Off and Rac­ing!

Birdsville’s Iconic Races

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Birdsville – few names bet­ter evoke the far­thest reaches of Aus­tralia’s arid out­back. Nudg­ing the Simp­son Desert in Queens­land’s south­west cor­ner, the re­mote out­post lies in a vast ochre-dirt ocean of salt­bush and dry salt­pan lakes – flat all the way to the hori­zon.

Tiny as it is, the township looms large in Aus­tralian bush her­itage for two rea­sons: the harsh and his­toric Birdsville Track to South Aus­tralia; and the an­nual Birdsville Races, eas­ily Aus­tralia’s most renowned out­back rac­ing car­ni­val.

For most of the year Birdsville hi­ber­nates, bak­ing in heat that hits the high 40s in sum­mer. The cooler (still warm) midyear months (April-Oc­to­ber) lure a steady trickle of tourists in 4WDs. But come the races in Septem­ber – the first week­end of spring – and the pop­u­la­tion swells from 115 to around 7000.

Car­a­vans, camper­vans and tents dot scrub des­ig­nated as camp­ing ground. A field be­side the airstrip fills with small planes, owner-pi­lots camp­ing un­der the wings. At the town lim­its, ev­ery ve­hi­cle is stopped for breathalysing by jovial po­lice of­fi­cers be­mused by their ex­otic as­sign­ment. The cars are all 4WDs bristling with CB ra­dio aeri­als; that’s what it takes to drive this far out.

The race­course – a shut­tle-bus ride or thirsty three-kilo­me­tre walk from town – doesn’t have a blade of grass. It’s as stony and dusty as the Birdsville Track it­self. Horses shel­ter from 33°C of sun un­der a long tin-roofed sta­ble. Nearby the sim­i­lar grand­stand serves the same pur­pose for peo­ple, if on a grander scale.

The horses set off on the track’s far side, mere specks be­neath the dust kicked up as they gal­lop – the only cloud in a per­fect hemi­sphere of blue sky. Shortly they’ve rounded the broad curve of the oval course and thun­der along the sandy straight. A few sec­onds of thrum­ming hooves and they’ve flashed by, spark­ing an out­burst of fin­ish-line ex­cite­ment. The sce­nario re­peats over a laid­back af­ter­noon, cul­mi­nat­ing in Race Six, the 1600-me­tre, $35,000 Birdsville Cup.

Apart from the small crush near the book­mak­ers, re­lax­ation reigns. A sprin­kling of funny cos­tumes – blokes in dresses, a few full-body beer-cans, girls as an­gels or devils – adds to the car­ni­val at­mos­phere. The crowd is peace­ful, happy to have a beer and a bet and a few laughs. Trou­ble seems as far away as Sydney or Bris­bane.

Half the fun is the ef­fort it takes

to at­tend. There’s a kind of po­etry in sim­ply be­ing here. The very act is some­how an ex­pres­sion of Aus­tralia’s vast­ness which, in Birdsville, for­ever stares you in the face.

AT FIRST GLANCE it doesn’t look much like cat­tle coun­try. But salt­bush is high-pro­tein graz­ing and Birdsville be­gan as a cross­ing of the Dia­mantina River for 19th cen­tury drovers tak­ing fat­ted herds from western Queens­land to mar­ket in South Aus­tralia. The Birdsville Track traces the 518 kilo­me­tres of this desert stock route be­tween Birdsville and Mar­ree, South Aus­tralia, where a rail link to Port Au­gusta opened in 1884.

The name is a mys­tery. It might be a cor­rup­tion of Burtsville, from a store es­tab­lished here in about 1880 by pi­o­neer­ing gra­zier Percy Burt. Oth­ers say it hon­ours the sur­pris­ing wealth of birdlife – even seag­ulls, 750 kilo­me­tres from the near­est coast. Of course, both tales could be true if a pun on Burt’s name was in­volved.

Ei­ther way, the name was in place by 1882, when the Birdsville Races be­gan. Over 150 peo­ple, mostly stock­men, came from var­i­ous sta­tions that

Septem­ber to see a dozen starts over a three-day car­ni­val. Af­ter­wards in Burt’s Store, in­ter­ested par­ties formed the club which still runs the races to­day, with pro­ceeds now ben­e­fit­ing the Royal Fly­ing Doc­tor Ser­vice.

Back then towns­folk out­num­bered vis­it­ing race­go­ers. Some 300 peo­ple called Birdsville home dur­ing its first two decades, al­most triple to­day’s per­ma­nent pop­u­la­tion. It wasn’t just the flour­ish­ing cat­tle trade. Just 11 kilo­me­tres from the Queens­land-South Aus­tralian bor­der, Birdsville was a vi­tal cus­toms point in an era when colonies charged each other du­ties on goods and tolls on stock move­ment.

Af­ter Fed­er­a­tion abol­ished such charges in 1901, Birdsville withered to about 20 peo­ple by the mid-20th cen­tury, but the over­land­ing to Mar­ree and the an­nual races en­dured.

So did the Birdsville Ho­tel, the town’s beat­ing heart since 1884. A mod­est sin­gle-storey stone build­ing over­look­ing the air­field in the mid­dle of town, it now ranks among the out­back’s most iconic pubs.

If you want to take a photo in­side – al­most ev­ery­one does – it’s cus­tom­ary to first toss a coin or two into a

con­tainer set high on the wall, a do­na­tion to the Royal Fly­ing Doc­tor Ser­vice. All those hats nai led to the ceil­ing are an­other out­back tra­di­tion.

In July 1939, the ho­tel was ge­ol­o­gist- ex­plorer Ce­cil Madi­gan’s well-cho­sen end point for his his­toric sci­en­tific ex­pe­di­tion across the Simp­son Desert by camel. This trek, which also took in the mas­sive dry salt­pan of Lake Eyre, boosted the idea that the re­gion was Aus­tralia’s ‘dead heart’, noth­ing but des­o­late waste­land.

Yet it was home to a hand­ful of hardy souls, such as the mail­man Tom Kruse, whose tough work­ing life on the Birdsville Track was im­mor­tal ised in the ac­claimed doc­u­men­tary The Back Of Be­yond (1954). Set­ting out from Mar­ree fort­nightly, Kruse bat­tled sand-bog­gings, bro­ken axles, flooded creeks and flat tyres while truck­ing mail and goods in the mid­dle of sear­ingly hot nowhere.

Cap­tured on f i lm, Kruse’s story fixed the Birdsville Track in the pub­lic mind as the ul­ti­mate out­back chal­lenge. And as out­back tourism slowly gath­ered pace, the Birdsville Races be­came em­blem­atic of the town it­self. To drive the rough gravel-road track and see the far-flung races was to cel­e­brate some es­sen­tial qual­ity of Aus­tralia.

Clearly it still is, even if the thor­ough­breds, book­ies and ladies sport­ing fas­ci­na­tors are now just one as­pect of that cel­e­bra­tion. The Birdsville Ho­tel is a non-stop party race week­end. The gut­ter out­side fills with beer cans glint­ing in the late af­ter­noon sun. A whip-crack­ing dis­play takes up half the street out­side. Sunset brings on the bands in the beer gar­den, with no short­age of Aussie rock clas­sics pump­ing out across the desert.

Across the street looms the big top of Fred Bro­phy’s Box­ing Troupe mar­quee. This is the last car­ni­val sideshow of its type in Aus­tralia, and per­haps the world – tent box­ing


has been out­lawed in the US, UK and ev­ery­where in Aus­tralia ex­cept Queens­land and the North­ern Ter­ri­tory.

On a raised plat­form out­side, fourth-gen­er­a­tion show­man Fred bangs a boom­ing bass drum as he in­vites all com­ers – men and women – to fight one of his box­ers over three one-minute rounds.

In­side the at­mos­phere is elec­tric, stand­ing room only and all eyes riv­eted on the ring. Pound­ing mu­sic mutes the thwack­ing of gloves on faces as the crazy-brave chal­lengers fight in their street clothes, with­out head­gear. They do their brawl­ing best but none can top­ple the troupe box­ers. Bruised and blood­ied, they at least win plenty of ap­plause for hav­ing a go.

In the heat of the mo­ment, their bravado seems to carry a spark of the out­back spirit that had bat­tlers like Kruse pit­ting them­selves against the pit iless el­e­ments. Reg­u­larly graded, the Birdsville Track is tamer th­ese days, but still un­tamed. In dry weather, a mod­ern 4WD can man­age the un­sealed route in a day in air-con­di­tioned, high-sus­pen­sioned com­fort, but bog­gings in soft patches and tyres pierced by stony gravel re­main very real risks.

The first stop- off (and only petrol) along the way is Munger­an­nie, a road­house with ac­com­mo­da­tion 315 kilo­me­tres south of Birdsvi l le in South Aus­tralia. An­other 150 kilo­me­tres down the track, Clay­ton Wet­lands camp­ground boasts a nat­u­rally hot arte­sian-bore shower, which takes the edge off a chilly desert morn­ing. Dawn at Clay­ton of­fers a sub­tle sym­phony of glo­ri­ous, di­verse bird­song. Over 100 species have been recorded here – a ca­sual stroll through this green oasis re­veals galahs, ravens and cir­cling kites. The car­ni­val of avian life fills the scrub along a dry creek bed tat­tooed with roo tracks, com­plete with un­mis­take­able tail-drag.

The track’s fi­nal 53 kilo­me­tres ends at Mar­ree, where it meets the Ood­na­datta Track. Op­po­site the im­pos­ing-yet-invit­ing Mar­ree Ho­tel (1883),


Tom Kruse’s mail truck is parked in rusty re­tire­ment be­side the dis­used rail­way that once car­ried Birdsville beef to far­away ports. With their orig­i­nal tasks long-since done and dusted, th­ese relics con­tinue to give to the re­gion as tourist at­trac­tions.

But Birdsville and its track have never re­lied on past glo­ries. Big Red, a mas­sive sand dune 35 kilo­me­tres west of Birdsville, marks the start of the Simp­son Desert. Stand­ing 40 me­tres high, it’s the most easterly of 1140 par­al­lel red dunes and af­fords mag­nif­i­cent views of the ad­ja­cent plains.

Ev­ery July since 2013, the Big Red Bash has drawn big Aus­tralian rock and coun­try acts here for the na­tion’s most re­mote mu­sic fes­ti­val – and per­haps the most scenic. This year some 9000 peo­ple camped dune­side to see The An­gels, Hoodoo Gu­rus, John Farn­ham and oth­ers bring their mu­sic to the deep out­back. Voices and gui­tars ring across the mis­named ‘ dead heart’ that, to any sym­pa­thetic eye, never fails to re­veal it­self as burst­ing with life.

Birdsville, it seems, will al­ways find new ways to bloom.

Horses gal­lop to the fin­ish­ing line on the sandy straight un­der a swel­ter­ing sun

The Fred Bro­phy box­ing tent, the last car­ni­val sideshow of its type, sets up across from the Birdsville Ho­tel dur­ing race week­end

Cool­ing off at the fa­mous out­back wa­ter­ing hole

Big Red marks the sym­bolic edge of the Simp­son Desert and serves as a back­drop for the an­nual desert mu­sic fes­ti­val

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