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

Sully – an old friend, a great character.

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.”

Easter Update: Birdsville News

For sale at the Birdsville Roadhouse – yum!

As easter approaches the fridges fill with easter eggs, the smell of fresh hot cross buns wafts from the Birdsville Bakery and the freezer is raided for prawns, oysters and fish. This year, as easter is smack bang in the middle of Queensland school holidays, the long weekend also means that we’ll be busy with travelers coming through town on their holidays. This week has already been very busy with people traveling through Queensland and many of them are crossing the Simpson Desert. 

The Birdsville Bakery opens tomorrow!

The Birdsville Bakery will be opening tomorrow and we’re all very excited to see what will be on the menu this year. I’ve heard that my favourite finger buns are being replaced with jam scrolls, though. The scrolls are almost as delicious so I think I can live with that. Dusty is also making Hot Cross Buns for the weekend. Until he opens tomorrow, we’ll be selling them at the roadhouse. We also have a range of easter eggs in stock if the easter bunny needs to visit your camp on Sunday! The Bakery will be open for breakfast and lunch everyday, starting tomorrow, and dinner on selected nights. Dusty’s ‘Birdsville Fried Chicken’ will be launched tomorrow night, too!

Fresh Hot Cross Buns for sale!

An increasing amount of vehicles are traveling through the Simpson Desert and we sold out of Birdsville 4×4 Club sand flags yesterday. But, they’re back in stock due to popular demand. We’ve had reports that the desert tracks are in good condition and there’s lots of animals and flowers around to make the journey even more rewarding. 

Flowers in the desert. Photo: Kelly Theobald

This week we’ve had warmer than average April temperatures in Birdsville. We’re glad that summer is hanging around a little bit longer as the dry heat is much nicer than the freezing winter nights! Luckily it’s not too hot though – the mercury briefly reached 39.5 degrees yesterday but the nights are mild and comfortable. 

Pelicans at Cuttaburra Crossing. Photo: Kelly Theobald

The warm weather is also increasing the number of pelicans in the area. If you’re traveling between Birdsville and Bedourie, you might have noticed the flocks of pelicans at the Eyre Creek Cuttaburra Crossing. Pelicans love the warm temperatures of inland Australia and after rain they flock to large expanses of water like Lake Eyre and the permanent waterhole at Cuttaburra Crossing. They’re also likely to breed around this time of year, but we haven’t seen any nesting pelicans ourselves, yet. If you want to see the pelicans, make sure you check to road conditions before you travel. At the time of writing, the Bedourie-Birdsville road is restricted to high-clearance vehicles as water is covering the road at the Cuttaburra Crossing. Drive with caution through the water – at least you’ll have lots of time to take photos! 

Just in time for easter, the Birdsville Hotel has released a new menu. So far we’ve tried the South Australian rump steak and the lip-smacking proscuitto-wrapped Kangaroo fillets served with macadamias and berries. Make sure you try both the Hotel and the Bakery menus while you’re in town to experience the best of Birdsville’s culinary delights. 

Two Beetles side by side. Sam and Kelly are on the right.

On Monday, a 1966 Volkswagen Beetle arrived in Birdsville. A young couple from Belgium purchased the car in Perth and have been traveling around Australia for a few months. They’re about to start a job in Richmond, central Queesnland, and passed through Birdsville on their way there. You may know that the Birdsville Roadhouse’s Sam and Kelly recently bought a 1964 Volkwagen Beetle and will be driving it across the Simpson Desert later in the year. It’s not often there’s two Beetles here, so it was good to get a photo of them together.