If you think surviving five days on the desert is enough… then prepare yourself for surviving the Birdsville Races.
We had been to Birdsville before but this little the town today wasn’t the quiet little town it was when we last passed through.
Read here of our adventures across the Birdsville Track.
As we drove in from the desert we passed the monster ‘Simpson Desert recovery truck’ heading out towards Big Red, there were a few law enforcement vans parked outside the Police Station and the iconic Birdsville Hotel was open and in full swing.
Built in 1884, this iconic pub is a quintessential Aussie destination usually the main attraction being the last stop for the celebratory drink before going to, or coming from the Simpson Desert… but this week it was all about the ‘Birdsville Races’, a hot ticket on Queensland’s events calendar!
With only four days until the gates opened for the big day, this pub was already alive and bustling with excited patrons… and as soon as we walked through the doors, we entered a world like no other!
Race fever had hit Birdsville!
Our ultimate reward after completing our five day adventure was a nice cold beer before finding a camp spot somewhere on the village green… but arriving to these race crowds was something of a culture shock for us, especially after days of travelling through remote desert with only the good company of our good friends, a fox and kilometre after kilometre of sand!
With all accommodation booked out for this annual event (regulars book anything up to a year or so in advance), we were told that the free campground where we planned to reside for a few days had been filling fast with some campers already calling it home for at least the last week or more!
Luckily for us though, it wasn’t too hard to find a spot, so after tucking ourselves in beneath the shade of a few coolabahs on the cracked and dry, dusty earth, we arranged ourselves around an already cleared fire pit and set up camp awaiting the arrival of Renate and Martins friends, Jane and Ken – also driving a big truck (welcome to our blog guys)!
With our basic chores completed and a nice cuppa in hand we then positioned our chairs in the long grass and watched as a procession of campervans and 4WDs bumped over the dry earth billowing clouds of dust behind… many towing caravans and camper trailers – all in search of the ideal camp site.
Over the next few days Birdsville would slowly transform to accommodate an estimated 8-10,000 people, and with official kick off for the annual event not until Thursday, by Tuesday this free camp area had already converted into ‘Camper City’!
Portable toilets, bins and supplied rubbish bags were set up along the verge and after four days in the desert there was nothing quite as wonderful as a loo we didn’t have to dig… and the sound of running water straight out of the tap was music to our ears! This was certainly a luxury we didn’t expect and even Harry Hilux got a wash and clean inside and out!
Luxury is non-existent in the desert, hundreds of kilometres from anywhere – in fact it has been deficient from our lives for many months now – but who’s complaining… this is the life we love! There’s nothing better than ending an adventurous day, watching the colours of the sky change as evening falls, sitting around a blazing campfire and watching the flames dance around a boiling billy, then dreaming away in our rooftop tent under a sky full of stars.
The first Birdsville Races were held in 1882 and were attended by nearly one hundred and fifty station owners, stockman, and workers in the area.
By the 1890s, the races were an annual event but with no set date.
By the mid-twentieth century Birdsville’s population had dwindled to only fifteen people but it still attracted over a hundred spectators to its two day race meet and slowly as the races grew in prominence so ‘Birdsville Races’ became the ‘Melbourne Cup’ of the outback. The race is now held annually on the first weekend in September attracting thousands of people from all over Australia.
Market stalls were being set up, shelves stocked with food and souvenirs, music was booming from somewhere in the vicinity and the Fred Brophy iconic boxing tent (the last of its kind in the world) was almost erected.
Characters lined the streets; the pub verandah was crowded, and Birdsville had come alive – the atmosphere was electric with excitement!
For many, including our friends, they were probably fulfilling a lifelong dream to witness Australia’s greatest outback race meet, but for us Brdsville would only be our home for a couple of days… we were heading north again!
Driving up and over ‘Big Red’ from the east is on every off-roader’s must-do list so next morning, we headed back out with our friends to attempt another drive over.
There was quite a bit of activity at the bottom when we arrived with several vehicles lined up waiting their turn at a run up the long, steep eastern side of the ‘mountain’ of the Simpson Desert sand dunes.
A few before us had attempted the climb and a few had failed, finally conceding it too difficult and heading back to Birdsville.
Then it was our turn! We had switched to 4WD low range, dropped our tyre pressure…
… and selected our track, then after one last look at this gigantic sandy barrier that stood between us and the Simpson Desert, Guy planted his foot and we surged up and over the dune… very careful not to launch into mid-air like we were in a Mad Max movie.
We had conquered Big Red for a second time and could now bask in its glory once again!
My thoughts are wandering as I sit on top of the sanddune and look around, enjoying a peaceful and precious moment and the beauty of the landscape surrounding me!
It’s hard to believe I am sitting on the last and highest sand dune in the middle of the Simpson Desert with a note pad and pen in hand, and a fly net over my head… if it wasn’t for the chatter and supportive cheers as others crested the dune in the background, it would feel as though it was just me and the desert.
It seems such a long time since we left home and from there we have travelled the Victorian High County, the Murray River, the Flinders Ranges, the NSW Outback, the East Coast, the Atherton Tablelands, part of Cape York, again.
We had an exciting trek across the Bourke Development Road to Karumba from Chillagoe, and from Karumba we made our way west to Bourketown, down to Gregory River, Adeles Grove, Boodjamulla (Lawn Hill) National Park, Riversleigh, Camooweal and then north to Darwin via Nitmiluk (Katherine) Gorge and Edith Falls in the Nitmiluk National Park.
Darwin is always a favourite destination of ours and after a few days of catching up with friends we were on the road again… this time heading west to Lake Argyle, Kununarra and the Bungle Bungles.
The Tanami Track was our next off-road trek with the end destination a couple of days later, beautiful Alice Springs.
From Alice Springs, where we restocked on fuel and supplies, we then headed to Mt Dare in South Australia via the Binns Track.
We finally arrived at Mt Dare after negotiating a 40-kilometre stretch of track with some very long sections of bulldust and deep ruts.
Next came our marathon journey across the famous Simpson Desert with our good friends from NSW, Renate and Martin… 1136 sand dunes and a distance of around 620-kilometres to Birdsville. Our ultimate goal for this trip completed!
Crossing the Simpson Desert was such a unique experience, the landscape breathtaking and the challenge exciting.
At night the Milky Way was so dense with stars that it was like a cloud across the sky. Sunrises and sunsets were stunning. Huge salt lakes suddenly appeared out of nowhere, and their vastness surprised us many times.
This adventure has given us a hell of great story and will be a memorable campfire tale that will be told with much relish in the future.
One day we’d like to do it all over again… next time from east to west!
If you plan on making this trip it is one epic, iconic Australian 4WD journey that should be given the respect and preparation it deserves. Just be well prepared and take your time… and hopefully your desert crossing will be as memorable as ours!
Fidgety was next to complete the big run, and it wasn’t long before Martin and Renate joined us on top of Big Red… then it was Jane and Ken’s turn!
With ‘Big Red’ conquered by us all and obligatory photos taken on the top we descended, aired up and headed back into Birdsville.
Over the next few days, we pulled down our bikes from the top of the Hilux and headed off to explore.
Like most of these little outback towns, Birdsville is also steeped in history and reminders of the past were soon revealed as we methodically ticked off all the sites from the map that the lovely ladies at the Visitor Centre had given us!
The Wirrarri Visitor Centre is a great facility and must ‘stop in’ just to see some of the local artwork. It includes a museum where you can get all those local histories about the Diamantina Region that are hard to find, an auditorium where we watched a DVD on the Birdsville Region and another on Tom Kruse the Mailman, a book exchange and book shop, free wi-fi and is well-stocked with souvenirs .
Affectionately known as the town in the middle of nowhere, the legendary town of Birdsville is really in the middle of everywhere.
It is located on land traditionally owned by the Wangkanguru People in the Channel Country of Central West Queensland and sits at the junction of a many iconic 4WD outback tracks, which include the Birdsville Track; the Rig Road, QAA or French Line across the Simpson Desert via Big Red, the Cordillo Downs Road, Thargominda – Innamincka and Haddon Corner. Read here of our adventures across the Birdsville Track.
The town can also be acccessed via the sealed roads from Windorah and Betoota or along the Donohoe Highway, the highway we would be taking, through Bedourie, Boulia as we head north.
Birdsville, situated within the Diamantina Shire is true frontier country bordering the Simpson Desert and Sturt’s Stony Desert and as well as an important part of Australia’s pastoral history this little town was once considered one of the most roughest and hazardous destinations.
1845 saw the first European to visit the area when Charles Sturt came searching for an inland sea then in 1860 Burke and Wills set up ‘Camp 76’ on their return trip to the Gulf of Carpentaria.
The early 1870s saw merchant Matthew Flynn crossed the river Diamantina and establish a depot then known as’ Diamantina Crossing’ now famously known as Birdsville, which became the customs point for stock and supplies entering South Australia.
Through its chequered history Birdsville has seen some very interesting events including the legendary Captain Starlight a notorious cattle thief who stole a vast herd of Queensland cattle and showing outstanding bushcraft drove them south to Adelaide where they were sold. He effectively pioneered the Birdsville Track.
The Diamantina Shire was established in 1883 and the township of Birdsville was officially gazetted in 1885.
It continued to grow and in 1884 the railroad reached Marree all the way from Adelaide… the interior was beginning to open up.
Pastoral occupation and development began in the 1870s leading to a droving era lasting over ninety years in which time vast numbers of cattle were move along the Birdsville stock route.
By 1889 the towns population had grown to one hundred and ten, which supported two general stores, three hotels, a police station, school, two blacksmith shops, two bakers, a cordial manufacturer, bootmaker, saddler, auctioneer and commission agent.
By 1895 the town’s population had reached two hundred and twenty people.
Birdsville Afghan camel traders continued to carry supplies up the Birdsville track until the late 1930s covering 520-kilometres in six weeks whilst leading over one hundred camels from bore to bore.
Many famous names are also associated with this area from Sturt to Burke and Wills to Sir Sydney Kidman an visionary of his time who built up an empire of holdings from the Gulf of Carpentaria to Adelaide including thousands of hectares in the area, his holdings were larger than England.
Ted Colson was the first white man to cross the desert in 1936 for a beer at the Birdsville Pub and Tom Kruze, the Birdsville Track mailman who was made famous by the film ‘Back of Beyond’ took great pleasure in delivering mail and became a colourful character adept at telling entertaining stories of times gone.
The Australian Inland Mission Hospital was established in the town in 1923 and was the first AIM Hospital in Queensland. The Birdville Courthouse was erected between 1888-1890 and is still part of a police and judiciary complex which continues in use today.
The Royal Hotel was erected around 1883 and is an important link to the early development of the pastoral industry in Western Queensland… and of course you can’t miss the symbol of the town – the Birdville Hotel , which was the second pub in town built between 1884-5, two years after the first Birdsville races, and is still a very popular stop over. This simple, stone, single storey building it is now listed by the National Trust.
The historic Burke and Wills tree is located approximately three kilometres from town is also a must visit.
This tree marks one of their final campsites before they reached the Innamincka area, where the famous Dig Tree stands.
On August 20, 1860, Robert O’Hara Burke and William John Wills set out from Melbourne to chart a course to the Gulf of Carpentaria, which was the first south-north crossing of Australia. The team of 13 men and 20 camels carried over 20 tonnes of provisions. Though successful in their quest, both Burke and Wills perished on their return journey but seeds from a Waddi Tree found in the diary of Wills verify their passage through the Birdsville region.
On the outskirts, a town sign that announces the population as ‘115 (+/- 7000)’ which brought a smile to my face – we have visited a couple of times when it has been almost a ghost a town… and now we were here to see the crowds ascend during race week!
You may be on the edge of the desert, but this town even has its own watercourse and sits on the Diamantina River.
Named in 1866 by the explorer William Landsborough in honour of the wife of Queensland’s first governor, Diamantina Roma Bowen, it has adjacent bush camping sites and is only a short walk from the centre of town.
The Birdsville Billabong is also a popular haunt with the locals and visitors and is great for swimming, fishing and paddling with Pelican Point the best place to get a view of this billabong and to observe the local birdlife.
Last visit the Birdsville Bakery was the place to visit just to try their famous camel pies, but sadly this trip it was all fenced off and had closed its doors.
Since 2005 this town has produced approximately 30% of its electricity needs through an 80kw geothermal power station.
Geothermal power in this little town dates to the 1960s with the original bore that produces this high-pressure steamy water (that flows out at 98 degrees centigrade from Great Artesian Basin), still to be seen on the outskirts of town.
The bore itself drills down 1300-metres under the surface and is so hot it must be cooled down before it can be used domestically.
Parked outside the roadhouse we came across the Simpson Desert recovery truck once again…
… and of course, I have to mention Onslo – a lonely little blue 1963 VW who lives in Birdsville and just loves visitors!
I was so taken with the story of this little car I purchased a book for our each of our grandchildren and labelled all with a photo of Onslo and a photo of Harry Hilux – both having completed the ‘Simspon Desert’.
Onslo is a little blue Volkswagon Beetle who dreams of adventures in the beautiful Simpson Desert, but unlike the big 4WDs who pass through Birdsville, he is too small to conquer the big sand dunes… or so he thought. With encouragement from his best friend Geoffrey the galah this brave beetle embarks on his very own desert adventure and made it all the way to Mt Dare in 2012 – true story!
The beautiful book was written by Kelly Theobald who sadly lost her life in 2015 in a 4WD accident on the Birdsville Track.
If you’re passing through it is a lovely keep sake, especially if you’ve travelled the Simpson … and the kids will love a copy! It can purchased from the Wirrarri Visitor Centre.
Another great book to read is the ‘Outback Cop’, the story of the colourful life and times of a Birdsville policeman co written for the policeman himself, Neal MacShane and Evan McHugh, author of many Australian outback pioneer and hero books!
Our trip across the Tanami and the Simpson Desert with our friends Renate and Martin have been an amazing adventure, one that will live on in my memory for a long time… and the hype of the Birdsville Races over the last couple of days was just an end reward for a cross-country journey across the Simpson that left us feeling so in touch with the land… even the flies, which by now we had become accustomed to be being covered with!
Our few days in Birdsville had passed all too quickly and now it was time make tracks again… so after filling Harry with the fuel from the two 20-litre jerry cans and topping him up with diesel we sadly waved our friends goodbye and headed for Bedourie.
Make sure you have the ‘Big Red Bash’ on your bucket list too…
Along with the races, Birdsville is also famous for its fabulous three-day music festival held in July each year – so it doesn’t just come alive once, it happens twice a year!
Staged on the edge of the Simpson Desert, in the lea of Big Red, ‘The Big Red Bash’ is the world’s most remote music festival that attracts thousands of music lovers who come together to rock their socks off in the desert with top Australian artists such as Paul Kelly, Kate Ceberano, and Thirsty Merc… apparently an event not to be missed!
It might not of happened this year because of Covid… but its definitely on the calendar for 2021 – so start planning your next big adventure!