Off and Racing!
Birdsville’s Iconic Races
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
SOME 300 PEOPLE CALLED BIRDSVILLE HOME, ALMOST TRIPLE TODAY’S POPULATION
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),
BIG RED, A MASSIVE 40-METRE HIGH SAND DUNE, AFFORDS MAGNIFICENT VIEWS OF THE PLAINS
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