A steep hill, a five-kilogram wheel of the finest Aussie high country cheese, full-face helmet, protective body armour and a baying crowd. It wasn’t quite how I pictured a walking weekend in The New South Wales Snowy Mountains when I first signed up six months ago. But when the weekend finally rolls around and you spot “cheese rolling competition” in the local What’s on Guide, all of a sudden it sounds like the perfect afternoon activity; that and the serendipitous pairing of a gung-ho attitude and a band of mates egging me on.
Until of course I’m standing at the top of said steep hill in Thredbo, much steeper than I envisaged by the way, plotting how to out-run my seemingly younger, fitter and more-prepared competitors to the bottom. All of a sudden my imagined cheese-chasing career was fast morphing into a sure-fire entry card into the local emergency department at the Australian Cheese Rolling Festival.
Cheese rolling isn’t something us Aussies generally know much about, but in England it’s a famous sporting tradition. For centuries locals in the town of Gloucester – home of the much-loved orange-coloured Double Gloucester cheese – have been cheese racing down Coopers Hill every spring with feint regard for safety in the Cooper’s Hill Cheese Rolling Championship. Thredbo hopes its own version the Australian Cheese Rolling Festival will in time, draw similarly large crowds to the region outside the peak winter season.
The act of cheese-rolling does not actually require rolling a cheese with your hand. Rather The Snowy Mountain contest, as in Gloucester, is about chasing a wheel of cheese as it hurtles haphazardly under its’ own steam down an incline at ever-increasing velocity towards the bottom. Contestants must follow a similar trajectory down and the first runner past the post is crowned the winner. Where the cheese ends up is a largely irrelevant fact.
There’s not a whiff of Double Gloucester here in Thredbo. In celebration of the High Country Cheese and Wine festival, my fellow cheese rollers and I must set our sights on a locally-produced hard cheese from Coolamon; a tasty bite if I might add, and one that I only discover after the race at the tasting and wine quaffing part of the festival.
But more of that later.
The hype and crowds in Thredbo are distinctly smaller than over in Gloucester. In Britain folk gather in their thousands, blocking roads and standing cheek-to-jowl for the best vantage points. International television crews line the route and the various injuries and broken limbs make racers Insta famous in minutes.
In Thredbo at best, there are a hundred or so spectators, courtesy of a rare sunny autumnal day. In winter this cheese-racing slope becomes Sundance, a popular ski run that sees far bigger crowds hurtling towards the adjacent Kosciuszko Chairlift.
A middle-aged couple from the Southern Highlands and I are the first to register for the race; so keen in fact that we arrive long before the organizers themselves turn up. Shaking my head in envy at their superhero capes and costumes, I silently breathe a sigh of relief as my athletic clothing is easily more suited to racing, but they certainly have my vote for best dressed.
I swap tactics with a retired tradie from the Central West Plains on a nomadic tour of Australia, his itinerary determined by quirky events such as this. His cheese rolling aspirations were an excuse for a thousand-kilometre detour, dedication I admire. Seems he also missed the note about fancy dress, sporting a tatty pair of shorts and a singlet.
Registration for the race is brief and perfunctory; we eagerly sign away all liability of the organisers for any ensuing injuries, swept up in the pre-race hype being broadcast loudly across the valley. On-line the rules firmly stated racers should wear helmets and flesh-covering clothing; in reality anyone, no matter how they are dressed can sign up. A stickler for detail, I’m clutching a full-face helmet, knee and elbow guards borrowed from my mountain biker pal. It seems a tad overkill, but I reckon my ageing body’s worth protecting.
Today there are two competitions, separated not into age as I’d hoped, but gender. As a mother to two teenagers, it appears I’m the oldest chick in the line up, but I’m representing a new breed of empty nesters. I spot my support crowd on the sideline, buoyed by hangovers and egg and bacon rolls, acting age appropriately by watching not participating. Sorry ladies, but where’s the fun in that?
Up for grabs in both the male and female competitions is not a cheese wheel sadly, but a Thredbo Ski Pass for the coming winter season. I guess the usual contestant profile is not a cheese-scoffing one, it’s no wonder I’m out of my depth.
‘With a nod to horse racing tradition, racers are invited to inspect the course. I identify various bumps and lumps on the slope, helpfully circled in bright pink paint by organisers.’
I’m not exactly sure how to build those into my plan; if of course I had a plan. Attempting an air of confidence that’s not really there, I surreptitiously eye up the competition and promptly slip and tumble onto my bottom. The other racers dismiss me as a clumsy no-hoper; if only they knew the real me.
Our master of Ceremonies today is Coolamon’s owner, who huffs and puffs his way to the top of the hill carrying two versions of his special four kilogram cheese wheel. Both, he proudly attests, are double waxed for extra protection, although whether that’s for the runners or the cheese is not ever made clear. We have our first ‘taster’ of the speed a cheese can reach as he releases his double-waxed pride and joy and it tumbles at ever-increasing velocity to the bottom.
Up first the Ladies heats, and I dodge a bullet when my name is called out in the final qualifying race of four. Going last surely means I’m best placed to work out the fastest downhill route and race tactics courtesy of the other chicks?
As the cheese is released over the starting line, the first four contestants bolt off down the hill. It’s an equal split between the cautiously slow and the win-at-all-costs speed demons. Within seconds the cheese overtakes them at break neck speed and twenty seconds later the fastest runner slides bottom-first over the finishing line to claim her spot in the finals.
Clearly the sliding approach is a smart one, earning speed and distance in the final metres of the race. In quick succession runners in the next two races adopt similar winning strategies, with one a photo-finish dead heat that earns both girls finals’ access. The steady and upright approach, whilst safer, is not the way to go for victory and already I’m erring towards using my bottom for momentum.
At the top of the hill, I anxiously await the return of the cheese from below. Its backup has catapulted itself into the bushes and – for now – is lost. I realise the noise in my ears is my breathing and the blood rushing around my body. With heart beating and chest rising, my laid-back anticipation has turned into full-blown nerves. I so want a win, if not for the ski pass for my own vanity: imagine the picture I would post on Facebook and the admiration I would get in the gym on Monday.
My support crowd, boosted by last minute arrivals, is loudly chanting my name. No pressure then ladies! Looking down at my right foot touching a pink line sprayed on the grass, knees bent and left leg stretched, I have the focus of a medal-chasing Sally Pearson in an Olympic final. “3-2-1 Go!” calls the announcer and I’m off faster than any race I’ve run in decades.
In the time it takes for you to read this sentence, a mere matter of seconds, my race is over. I remember little of the detail but re-live it later courtesy of videos, six in all, captured from different angles by each of my pals.
You can see the footage below:
I run the race like a Russian on steroids, neck and neck and toe-to-toe with a lithe twenty-something runner half my age; my full-face helmet and body armour no obvious detriment to my lightening speed. We both manage to stay ahead of the cheese for at least 8 seconds before it casually rolls past us with grace and dexterity, and dare I say it, certain smugness.
It’s then I nudge ever so slightly in front of my fast-footed contestant – or am I imagining it, before disaster hits; my foot slips and I tumble. In previous heats competitors who tumble manage to right themselves and carry on; not me. Instead I tumble face towards the dirt and roll; not once, not twice but three spectacular times, head over toe, head over toe, head over toe, full three sixty degree rotations. Every bone and muscle in my body seems to work overtime to ensure this fluid and rotational motion is executed perfectly and with style.
Disoriented I stand to my feet and attempt to sprint to the finishing line just metres away, but I slip and fall again. The crowd cheers, for reasons I fail to fathom and I lay in a motionless heap against the hoarding.
“It’s at this point that all the videos stop as my friends rush to check I am in fact alive.”
At this point I remember mentally reaching out to every part of my body, checking everything is functioning; I lie there for a few seconds to stop the rotating motion of my brain and to celebrate being alive. It takes a minute or two, but I’m in one piece and only then am I able to stand and survey the scene. Buoyed on by the crowd, I take a regal bow and receive a deafening applause in return.
In spite of the crowd-pleasing performance, the race is sadly not mine to claim. My fellow competitor, she who stays on two feet line, is first past the post. Not surprisingly this goddess of a speed demon goes on to claim the Ladies Cheese Rolling Championships in a keenly fought final sprint to the bottom. Taking pointers, I like to think, from my shining example of how not to win a race. In the instant replay I see she
If there were a trophy for the best tumble in a cheese-rolling race, my name would surely be on it. Not in the women’s final, nor in the men’s competition is there a fall quite so spectacular nor quite so popular with the crowd. As I watch the men and their strategic sliding techniques – better executed and more advantageous, I’ll admit, than my race-limiting efforts – I slip and fall again. Only then do I notice that the tred on my running shoes; completely worn away and unfit for purpose.
As the winners of Australia’s Cheese Rolling Festival celebrate their ski passes, my fellow competitors and I compare our own personal victories. The travelling tradie shuffled over the line slowly but safely on two feet, declaring this event one of the quirkiest he’s experienced to date. The superheroes from The South survived their respective races with only minor bruising, but are piped at the fancy dress post by an innovative chap wearing a jazz box and handing out on drinks on a tray as he ran.
The real star of the day however is Thredbo who dishes up an afternoon of sunshine for The High Country Cheese and Wine Festival and its smorgasbord of Coolamon cheeses and Aussie-produced wines. A liberal sampling of all at the Alpine Hotel, is the perfect tonic to bodies that had been through the ringer.
Post-race euphoria has me declare emphatically to anyone – my personal cheer squad in particular – that as a cheese-rolling expert I will be back the following year. Weeks later as I wait for my body to recover, my determination to return is unwavering. The Australian Cheese Rolling Championships is a genuinely unique event that guarantees adrenalin and excitement, bruises a plenty and bragging rights to last a lifetime. Could someone kindly remind me to pack a pair of spikes next time?
Feature Image Credit: ThredboLast updated on Aug 13, 2018
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