December 2014 – January 2015

The Nation Reviewed

Hay ladies

By Emilie Zoey Baker
The women of outback Queensland kick off their heels in Australia’s smallest town

The sign cheerfully boasts, “Welcome to Betoota, Population 0”. Our charter plane sets down amid the swirling desert dust and parks next to other airborne arrivals at the racetrack shed. My fellow passengers and I spill out with two empty bottles of Moët and an enormous, cleaned-off cheese platter, adding a sex therapist, a body painter, four burlesque dancers and a poet to the sudden influx of people streaming into the world’s smallest town. Betoota can be found in the Channel Country, at western Queensland’s right angle, 170 kilometres from Birdsville – but you’d have to be looking hard. It consists solely of a closed-down pub and the racetrack, where the Simpson Desert Racing Carnival brings a rowdy horde to this deserted outback outpost once a year.

Today there’s not a horse in sight, and only a few lost-looking blokes, because this year the ghost town has been chosen to host the annual Channel Country Ladies Day. It’s a gathering of rural women, who leave behind their husbands and kids at some of the country’s most remote cattle stations to network, dance, workshop, shimmy and share stories – 150 ladies let loose from their responsibilities for one weekend. My travel companions and I are here to provide entertainment.

The droning fly-filled air is lifted by the laughter of women who normally have to drive three or four hours for a cuppa. Blunnies have been swapped for towering heels, wide-brimmed RMs for fascinators. There are pink feathers amid the orange dust, lipstick and swinging hips as the ladies bustle around the tent village. It’s the CWA’s Burning Man. Priscilla, but without the deep voices.

“Have a shower and wash your hair, ladies – there’s no husbands here complaining about the dam drying up,” the MC announces to the crowd. “Go for as long as you like – really work up a lather!” The trucked-in water tanks were going to be enthusiastically put to use. So were the catering facilities and bar (tended by some of the men), the hairdressers and masseuses. This hard drought country – there hasn’t been a dark cloud out here for years – had been transformed into a glittering champagne oasis.

It’s not only about getting a foot rub, of course. The event gives these sunrise-to-sunset workers and managers a chance to talk about something other than livestock, water supplies and mining leases. And loss – of income, motivation and sometimes lives. Today they talk about sex instead.

The sex therapist in our party is the hilariously frank Dr Rosie King, with a wit as dry as the dirt crunching underfoot. Her no-nonsense keynote speech about the difference between men and women – in graphic detail – receives rapt attention. The few blokes there learn something, too. One shifts a well-worn hat and says to me, “I had no idea women didn’t like their boobs grabbed when they’re unloading the dishwasher.” Rosie lays down little epiphanies like landmines that go off gently in people’s heads throughout the weekend.

I’m here to interest the ladies in poetry, an idea that receives its usual welcome, which is like thick smoke blowing off a campfire. One woman told me after my introductory performance, “To be honest, when I heard there was a poet, I was like, ‘I’m not gonna hack that shit. I’d rather listen to flies in me ear. But I didn’t know poetry could be good!” I fanned myself both from relief and the heat before conducting my workshops, which combine Sufi games, haiku and letter writing. Gratifyingly, once my attentive students get writing, the stories pour out of them. When I have them write a letter of demand, one addresses hers to the rain.

Come evening, the four burlesque dancers – of agreeably different sexy shapes and sizes – sweep huge gold wings and ostrich-feathered fans around the shed’s arena, removing their exquisite costumes to reveal bomping breasts to a shrieking crowd. They lead a workshop, too, filled with laughter, as shoulders draw figure eights and special attention is paid to the best methods of removing a satin glove using your teeth. The point, of course, is for hard-working bodies to have a play. A mother of three turns to me, swirling a “Betoota blush” in a plastic martini glass: “I was saving up for a tummy tuck, but now I think I might just get some nipple pasties instead.” Another hoots that when she gets home she’s “gonna pluck the chook!”, and she’s not referring to poultry.

I watch the dancers work their magic from just outside the shed with my new friend, 20-something stationhand Jane. “It’s so beautiful,” she says, as a dancer peels off layers of an elaborate, white-sequined gown. “It’s like she’s revealing herself on her wedding night.” Jane looks at me, the abundant cocktails making her a little dizzy, and adds, “Me, I’ve never been married – and here I am hangin’ on to a bin in Betoota.” We laugh the kind of gut-clenching laugh that only comes with the most genuine of shared jokes.

The night gets darker, the spray of stars gets brighter, and the women refill, cheer, sing Shania Twain’s ‘Man! I Feel Like a Woman’ and kick off their heels. Jane yells into my ear, “You can’t fully understand this. I mean, this never happens; these women don’t do this. I don’t think they’ve ever hit a dance floor – this is truly incredible.” It’s hard not to marvel at the spectacle – a knees-up in a town that isn’t – as they stomp in the dust and revel in rare company. If I could, I’d rain on their parade.

Emilie Zoey Baker
Emilie Zoey Baker is a writer, spoken word performer and slam champion.

Cover

December 2014 – January 2015

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