The Galah Session

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

Betoota. Population: Zero

Birdsville Roadhouse - Thursday, July 26, 2012

Days were long, roads were dusty and work was thirsty for the influx of outback settlers in the late 1800s. The outback was thriving as our fledgling nation relied upon produce from the outback to feed the hoards of people migrating to a wide brown land of promise.

When English settlers landed in 1788, they brought with them six head of cattle. By 1800, there were over 1000 and by 1850, there were almost 2,000,000. Settlers had discovered that hardy cattle could thrive on the vast plains of northern Australia and exploration expeditions of inland Australia delved into the outback to find even more suitable land.

By the late 1800s, a prosperous pastoral industry meant that cattle were transported from the remote stations of outback Australia to the bustling capital cities where demand was highest. However, each state was still a separate colony with its own army, government and even train line sizes. Therefore, until federation, taxes had to be paid at state border crossings and a number of towns sprung up around the country where drovers had to stop to pay their tolls at customs.

Photo taken in Betoota between 1912 and 1951: National Library of Australia

One such town was Birdsville and another, just 170 kilometres east of Birdsville, was Betoota. Both towns were first surveyed in 1887. While Birdsville boasted three pubs, a cordial factory and a population of over 300, there were only ever three streets in Betoota that were named, despite it being almost as large.

Although slightly smaller in size and notoriety, Betoota was a Cobb & Co change station where coach drivers changed their horses during long journeys – and journeys in this region were always long. In 1895, the building of a rabbit-proof fence attracted rowdy workers to the town so a policeman was stationed in Betoota for the first time. However, in 1928, an inspection found that no one had been taken into custody for more than five years so the police station and courthouse were closed.

After federation, there was no need for toll officers or towns to support them and the last horse-drawn Cobb & Co coach service ran in 1924.

Once-thriving outback towns crumbled as their populations dwindled, people seeking employment where employment existed. It was only a few necessary businesses that remained for the sole purpose of entertaining and servicing pastoral workers. It wasn't until the 1980s that an increase in tourism encouraged the growth of infrastructure and population that towns like Birdsville enjoy today. However, with Birdsville and Windorah so close to Betoota, it suffered more than most towns.

Despite this, a polish immigrant called Sigmund (Simon/Ziggy) Remienko bought the Betoota Hotel in 1953. He had saved up the £3500 to buy the hotel by working as a grader driver in nearby Boulia. He lived in and managed the hotel until his retirement in 1997, when he closed the hotel doors, but continued to live there as Betoota’s sole resident until his death in 2004.

Betoota Hotel, 1980

Until 1997, the Betoota Hotel was a welcome rest stop and fuel supplier for outback travellers, despite the reclusive Mr Remienko not always being very welcoming. Now, the dusty hotel stands alone on a deserted street traversing a vast gibber plain and traffic is directed past the town on a newly graded bypass.

However, Australia’s smallest town still boasts a racetrack, race club and a well-maintained airstrip. On the last weekend of August each year, the Betoota Races attracts crowds from all over the country as they head to the famous Birdsville Races, held on the following weekend. They camp at the Betoota racetrack where there are amenities, food and merchandise stalls and live entertainment.

People from nearby stations work tirelessly to promote the unique event and fundraise throughout the year in order to hold them. It’s one of our favourite events on the Simpson Desert Racing Carnival calendar and is a fantastic opportunity to experience outback racing without the crowds of city people.

Even if you’re not planning a trip coinciding with the races, Betoota is still worth a stop, although these days you’ll have to bring your own supplies. You can gaze at the deserted hotel and marvel at its longevity – it was built in the late 1880s – and enjoy the peace and quiet that Simon Remienko cherished. "People came here to have weddings, big parties, all sorts of reasons,” he once told a journalist. “It's a good place."

The Birdsville Community celebrating 'Christmas in July'  to raise money for the Betoota Race Club

 

Bound for Birdsville

Birdsville Roadhouse - Friday, July 20, 2012

Griselda Sprigg and her children try to escape the heat.

When Griselda Sprigg was asked, incredulously, why she should want to cross the Simpson Desert she replied: “All these blokes have done it – why shouldn’t I?” This was in 1962, as she and her family were planning the first motorized crossing of the barren, dune-laden Simpson Desert that covers 176,500 square kilometres of central Australia.

Prior to their trip, the desert had been traversed by surveyors, settlers and land prospectors – but only crossed twice. Of course, the Wangkangurru people, the traditional owners of the land, were the first to travel the Simpson. They lived on desert animals and made wells for water as they roamed the dunes - descendents of the tribe still live in the Birdsville area today.

In 1936, Ted Colson became the first white man to actually cross the desert. With Peter Ains, his aboriginal friend and guide, and five camels, he crossed from his homestead near Dalhousie to Birdsville and back in 36 days. A monument opposite the Birdsville Hotel recognizes their achievement.

Cecil Madigan’s crossing followed in 1939. It was he who, a decade earlier, had named the desert the Simpson after a former Lord Mayor of Adelaide called Alfred Simpson who had provided the funds for a grateful Madigan to survey the region. Until then it was called the Arunta Desert. Madigan returned to cross the desert in 1939 with the intention of surveying its least-known areas and was again funded by Simpson.

However, it was the gutsy Griselda Sprigg, her geologist husband Reg and their two children, Marg and Doug, who first crossed the desert in a motorized vehicle. They spurred the beginning of a four-wheel-driving challenge that now brings thousands of travellers to Birdsville each year.

Doug, Reg and Griselda Sprigg

Griselda was a young Scottish lass who met Reg (won him in a bet, as she says) while he was in Scotland for a conference. Their romance lasted for two years via correspondence after he returned to Australia. Eventually, he proposed over the phone and Griselda immigrated to Australia.

She slowly grew accustomed to the Adelaide heat. But, when Reg was assigned to months of work in the arid South Australian outback shortly after their marriage, Griselda, not wanting to live without her new husband, insisted on joining him. Her adaptation to life in a caravan, the dust, heat and flies of the outback is admirable and led to a life of remote outback travel, even after the birth of her two children.

The Sprigg children at the original Poeppel's Corner post.

While Reg founded Geosurveyors of Australia and Santos and discovered some of the most ancient fossils known to man, Griselda was by his side. “I would try to be inventive,” she said of her limited pantry while crossing the Simpson Desert. “But there are only so many ways you can cook spam.”

Her book, Dune is a Four-Letter Word, is an entertaining, honest reflection of her life in the outback contemplating red back spiders on the loo and learning bush mechanics on the Birdsville Track (“we limped into Mungerannie, me walking beside the Land Rover, sprinkling talcum powder every time I sensed a puff of burning rubber,”). A large part of the book documents their Simpson Desert journey, which is being recreated in Birdsville this week as part of the 50th anniversary celebrations.

For those contemplating the desert crossing today, it’s a very different experience. Reading about Griselda’s quest for a toilet at the township of Finke (“Why in heaven’s name were men made to pee standing up?”), her battle with spinifex (“Marg was at the time trying to remove spinifex spines from my derriere… I wondered once again what could possibly have possessed me to trade those cool Scottish climes for a desert dune,”) and combating an overheating car on a rough track (“The track got worse and so did my already frazzled mood. Every few miles I had to slide under the car to remove clumps of grass,”) is enough to make any four-wheel-drive enthusiast feel lucky for the now heavily traversed Simpson tracks, roof-top tents and battery-powered car fridges.

The Simpson Desert today.

You can buy Dune is a Four-Letter Word here.  

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. 

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.”


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!


R.I.P Walter B. Barnes

Birdsville Roadhouse - Tuesday, April 24, 2012

It is with extreme sadness that The Birdsville Roadhouse reports that Mr Walter B. Barnes has passed away after a long battle with a mysterious illness/injury. He was almost 8 years old. Wally's health had been been deteriorating since mid January despite the best efforts of everyone around him. Long time family friend and awesome vet, Keith Newby, flew to Birdsville on Monday afternoon to assess Wally's condition. Keith operated and removed his front left leg in a last ditch effort to save Wal's life but sadly he didn't make it through the night. He was buried on Tuesday morning. Walter will be sorely missed around town as he was often referred to as the 'Unofficial Mayor of Birdsville'. Amongst all his unofficial duties he also found time to hold down at least two full-time jobs at the Roadhouse as both the 'Customer Relations Officer' and 24-hour security guard. Wal was easily the hardest working employee the Roadhouse has ever been blessed with and I doubt if he will ever be replaced. Keep an eye on this space over the next few days as we add photos and memories of Wal.

The Inland Explorers: John McDouall Stuart

Birdsville Roadhouse - Wednesday, March 28, 2012


Simpson Desert. Photo: Kelly Theobald

Imagine setting out on an expedition to explore Australia in the 1800s. You leave your home and family for months to trek through the arid landscape, carrying all of your food and water on camels or horses and sleeping in swags beneath the stars. You don’t know what you’ll find, or even what you’re looking for. All you know is that there is barely a settlement between Adelaide and Darwin or Perth and Sydney. In the great, vast deserts of central Australia, there seems to be nothing. It’s your job to find out what’s there.

Without the brave explorers of the past, the outback wouldn’t be what it is today. They mapped the land, built roads, established towns and became heroes of the day. 

This year marks the 150th anniversary of one of the great inland expeditions - the first south-north crossing of Australia. It was John McDouall Stuart's sixth and final expedition that successfully reached the Gulf of Carpentaria from Adelaide, with the intention of establishing a telegraph line from Adelaide to Darwin. 


John McDouall Stuart

As early explorer Charles Sturt’s protégé, John McDouall Stuart completed Sturt’s Simpson Desert expedition in 1844 as second-in-command. Soon after, he led his own expedition to what is now the border between South Australia and the Northern Territory. It was on this trip that he was the first to discover a spring from the great Artesian Basin and was assured that it was a permanent water supply in the arid land.

On following expeditions, Stuart discovered and named the Finke River, the MacDonnell Ranges, Tennant’s Creek (now the site of the Tennant Creek township) and in 1862 was the first explorer to successfully cross the Australian mainland from South to North. His route can be retraced today via the Stuart Highway, named in his honour.

Present-day Stuart Highway

If you're off road adventure inclined, the Simpson Desert lies between the Stuart Highway and Birdsville. It contains the world's longest parallel sand dunes and is Australia's fourth-largest desert. A number of tracks leading to Birdsville snake over the dunes and after three good years, the usually arid landscape is teaming with wildlife and colourful foliage. 

A number of convoys have already crossed the desert since it opened earlier this month and have reported safe tracks and great journeys. If you're thinking of invoking some of the early explorers, read our Simpson Desert information page for pre-departure information. 

We'll be sporadically posting information on other inland explorers on the Galah Session, including the ill-fated Burke and Wills. 

History of the 'Galah Sessions'

Birdsville Roadhouse - Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Birdsville AIM Hospital

Birdsville AIM Hospital, now a museum. Photo: Birdsville or Bust

Before iPhones, the internet and 3G networks, the only way that Birdsville was connected to the outside world was via radio transmitter. Three times a day, for half an hour, the Australian Inland Mission nursing sisters, who were then in charge of the AIM Hospital, were responsible for tuning in to the radio to pass messages in and out of Birdsville. These were called the 'Galah Sessions'.

Birdsville's first pedal wireless was installed in 1929. Rev. John Flynn of the Australian Inland Mission and Alf Traeger, the inventor of the radio, were responsible for the installation of hundreds transmitters throughout the outback. Flynn saw the huge need for medical services in remote areas and envisioned a 'mantle of safety' covering the outback. 

Early pedal radio

Operation of the first pedal radio in Australia. Photo: Antique Radio Classified

For people living on the surrounding stations, this was the only way to contact Birdsville for medical assistance, even in an emergency. Also, for the station wives, it was a welcome chat with other women as they caught up on news, shared recipes, transmitted telegrams and arranged ventures to town. 

In the case of medical emergency, the nursing sisters had to use the radio transmitter to contact an RFDS base. If the closest available doctor was further away than the radio signal could reach, their messages had to be relayed by listeners in towns or stations along the way.

It wasn't until 1976 that a satellite telephone line reached Birdsville. But, the Galah Sessions continued until all of the surrounding stations had installed telephones. However, these phones were only operational when the Post Office, where the operator worked from, was open. In the late 1980s, the phones were converted to the type that we now have. 

Telstra connects Next G network. Photo: Telstra

Mobile reception was also incredibly late to reach Birdsville. Optus serviced the town during the 2008 Birdsville Races and installed a permanent tower in 2009, but without 3G service. Telstra followed, building a permanent tower in 2010 with Next G data reception. 

The Galah Sessions no longer exist. But, they're fondly remembered by Birdsville and station residents and remind us of the days when Birdsville was truly remote. Now, with mobile internet and text messaging, it's easy to forget how far we are from any major city. The old Birdsville Hospital is now a museum with examples of the pedal radios that were used for the Galah Sessions. 

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