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Updated: Apr 5

“Oh what a shame. What a shame!” lamented larrikin bush poet Steve Word Smith when he heard the news that the final curtain is about to be drawn on Tenterfield’s famous Oracles of the Bush boutique bush poetry festival after 27 years. “It was something myself and Brian Meldon concocted before the Federation year anniversary to bring people together to listen to the stories of the bush.” Meldon owned the Tenterfield Saddler, immortalised by Peter Allen’s tribute to his grandfather. Steve Word Smith created his own legend as the Tenterfield Cobbler and Sir Henry Parkes lookalike. Their shops only 100 yards apart, the two men enjoyed getting together for a yarn and that’s how Oracles of the Bush was born prior to the turn of the last century.

Steve Word Smith, was the first poet to grace the stage of the inaugural festival with his yarn

about an icon of the bush, the outdoor dunny with a poem called “Orifice of the Bush” laughing he adds “the poem wasn’t really considered acceptable back then”.

Steve Word Smith, the Tenterfield Cobbler (1998-2001)

Seeing the potential in a bush poetry festival, Tenterfield Shire Council committed $10,000 as

seed funding. A community committee formed and the event was named by Tenterfield journalist and Oracles Legend Ken Halliday. The event was launched in a star studded event at the Tamworth Country Music Festival on Australia Day 1996.

“There was a hotel on the main street of Tenterfield, which is where we had the first poet’s breakfast”, remembers Steve Word Smith fondly. “There was a focus on the Federation year

because the national Federation parade was to be held in the birthplace of the nation, Tenterfield.

Back in 1889 Sir Henry Parkes made a speech, known as the Tenterfield Oration, to bring the

country together as one because it was all in separate states back then. The Federation was

finally declared in 1901 but sadly Sir Henry had already passed by that time”.

Very quickly the Festival took on a life of its own thanks to the hard work of the Festival committee. “Each year the organisers contract a different professional to be the lead poet for the festival” explains President Carmel Rose. “That poet is given a budget to hire his supporting professionals and a balladeer. As lead poet he is totally in charge of the professionals which takes a huge load off the organisers. By having a different lead poet each year it also ensures a good variety of professionals.”

‘We had some wonderful poets there who matured over the years. Jimmy Haynes who is one of Australia’s top poets, Jackie Drake…they are all wonderful poets who were there at that time and have now progressed onto being well accepted poets’ says Steve Word Smith.

Another legendary Aussie bush balladeer, Bill Kearns reminisces on his involvement with Oracles of the Bush since 2003 and the end of an era. “I’ve loved every one of them. It’s a sad thing for me. I’ve got some wonderful memories of the festival. It was already big when I started with the festival over 20 years ago. We’ve filled the hall up where ever we’ve been, had full crowds right from back then and I haven’t seen it fall off at all. The memories won’t die but unfortunately these things run their time and full credit to the organisers who did it each year. It’s a massive job and it’s been very well done.”

The theme for the final festival is Thanks for the Memories. Carmel Rose will never forget 2021. “Our venue flooded a couple days before the festival. We always have a plan B but it never included a flood. In two days, with the help of the Rural Fire Brigade the venue was hosed out, a marquee was hired from Lismore and erected only hours before the start of the first event and the show went on. The large crowd who attended, despite extensive flooding, commented it was one of the best festivals ever and the mud just made it even more Aussie. As a committee we are still in awe of the fact that we pulled it off.”

Last year the decision was made by the committee to bring the festival to a close when they struggled to find replacements for committee members who needed to stand down. They decided rather than let the quality of the event diminish they would pull together and present one last cracker of a festival.

Bill Kearns wonders “if there might be somebody out of the blue who will put their hand up and take it on or it may just fade into history.”

Steve Word Smith hopes not. “It would be good to see it come to Guyra, a place where the Australian Poetry Hall of Fame has been established. Yes it would need some things in place to make it happen and to make it work but I truly believe that because of the truth of larrikin storytelling and poets from the past, we need to carry on this tradition.”

Steve Word Smith. Mother of Ducks Lagoon, Guyra. 2023

When asked whether it’s something he’d be interested in taking on James Arthur Warren, the man behind the Australian Poetry Hall of Fame, agreed it is a natural fit but has not had any discussions with the Festival committee at this stage. “It’s certainly doable but I think it’s really hard to get volunteers in country towns. I do think an autumn festival would be fantastic here because it’s so beautiful. At both the Tenterfield Oracles of the Bush and the Tamworth Country Music Festival the events are spread around town. The thing is with doing a festival here is I do have the venue where events can be focussed”.

Steve Word Smith. Mother of Ducks Lagoon, Guyra. 2023

“Poetry transcends time and place” says Steve Word Smith. “As poets we are working with frequency and energy and bringing people into that happy space where they can just be content and happy with who they are and the story clicks their memory; bringing people together to have fun and happiness and telling the stories of the snake or the redback or country. Just to be able to keep the stories going of the past is so valuable. It’s part of the culture.”

One of the legacies of the Festival is it has been able to re-invest a considerable amount of money back into the community with more than $115,000 returned by way of donations to various volunteer organisations with a special mention of two Junior Oracles committee members, Archie and Larissa George who single handedly raised $10,000 for the Homestead branch of the Rural Fire Service through their recycling program for the last four years on behalf of the Oracles of the Bush; an amazing effort by these two young people recognising the importance of emergency services in small communities.

As the finishing line draws near Carmel Rose is excited. “Each year it is wonderful to catch up

with returning patrons. So many friendships have been forged over the past 26 years. As 2024 is our last Oracles that catch up will be even more special. This year we are looking forward to creating more memories and embracing the Aussie mateship that bush poetry creates and showcasing the unique hospitality Tenterfield has to offer."

Thanks for the memories.

The 27th Oracles of the Bush will be held at Tenterfield, NSW. 4 - 7 April 2024. Tickets can be purchased through Humanitix at

Orifice of the Bush

by Steve Word Smith

I was bought up in the country in a place called Wedderburn

On the side of the Georges River with the stags, the elks and the ferns,

There wasn’t many luxuries

No. Things weren’t very plush

But we had this long-drop dunny called the Orifice of the Bush

There’s one thing that I know for sure and I spent a lot of time

Just doodling in the dirt there and I even wrote some rhyme

A place to fantisise and figure out but everything was true

A hide out from the washing up like young lads often do

I’d always lift the lid up to avoid a bit of fright

To eradicate the chances of the dreaded redback bite

Like Mum’s old chook I’d settle in with my pants around my knees

To the sound of the neighbour’s rampant bull and fruit bats in the tree

Like a medieval King I’d sit upon his guilded throne

My favourite place, I must admit, in our lovely country home

Yes I’m a connoisseur of dunnies

Of this I know for a fact.

A place to try, a place to check before I hang my hat

I remember when I left the bush in a council house in town

There was an outhouse out the back

Yeah, a place to settle down

It wasn’t quiet as our country home

We had all the mods and cons

Running water, electric lights and an oven to cook scones

I’d only been there a week I think when I woke with an awful fright

There was a shadow past the window in the middle of the night

I’d heard about these prowlers and their low down theiving tricks

But they’d taken on the wrong bloke this time,

This lad from out in the sticks

Well I hit the floor running,

There wasn’t time to put on clothes

I’ll get that flaming larrikin and I’ll probably break his nose

Through the front door quietly, but blood was pumping fast

I’d stop him at the gate I thought as my bare feet hit the grass

He was running up the footpath with his booty on his back

I’d played rugby in my school days and I’d stop him in his tracks

Well I hit him round the ankles and he had nowhere to go

Yeah, I dropped him like a dunny lid and all he said was no.

The smell was something awful

I’d never live it down

I’d nailed the poor old dunny man and dropped him on the ground

There was excretion all across the grass and right across the road

The lid had left the dunny can and he’d dropped the flaming load

Well throughout my years of wandering I think I’ve tried the lot

There’s the environmental sound ones, flush lavatories and pots.

There’s collectors of pubs, of pins, a bottle, stamps and plants

But I’m the international, no universal secretary of the place you drop your pants

I’ve tested loos across this land and I’ve tried the loos abroad

There’s the ones you pull the chain on

There’s authentic ones and there’s frauds

But there’s nothing in comparison when you have to strain and push

As a good old Aussie dunny and the orifice of the bush

Published New England Times. 24 March 2024

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