Bullriding Kiwis: Rodeo at the bottom of the world

“These riders aren’t some dope smokers from the local pub. They aren’t some hippie who’s trying to molest your grandmother. These are real riders here. And they are men.”
-Wanaka Rodeo announcer-

As friends back home in the United States nursed a New Year’s Day hangover by sipping lemon lime Gatorades and watching Comedy Central movie marathons, the campervan had already driven straight through to January 2, which, seeing as this is New Zealand now featured a new and different way to get a hangover.

Though the lakeside town of Wanaka comfortably houses around 7,000 permanent residents, during the New Year’s holiday the visitor numbers swell to over 25,000, many of whom are in town for the 49th annual Wanaka Rodeo, one of the most popular events put on by the New Zealand Rodeo Cowboys Association.

Despite being closer to Antarctica than the Equator, the temperature is a tepid 77 degrees and the intense Kiwi sun is doing its best to melt the lingering snow patches wedged into the surrounding foothills. From the dusty parking lot you can already smell the distinct combination of rawhide and fried food wafting on the southerly breeze.

Meandering amongst the concession stands of “American hot dogs” and “candy floss” (cotton candy), I realize the Wanaka Rodeo seems to have all the makings of a rodeo found anywhere in the American west. Crowds mill, horses neigh, and events ranging from stick-horse racing to barrel-racing thump to a soundtrack of Gretchen Wilson and Tim Mcgraw.

There is even an American flag flying in the corner of the arena, a curiosity which led to me to track down a local Kiwi cowboy by the name of Mike Sanderson who later had the honor of racing the Stars and Stripes around the arena during the opening ceremony.

%Gallery-142833%I caught up with Sanderson in the competitor’s area, an unglamorous, cordoned off zone which closely resembled an infirmary. Knee braces hidden beneath chaps were suddenly revealed and taped up wounds poked from beneath rolled-up flannel sleeves. As the announcer had so eloquently stated earlier, these riders are the real deal, and they are men (although the lady riders seemed pretty tough themselves).

From the saddle of a horse set to be used for the upcoming team-penning competition, Sanderson tells me they always fly the Stars and Stripes at New Zealand rodeo events as a tribute to the country that gave the world the sport of rodeo. As I hear the clang of a steel gate and watch a man get his shoulder stepped on by a gyrating heifer, I realize I’ve never thought of rodeo as being a cultural export.

Though much of the crowd had swapped Wranglers for rugby shorts, the scene was nonetheless a very familiar affair. As a testament to the recurring motif of everything just being a bit edgier in New Zealand, however, beers at the concession were sold by the 6-pack, an option I feel exhibits a great deal of understanding regarding your clientele.

With the announcer asking any overseas visitors to present themselves at the front of the crowd for a batch of door prizes, it’s quickly apparent there are far more nationalities than Kiwis populating the Wanaka rodeo grounds. On this hot January day near the bottom of the world, travelers from Hungary, Brazil, Israel, Spain, Czech Republic, and Canada have all gathered to watch the country’s best ropers and riders take part in an American tradition.

As I stand along the metal gate to the arena and watch a 19-year-old cowboy from Invercargill tie a half-hitch around a calf’s ankles, I remark to the mustached gentleman to my left about how healthy and strong many of these horses appear.

“These horses graze some of the most pristine land on Earth” he proclaims. “Much of which you can see from here.”

With the sun tracking westward towards the peaks of the Crown Range and a sea of rolling grass hills spread out before us, I couldn’t possibly agree more.

For the next 2 months Gadling blogger Kyle Ellison will be embedded in a campervan touring the country of New Zealand. Follow the rest of the adventure by reading his series, Freedom to Roam: Touring New Zealand by Campervan.