Aussie Non-Fiction Review: Life in The Saddle: Adventures of Legendary Horseman, the Kokotunga Kid by Alwyn Torenbeek with David Gilchrist

My Rating:              5 / 5
Format:                  Paperback courtesy of Penguin Australia
Publication Date:    24 July 2013
Category:               Autobiography
ISBN:                      9781921901355
Publisher:               Penguin Books Australia
Imprint:                   Michael Joseph
Extent:                    288 pages
RRP:                      AU$29.99

“Alywn Torenbeek's boyhood in outback Queensland in the 1940s was spent chasing wild horses, catching death adders and dreaming of becoming a rodeo champion. At the age of 14, he left Kokotunga for good, taking with him a bushman's spirit, an uncanny natural riding ability and determination to succeed. By 21 he was an international rodeo champion.

Travelling far and wide, he became great friends with R.M. Williams and Queensland legendary cowboy Wally Mailman (father of actor Deborah). After a horrific accident that nearly killed him, Alwyn worked as a drover and eventually established a stockman's school to teach underprivileged teens to become jackaroos and jillaroos. Throughout his life, he has faced personal tragedies and triumphs with stoicism and his own get-on-with-it philosophy.

A non-stop adventure and an amazing insight into a bygone era, this is one man's view of life, from the back of a horse. Now in his mid-70s, Alwyn is still doing gruelling endurance equestrian rides and is a great storyteller.”

Summary and Thoughts

In this passionate and heartfelt account of the last sixty years of his life, Alwyn Torenbeek, through David Gilchrist, a freelance Brisbane-based journalist, who initially travelled to Alwyn’s home near Rockhampton to interview him for an article for RM Williams Outback Magazine and was “immediately intrigued by his roller-coaster of a life story”, now takes us on the journey of an ordinary boy from humble beginnings who grew into an extraordinary man.

And, for those of you (like me) who have ever romanticised the notion of being a rodeo champion or a drover whilst in the midst of the atmosphere and excitement of a rodeo or an episode of McLeod’s Daughters, this is a must read – without the rose-tinted glasses.

Known as the Kokotunga Kid, thanks to his mischievous youth when he caught death adders and played pranks with said adders, Alwyn (fondly known as “Torrie” to his friends) has led a life that some of us can only dream about.

At the age of fourteen when he left Kokotunga in outback Queensland “with a passion and ability to ride rough and tough horses”, he had no idea how many miles he would travel, the wonderful friends he would make along the way and those he would lose.

It was in 1950 amongst a massive crowd at the "Rockhampton Industrial Fair and Rocky Round- Up", that Alwyn witnessed legendary Wally Mailman at work and “an excited young horseman … dreamed of joining them”.   The young Alwyn wasn’t to know that “the fates were about to intervene” at the Kokotunga Rodeo in the form of Bob Kelly, for whom the call of the rodeo circuit would also prove too hard to ignore and that his career would amount to becoming both a national and international champion before he turned twenty-one, many more championship titles under his belt both here and in New Zealand (on the backs of some formidable opponents) and numerous achievements, including being inducted into the Australian Stockman’s Hall of Fame in Longreach and The Rodeo Hall of Fame in Warwick.

Of course, Alwyn’s life is no fairytale, and none of these triumphs have come without a lot of hard work, his tenacious spirit and life’s share of trials and tribulations, including countless broken bones, a near death experience (in which he spent three months in hospital and rehabilitation and thereafter took two years to recover his strength and horsemanship) and losing a child - all of which he has stoically faced head on, taking the proverbial bull by the horns.

This fair dinkum bushie has spent the last six decades doing what he loves and David Gilchrist’s writing and descriptions of the Australian landscape, and the people Alwyn would come to meet, is both expansive and detailed, giving us a keen insight into the life-long friends he made (one of which was legendary RM Williams), the skills required in riding wild brumbies, the dangers involved in mustering cattle, the adrenaline-inducing experiences of riding the rodeo circuit to the thrills and spills of catching wild bulls, the passionate restoration and management of cattle stations as well as the countless positive results achieved from running stockmanship schools for disadvantaged teenagers – none of which would have been realised without his loving family one hundred percent behind him.  In David Gilchrist’s own words, “through fire and flood, hope and happiness, love and loss, Alwyn’s is a remarkable story of a legendary horseman who loves the bush and the folk who live within it”.

Having now "mostly" retired from the rodeo scene, Alwyn and his wife Marion live on a property near Rockhampton, the naming of which is a tribute to their youngest son.  While they realised, after  reaching fifty-five years of age that they had lived “a gypsy life, taking on wild bulls, raising a family, droving and all their other adventures” and were ready to “make a home base”, Alwyn still has a mischievous twinkle in his eye (yes, I could see it gleaming off the pages) and, while at the age of seventy-five he continues to clock up his miles in endurance riding, he maintains that “for the Kokotunga Kid it’s all about being in the saddle – there’s always another ride, another chance to win, another adventure”.

This is a story of true Aussie grit and determination, taking the good with the bad, but above all having the endurance to go where this spirited bushie has been and David Gilchrist has written a brilliant account of a life well lived by a man who can spin a good yarn and is an inspiration to all.

I wish to thank Penguin Books for providing me with a copy of this truly inspiring biography.

A Little About David Gilchrist (taken from the Publisher's website)

David Gilchrist is an Australian writer whose work has appeared in publications as diverse as Australian Geographic, The Sydney Morning Herald, The New Zealand Herald, The Independent (London), and R.M. Williams Outback magazine.  David lives just north of Brisbane. A word wrangler, he can't ride horses or catch bulls.


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