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.

 

2012 Outback Snaps Competition

As the sun sets over red, windswept dunes, an eager photographer leans over her tripod to capture the moment. Simultaneously, a family in a 4WD is careening up the face of Big Red, the tallest sand dune in the Simpson Desert. An onlooker snaps a photo of them emerging from a cloud of red dust as they mount the crest. Across town, a group of motorbike riders are practicing for the following day’s gymkhana. With a camera in hand, they perform jumps and wheel stands, taking turns to ride and photograph.

The outback is a place of mesmerizing beauty, unique events and lifelong adventure. When this essence of the outback is captured on film, it should be celebrated and shared. Therefore the Birdsville Roadhouse, together with the Birdsville community, is launching the inaugural 2012 Outback Snaps photography competition.

Amongst the residents of Birdsville, there are some very talented amateur photographers. Their photos are displayed in the Wirrarri Information Centre, in an exhibition titled ‘On The Land’. These photographs are shared and enjoyed by the community and travellers alike and exemplify why us locals love the outback so much.

However, we know that amongst the thousands of travellers who we meet in Birdsville each year, there are so many who adore the area as much as we do. Whether you’re serious photographers, experienced bushies or holiday makers with a simple camera, we think that amongst you, there must be some fabulous photos of the outback, Birdsville and your memorable adventures.

Therefore, we are calling on everyone who has photographs of the Birdsville area, both local and those who have passed through, to submit them to our Outback Snaps competition.

There are three categories, monthly prizes and an overall winner that will be announced in December. Lorraine Kath, a photographer from Mt Leonard Station who was instrumental in founding the Birdsville Photography Group, will judge the competition. Her book, My Colours, is a beautifully presented gallery of award-winning photographic work that is available for purchase at numerous locations around Birdsville.

Lorraine’s interest in photography developed after the birth of her children, who she enjoyed photographing as they grew. Living on a cattle station further encouraged her to capture unique moments of life on the land on film.

She will be looking for photographs that capture the essence of the outback, preferably the channel country region, are well composed and fit into one of the three competition categories.

Categories:

4WD Adventure – depicts the spirit of escaping to the outback in your 4WD. Photos can be of your vehicle, a sticky situation or a picturesque moment that you have only experienced because you have set out on a 4WD adventure.

Nature – it’s the landscape, wildlife and sunsets that make the outback, and in particular the channel country, so utterly charming. Any photo focusing on the beauty of the region can be entered in this category.

Action and Events – some of country’s most unique events are held in the outback, and there’s always some sort of action occurring in Birdsville and surrounds. This broad category draws together all images depicting unusual events and action-filled outback experiences.

To enter, email a maximum of five photos to competitions@birdsvilleroadhouse.com.au with a caption, your name, hometown and the category of your photo. We will then put them in the online competition gallery for viewing and will email winning entrants each month.

We look forward to seeing your photographs and displaying them for people to enjoy the spirit of the outback that you have captured.

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.”

A day in the life: Birdsville Roadhouse

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 Inland Explorers: John McDouall Stuart


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 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.