By Alan Tran
Locky Benstead, Mareeba councillor and Committee Chair of the Great Wheelbarrow Race, was eager to make the 20th anniversary memorable.
The Great Wheelbarrow Race, which is organised by Mareeba Council, started in 2014 to pay tribute the early pioneers and their amazing feats. In 2022 the event raised $132,230, and overall has raised $2.3 million.
Locky was concerned 2022 might be a rebound from COVID, being the first year returning from the hiatus due to lockdowns, and 2023 might be a quiet year.
He reached out to the ABC Far North Team to see if they would be interested in supporting the race.
“It’s such a unique event that it captured the attention of the ABC. Over about 12 months of communication, we built a wonderful relationship with the team,” said Benstead.
“ABC [are] the only ones that have the reach and broadcast in these country towns. They’re in all the towns we run in, the commercial stations don’t come this far.
“The Far North team have covered the event every year, they are part of the culture of the race, some of them have run the race themselves.”
The event is an 140km endurance race over three days between Mareeba and Chillagoe on a road named Wheelbarrow Way. Participants – who can compete solo, duo, as a trio or in 10-person teams – train year-round leading up to the event.
ABC has covered the race over the past 20 years. This year would be the biggest and loudest ever, with a full media team on site when the starter’s gun went off on Friday, May 19.
Day 1: Mareeba to Dimbulah (42km)
Solo, duo and trio competitors start first. Warmed up and ready to go. The sound of heavy breathing, gripping of barrel arms as they wait to begin. Intermingling laughter and high spirits in the early morning of Mareeba.
Bang! The starter gun fires, and the race is on.
“We had a professional media team on site, and it really gave it a WOW factor,” said Benstead.
Popular ABC Breakfast radio host Charlie McKillop broadcast live and interviewed guests at the event adding to the atmosphere. ABC Far North journalist Phil Brandel – wrote an article last year detailing the race, fundraising efforts, and the diverse participants it attracts – was also on duty.
“Phil recently interviewed the Dads Army, a team of 10 with the youngest 77 years old and oldest at 86-year-old, his nickname was “Frank the Fossil,” said Benstead.
“Everyone runs the race, there are no walkers, even the Dads Army”.
Dimbulah is the first resting spot, with its own train station, park with picnic facilities and clean toilets. Gazing at the landscape, views of wooded savannahs, termite mounds, and wedge-tailed eagles feasting on roadkill.
Day 2: Dimbulah to Almaden (65km)
Everyone slept early to recover for another day of run and fun. The race starts off without any delays.
“Saturday, we travel through small country towns like Petford and Almaden, who has 20-30 people there, and 600 people come through, it really gives local businesses a boost and livens up the town,” said Benstead.
Petford is a town with a population of 22. No mobile reception, only public phone use.
The Bismark Pass has views of what lies ahead, locals call this Top Cat Pass due to the interesting rock on the right as you enter.
“Competitors dress up or down and run this section,” said Benstead. “Seeing people with colourful frizzy hair, some strip down to their briefs, some dress up, it’s an interesting and fun section of the race.
“If they trip and fall, they’ll lose some skin.”
As they reach the end of day two, there is a debrief of the day, followed by everyone enjoying food, laughter, music, and dancing.
Day 3: Almaden to Chillagoe (33 km)
Chillagoe’s biggest attraction is its cave systems developed from 400 years ago, one of the richest mineral deposits in the world.
“As I look around, everyone is smiling and really having a good time, giving these towns the financial boost, farmers get a chance to down tool and come into town and support the event,” Benstead said.
“Really great for mental and physical health. I grew up as a grazier and I know how drought can impact us”.
This year $189,000 was raised, participants choosing their own charity to support.
What draws people back is the physical and mental challenges, but also teams run in memory of a family member or friend that has passed, running for their own personal purpose.
As the day ends, the event was a success. Locky and the team are most likely thinking of how to make the race even better in the coming year.
One sure thing is they’ll have is ABC Far North’s support in spreading the word.
Featured image: Team celebrating finishing the race. Photo: Mareeba Shire Council