Horses for Courses
In 2002, the famous Birdsville horse race meeting had a problem—no horses. Equine flu had forced trainers and owners to keep their race horses away this particular year. Not that anybody noticed. Thousands still gathered in this remote desert town to party over the weekend, cook kangaroo burgers over campfires, race in wheelie bins, and wrestle steers. This quintessential Ozzie outback experience has become more important than the races themselves, with a carnival atmosphere that sees bush poetry readings, country and western singing, and stand-up comedy shows. Thousands of revellers come and camp out in this town of 100 residents at the eastern edge of the vast red stretch of sand dunes known as the Simpson Desert. Everybody is remarkably friendly, oiled somewhat by lots of liquor and beer.
Such friendliness disappears if you step into the ring at the Fred Brophy boxing tent. Here you are challenged to fight a selection of fighters with names like Crush and White Lightening. There is a dramatic drum roll as you step into the arena and if you are tough enough to knock out your opponent you walk away with a large money purse. Such casual prize fighting is banned elsewhere, earning what happens in Birdsville the slogan “only in the Outback.”
Birdsville is 1,610km (1,000 miles) from the provincial capital Brisbane, with little in between but dirt track and dunes. The race meeting here is probably the most isolated in the world and many people choose to arrive by light aeroplane. The local airfield quickly fills up with single engine Cessnas as they ferry punters to and fro. The aviation link does not stop there. The races are a major fundraiser for the Royal Flying Doctor’s Service, an aerial ambulance that covers the vast interior of Australia. The Simpson Desert alone is 181,300 sq. km (70,000 sq. miles) in size with some of the longest parallel dunes in the world, some reaching 30m (98 ft.) in height. It gets only 20cm (8 in.) of rain a year and is so inhospitable that the authorities have resorted to closing large chunks of it every summer to prevent the recurrence of hapless, ill-prepared tourists getting into trouble in the mid-day sun.
There is not much to Birdsville town itself. Originally a droving toll station, the abolition of droving tolls in 1901 saw the town go into steep decline. It now comes to life the first weekend of September with this 2-day event that attracts every outback eccentric between here and Alice Springs, with a fair share of high rollers and good timers for good measure. And now, of course, there are horses. —CO’M
When to Go: First weekend of Sept.
Brisbane or the small airfield in Birdsville.
Camper vans, cars, tents. The only hotel in town is closed to the public during the races. Many people sleep out in the open.