BIG RED success
A father and son have put in a marathon – and musical – effort to raise funds for research
“We never started out to create what’s become a massive music festival,” says Greg Donovan, originator of Birdsville’s Big Red Bash, which has helped put more than $1.1 million into type 1 diabetes research over six years. “But it’s probably the biggest event in outback Australia now.”
Prior to that, his son Steve getting type 1 in 2008 hadn’t been part of anyone’s plan, either. “He was just about to turn 15,” says Greg. “He was getting skinny and going to the toilet a lot, and we were wondering what was going on and Googling the symptoms. He had the thirst, always drinking, lethargic, no energy. We took him to a doctor who did the blood glucose and said ‘he’s 24’ and sent him to hospital.”
As Steve adjusted to daily insulin doses, carb counting and blood-glucose monitoring, Greg began wondering what he could do to help find improved treatments or even a cure.
A keen long-distance runner, his first thoughts ran to extreme sports. Six years before, he’d run the New York Marathon to benefit the children of 176 work colleagues tragically killed in the 9/11 terrorist attack on the
Twin Towers, where his employer (insurance firm Aon) was headquartered.
“I’d seen the power of endurance challenges as a catalyst for raising funds. I thought, ‘how can I do that in terms of diabetes?’” says Greg. “So, with my eldest son, I formed a team of five and ran the 4 Deserts Race Series [250km runs in the Atacama, Gobi, Sahara and Antarctic deserts] in an eight-month period. That one-off fundraising raised $100,000, but I wanted something more sustainable and long-term to keep raising money. So I decided to start up a desert race in Australia, with all funds going to the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation.”
Drawing on his corporateworld business management skills, and learning on the fly through sheer determination, Greg launched the Big Red Run in 2013, which became one of the JDRF’s biggest community-led fundraisers. The name refers to a spectacular 30m red sand dune on the edge of the Simpson Desert, handily about a marathon’s distance from Birdsville in Queensland’s remote southwest corner.
Sponsored entrants in the event, which ended in 2018, completed 250km over six days every June-July, running between Birdsville and the Big Red dune and into the desert beyond. Between marathons, they enjoyed the camaraderie of camping under the stars. The
I decided to start up a desert race in Australia
54 competitors in 2018 raised $140,000 for type 1 research, taking the total raised since the first run past $1.1 million.
The Big Red Bash sprang from the Run almost by accident, when Greg treated the first year’s entrants to a special show by Australian country singer John Williamson on top of the dune. The one-off gig proved so popular the idea arose for a larger, separate annual concert.
Six festivals later, the threeday Bash – staged at the foot of Big Red with the Simpson’s ochre palette as a glorious backdrop – is established as the world’s most remote music festival and a huge boon to the outback economy.
And it was vital to Greg’s fundraising as it helped to subsidise the Big Red Run.
Moving forward, the Bash’s rapid growth – it’s on again in 2019 – has Greg thinking it might need capping, to help the towns cope with visitor numbers.
Headlined by John Farnham, Hoodoo Gurus and Daryl Braithwaite, the 2018 Bash sold out, with 9000 attendees (including Big Red Runners who received tickets with race entry), tripling the 2015 crowd.
The Bash is still very much a family affair. Steve, now 25, works as an event manager. His sister Laura handles the merchandise and his brother Matt is the festival’s Bilby mascot.
And fittingly, Greg took part in the 2018 Run with Steve to mark the 10th anniversary of his diagnosis.
Greg Donovan and sonSteve at the Big Red Bash inJuly 2018. The site of the Birdsville Big Red Bash music festival nextto the Big Red sand dune.