Birdsville Races Countdown!

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 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

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

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.  

The outback from an eagle’s view…

Although Lou Oldfield only moved to Birdsville in 2009, her immense passion for the channel country suggests that love for the area has quickly seeped into her blood. This passion is perhaps what has made her own company, Central Eagle Aviation, so successful.

During her first year in Birdsville, Lou was the sole pilot offering scenic flights from Birdsville, flying for Australasian Jet. When she met her now-husband Clayton Oldfield, the manager of Pandie Pandie Station on the Birdsville Track, Lou realised that she would be staying in Birdsville for a lot longer than intended.

With a long family history of involvement in Aviation, it was only natural that Lou should buy her own aircraft and start Central Eagle Aviation, named after a British aviation company founded by her grandfather in the 1940s.

Lou says that the best part about running her own company is showing travelers the land from the air. “I always hope that they enjoy it and see the country as I do,” she says. “Flying really allows you to see the world from a completely different perspective. This area is absolutely spectacular from the air, particularly at the right time of day when a lovely light crosses the dunes. It’s out of this world!”

Central Eagle Aviation provides a number of flight options including the Simpson Desert, Lake Eyre, the Birdsville Track and the remote settlement of Innamincka. Every flight reveals secrets about the outback that aren’t shared with the people on the ground.

“You can see things that you would never know existed on the ground,” says Lou. “For example, you can drive the entire Birdsville Track and you’d never know that you are paralleling the most amazing river systems. You never really see the water on the ground even though it’s only a few sand dunes away.

Lou is adamant that Birdsville is the best starting point for a flight to Lake Eyre, the spectacular salt lake in central South Australia. “You can appreciate how the rivers come down through the channel country and just how far the water that goes into Lake Eyre travels,” she says. “It gives you a far better appreciation of the landscape than just seeing the Lake alone. Also, the channel country is always full of birdlife, wild flowers and animals.”

Like so many people, Lou has fallen in love with the Birdsville area and now lives happily on the 1.6 million-acre Pandie Pandie Station. She brings this unique perspective to her flights and can genuinely explain what outback life is really like.

While she raises her young twin boys, she has enlisted the help of pilots who are enveloped in the Pandie Pandie lifestyle and who share the same passion for the outback as Lou. “It works well with the station,” she says. “They are part of the team here, too, which gives them an increased knowledge and understanding of the country, vegetation, weather, birdlife, cattle industry and history.”


Starry, starry night.

As the sun sinks towards the red dunes of the Simpson Desert, the first stars appear in the indigo, eastern sky. A group of people, bulky in winter coats, learn that these are the ‘alpha’ stars, the brightest in their respective constellations.

One by one, they peer into an enormous 11” Celestron telescope to see the stars up close. With the magnification, it’s easy to see that they’re different colours – some are red, others blue or yellow or white. With the darkness of the desert to the west and only the lights of a very small town to the east, Birdsville is the best place for a Star Show, and the Birdsville Star Show is one of the must-do activities in Birdsville.

Sandra McShane has an immense knowledge of the night sky. Her passion and understanding are evident as she speaks about the different constellations, explains ‘light years’ and points out the planets amongst the stars. She shows the group constellations that are invisible to the naked eye because they’re in a different galaxy and explains where the stars are and why they twinkle.

Staring upwards we see Scorpio, Sirius (Orion’s Dog), the Southern Cross and many more constellations with their own stories and history. Sandra knows when they were discovered and by whom and what each constellation meant to the ancients, those who relied upon the night sky for direction and prophesy.

Throughout the 45-minute session we see three satellites moving swiftly amongst the stars and it’s a competition to see who can spot them. We see a constellation called the ‘Jewel Box’, which is so called for its colourful array of stars. It’s one that is almost invisible to the naked eye but the telescope magnifies the stars and intensifies their colours. Sandra explains why the stars are different colours and what it means. There’s no question from the group throughout evening that she can’t answer.

Although we huddle together against the cold, looking forward to a warm meal at the pub, we’re sad that the session is over. Our minds are pulsing with new knowledge and we’re reflecting on the things we’ve seen – the ‘butterfly’ constellation and Saturn, its rings clearly visible around the planet itself. Saturn was so clear that it looked just like a textbook image.

Only in Birdsville, a tiny dot of light in an outback of darkness, are such wonders of the night sky revealed. We’re lucky that we have Sandra’s star show to guide us through the immense galaxy above. We’ll soon be in the desert, sleeping beneath the stars, and will be able to recognise Saturn, Orion and Alpha Centauri and appreciate all that the outback has to offer – even if it’s thousands of light years away.