Flooding stops Birdsville races

By Natsumi Penberthy 10 September 2010
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For only the third time in 128 years, the Birdsville races have been cancelled – this time due to flooding.

THE BUILDINGS OF BIRDSVILLE, Queensland were perched in a quagmire of mud this week, after rains stranded more than 3000 visitors and halted the iconic Birdsville races for only the third time in 128 years.

The stormy winter and spring in eastern-Australia have brought record-breaking rains, soaking the normally dusty towns of central Queensland and northern Victoria.

The drenching comes soon after waters from Queensland emptied into Cooper Creek, 265 km south of Birdsville, in June for the first time in two decades – reviving the old car-ferry that keeps people moving up and down the famous Birdsville Track. 

“These are the most favourable conditions for rainfall Australia-wide for almost ten years” says Karl Braganza, manager of climate monitoring at the Bureau of Meteorology. Karl points specifically to the coupling of La Niña with the negative phase of the Indian Ocean Dipole weather phenomenon, bringing greater-than-average sea-surface temperatures and precipitation to the eastern Indian Ocean region.

La Niña, ‘the girl-child’ climate phenomenon, which brings extensive cooling of the central and eastern Pacific Ocean, is a big part of the reason for the downpours. Two weeks ago, the Bureau of Meteorology confirmed that a La Niña cycle had begun in late May, bringing with her, increased probabilities of rain across Australia.

There have been four La Niñas since the 1980s: 1988-89, 1998-2001, 2007-08 and 2008-09. But many drought-affected regions missed out on the rain. This cycle, however, appears to be bucking the trend and bringing the big rains to much-needed areas.

Jockeys try to negotiate the flooded race track. (Photo: Rhonda Heslin)

More rain on the way

The band of rain that hit Birdsville last Friday dragged moisture up from the Southern Ocean and pushed through the central interior across to Rockhampton, flooding a number of other waterways including the Dawson and MacIntyre Rivers in the process.

But it was the direct dump over Birdsville that turned the little red-dust town to sticky mud and dampened the roar of the races, if not at the pub. The races have only been cancelled twice before; once by WWII and a second time by equine flu.

“Dust storms we can deal with,” says Lisa Pearson from the Birdsville Raceclub. “They’re over in a couple of hours.” After 12 hours of rain the claypan ground at the Birdsville Track was flooded a full day before water could be extracted, and the jockeys had to move on to the Bedourie Races – much to the disappointment of the crowds.

The Bureau of Meteorology models indicate La Niña will likely bring increased rainfall to the already sodden parts of Queensland, including Birdsville, during this cycle – something to which is no surprise to local residents. Lisa confirms this trend. “We’re had rain all year. The drought has well and truly broken around Birdsville.”

Birdsville Hotel owner Kim Forte agrees, saying this year’s rain will keep the cattle station owners going all next year. “They’re not used to using green feed – just dry” he says, “the cattle are all looking fat and content, believe me.”