We frock up and head to the Birdsville Races.

The Birdsville races are com­ing up and we’ve got the off-track form guide.

4 x 4 Australia - - Contents -

THERE IS some­thing in­trin­si­cally Aus­tralian about the out­back. Just like eggs to a pav, stub­bies to a six-pack, and thun­der to a box, the out­back goes to the core of what it means to be Aus­tralian.

There are plenty of Aussies who never ven­ture too far in­land th­ese days, as their 4x4s serve out a sen­tence as school run­abouts, doomed to the clean­li­ness of city streets, never to ex­pe­ri­ence the re­mark­able red­ness of some of Aus­tralia’s truest land­scapes.

The Aus­tralian out­back is much more than masses of dirt, swarms of flies and end­less noth­ing­ness, and to drape your 4WD in a thick layer of red dust is a badge of hon­our for ev­ery avid off-roader. But if you be­lieve out­back travel is just for the ad­ven­tur­ers, then you’d be wrong. What if we told you we sur­vived the out­back in a soft-roader – a Land Rover Dis­cover Sport – and col­lected plenty of dirt, while still pack­ing a pair of stilet­tos?

Such is the jux­ta­po­si­tion of one of Aus­tralia’s great­est out­back events, the Birdsville Races.

Lo­cated 1200km north of Ade­laide and 1600km east of Bris­bane, the fa­mous out­back town of Birdsville is the gate­way to the Simp­son Desert. In Septem­ber ev­ery year the tiny town sees its pop­u­la­tion swell from 115 peo­ple to more than 5000, as trav­ellers from all over the coun­try ar­rive for the only horse rac­ing event run on red dirt.

How­ever, the Birdsville Races is just the end re­ward for a cross-coun­try jour­ney that’ll leave you feel­ing so in touch with the land you’ll al­most en­joy be­ing cov­ered by flies. Al­most.


THE tinny-cov­ered roads and footy-short­wear­ing crowds of the Birdsville Races are part of the ad­ven­ture, but it’s the roads lead­ing to the char­ac­ter-filled town that will make you want to pack up and move to the land of gib­ber plains.

There’s the op­tion to travel via light plane, but who are we kid­ding? You’re not read­ing this mag­a­zine be­cause you pre­fer your head in the clouds. No mat­ter which di­rec­tion you’re com­ing from, or what route you choose,

the road to Birdsville is one you’ll want to ex­pe­ri­ence over and over again.

The most ob­vi­ous path to take is the iconic 517km un­sealed Birdsville Track, which links Birdsville to Mar­ree in South Aus­tralia and crosses the Strz­elecki Desert, Sturt Stony Desert and Ti­rari Desert. Lo­cals will con­vince you the track is doable in a two-wheel drive – you’ll hear sto­ries of men con­quer­ing the rut­ted-out track in a mi­cro-car – and while we were able to tra­verse the 500-odd kilo­me­tres with­out so much as a flat in the Dis­cov­ery Sport, we highly rec­om­mend pre­par­ing an equipped four-wheel drive. After all, if you’re go­ing all the way, you may as well be pre­pared to tackle the sand dunes of the Simp­son Desert.

How­ever, if you want more se­ri­ous of­froad­ing, choose the paths less-trav­elled from In­naminka via Cordillo Downs Road, or the French Line which crosses the Simp­son Desert. Al­ter­na­tively, you could brave the In­side Birdsville Track orig­i­nally used by the drovers. Make sure you carry a cou­ple of spares and only at­tempt it dur­ing dry weather, be­cause it runs through the Dia­mantina River’s flood plains and closes dur­ing the wet.

We’d take the safest route to the Birdsville Races, and then take a cou­ple of days to re­cover be­fore brav­ing the harder tracks. The last thing you want is to waste time stuck in the desert wait­ing for a res­cue party!

Which­ever path you brave, there’s plenty to see and do along the way.


DAY ONE: Head west from Bris­bane to­ward the gar­den city of Toowoomba, pass­ing through Millmer­ran and stop­ping at Goondi­windi for lunch and fuel. From there, con­tinue to the town­ship of St Ge­orge, which sits on the Balonne River, and stay the night at Be­go­nia Farm Stay, a beau­ti­ful 14,000-acre beef cat­tle graz­ing prop­erty.

DAY TWO: Con­tinue on to Cun­na­mulla, via Bol­lon. Cun­na­mulla is the largest of four towns in the Pa­roo Shire and is sit­u­ated on the War­rego River. It’s the start­ing point of the Matilda High­way, a road that con­nects NSW to Far North Queens­land. Stay the night at the Club Bou­tique Ho­tel.

DAY THREE: It’s time to see the out­back sights and fol­low the foot­steps of ex­plor­ers Burke and Wills. Be­fore reach­ing the fa­mous Burke and Wills Dig Tree, re­fresh your skin at the Arte­sian Mud Baths in Eulo, hosted by the lovely Ian and Nan Pike of Palm Grove Date Farm and Win­ery. Con­tinue on to the town that pro­duced the first Aus­tralian elec­tric street­lights, Thar­go­min­dah, be­fore fi­nally ar­riv­ing at the Dig Tree, which memo­ri­alises the death of Burke and Wills. From here, cross the bor­der to South Aus­tralia and spend a night in Innamincka.

DAY FOUR: It’s time to hit the Birdsville Track. You can choose to travel via Walker’s Cross­ing, or you can head to Cordillo Downs Road. You’ll pass Tiari Desert and Sturt Stony Desert in the south and Strz­elecki Desert and Simp­son Desert in the north. It’s easy to get lost out here, with roads lead­ing to San­tos gas- and oil-fields and pri­vate prop­er­ties, so fol­low the cor­rect signs. In good con­di­tions, usu­ally after the road has been graded, it can take around six hours to drive the length of the rut­ted track. How­ever, with a lot of traf­fic dur­ing the races, be pre­pared for larger-thanusual ruts.

If you get time once you ar­rive in Birdsville, rush to Big Red to climb to the top be­fore sun­set. The road to Big Red is gut­tered and cov­ered in sharp rocks, so be care­ful. We man­aged to get the Dis­cov­ery Sport through the Birdsville Track with­out an is­sue, but burst a tyre on a rock about 100 me­tres from Big Red.


WHEN it comes to things to do, Birdsville packs a mean punch. Well, it does dur­ing race week. Dur­ing times out­side of the two-day event, you’d bet­ter have a real love of beer and camel pie.

First up is the all-sea­son Birdsville Ho­tel. Built in 1884, this iconic pub is the town’s sig­na­ture at­trac­tion. It’s a place for trav­ellers to recharge their beer bel­lies while they re­fuel their 4x4s. If you’re not a beer drinker, pre­pare to be­come one, as lo­cals make the am­ber liq­uid seem like a gift from the gods. For most of the year the hos­pitable com­mu­nity of the town­ship will wel­come you, but dur­ing peak-sea­son (the week of the races) the ho­tel takes on a dif­fer­ent tune, as trav­ellers be­come part of the fur­ni­ture.

Em­brace your in­ner bo­gan by slap­ping down a tinny and throw­ing it to the curb – lit­er­ally. The tra­di­tion of stomp­ing your cans to the ground is one peo­ple take very se­ri­ously, so don’t even think about bin­ning that alu­minium trea­sure. And don’t stress if you’re pre­cious about lit­ter­ing, a clean-up crew come through ev­ery night to col­lect the cans.

Big Red is an­other one to put on the to-do list. Avid 4x4ers will tackle the 30-me­tre sand dune, but, if you’re a novice off-roader, then Lit­tle Red is a slightly eas­ier ride. If you don’t have the time to do ei­ther, just go and have a look.

An­other trip you can take is to Dia­mantina River. Here you can cool down after a day at the races and lis­ten to other race-go­ers make plans for the evening’s fes­tiv­i­ties. For pho­tog­ra­phers, make sure you cap­ture the sun­rise of the Birdsville bil­l­abong be­fore you leave.

You’ve heard of peo­ple eat­ing croc­o­dile, grubs and emu, but have you ever con­sid­ered camel? Well, now’s your chance. The Birdsville Bak­ery is fa­mous for its camel pie, so close your eyes and hope there aren’t any lumps, or should that be humps? Any veg­e­tar­i­ans con­sid­er­ing this trip should be pre­pared to live on a diet of white bread and pota­toes.

If it’s a unique out­back ex­pe­ri­ence you’re after, fol­low the sound of the beat­ing drum to Fred Bro­phy’s box­ing tent. This is the only re­main­ing trav­el­ling box­ing tent around and, whether you love or hate fight­ing, the stage be­hind the cur­tain will play to your cu­rios­ity, as pro­fes­sional box­ers take on drunken pun­ters.


IF YOU think sur­viv­ing the trip across the desert to Birdsville is enough to pre­pare you for the races, you’re wrong. As soon as you walk through the gates to the iconic red-dirt race­track, you’re en­ter­ing a world un­like any other. This is as Aus­tralian as you can get, and there are a few tips to pre­pare for the big day.

Eat a big break­fast. We mean a big, greasy, stom­ach-lin­ing break­fast. Out­back hos­pi­tal­ity means beer in­stead of water, so you’ll want your belly nice and ab­sorbent for the day ahead. It’s a drought zone after all and some­thing has to quench your thirst.

Pre­pare to walk. Re­mem­ber when we said we packed stilet­tos? We lied. Be pre­pared to walk, as the race­course is 3km south of the town­ship and there are lim­i­ta­tions on driv­ing cars to the track. A shut­tle bus is avail­able from the car­a­van park.

Cover your­self with in­sect re­pel­lent – the flies are enough to drive you in­sane.

Drink beer re­spon­si­bly. There are plenty of po­lice around to keep things in or­der, for any­one con­cerned.

Place your bets early. The town sees more than 7000 peo­ple travel to the race­course to watch horses pound the dirt. Ex­pect it to be crowded and dis­or­derly.

The best part about the out­back races is the peo­ple. Ev­ery­one is there to have fun and you’ll meet some great peo­ple and hear some amaz­ing sto­ries.

Any­thing goes when it comes to the dress code – no one is there to judge. In fact, one of the races’ tra­di­tions is to pick your cra­zi­est cos­tume, cre­ate a back­story and spend the day as some­one else. There’s also a fash­ions of the field com­pe­ti­tion for the ladies (and gents) who want to slap on tra­di­tional race-wear. But don’t take it too se­ri­ously and don’t say we didn’t warn you. Our ad­vice: if you’re not one to get into cos­tume, swap out the fancy shoes and fas­ci­na­tors for boots and an Akubra.

Our Dis­cov­ery Sport, ‘Hi Ho Sil­ver’, leads the con­voy. Pun­ters en­joy­ing a cold brew at the Birdsville Ho­tel.

All dressed up for a day at the races.

Our Dis­cov­ery Sport at the Burke and Wills Dig Tree. Hi Ho Sil­ver meets a dis­tant rel­a­tive.

At the en­trance to the iconic Birdsville Races. Place your bets!

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