Northam Nationals

I promise I didn’t choose to go here for the alliterative event title…but it makes thinking up  the blog title easier!

This morning I got up ridiculously early.  I woke at 0330 to check in on the weather, it was windy in Perth and I’d almost given up on hot air balloons.  About twenty minutes later I wasn’t sleeping again yet, so I got up and got moving.  I went cruising up to Northam to see what this hot air balloon key grab caper is all about.

The competition is a national thing that is held in different places around the country each year.  Of course this means that it isn’t often held in WA thanks to the very low population.  By not very often I mean the last time in Northam was 1984, thats thirty one years ago.  Explains a few things I saw while there.  One bloke said its been about ten years since it was last in WA.

The competition is a week of ‘competition flights’, not races but more like pilot skills tests.  The balloons have allotted duration to move between locations and throw a sand bag at a target.  It had been held over the last week and won by a Matthew Scaife from NSW, his daughter Nicola was second.  The key grab isn’t part of the competition, seems it is the most trickys challenge.  They have a big foam* key on the end of a pole thats about ten metres.  The balloons all leave from the same field, can be at different times, and try to fly in and grab the key from the pole.  Failing grabbing the key they throw their sand bag and the closest gets a prize.  The prize for actually getting the key was $2000…I didn’t find out what the winner of the sand bag throw got.

When I got to the airfield there were a fair few people.  Apparently less than earlier as I’d missed the pilot briefing, but it was surprisingly busy for about 0545.  The lovely ladies just inside the gate told me that the balloon were taking off about 10 mins drive away but that the best place to see todays action was to set up right there at the airfield.  So I hung around.  In doing so I witnessed some amusement.

*There was a pole lying over a table.  Turns out it was the pole, but it was not adorned with a key.  This group of four were hanging around it and trying to work out what to use for the key.  They were thinking to go home, get some foam and cut it into shape, but were told that would take too long.  The head honcho man left it to a couple of younger guys.  I wandered off but then saw the young guys coming by with a piece of cardboard and scissors – ‘foam’ key acquired.  The one flight for the day and they didn’t have the key ingredient (pun intended).  Kind showed how long its been since they held this competition.
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I was standing by the fence and just hanging out when a pilot looking bloke wandered up.  Damian Gilchrist is the pilot of the Air Force Balloon.  He’s a Squadron Leader and flight instructor for both fighter jets and balloon – talk about extreme ends of the speed spectrum.  He wasn’t flying this morning because his team had rubbish luck during the week, the trailer had broken its suspension and they’d managed to rip the balloon.  Apparently it happens, but is relatively rare.  His crew were sleeping in after a night of partying to celebrate surviving the week.  Quite the funny.  He has been the RAAF pilot for the balloon for the last five years, promoting the RAAF to young Aussies.  I guess he was disappointed that there is little chance that I was leaving engineering to go into the air force.
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Finally the sun came up and the balloons started appearing over the horizon.  I have so many photos.  I was almost like my mad mother with the camera!  And they got so darned close that I didn’t even lament the lack of optical zoom, though imagine the photos if I did…
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The balloons got as close as possible to the post, threw their sandbag, then shot back up over the building and landed behind the building.  It was a pity that they were in a private paddock and I couldn’t go see them dismantle, that would have been interesting.

I left the airfield about eight and went for a cruise through town.  Turns out there was the Northam Market starting at 0830.  Many of the stall holders were already there and set up shortly after eight, I guess they knew there would be tourists round early for the balloons – at least that is what one lady told me when I was chatting with her.  Nice little market, actually pretty good for a country market.  I got some redgum honey and a chili sauce that I can put on my chicken.  I will have to test it before I ladle it over my week of chicken, the lady who made it reinforced, a few times, that it is very hot and I should only use a small amount.  I’ll test it out first! This guy looked super worried, and the horse has some interesting conformation.
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Then I headed off to York for their agricultural show.  I’d seen it advertised last weekend and seeing as though I was already in the area at Northam, I couldn’t resist!  I got there right on gates opening time so the stalls and attractions weren’t all set up yet.  I headed into the exhibition hall, following the sound of the raucous roosters.  The different sections that people compete in are quite the amusing.  I guess I’ve never really walked around and seen all the exhibitions before.  There were flowers, vegetables (a 17kg sweet potato!), breads and cakes, a little embroidery, a lot of photos, some paintings and art work, etc.
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The chickens were mid-judging so I didn’t spend much time looking at them, though there were some beastly big chickens!  And a few kinda pretty ones.  Many of them were one of a kind, so I guess they automatically win their breed.  By the time I was done with exhibits and chickens the stalls were ready so I headed out to the oval.

The first animal I found was the pony rides…I found this cute little guy called Smudge.  After talking to Ushta at work just yesterday about her wanting to ride a shetland (less distance to fall and they’re so cute) it was quite the amusing to see this little guy there.  The other ponies looked more like half decent games ponies, one wasn’t a huge fan of the steam engines on display, but she settled after a few passes.  I didn’t get pics of the others, tsk, sorry mum!

More wandering and I found the kids petting zoo area, rabbits, sheep, a jack russell, chickens.  There were a couple of really small donkeys, I headed that way.  Turns out Margaret breeds miniature donkeys and had brought tese two jennys along for the day.  They were super friendly and social.  Apparently the miniatures are just like the standard donkeys in temperament but are smaller so easier to handle.
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There was a pen with a pair of llama, those two were not at all friendly.  Sure they didn’t run away screaming, but they were  in about a three square metre area.  They did refuse to be patted.  A bloke from the nearby store came over and they wouldn’t even talk to him – I think they were his – so I didn’t feel too bad.  They also had a pen of six or so alpaca.  Also not at all friendly, even in the same space with more animals!  Disappointing.

I wandered off and went through the stall area.  All sorts of bits and pieces.  Slightly higher quality than the Northam market – I guess a stall at the ag show is more expensive.  I didn’t get anything though, nothing particularly appealing.  The announcer then said that there was going to be alpaca shearing in five minutes.  Score!  I’ve never seen an alpaca sheared before, so I returned that way.

They tie them up!  I could have patted them then 😀  The alpaca knew that it wasn’t going anywhere and she was super calm.  Very interesting.  When they put the fleece on the table I had a little chat with the lady there.  I was surprised that it wasn’t at all greasy…I expect fleece to be greasy (yes, I have no idea really), I even wen over to the sheep and checked them, greasy!  The lady was saying that these alpaca are destined for the butcher, so their fleece wasn’t very good…perfect for shearing demonstrations though.  She then said that you see sheep huddled under shade in summer because of the high lanolin content in their fleece, alpaca don’t have that so they’re more likely to be out in the sun.  Very interesting.  She didn’t know why – it just is.  Maybe something about where they come from *shrug*  I don’t care enough to google it.
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Having witnessed alpaca shearing I returned to the rest of the stalls.  I got a birthday present and was walking out the gate when a horse truck turned up.  I overheard someone mention that they were the teenage rampage.  WTF?  I asked the ladies with the programs and they said they’re trick riders, and that they’d perform at ten.  Check my watch ‘its quarter to eleven?’.  Oh, maybe they’re running late, they’ll start when they can.  So I turned around to wait them out.  45 minutes of re-exploring the stalls, patting all the animals again, watching the cute guy help out with the alpaca (they were from his folks’ farm), I gave up on waiting.  The trick riders were still not saddled and they hadn’t even set up their little area, though the chains and posts were sitting out on the oval.  Nope, too exhausted to wait any longer.
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Pity.  I headed home via the pony club to see if they were still doing the showjumping.  They weren’t, just showing classes in  progress *shudder*.  Home, nanna nap on the couch, Lenards for my week of chicken and now it is now!  Dinner in the oven.  I guess tomorrow will be a day of cooking, baking and relaxation before the coming week.

Post dinner update…yep, there is some heat in that sauce!
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