Nothing beats Birdsville in September. That's the catch cry for the annual Birdsville races in outback Queensland. Journalist RACHAEL HOULIHAN went north to check out the action.
Birdsville is a whole 2241 kilometres from my home in Kirkstall, or 33 hours total driving time.
It's known as the Melbourne Cup of the outback, and late one Thursday evening my partner Will and I make the decision. We're making the trek.
Little did we know, it wasn’t all about the races. The friendly people we met along the way, and the stunning natural landscapes that stretched on forever were highlights. We saw a different part of Australia, and chatted to folks from all walks of life. Like they say – it’s the journey, not the destination. Of course, we truly couldn’t shake the south-west, running into locals also making the trip north. We shared a laugh, and a beer, miles from home.
We set off from Kirkstall for Adelaide - our first stopover - a week before the races kicked off.
Just before Hawkesdale (roughly 15 kilometres down the road from home) I ask Will 'are we there yet?'.
He shoots me a look of utter disbelief. I think he begins to wonder what he's really signed himself up for.
After visiting family in Adelaide, we set off to Port Augusta. The landscape slowly changed as we headed deeper inland. The green of the Clare Valley was long gone, as the palette swapped to ochre and burnt orange. My eyes were peeled for wildlife, and sadly, the vast majority was dead on the side of the road.
Full disclosure - I can't drive a manual vehicle. Absolutely useless. Despite practising before we left, I'm hopeless. However, Will the Brave let me take charge of our humble steed, the Landcruiser, and I managed to crunch through the gears for a few hundred kilometres. The roads swapped between bitumen and gravel as the land got drier.
We stopped at Leigh Creek for lunch - a town struggling to stay alive after its coal mine shut in 2015. The population has decreased from a few thousand to a couple of hundred, however the folk were friendly and there were plenty of kids kicking the footy on the school oval. I stalled twice backing out of the car park and when I finally got going a man in his ute gave me a big toothy grin and two thumbs up.
We arrived at Marree planning to stay at the caravan park, however the historic pub offered free camping with amenities, so we took advantage. This turned out to be a ripping idea.
After setting up our camp we took a walk through the town, and read about its history. Similar to Leigh Creek, Marree has struggled to survive after the railway stopped passing through town in 1981. However, tourism is the big go now, with Marree the gateway to the famed Lake Eyre. It only fills up once or twice a century, and nope, no water at the moment, for those of you playing at home. The current pub owners have been there six years.
After dinner we went into the bar and chatted with the locals and travellers alike. There were plenty of people, like us, on their way to Birdsville. Phone service was out of the question, so I rang my mum from the payphone, just to let her know we had made it and were ok, in case she was worrying. She wasn't.
We met Larl, a former railway worker and his friend, the son of a long-gone Afghan cameleer. They brought to life the history we had read about. Next we chatted to a teacher, who had only moved to Marree two weeks prior to work in the local aboriginal school. Twenty students, nine staff. Not a bad ratio.
We hit the road early, on the Birdsville Track. The 500 kilometres was a mix of gravel, sand and dirt, but it was generally decent roads. Only about 20 kilometres in, we spotted some horses. I jumped out of the car and was amazed when they started to come towards me and were happy to have a scratch. They were station horses, definitely not wild.
The colours of the earth, mixed with the bluest sky kept me in awe for the first hour, before it became normal. The beauty of the land is something to behold. Halfway we stopped at Mungerannie Hotel for lunch. This pub is like nothing else. Hats hang from the ceiling, trophies from former visitors and pony tails, dreadlocks and locks of hair are also stapled to the roof, with notes close by identifying the owners.
"Quick, get the scissors," the publican laughed when I walked in.
"No chance," I thought in my head.
After a quick pit stop we got back on the track for a few more good hours, until we finally made the Queensland border. We danced in our seats, and knew we were close. Upon arrival in Birdsville we took a quick tour of the town.The famed Birdsville Hotel was bursting at its seams. Named after its abundant birdlife, the town of Birdsville is situated on the edge of the Simpson Desert in far west Queensland. Birdsville is known as one of the most isolated towns in Australia.
Thousands of people had already arrived, camped out along the Diamantina River. The town allows free camping, as the population swells from 115 to more than 6000 during race week.
We started Friday, the first day of the two-day race meet, off with pancakes in the sun. Our campsite neighbours continued to roll in and say hello, and we asked them their hot tips for the races. We made our way to the packed out Birdsville Bakery, one of only two licensed bakeries in Australia. We lined up for the prize-winning curried camel pie.
Brilliant weather complimented the day and we caught the shuttle bus to the racecourse for a gold coin donation to the Royal Flying Doctor Service. It’s a real outback affair, and anything goes. Friday was very casual, with a novelty fashions on the field prize offered. We wandered between the public area, betting ring, mounting yard and marquee. Controversial One Nation Senator Pauline Hanson was in the private marquee. Flanked by two security guards and a media advisor, she was the "celebrity" of the day, with folks flocking to have their picture taken with her.
We placed a few bets and even managed to win a race, before we caught the shuttle bus back to our camp site. After a quick freshen up we walked into town to scope out the world famous Fred Brophy Boxing Troupe. It's the last of its kind in the world, and is illegal in every state except QLD and NT. Basically, punters put their hand up to fight professional boxers in a ring under a tent surging with racegoers. Senator Hanson was front and centre, and on Thursday evening she had even been the ring girl, holding up the round cards. The amateurs are generally full of bravado and beer, and have no hope of beating the pros. However, Fred Brophy, as adjudicator, ensures the safety of all participants. No fight was overly aggressive and the crowd roared as the amateurs tried to land a punch. He would call off any fight as soon as it got obvious the amateurs were tiring.
After the boxing was over we ventured into the Birdsville Hotel. The corner pub was heaving with people and the live entertainment drew people from the bar to the beer garden. We sang and danced to two good solid country bands, and caught up with familiar faces we had met and chatted to throughout the day. A highlight was a beer barrel, suspended from the ceiling. The trick was to throw coins into it, with all money raised going towards a new playground for the Birdsville School. I think they might have made enough to build two playgrounds on Friday night. It was a popular way to get rid of loose change.
Saturday was a slow start.
We didn't make it to the track until after the first race, however walking in the gate I run into two Warrnambool acquaintances. We collected our winnings from the day before and watched the fashions on the field competition, with some stunning outfits on display. We met Dan Ryan, Rhys Dews and Bernie Dooley from Warrnambool, who can't believe they had met someone else from home. We also chatted to University of Southern Queensland physics lecturer John Bennett, who was on his bucks party. He’s a little worse for wear, with a heavy metal ball and chain secured to his leg that had been there for the past two days. The key to the lock had been left at the first pub on their road trip from Toowoomba.
They were right – there really is nothing like Birdsville. It was a true Australian experience.