THE RACE THAT STOPS A TOWN
The Birdsville Races is the Melbourne Cup of the desert horse racing-circuit. You’ve got to experience the atmosphere at least once
WORDS BY GLENN MARSHALL, PHOTOS BY ROBERT CAMERIERE
One of Australia’s most iconic and remote destinations in Australia is Birdsville, in outback Queensland. The romantic isolation draws people in from near and far, especially for the biggest event on the Birdsville calendar – the Birdsville Races. Heading to Birdsville for the race carnival should be on everyone’s bucket list and luckily, that is exactly where Rob and I were heading.
Birdsville was once an important customs point for stock and supplies entering South Australia. The Birdsville Track was a major stock route before it became the well-maintained road it is today. Tom Kruse, the Birdsville Track mailman, made the track famous in his film “Back of Beyond” and his favourite stopover was at the equally famous Birdsville Hotel.
Windorah was our last stop before the bitumen runs out and the dirt road begins. Here, at one of the best free camp sites on the Cooper Creek, pelicans float peacefully on the water. As the last fuel and pub stop for 385km, as well as offering the opportunity to buy groceries and make use of a dump point, Windorah is an essential town for those heading to Birdsville.
As you drive into town, you will see a row of dishes made from mirrors. This is the Windorah Solar Farm and since 2009 it has produced enough electricity to help power the entire town. This has reduced the amount of diesel needed to run generators which is great for the environment. The solar farm presents a great photo opportunity too.
If you time your stay right, the Windorah International Yabby Races are held the Wednesday night before the Birdsville Race weekend. With four races, the night concludes with the Cooper Cup. Yabbies are auctioned off to happy punters before each race with the proceeds flowing back into the community and donated to the RFDS. This event attracts a big crowd and a good time is had by all.
On the road out of Windorah, we rounded a bend to be surprised by a booze bus – so if anyone is tempted to think that things are different in the bush, think again. There were already a few sorry looking drivers and vehicles on the side of the road.
We could see plumes of dust in front of us and behind us as a steady stream of vehicles made their way from Windorah on the Birdsville Development Road: 4WD vehicles, camper trailers, caravans, motorhomes and buses. We even passed a group making the journey on postie bikes.
The landscape is extremely barren and still suffering the effects of a long drought. Every so often a red sand dune swells up, altering the landscape, and we can see small trees and spinifex grass that are playing their part in slowing the erosion of the dunes. As you move away from Windorah, rocky mesas begin to take the place of sand dunes.
One such mesa is provides a wayside stop with spectacular views across the broad sweep of red earth. Looking down on the panorama before us, I was fascinated by this bird’s eye view of the dust trails made by vehicles converging on Birdsville.
A commemorative plaque here recognises the spot as “Deon’s Lookout”, named after a local who was tragically killed in a helicopter accident at the age of just 20. This mesa, it appears, was a favourite place for Deon to sit and reflect after a hard day’s work.
There is also a shaded table and drop toilets, making it an ideal spot for lunch. Deon’s father David Brook is now the President of the Birdsville Race Club.
The Avida Esperance handled the corrugations and dust competently and as the Birdsville Racetrack came into view, we knew we were nearly at our destination. The starting gates were already in position, ready for the next day, when the crowds would swell by thousands and spend some dosh with the bookies and at the bar.
The Birdsville Race Carnival runs for two days on the Friday and Saturday. Shuttle buses run regularly from opposite the caravan park for a gold coin donation – great if you don’t have a designated driver.
Fashions on the Field is a vital and enjoyable part of the Birdsville Races and you’ll see the crowd’s focus change once the call goes out for the finalists to take to the stage. The effort the contestants put in to dress up and look spectacular is truly amazing. This year, with 82 entries across the four categories, was the biggest and best Fashions on the Field yet!
The main attraction, though, is the racing experience itself: the dusty track and the thrill as the horse with your number on it thunders past the post. The betting ring is like a scene from the stock market bear pit, with bookies yelling odds while they compete for your money. Hard-earned cash is exchanged and you walk away with a fervent hope that your choice has been a good one. Oh well, there is always the next race.
The shuttle bus ride home is always jovial, filled with laughter, the smell of beer and faces burned red from a day in the sun. It is more than apparent that the bookies would be going home happy too – another successful Birdsville Race Carnival almost complete.
Like moths to a flame, the punters are drawn to the Birdsville Hotel. Right across the road is another crowd favourite: the boxing tent run by an outback icon, Fred Brophy. The drum pounds as muscled boxers are lined up and introduced by Fred in front of eager, pumped up wannabes. Mates volunteer mates and as fighters are matched, the combatants retreat into the tent and prepare for battle. Inside the tent, fists fly, arms swing, leather hits skin and everybody cheers as a winner is decided between the modern-day gladiators of the bush.
A visit to Birdsville must include a trip out to Big Red, that famous enormous sand dune. It is approximately 40km out to Little Red via a regularly maintained gravel road. You will need a 4WD to actually climb Little Red and Big Red, but even if you don’t have one, the photo opportunity and amazing scenery makes the drive out worthwhile. You can walk to the top of Big Red and watch with your heart in your mouth as 4WDs of all shapes, sizes and brands select a track to the top. Then, with engines screaming, tyres bouncing and the suspension working overtime, each driver pushes their 4WD to get to the top of Big Red.
Famous for its wide selection of pies, including camel pie, the Birdsville Bakery can’t be missed. Dusty and Jacko built the first ever bakery in 2004 and you wouldn’t know that it was their first bakery as well. It’s open early, serving big breakfasts, or you can pick up freshly cooked bread, warm pies or a bacon and egg sandwich before the day’s exploring begins. You can also grab some lunch or enjoy some dinner around the fire. Rob and I tucked into a pie and a sausage roll to kickstart our day.
The Birdsville Hotel, built in 1884, is one of the best-known pubs in Australia. Well-worn Akubras hang from the ceiling and pictures of local characters adorn the walls; all of it a tribute to those who have lived and worked in the outback but have moved on.
Consuming a nice cold beverage and taking a piccie in the bar is a must. A gold coin donation for the Royal Flying Doctor Service is required before any photos can be taken inside the hotel, but that is cheap for a picture that will be a treasured souvenir.
Birdsville Caravan Park is the only place within the town limits where you can set up an RV. Only a short walk from town, this is a great place to park for a few days to catch up on your washing and enjoy a hot shower to wash off the dust.
The most popular place to free camp is on the bank of the Diamantina River. With loads of space along the flood plain, and with a perfect location halfway between town and the racetrack, there’s a reason it’s popular. Portable toilets and bins are plentiful and spaced out nicely and showers (for a fee) are available in town at the roadhouse or in portable units opposite the Information Centre.
Opposite the caravan park is the second most popular place in town, the Birdsville Roadhouse. Whether you need fuel, mechanical repairs, camping equipment, souvenirs, groceries or an ice cream, this is your one-stop shop. The owner Peter Barnes, is famous for his Simpson Desert vehicle recoveries and as the roadhouse is the RACQ depot, he services all the other roads in and out of Birdsville.
The old Royal Hotel ruins command attention on the corner of Adelaide and Frew Streets. Built in 1883 this historic building has served its time as a pub, an Inland Australia Mission Hospital and a school. Now it is has been left to Mother Nature, so let’s hope someone else steps in before the town loses such an asset.
The bore water that rises from the Great Artesian Bore runs at a temperature of 98˚ degrees and once cooled is used as the town’s drinking water. The bonus of the bore head being close to town is that it’s the perfect wash-down place for your rig. With a hot water hose available, you can easily wash the dust and insect splatter off your vehicle and RV – and it’s free!
Just north of town is a group of waddi trees (Acacia peuce), one of only a few locations in the world. On this windswept sandy clay pan these trees have a wood so hard it has damaged saws, axes and even (when dry) drill bits! Fence posts made from waddi trees show little sign of decay a century later. The Aboriginal people used to carry smouldering embers of the waddi wood from camp to camp for fire. These trees, now a protected species, are an astonishing part of nature.
If you haven’t yet taken the time to head to the Queensland Outback and visit the town of Birdsville, I suggest that it’s time to put it on your list of must-see places in Australia. It will be even better if you can time your visit to coincide with Birdsville Races. You won’t regret it, I guarantee it!