January 4th 2007
A man and his toad races
With three atlases, an encyclopaedia and an 800 page tome full of basketball statistics for close company, one of Magnetic Island and north Queensland's most iconic figures, at least when it comes to outdoor family holiday fun, just passed a personal mile stone. It was twenty years ago this week that, ex-primary school principal, Verne Thomas Jack walked into the big circle outside the Island's Arcadia Pub to host his first cane toad race and, in so doing went on to raise approximatey $200,000 for the Island's junior surf lifesavers and kindergarten.
With a voice as rough as the granite boulders that rise above the pub court yard Verne, 64, calls his assembly of tourists and locals to attention with some rapid fire general knowledge questions. "What is the name of the huge island off the west coast of Canada?" he bellows for the Canadian backpackers who are themselves at a loss to answer. "Vancouver Island - now what is the major Australian city due south of Townsville?" More blank faces. "Melbourne" he barks and on it goes with a brief world tour quiz - building the interest and the audience until a couple of hundred kids, large and small, young and old complete the ring of this tropical theatre in the round.
Toadmaster at work
Then it really starts. A mixture of a country stock auction come day-at-the-races with a delightful yuk factor thrown in, the first toad appears dressed with a bright yellow ribbon. It struggles half-heartedly like a Lilliputian who, as Queenslanders might say, fell out of the ugly tree and broke every branch on the way down.
Fell out of the ugly tree
Verne's dress code is less formal. Just standard north Queensland T-shirt, stubbies and bare feet are enough as he holds the toad aloft and introduces, "The Yellow Rose of Texas - what am I bid?" He then eases the Rose to the pavers to show her leaping form whilst drawing unflattering connections to that other famous Texan, George W. Bush.
"Thirtyfive." And up it goes to $50 or $60 and the first toad owner for the race is noted by Verne's assistant and pal of 45 years, the Arcadia Surf Lifesaving Club's Lyn Coomber.
Eight toads join the field with names including, the Pink Pussycat, the Red Russian, the Irish Green Toad (a favourite with a visiting Catholic Bishop) and even a Blue Liberal Party Fat-Cat which Verne claims is always purchased by the former federal Education Minister, Simon Dawkins who, with his family, makes a yearly pilgrimage to Magnetic Island. All the toads bar the Skinny Dipper sport an appropriately coloured ribbon.
Verne places them into a sectioned, octagonal perspex pen at the circle's centre and, after all is ready, the floorless stalls are whisked away. Every toad is an individual and these are no exceptions. The crowd erupts with cheers and groans. Some of the contestants sit like well behaved school kids: backs straight and perfectly still. Others leap frantically to within millimetres of the winning outer painted circle then stop. It is madcap and hilarious every time and the crowd happily blow their dough while the winner, who wins a cash prize and a T-shirt, is also tested for guts and character. He or she has to kiss their winning amphibian.
More than a few "owners" are probably scared enough by the reputation of cane toads who thrive as a species by rapidly killing almost all creatures who dine on them. They release a toxic soup from boil-like glands behind their head . Fortunately, if handled gently, the toad feels no danger and remains benign.
Verne says he is not really an animal lover but he takes good care of his racers. Each are fed 50grams of roast chicken daily and are let go if they begin to look "poorly". The longest lasting toad raced for three years and was noted for possessing just three and a half legs. "Whenever I would come to collect them for a race, that one would climb up with a 'Pick me' look on his face while the others would try to hide," says Verne.
Verne claims there are far fewer toads on Magnetic and believes the numbers have never recovered since the very dry years between 1983 and 1985.
At 64, this ruddy-faced bachelor, who says he has many women friends but never lived with one, has been coming to Magnetic since he was three years old when his dad was posted to Townsville during World War II. "We'd come to the Island for all our holidays," he says.
As an adult he taught as a primary teacher then Principal all over the north but always wanted to get back to Magnetic. "I haven't spent an Easter on the Australian mainland since 1961 being either overseas or on Magnetic"
Verne transferred back to Townsville in 1968 and claims to have spent virtually every weekend here since. He also claims he knows more about the history of his beloved Arcadia than just about anybody. "There are others who have been here longer but they weren't people who went out much."
Verne, who likens his show to London's famous and never-ending "Mouse Trap" play, moved permanently to the Island in 1987 and took over the toad racing event which was started on the Island in 1980 by pharmacist Jim Fry who later passed it on to, lifesaver, Warren Butler who in turn handed the show on to local plumber, John Bennet.
Toad racing is not a Magnetic-only event with toad races in Port Douglas and Airlie Beach but, as Verne and occasionally David "Crusty" Herron have kept it going almost every Wednesday night, it is, according to Verne, the most consistently held toad race around.
The most money paid for a toad was after a young English woman died from a fall from a horse on the Island. This led to a special toad race to raise money to help repatriate the body. That night $200 was paid for one toad alone. On an otherwise normal night the highest paid for a toad was $130 last September. Unfortunately, in November 2006 the lowest ever was paid, just $1.
With a passion for statistics, sport, travel and gardening Verne claims he's been to every major sporting event in the world bar the Kentucky Derby and the US Open. But clearly Magnetic Island and Arcadia in particular is his first love.
Kids love it
With such a strong commitment to lifesaving and the kindy and, for all his years of effort, it is clear the affection is returned. Especially when twenty something adults come back to visit and wish him well, having not seen the show since they were youngsters.
Lyn Coomber told magnetictimes.com, "His effort is a marvellous contribution to junior life saving. The money trains kids who leave the club with life skills. It's not about sport but community service."
Photos & story: George Hirst
Story and photos: George Hirst
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