Jack Traeger is a strapping young man from Currency Creek, and at 182cm and growing it is easy to assume he’d like to be an AFL footballer alongside his best mate. It’s the Australian dream among schoolkids.
However, there is a not-so subtle difference with Jack besides the fact not many 15-year-olds list their favourite singer as David Kirkpatrick (1927-2003), better known as Slim Dusty, and will never get to see him perform.
Jack’s best mate is Bevan Roberts, a 72-year-old grandfather of two from Victor Harbor. They don’t kick a footy around, but they are involved in one of the most-Australian sports that’s been contested for 132 years.
It’s called campdrafting. While footy fans confuse it with the AFL draft combine, in this amazing game cowhands as young as eight from all over Australia use their amazing horse riding skills to separate a steer they have selected from a camp – or pen – and direct it back.
They call this routine drafting, and it’s what stockmen did in our pioneering days when there were no fences or gates. And dare not think of it as a rodeo routine because there are no ropes or buckriding. The priority is looking after the beast, and at the slightest hint of stressing or bruising, the judge cracks his whip and you’re out of contention in this battle of precision.
It’s a great family event, and in this case Jack now competes with his sister, Georgie, 13, while their mum, Tanya, is treasurer of the Fleurieu Campdraft Club – one of five of its kind in South Australia – and dad Glen, who runs a big earthmoving and transport business on the main Middleton-Goolwa road, also works hard for the sport.
The Fleurieu club is holding its annual event on Michelmore Road, just south of Strathalbyn on the January 28-29 weekend. It’s a free event, which is more surprising than a 6ft-plus kid not wanting to be an AFL footballer.
Campdrafting is the fastest-growing horse sport in Australia, and it is huge in the eastern states. Yet, for all the excitement it generates, its near-obsession with the well being of the beasts, the fact it has been going since cattle barons in the Tentafield region on the northern edge of the NSW border argued who was the best horseman in 1885, and according to Jack the incredible adrenalin rush that one gets from working a horse to out-smart a steer, comparatively very few South Australians know what this sport is all about.
It starts with a love for horses, and it’s how our unlikely mates teamed-up. Bevan has been a farrier for more than 50 years from when he grew up on the Wertaloona Station, one of the northern-most stations in South Australia on the edge of Lake Frome, and they became friends the first day they met when he shod a horse for the family.
Jack now spends a day a week with Bevan learning the farrier trade, but this great character encourages him to learn as much as he can at Mount Compass Area School before deciding what he wants to do in life.
“I didn’t get on too well at school,” Bevan concedes. “I remember my dad saying I had to go to school, and after my first day I asked him ‘is that school?’, and he said ‘yeah’. And I said, ‘that’s good, I been there and done that’. I didn’t know I had to go back.
“Being a country lad I grew up with horses. We’d go out at night and shoot rabbits; it was a way of life. It was better than school, but I tell Jack that was in those days.
“An Aboriginal guy taught me to be a farrier from when I was 15 out on Wertaloona. It was harder then because the horses were like me; they weren’t educated as they are now. They’d kick your head in given half the chance.
“Being a farrier led me to campdrafting, and the first thing that I learned was that being a good farrier was about being a good horseman. There are some farriers out there who aren’t, and some do farriering as a job, but the better ones are the ones who are also “horsemen” . They just understand the horses.
“It’s why Jack has a big future ahead of him as a farrier – if he wants to go down that path. It’s a great thing to learn even if he doesn’t.
“I love campdrafting, not so much the competitive side but the mateship. You go to one and catch up with blokes you haven’t seen for 12 months. You sit around a campfire at night and have a beer or two. That’s the big part for me; the horse riding comes second.”
Jack is obviously one of these kids who has the courage to be himself – a campdrafter, and he loves every moment. There is not a time that he doesn’t ride in an event without ringing his great grandfather in Millicent, Max Johnson, who is 91 and blind, to tell him how he went. Tanya suspects Jack got his great horsemanship skills from her grandfather, and of course, he’s proud.
“But a lot of Jack’s skills have come from Bevan,” Tanya said. “They are really close mates; they’re so similar and you wouldn’t know there was an age difference.
“Bevan is a farrier and deals with people every day. He says the horses are sometimes the easy ones to deal with; you need people skills to be a farrier, and that has taught Jack a lot.”
Both Jack and Georgie have surprised many at school when they say they do campdrafting. “Most of the kids have no idea what it is,” Georgie said. “They look at me and think I’m strange, kind of.”
Another surprising thing about campdrafting is that the competitors all seem to be great friends – they assist each other where they can. There are also some marvellous supporters of this sport, especially Richard and Will Ness and their families, the landowners at Strathalbyn who each year allow the club to set up and operate its campdraft. That is so kind.
Unlike every other campdraft club, the Fleurieu crew runs a pop-up show, setting up all of its own infrastructure including yards, panels and bunting and transforms a vacant paddock overnight. After the event everything is packed away and returned to normal.
An event is no easy task. Each annual event the club needs 700 cattle to be donated for its draft. Other much-valued sponsors transport the cattle to and from the grounds from around the state for free or at a greatly reduced rate.
Last year’s campdraft at Strathalbyn drew more than 400 spectators at the two-day event involving 120 individual competitors from throughout NSW, Victoria and SA, and approximately 200 horses.
According to Tanya, campdrafts are much bigger than just the event. “They’re like a family gathering,” she said. “It is a fantastic atmosphere for kids to be growing up with, and there are so many wonderful mentors for them.
“It is not just about campdrafting, but responsibility especially respecting and looking after animals. There is no electricity at these events so the kids aren’t walking around with computers or watching TV.”
They say these campdrafts attract a different breed for the better. You can have grandparents, parents and their kids all competing. It’s about the love of horses and having fun. You get eight-year-old kids riding in one event, and in the next there’s Rosie Vincent from Mount Pleasant, who is about 75-years-young.
Until last year, Australia was the only country to compete in campdrafting. The Americans gave it a go, and the response was encouraging.
What also makes campdrafting special is that it’s like living and watching our heritage. Bevan calls it the “most Australian thing he can think of” and he’s probably right. He didn’t have to go to school after day one to learn that either.