The Galah Session

Birdsville Races Countdown!

Birdsville Roadhouse - Friday, August 24, 2012

Races fever has hit Birdsville! There’s only one week until the racecourse gates fly open and Birdsville is already bustling with excited punters. Official events kick off on Wednesday, with food and market stalls setting up early in the week. This Saturday, just over 100 kilometres down the road, the Betoota Race Club is hosting their annual race meet, which is a great stopover event if you’re on your way to Birdsville.

Held in Australia’s smallest town, the Betoota Races attracts a smaller crowd than Birdsville, which means shorter queues at the bar, a chance to have a yarn with locals and the opportunity to bet on some of the same world-class race horses that run in Birdsville. It’s known as the ‘warm-up party’ for the Birdsville Races and, although it’s primarily a family event, live entertainment amuses the grownups until well into the night.

If you don’t mind a bit of driving, the Windorah International Yabbie Races are held on the main street of Windorah on Wednesday evening. Yabbies are auctioned off and raced while hundreds of travellers and locals alike watch on, enjoying the live music and plentiful food available, before they head to Birdsville.

The Birdsville Races are undoubtedly the main attraction on the Simpson Desert Racing Carnival calendar and this year we’re celebrating their 130th year. The Birdsville Race Club and Birdsville community work hard all year to provide exceptional on and off-track entertainment. The official race days are Friday August 31st and Saturday September 1st, but off-track events commence on Wednesday.

Over the weekend and early next week, Birdsville will slowly transform to accommodate the estimated 8000 people that flock here for the races. Food vans and market stalls will set up in the streets, Fred Brophy will erect his iconic boxing tent, the last of its kind in the world, and we’ll stock our shelves with food, souvenirs, camping gear and top up the fuel tanks. The RAAF Roulettes will also drop in to Birdsville, performing an aerobatic show that will the highlight event.

While the official race program is available from the Birdsville Race Club and information about pub entertainment can be obtained from the Birdsville Hotel, we quizzed our staff to see what they enjoyed most about the races and what their hot tips for a great races experience are.

Photo courtesy Birdsville Race Club

Bronwynne: I love the races when they’re over! No, even though it’s the most stressful week all year, I do love the Lions Club BBQ. They use local beef, they’re friendly, well priced and it’s supporting a good cause. My tip for a great experience is to be patient – we’re only a little town of 100 people and we try really hard to put on a great event for everyone that comes, so please be patient with us! It’ll make us a lot more relaxed, too. Oh, and check out our souvenir shed next door – we had great fun coming up with ideas for special races souvenirs!

Barnes’y: I love the atmosphere of race week. There are always plenty of characters around, everyone’s in a good mood and there’s excitement in the air. I also never miss the charity auction at Fred Brophy’s tent on the Saturday night. I buy something every year! My tip is to drive here in a high-clearance vehicle. If you don’t have one, borrow one because it’ll make your trip a lot safer and relaxing as you won’t have to worry so much about busting tyres or damaging your car with rocks.

Kathy: One really fun part of races is the Thursday afternoon ‘Equine Fun Day’ events outside the pub that were invented in 2007 when the races were cancelled due to equine flu. It’s good seeing everyone get involved in the funny games and races and it signifies the beginning of race weekend. I also love the following ‘mad’ Monday at the pub because it’s a chance for the staff to relax after their hardest week all year. My tip is for the ladies – don’t bother wearing heels. The dust at the racecourse and the rocky ground in Birdsville isn’t made for them.

Kelly: My favourite part of any race meet is fashions on the field. I love wearing a nice dress and hat and I don’t listen to Kathy – I bring out the heels anyway, although it’s not always the best choice. I also love having a flutter on the horses and trawling the stalls for quirky knickknacks. This year I’m definitely buying a ‘done me dough at the Birdsville Races’ t-shirt from the Roadhouse because I always loose all my money at the races, one way or another. My tip is to bring plenty of cash with you because the line at the ATM is always torturously long.

Sam: I like the duck shooting game! Oh, someone just said that doesn’t come anymore. Well, I like the pizza man – it means I don’t have to cook all week and there’s no better food than pizza anyway. Different food vans come every year so I really hope the pizza one come this year, otherwise I won’t know what to do! Last year I think I ate pizza every night he was here. My tip for the races is don’t eat the pizza or there’ll be none left for me! Really though, I recommend you pre-buy your ticket for Fred Brophy’s boxing show because that way you’ll get to go in first and score a good seat.

So who’s coming to the races? See you there!  

The Birdsville Races

Birdsville Roadhouse - Friday, August 10, 2012

Birdsville Races 2011. Kelly Theobald

Beneath the coolabahs on the banks of the Diamantina, long grass whispers in the gusty August winds. A trail of cars bumps over the dimpled earth, an eruption of dust behind them as they search for the perfect campsite.

They pick the flattest patch of ground with a nice amount of shade, a campfire pit already dug. They have uninterrupted views of the Diamantina River winding through the scrub and plenty of space to spread out their caravans and awnings and chairs.

They settle in, knowing that this will be their home for three weeks or more. They’re staying until the Birdsville Races – fulfilling a lifelong dream to witness Australia’s greatest outback race meet.

These days, an estimated 8000 people are drawn to the tiny, remote town of Birdsville for its annual race meet. Held on the first Friday and Saturday of September each year (this year it’s Friday 31st August and Saturday 1st September), ‘the races’ are a culmination of an historic legacy and the dedication of hard-working locals.

The first Birdsville Races were held on the 20th-23rd of September in 1882 and were attended by nearly 150 station owners, stockmen and workers in the area. According to The Queenslander on November 18 of that year, “the weather was delightful, the entrances for the various events good, and the finishes in most of the races close and exciting. Nearly 200 pounds was raised by public subscription, which speaks well for the prosperous condition of the district”.

Following the inaugural race meet, a race club called the ‘Border Jockey Club’ was formed with an initial 42 members and the date set for the following year’s races, to be held in July 1883.

Until 1889, there were separate race meets for grass-fed and grain-fed horses. However, on June 1st, 1889, the Brisbane Courier reported: “in consequence of the continued drought in the Birdsville neighbourhood, the race meeting which was fixed for the 5th and 6th instant has been abandoned.” It was eventually rescheduled for September 17th and 18th of that year and jockeys competed for £260 prize money. But, with a scarcity of grass-fed horses in condition that year, those races were cancelled and the two race-meets were combined from then on.

By the 1890s, the races were an annual event but no set date had been fixed. In 1892, they were held on December 31st and January 1st and the South Australian Register reported on 21st January 1892 that weather was “excessively hot” and “several cases of sunstroke occurred during the meeting, one, that of a young girl, proving fatal.”

Weighing in at the Birdsville Races, 1920.

Despite that, races were still being held in summer in the mid 1920s. One of the first Birdsville-based AIM nursing sisters, Sister Grace Francis, wrote in her diary entry of 6th January 1925, that: “we went out [to the races] and took a picnic basket. It was too hot to be enjoyable.” During this time, there were also specific races for ladies and children.

However, Sister Francis also wrote about the dances and balls that had become popular races events. That year, she reported that the fancy dress ball was “rather a failure”.  “The man who plays the accordion had to be taken to the hotel for a drink between each dance,” she wrote.

Birdsville racetrack, 1926

By the mid 20th Century, Birdsville’s population had dwindled to its lowest ever – only 15 people according to a report in the Courier Mail on September 14, 1944.  The Birdsville Race Track was moved from the western side of the town, to avoid the frequent floods, to its present position on a clay pan about three kilometres southeast from the township. Of the 1948 Birdsville Races, Adelaide newspaper The Mail reported that 100 spectators came from up to 500 miles away for the event and drank 300 gallons of beer over the two days of racing.

The 1953 races attracted about 150 spectators, of which only one in five were white females, according to the Charleville Times on August 13, 1953. There was only one registered bookmaker present who seemed to give the few ladies in attendance the best odds – one woman was given 10-1 for an early winner.  Thereafter, the blokes asked the women to place their bets for them. The Birdsville Amateur Race Club, as the Birdsville Race Club was then known, gave 75 per cent of the profits from the event to the Australian Inland Mission while retaining the rest for club finances.

Mona Henry, an AIM nursing sister stationed in Birdsville in the early 1950s recalls a famous, hilarious incident of favouritism by a certain race judge. Butcher, a local aboriginal man, was the judge for the aborigine’s race in 1955. “As the starter’s gun boomed on the far side of the course, his eyes sought his relative, Culpa, mounted on the favourite, Postman,” she wrote.

But, Postman was trailing the field with Chafcutter many lengths ahead, winning the race by a mile. “It needed only the judge’s decision to name the winner and, as every race-goer knows, the judges decision is final.”

“Butcher announced the winner: Postman. Fights broke out as Culpa received the prize – and Butcher, with more discretion than valour, mounted the ‘winning’ horse and fled the scene.”

Racing at Birdsville in 1975. 

Throughout the 20th century, the races grew in prominence, with more and more people attending the event each year. In the late-70s, author F. Gage McGinn noted in her book, Birdsville, that more than 60 aircraft parked on the Birdsville air strip during race meetings.

In the early 80s, fourth generation boxing tent showman Fred Brophy began attending the races, bringing with him his troupe of boxers, becoming one of the races’ best and most iconic attractions. His tent stands opposite the Birdsville Hotel and each evening of the races, crowds gather around his beating drum, seeing who will be brave enough to challenge the experienced boxers in his troupe.

Fred Brophy's challengers. Kelly Theobald

By the 1990s, increasing outback tourism and a marketing push by hardworking locals helped the races gain public attention and capture the imaginations of thousands of people – and not just outback people. Gradually, the Birdsville Races became the ‘Melbourne Cup of the Outback’. In the early 90s the races, now held annually on the first weekend of September, were attracting crowds of 2-3000 people from all over the country.

Then, the family atmosphere reigned – there were ‘sideshow alley’ carnival games, a rodeo or mechanical bull demonstrations and an afternoon disco at the Birdsville Hotel for the children. The traditional outback ball and dance were still being held on race evenings, which balanced out the boozy party atmosphere of more modern races.

Races crowd, 2001. Robin Smith

Birdsville Roadhouse owners Bronwynne and Peter Barnes remember when the general store was open from 8am – 1pm, when it closed so that staff could attend the races, and then opened for an hour in the evening. Back then, crowds only gathered in the town for the weekend – unlike today when people arrive as early as three weeks in advance to secure their camping spot.

By the turn of the millennium, the races were a well-established and well-known outback event that attracted roughly 8000 spectators. Now, the town is better equipped to deal with the influx of people and locals are practiced at preparing for the event.

Thousands of visitors. Kelly Theobald

These days, the Birdsville Roadhouse is open from 8am-6pm every day during race week (and the rest of the year, for that matter). Live entertainment is provided by the Birdsville Hotel and Birdsville Race Club and the best horses from all over the county compete for the $30,000 prize money. All proceeds from the races are given to the Royal Flying Doctor Service and the Birdsville Clinic is open 24 hours for medical support.

In 2007, the spread of equine flu meant that, for only the second time in Birdsville Races history, the races were cancelled. Instead, an ‘equine fun day’ was developed with friendly races and games being held on Adelaide Street, outside the Birdsville Hotel. It’s a tradition that continues today on the Thursday of race week.

2011 'Equine Cup' competitors. Kelly Theobald

The 2010 Birdsville Races were the wettest in history. Races on the Friday were soggy and muddy but the Saturday events were washed out completely. Brief road closures meant that 7000 attendees were stranded in town for a few days until the weather cleared and roads dried out.

Although the Birdsville Races are now undoubtedly one of the outback’s biggest events, some things never change. The Birdsville cup is still a one-mile or 1600m race, as it always has been, and horses still run anti-clockwise, as in southern states, instead of clockwise as in the rest of Queensland.

Birdsville is beginning to gear up for yet another year of racing and the banks of the Diamantina are already dotted with campers waiting patiently for the festivities to begin. When they do, there’ll be a few bucket list items covered with a big black cross.

Birdsville Races, 1920. State Library of South Australia

Sam to the rescue - not once, but twice!

Birdsville Roadhouse - Friday, August 03, 2012

We love a good piece of bush poetry, especially when it’s about the Birdsville Roadhouse’s Sam Barnes! He’s more or less Birdsville born and bred and, although he’s a boilermaker by trade, he can often be found around our workshop putting his impressive mechanic skills to use.

He’s also a terrific driver so is often sent on vehicle recovery missions, rescuing stranded travellers who are grateful for his quick response and bushman know-how to get them out of a fix. Clearly, we think Sam is awesome (although ‘we’ are his parents and girlfriend…). But, when he received these wonderfully written poems in the mail, we realised that our customers love him too!


They were trav’lin’ through the outback,

Down Diamantina way,

When they happ’ed upon a small town

And there they spent a day.

 

The people were quite friendly

When at the Birdsville Pub they called,

So they settled in for two nights –

Soon the locals were appalled.

 

They headed for the ‘crossing’

In spite of recent rain,

“Pajeros can go anywhere,

We’ll prove that right again.”

 

So down the bumpy, sandy tracks

These ‘city slickers’ wander,

Until they hit a soggy patch

And then were they a goner!

 

They revved the engine, spun the wheels,

In four-wheel-drive they sat

And soon they found, for Sam they soon

Became another stat.

 

A quick phone call and quick response,

Soon found them Sam at hand.

Behind his smile amusement lurked –

MORE tourists in wet sand.

 

He brought a rope but needed two –

Another soon to hand –

He checked the hitch then gave a tug,

Pajero on dry land.

 

Then Sam he headed back to work,

The tourists back to town.

They called into the Roadhouse,

Then took off to look around.

They liked young Sam, the tow-truck man –

He did a cheerful job.

Whate’er he’s paid, they’d tell his boss,

“He’s worth each flamin’ bob.”

 

And… the next instalment…

 

‘Big Red’ – now here’s another tale;

It happened just this way –

They bought a pass so they might go

That self-same fateful day.

 

Petrol to get them there and back,

They’d water – they weren’t fools!

Sunhats and glasses and such things,

They knew the outback rules.

 

They travelled down the gravel road

Until a detour’s seen –

There’s water where, one hundred years,

No water has been there.

 

So 13ks around the pool,

‘Long sandy tracks they wander,

Until at Big Red’s base they be –

The top is way up yonder.

 

In four-wheel-drive, with engine revved,

They whizz right to the top,

A glance around, turn engine off,

And out of it they pop.

 

The scenery is engaging,

They look in great delight.

Photos taken, back into car,

But something ain’t quite right.

 

They can’t reverse, forward must go,

So down the other side.

They turn around and face Big Red,

Now for the upward ride.

 

The engine revs and up they head –

Just halfway up the slope.

Back down they go to gather speed –

Two-thirds, but still no hope.

 

They needed to reach Birdsville,

Neil said that he’d go back.

And so through water three-foot deep

And up the gravel track.

 

Neil had about a 5k trek

Until he hailed a truckie,

Who wired through to Birdsville

(which did prove rather lucky).

 

While Neil was gone, King tried again,

Going way, way back –

He got three-quarters up this time,

Which was a worthwhile crack.

 

Then back came Sam, the tow-truck man,

Collecting Neil enroute.

King saw the dust come down the track

And cheered “Whako! You Beaut!”

 

Relief at seeing Neil climb out

One tow-truck cabin door,

While Sam climbed out the other side,

Was huge – that is for sure.

 

Sam released air from the tyres,

Reversed back down the hill,

Then up he came without a care,

Car bending to his will.

 

With smile upon his happy face

At showing up these oldies,

To Birdsville once again he drove –

Suspect to have some coldies.

 

Again the oldies hit the road

With ne’er a further worry,

Back to the Birdsville Roadhouse,

Where no one’s in a hurry.

 

While driving on a sandy beach,

These oldies know the drill –

You let air out of tyres,

WHY NOT ON SANDY HILL?!?!

 

Yes, they liked young Sam the tow-truck man;

He was a cheerful kid.

But, behind his pleasant, smiling face,

Amusement surely hid.

 

 

Keep the Flying Doctor in the Air

Birdsville Roadhouse - Friday, July 13, 2012

In the 1950s, Former Prime Minister Sir Robert Menzies described the Royal Flying Doctor Service (RFDS) as “perhaps the single greatest contribution to the effective settlement of the far distant country that we have witnessed in our time.”

In Birdsville, we know that these words are still true. When the closest doctor is 700 kilometres away, we rely on the RFDS for a fortnightly clinic day and to quickly provide medical care in emergencies. Without them, it would be difficult to survive in the outback.

It was a minister of the Presbyterian Church who conceived the idea of the RFDS. The Rev John Flynn, or ‘Flynn of the Inland’, had lived in the outback for much of his life and had witnessed the struggle and hardship of the outback folk. He began setting up hospitals in the outback and in 1912 established the Australian Inland Mission.

Photo courtesy RFDS

It wasn’t until 1928, and after ten years of campaigning, that the first RFDS flight took off from Cloncurry. In that first year, the RFDS flew 50 flights to 26 destinations and treated 225 patients. A couple of years later, the invention of the pedal radio made it possible for people living in remote areas to contact the RFDS in times of emergency.

The introduction of transistor receivers led to the establishment of the ‘Galah Sessions’ that were held throughout the day so that nurses at the Australian Inland Mission Hospitals could contact remote stations and put them in touch with a doctor. Rev Flynn’s vision of a ‘mantle of safety’ over the outback was now a reality.

These days, telephones have made contact much easier but the RFDS is still necessary for people living in remote communities with no doctor. Both residents and travelers of the outback can have peace of mind that if there’s a medical emergency, an RFDS plane will evacuate them to the closest hospital, usually several hundred kilometers away.

Photo courtesy National Library of Australia

However, keeping RFDS planes flying is expensive business. Luckily, there are hoards of generous people who are willing to donate their time and money to support the lifeline of the outback.

For example, the Birdsville Races are held in September each year to raise money for the service and there’s always an RFDS donation tin at the bar of the Birdsville Hotel and Birdsville Roadhouse.

Just last week, Birdsville local Jenna Brook completed a 435-kilometre 'Long Walk Home' across the Simpson Desert, which raised $30,000 for the service. She publicized and trained for the walk for nine months before embarking on the journey and is still receiving donations that she is passing on to the RFDS.

Jenna is an inspirational young woman who brought the RFDS to the attention of people all over the world and is helping keep Rev Flynn’s dream alive. According to the RFDS website, Flynn once said, "If you start something worthwhile, nothing can stop it." This hero of the outback is honoured on the Australian $20 note. 

Thanks to the RFDS website for the fantastic information and historical facts. 

Birdsville - the busiest place in the world?!

Birdsville Roadhouse - Sunday, June 17, 2012

A cartoonist called Lynn Johnston once said, “An apology is the superglue of life. It can repair just about anything”. So, we would like to repair our reputation as Birdsville's best source of news by apologising for our absence on the Galah Session over the past few weeks, which is due to an incredibly busy month in Birdsville.

We’ve had interesting characters reach town after achieving amazing physical feats, we’ve competed in the Finke Desert Race in Alice Springs and have become an official sponsor of The Long Walk Home, Jenna Brook’s walk across the Simpson Desert.

It was Jenna’s walk that inspired German cyclist Walter Leven to dedicate his planned 6000-kilometre four-month-long outback ride to raising money for the Royal Flying Doctor Service. After weeks of communication, Walter and Jenna finally met in Birdsville and chatted about the RFDS, their training and the outback over a cuppa.


Walter Leven and Jenna Brook.

Shortly after Walter continued on his ride, Birdsville was graced with a visit from Merv Hughes, former Australian Cricketer, to promote the importance of men’s health.

The next day, a very healthy Owen Davies walked into town after a 994-kilometre journey following the Georgina River from Camooweal, far northwest Queensland. He had been travelling with his pack of nine goats for two months and reached Birdsville on the wettest day we’d had all year!


Merv Hughes with Councillor Jody Barr. Photo courtesy Diamantina Shire Council

The day after that, Dick and Pip Smith were in Birdsville visiting friends. They’re supporters of The Long Walk Home and caught up with Jenna at the pub before coming to the Birdsville Roadhouse to check on the progress of our Pro-Lite buggy.

Around this time, travellers James and Steph were stranded in town with a blown head gasket. Luckily, they loved the place and agreed to work at the Roadhouse when we took off for Finke, the greatest off-road race in the country. They’re still here and might be hanging around longer, yay!


Dick Smith and Jenna Brook. Photo courtesy The Long Walk Home

Later that week, a plane made an emergency landing 500 metres short of the Birdsville airstrip and our little town made the national news. Thankfully, no one was hurt and the plane was successfully recovered.

We were just about to leave for Finke when our supply truck got bogged on the Birdsville Track. The track was soft after a couple of days of heavy rain and driver Richard was forced to wait at Mungerannie Hotel until the track reopened and dried out. We finally received our supplies and the Krakka Koldee Racing team hit the road as soon as they were unpacked.


Emergency landing. Photo courtesy the Outback Loop

The Finke Desert Race is an annual 460-kilometre race from Alice Springs to the remote community of Finke and back, along the old Ghan line. This year, there were over 80 buggies and cars competing, as well as almost 600 motorbikes and quads. We were one of 8 Pro-Lite buggies in the race.

Unfortunately, though, a broken rear stub axle and engine problems forced us to withdraw from the race during prologue on the Saturday. We’re now working hard to get the buggy back into shape for the next race. Keep an eye out for Kelly’s Finke coverage in the next issue of Outback Magazine for more information on the race.


The Krakka Koldee driver and navigator team

While we were at Finke, the Birdsville Photography Group held an opening night for their ‘On The Land’ exhibition. Prizes were awarded for the best photographs and all attendees reported having a lovely evening. We saw the exhibition at the Wirrarri Information Centre on our return and were amazed by the high quality of all of the photos. It really is a visual reminder of why we love living in Birdsville.

On Friday, the Birdsville State School P&C committee held their monthly bingo night, which was enjoyed by all and next weekend the Birdsville Social Club is holding their annual horse and motorbike gymkhana. The Krakka Koldee Racing Team might even be demonstrating the speed of their ultra-reliable 1300cc Suzuki-powered buggy on the bike enduro track over the weekend.


Birdsville State School students and staff

Lastly, there’s only a week until Jenna Brook sets off on her ‘Long Walk Home’. As we’re now official sponsors, we can officially recommend that you donate to her walk, which supports the Royal Flying Doctor Service.

Phew, we’ve seen a lot of action in the past few weeks! Birdsville may be a small town, but life is certainly eventful. 


Owen Davies in Birdsville. Keep an eye out for Kelly's article about Owen in the next edition of Outback Magazine.


Sully - an old friend, a great character.

Birdsville Roadhouse - Thursday, May 31, 2012

Every year since 1954, Ron O’Sullivan, or Sully as most people know him, has been a familiar sight at the Birdsville Anzac day parade. He’s missed only one year. Back then, he says, the Anzac day services were held in the old hospital grounds. “They had no memorial or anything in those days,” Sully remembers.

“I first came out to this country 1948. I was a dozer driver when they were building an airstrip at Leigh Creek,” he told us. “They lent us a car and we came up the Birdsville Track. It was a tough drive in those days. Then I didn’t come out again until Anzac day 1954.”

Originally from Richmond, in Melbourne, Sully left school in the fourth grade and ran away from home when he was ten years old to “go bush”. “I had a stepfather and I didn’t like him,” he said. “I was the worry of my mum’s life. She’d say: ‘he was a bastard of a kid – he was always running away from home to go to the bush’.”

He was only 16 years old when he enlisted in the army in 1939 at the beginning of World War Two. He was in the 2/9th Battalion. “I took the name off the side of a truck I’d seen. The enlisting officer turns around and says: ‘What’s yer name?’ I said it was Vaughan because the truck was Vaughan Transport. He said: ‘How do you spell it?’ and I couldn’t spell it. He said: ‘couldn’t you have picked an easier name?’” 

Sully has strong connections with the Birdsville area. “When I enlisted at the recruiting office in Brisbane, there was a heap of fellas there. Lots of them were stockman, mostly at the Kidman stations, and I said: ‘after the war, I’ll come out’, but they were all killed. So I first came out at Anzac day for them,” he said.

Sully was a Prisoner of War in Germany and Austria during the war and made eight attempts to escape.

After the war, Sully worked at Brambles Industrial Services, becoming a manager of over 200 staff for 15 years. A mate from the army who had a cattle station once asked him what he would do when he retired. “I said: ‘I’m going to buy a small cattle property with a big house on a hill with a big verandah and then I’m going to watch all my stock making money for me while I’m sitting there of an evening having a beer’,” he said.

He eventually bought a property and named it Muncoonie after the Muncoonie Lakes on Adria Downs, north west of Birdsville. “I called old Bill Brook up and asked if he’d mind if I called my place Muncoonie,” Sully said.

“My wife was an animal lover, like myself, and every animal had a name. There was Charley, Eddie, and Muriel… We couldn’t sell them. We ended up with a lot of bloody pets!”

Sully says that he mainly keeps coming out to Birdsville because of the people here. “I like coming out here because people are friendly and you get to know them. I’ve made lots of friends,” he says. “I can remember them all, like old Maudie Naylor. They reckon she was 114 – I don’t know if she was. She went blind in the end and she used to sit outside the pub before it burnt in ‘79. You had to go up to her and she felt your face. She’d say, ‘oh, it’s Sully’. She’s up in the cemetery now. All the original people are up there in the cemetery.”

He says that Birdsville has changed a little over the years that he’s been coming. “It’s gotten bigger and there were no telephones on when I first started coming,” he remembers. “They didn’t get the phone on here until the late ‘70s. When they did, there was only one phone and everyone had to line up to use it.”

“When the caravan park was first set up there was only two fiberglass buildings that were the showers and there were no trees at all,” he says of the caravan park that he has always camped at. “My wife would stay a week or a fortnight and then fly out. Now that I’m retired I stay ‘til I feel like going home, though. My wife passed away five years ago so I do the same thing here that I do at home, except mow the lawn.”

Sully’s experiences of Birdsville are varied – he’s also travelled extensively around the region. “I’ve met Prime Ministers here, two Governor Generals, Malcolm Fraser and his wife Tammy...  We used to do a lot of desert crossings, just for something to do,” he says. “In those early days there was nothing at Mt Dare. It was just a big cattle property – there was no hotel.”

“We used to go to Dalhousie and Finke, we did Walker’s Crossing [alternate route between Birdsville and Innaminkca, currently closed] a few times before Walker died and they named the track after him. There was usually just two of us in one car, me and a mate – I had Toyotas and Land Rovers. I love the desert and I’ve never got into trouble in the desert, even in the drought and the heat – it’s common sense. If you do get into strife, don’t panic.”


A day in the life: Birdsville Roadhouse

Birdsville Roadhouse - Saturday, May 26, 2012

As the sun rises over the Birdsville billabong, a chorus of birds greets the morning. An orange glow envelops the town and movement begins to stir the dust on the ground. Birdsville, with a population of 100, is nestled in the south-western corner of Queensland, on the edge of the Simpson Desert, and is miles from anywhere.

Four-wheel-drives creep slowly through the streets as their occupants seek fuel and snacks. It’s 194 kilometres to the nearest town and travellers like to hit the road early.

Their first port of call is the Birdsville Roadhouse, the large building that dominates the sparsely built-up town. Owners Bronwynne and Peter Barnes and their staff are chatting over cups of steaming tea, discussing the coming day.

You can read more of 'A Day At The Birdsville Roadhouse' on the Explore Australia blog, which this was written for. The blog provides plenty of other fascinating insights into Australian travel and destinations!

"The Birdsville Track is no big challenge!"

Birdsville Roadhouse - Wednesday, May 23, 2012


As I write, I’m looking at the Krakka Koldee Racing Buggy on the dyno, a mechanism that tests horsepower and health of vehicles. We’re waiting for it to be tested to gauge the success of its rewiring in Brisbane, which explains the absence of blog posts over the past week, sorry!

However, before we left Birdsville, we had the pleasure of meeting a group of three cyclists who are tackling a south-north journey of Australia to raise money for the Royal Flying Doctor Service. John Jagoe, 70, Maree Smith, 55, and Murray Suckling, 73, were disappointed with the condition of the Birdsville Track. They expected it to be a much harder, rougher ride!

“The Birdsville Track was far better than we imagined. We thought it would be a challenging ride but there was only a little bit of soft sand and loose gravel, which is difficult on a bike,” Murray told us when we spoke to him in Birdsville.

Their journey is 2200 kilometres long, stretching between the Great Australian Bight and the Gulf of Carpentaria, passing through the Flinders Ranges. Since they left Port Augusta two and a half weeks ago, they said that their best stop was definitely Birdsville.



“Birdsville is far more modern than we expected,” Murray said. “It’s a very friendly community and we’ve stayed here a lot longer than we planned to.”

When the group heard that the Birdsville Social Club was holding their annual Bronco Branding, Rodeo and Camp Draft weekend, they decided to stay and watch. They also attended Sandra’s stargazing session and were amazed by the desert night sky. “This is our fifth day in Birdsville now and we’re still not ready to leave,” Murray said.

The group mentioned that they were also very impressed with facilities at Clayton Station, a farm stay and camping area north of Marree on the Birdsville Track and the staff at the Mungerannie Hotel, just over 300 kilometres south of Birdsville. “Clayton Station camping area had flush toilets in the middle of nowhere!” Maree marvelled. “When we left Mungerannie, we were about 20 kilomtres out and they caught up with us and gave us a box of apples.”

Four years ago, the trio successfully completed a 6100-kilometre east west crossing of Australia from Byron Bay to Steep Point, passing Innamincka and Uluru. This journey took three months and eventually raised over $17,000 for the Royal Flying Doctor Service.

It’s travellers like John, Maree and Murray that make living in Birdsville so rewarding. They’re inspiring, fascinating people that we get to know over a few days and who are able to experience the best of outback life in Birdsville.

The Royal Flying Doctor Service is an exceptional cause to support and we thank the people who do. With the closest doctor 700 kilometres away, it’s the RFDS who we call for emergency assistance and who fly in for a fortnightly GP practice.

Birdsville local Jenna Brook is about to embark on a challenging 440-kilometre Simpson Desert Walk to raise money for the RFDS. She has already singlehandedly raised over $14,000. If you would like to donate to the walk, you can head to her website, which also documents her walk preparations. If you would like to donate to John, Maree and Murray’s ride, they ask that you contact the RFDS directly or give them a donation if you see them during their journey.

From all in Birdsville, thank you for supporting a cause that is incredibly important for the survival of remote communities.



Desert Rescue with the MAN

Birdsville Roadhouse - Tuesday, May 08, 2012

The radio crackled in the cab of the truck as we bumped over the sandy track. The morning was bright and fresh and sunlight sparkled on the rippling water ahead. Sandwiches were neatly packed in a bag at my feet – it was going to be a long drive into the great Simpson Desert.

The previous night, Barnes’y had received a callout to a four-wheel-drive that had broke down past Eyre Creek, about 90 kilometres into the desert from Birdsville. He’d packed and fuelled the truck, I’d tagged along, and we were heading to the rescue in the Birdsville Roadhouse’s ex German army MAN truck.


The huge, ominous-looking truck gets lots of attention from visitors when it’s parked outside the workshop. ‘Mad Max-like’, more than a few people have said. At three metres tall, two and a half metres wide and with tyres that are over one metre high, it’s intimidating in comparison to the four-wheel-drives it towers over.

Built in 1979 as a supply truck for the German army, it’s had an interesting life. Barnes’y acquired the truck in 1995 as a left-hand-drive and converted it before building a mobile home on the back with the intention of travelling around Australia. It was painted by Birdsville artist Wolfgang John and was a sight to be seen on the outback roads when they set off in 1996.


When the Barnes’ moved overseas for a stint, the truck was displayed in the National Road Transport Hall of Fame in Alice Springs until they reclaimed it on their return, setting off the museum's fire alarms with their exhaust fumes when they fired the truck up. When they moved back to Birdsville in 2009 the truck came with them and Barnes’y had it converted into the tilt-tray top that’s now used for desert rescues.

With a V8, 265 horsepower air-cooled Deutz engine, 45 centimetres of ground clearance, constant four-wheel-drive, and the use of a lock-up torque converter ahead of the clutch, it’s perfect for the rough terrain and sand dunes of the Simpson. On flat ground, it can hit a maximum of 85 kilometres per hour. Last year, the MAN came in handy when the Barnes’ were at the Finke Desert Race and volunteered themselves as the recovery team.

When we reached the first of the desert’s sand dunes, Barnes’y explained that it would take twenty minutes to let down the tyres, and an hour to pump them up again. So, he climbed the first dune without worrying about the tyres. It was lucky he did – our stranded motorists who were supposed to be 90 kilometres away were on the track between the dune we’d just climbed and the next one. They’d miscalculated their position.

Nevertheless, their four-wheel drive was loaded, we all climbed in and Barnes’y took us back to Birdsville. Since our return wasn’t anticipated until late in the afternoon, everyone was surprised to see the truck roll into the yard before midday. It was an easy rescue and, since Bronwynne had made the packed lunch, a picnic on the bank of the Diamantina River ensued.

If you’d like to read more about Barnes’y’s truck, check out Outback Magazine’s 2011 article or get hold of a copy of the February 2011 issue of Truckin’ Life.


*There’s one more day to vote for The Galah Session in the Best Australian Blogs competition, so head here to vote.


Birdsville Bronco Branding and Campdraft

Birdsville Roadhouse - Thursday, May 03, 2012


Clouds of dust rise from the ground as the group of cattle move restlessly around the yard. A voice over the loudspeaker announces the name of the next team and a group of people emerges from the crowd, ropes at the ready. One, wearing spurs, mounts a horse and begins circling the yard, searching for an unmarked beast to ‘brand’ with paint.

Welcome to Birdsville’s annual Bronco Branding competition. Teams compete to be the quickest to brand the required number of cattle using the traditional method of branding in the bush.

Before the invention of the calf cradle, stockmen were required to brand calves in the open. They held the mob together while a catcher, often the head stockman, rode into the group on his horse and roped an unbranded calf, pulling it to the bronco ramp. It would then be secured to the ground, branded and ear-clipped and released into the mob within a minute.

This process was used on most large stations until the late sixties. However, it all but disappeared until the mid-80s, when fore-thinking traditionalists launched a competitive form of the practice so the skills didn’t disappear. Today, events are held throughout the country with a number of variations designed to increase competitiveness, spectator entertainment and recognition of tradition.

In Birdsville, Bronco Branding is one of the years’ biggest and most anticipated events. This year, the weekend’s program also includes a day of Campdrafting, a similarly traditional and unique competition inspired by Australian bush skills of the past. A selection of events that demonstrate the competitors’ handling of cattle, campdrafting is a test of dexterity, riding and rope work that enthralls audiences.

However, when the sun falls below the horizon and floodlights illuminate the arena, it’s the coloured gates in the yard that attract the crowd’s attention. It’s rodeo time and the announcer is looking for entrants. With a number of events held over the course of the evening, the rodeo brings more of a western tang to the weekend.


With an arm in the air, cowboys and girls ride bucking bulls and bullocks while kids ride poddies, gleaming triumphant. The crowd watches on, leaning on the fence, cheering and filming. 

Later, country music blares from the speakers and floodlights illuminate the clouds of dust rising from the open space of ground where people of all ages are dancing, can of XXXX in hand. Everyone is jubilant, tired and quite a few are nursing swelling bruises – the rodeo has just finished and now it’s time to celebrate.

This year’s Bronco Branding weekend is almost here and already we’re waiting with anticipation. Beginning with an auction on the evening of Friday 11th May, the Campdraft will be held on Saturday 12th May, followed by the rodeo that evening. Bronco branding will take place on Sunday 13th May.

With a total prize pool of over $17,000, as well as trophies and ribbons, it’s sure to be a weekend of exhilarating competition and an educational look into the history of Australian agriculture.

Let us know if you would like more information about the events or if you are interested in sponsoring the weekend.

Don’t forget that voting is still open for the Best Australian Blogs Competition that we’re nominated for. Help us get Birdsville on the map!


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