Birdsville races: outback event like no other

By Melanie Kent 10 October 2011
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The Birdsville Race day is a quintessential Australian outback experience and should be on everyone’s bucket list.

DUST. YOU NEED TO embrace it if you’re planning a trip to the Birdsville Races.

On the 300km approach into this isolated Queensland town, the bitumen disappears and you encounter great plumes of the stuff, marking campervans, 4WDs and utes making their pilgrimage to this annual racing meet on the edge of the Simpson Desert.

The tornado-like plumes reach to the sky in intervals across the channel country, guiding the way into this small outback town situated on the banks of the Diamantina River in Queensland, ordinarily home to a population of just 120.

On the first Saturday in September, however, this tiny community is transformed by 6000 travellers from around Australia and beyond, all set to back a winner at the Annual Birdsville Racing Carnival.

Birdsville races, an outback event like no other

It’s a horse race like no other.  In a town made up of a pub, caravan park, bakery, airstrip and a splattering of houses, the racecourse has been attracting tourists since 1882 and the event is now so well known that a 100m shed has been erected to shelter patrons from the harsh outback sun.

Wanting to look my best, I have travelled most of the 1600km from Brisbane with my legs on the dash board, trying in vain to capture some of its rays, lest I look too pasty in my racing dress. I needn’t have bothered. Within five minutes of passing through the racecourse gates, a fine layer of red dust has settled on every pore and I look like I’ve walked straight from the tanning salon.

Word of advice – don’t wear your best outfit to Birdsville. It’s a place where RM Williams, Driza-Bones and Akubras rule.

The crowd is a melting pot of country folk, young travellers and grey nomads – many also donning fancy dress, with clown suits, Hawaiian shirts and kilts, all catching the discerning eye of the Fashions on the Field judges.

Dust: the lore of the outback

It’s not until we witness the first race, that it becomes clear why this meet is so high on the bucket list of many Australians.

The thunder of the thoroughbreds on the barren track, the cheer of a crowd in the middle of nowhere, the carpet of beer cans – and the dust. The fine, gritty particles get in your eyes, your ears, your nose…and suddenly you feel liberated, as if you have been baptised into the Birdsville Punter’s Club.

The races have been held annually for the past 128 years – except on three occasions when rain flooded the track and forced a cancellation.
Windswept and dusted, we join our fellow racegoers on a complimentary coach back into town and revel in our wins between renditions of Waltzing Matilda. Had it been the same size crowd converging on a sole nightclub in the city, I am certain there may have been more than a few brawls.

But united by our chapped lips, dry throats and the epic road trip we endured to reach this place, we boot-scoot the night away on the road outside the Birdsville Hotel, gloriously embracing a race day ritual that permits you to throw your empties in the gutter.

It’s all about the outback journey

Waking to the sounds of cockatoos on the river at dawn the next morning we crawl from our tent amidst the nylon and tarp city that is the Birdsville Caravan Park and treat ourselves to some left-over camp-oven delights. As we pick the burrs from our swags and share stories about the previous day’s events with our camp neighbours, a private jet streams past whisking racegoers home.

I feel for those jet-setters. They have missed out of the best part of coming to Birdsville – the journey. The experience really isn’t complete without seeing the Quilpie street party, the Windorah yabby races, the old Middleton Hotel, Min Min country, the Simpson Desert and Lake Eyre.

As we pull out of Birdsville towards Bedouri, I am full of anticipation about what our alternate route home might bring. It doesn’t take long before we see the familiar plumes on the horizon. We wind up our windows.