The Snowy River snakes its way from the great dividing mountain range down toward the Southern ocean on Victoria’s eastern seaboard and meets the sea at Marlo, a small hamlet nestled on prime viewing land above the wide expanse of river flats. On the prime position on this prime viewing land sits the prime attraction; the iconic Marlo pub. The view across the Land and the river mouth from the pub’s wide decks is only triumphed by the frosty Carlton draught beer served on tap and the legendary chicken parmigianas that appear continuously from this institution’s kitchen.
Marlo is 386 kilometres (240 miles) east of Melbourne and as such, has remained largely undeveloped with a population of under 400 good, salt of the earth people. The pub is the lifeblood of the town, and all community events are staged there, not the least of which is the coveted wood chop Victorian state title, held in mid to late January each year on the massive grassy lawn directly below the pub’s outdoor deck, and which attracts a large loyal crowd, with contestants and their families arriving from near and afar, to enjoy the show, bask in the brilliant sunshine, and blow the froth off an ale.
About 10 years ago we happened to be holidaying at Cape Conran, minutes from Marlo, with our young family and another family (the Collopy’s) and we were magnetically drawn to the pub, on a scorching hot day, to see what this wood chopping thing was all about, and just to make sure that the bar staff had properly cleaned the beer lines overnight and correctly re-gassed the barrels. Of course we needn’t have worried. Under a deep blue sky in 35 celsius (100 degree) heat, sitting under an umbrella on the sun-deck, with a breathtaking view over the Snowy River mouth, draining Antarctically cold beer, we experienced a moment of cosmic harmony, with heavenly gears grinding and shifting orbital spheres into satisfaction.
Now, I had only ever seen wood chopping on the TV on “World of Sport” as a kid way back in the 60’s and 70’s, where the O’Toole family won everything for generations and made it look easy. Any sentence containing the words “wood chop” invariably followed with an “O’Toole”. They were legends of the sport. As an aside, the other sport that everybody watched back then was World Championship Wrestling on GTV9, hosted by Jack Little and featuring wrestlers such as Killer Karl Kox, Gorgeous George and Mario Milano, which inspired my siblings and I to tag team, headlock, and run each other head first into the end of the couch (turnbuckle) at home every Saturday morning. Probably not acceptable behavior, but preferable to the gangster slapping and wise-guy eye poking antics that ritually followed The Three Stooges.
Anyway, on this particular day, on the great sloping lawn in front of the pub, the battle lines were clearly drawn. There was a long row of chopping stations set up, roped off to the public. Beside each station, contestants performed their complex preparatory routines. The contestants were all shapes and sizes; a motley crew. There were two in particular that immediately caught our attention, stationed next to each other, in the middle of the lineup. The young bull and the old bull.
The young bull was built like superman on steroids, he had muscles building little satellite cities on his other muscles. His wore his undersized blue fluoro singlet like a thong; it covered roughly 2% of his massive waxed and oiled upper body. He looked as though he could have picked up his chopping block, wrung it out and reshaped it into a very long sharp stick and then skewered all the other lined up contestants in a single motion. He was pacing up and back like a caged lion. He was twitchy, anxious, agitated, edgy, apprehensive, fidgety, hyperactive, and bristling. If he could harness his own energy, he could run his car and household appliances, and light up a small village. The young bull fiddled with all of his latest equipment, adjusted all his brightest fluoro colored attire, and sharpened his state of the art axe. Then he sharpened it again, a little quicker this time. He couldn’t sit still; adjusting his belt strap, stretching his body, limbering up, rolling his head and neck, squatting, flexing biceps and arching his back. He then paced up and down again, eyeing his opponents. Then he sharpened his axe again.
The old bull was lean but wirery. No excess body mass, no supplements or protein diets. No jumbo bowls of pasta followed by 400 gram steaks with mash for dinner. No relentless gym workouts, pumping iron and sparring sessions. He was not overly tall, about average height. Balding head, with a two-day grey stubble on his tanned weathered face. He looked to be in his mid 50’s, maybe even older, and at least 25 years older than the other contestants. His plain colored singlet and shorts fitted loosely. His axe looked like it might have been handed down to him from his grandfather on the farm. It was already sharp, and he didn’t need to check it.
The old bull just sat in his chair, not moving at all, relaxed, looking at something 30 metres behind the viewing gallery, expressionless.
The old bull just waited.
When it was time, the wood choppers were asked to mount their blocks and await the starter’s gun. The young bull used the last few moments to squeeze in a few last squats, leg stretches, and head rolls, and fidget with his sweat bands and belt strap again, just in case they had shifted during his warm-up. The old bull quietly picked up his axe and simply stepped up onto his block. The crowd buzzed in anticipation. We had all been standing there, huddled close together, for 15 to 20 minutes in the non-sheltered viewing gallery, frying in the heat, and our collective perspiration had steamed our clothes wet to our bodies. We needed this thing to begin.
Then the gun went off, followed by yells from the crowd, both of which frightened the children. There were frenzied bodies and axes and wood chips flying everywhere. It was like ten dogs digging frantically in a sand pit looking for a single bone.
The old bull did exactly what we were praying he would do. He had his block completely cut through and knocked over soon after the other guys had turned to attack their back halves. Every cut of his was strategically precise, every muscle twitch was in concert, the axe cut deep and accurately, cleanly releasing large timber wedges from its parent, until the block cracked cleanly in half and the job was done. The old bull had barely raised a sweat, and he casually stepped off and calmly watched the others wildly battling it out for the minor placings.
The old bull showed something that the young bull didn’t have yet … a seasoned self belief that had already visualized the result. From there it was just a matter of letting his body prepare for and ultimately confirm what he mind already firmly believed.
Matt Collopy said to me shortly afterwards when we were back on the sheltered deck of the Marlo pub testing another pot or two of Carlton Draught, “You just can’t beat the experience, can you!”
Now I wasn’t sure if he was talking about the Marlo pub or the wood chopper, but I guess it didn’t really matter, as it was true for both.