’ and ‘the Man who swallows swords, and ties snakes around his neck’. Nowadays it has gravity defying rides that mix with more traditional fairground entertainments.

The Show does have its critics. There have been some allegations of cruelty against some of the 10,000 animals that appear in the show. The protest group Animal Activism Queensland (AAQ) believe that “the Ekka is an exercise in glossing over the often-ugly realities of what industrial agriculture has done to the outback and what globalised farming will do to the world.” They filed complaints to the RNA, DPI, RSPCA and also the Queensland government following investigations into reports of animal cruelty at the Ekka. These complaints include lack of water, housing conditions and inadequate medical treatment. However the AAQ have their work cut out to convince Queenslanders that their Ekka is anything less than a wholesome tradition.

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