Tiny as it is, the township looms large in Australian bush heritage for two reasons: the harsh and historic Birdsville Track to South Australia; and the annual Birdsville Races, easily Australia’s most renowned outback racing carnival.
For most of the year Birdsville hibernates, baking in heat that hits the high 40s in summer. The cooler (still warm) midyear months (April-October) lure a steady trickle of tourists in 4WDs. But come the races in September – the first weekend of spring – and the population swells from 115 to around 7000.
Caravans, campervans and tents dot scrub designated as camping ground. A field beside the airstrip fills with small planes, owner-pilots camping under the wings. At the town limits, every vehicle is stopped for breathalysing by jovial police officers bemused by their exotic assignment. The cars are all 4WDs bristling with CB radio aerials; that’s what it takes to drive this far out.
The racecourse – a shuttle-bus ride or thirsty three-kilometre walk from town – doesn’t have a blade of grass. It’s as stony and dusty as the Birdsville Track itself. Horses shelter from 33°C of sun under a long tin-roofed stable. Nearby the similar grandstand serves the same purpose for people, if on a grander scale.
The horses set off on the track’s far side, mere specks beneath the dust kicked up as they gallop – the only cloud in a perfect hemisphere of blue sky. Shortly they’ve rounded the broad curve of the oval course and thunder along the sandy straight. A few seconds of thrumming hooves and they’ve flashed by, sparking an outburst of finish-line excitement. The scenario repeats over a laidback afternoon, culminating in Race Six, the 1600-metre, $35,000 Birdsville Cup.
Apart from the small crush near the bookmakers, relaxation reigns. A sprinkling of funny costumes – blokes in dresses, a few full-body beer-cans, girls as angels or devils – adds to the carnival atmosphere. The crowd is peaceful, happy to have a beer and a bet and a few laughs. Trouble seems as far away as Sydney or Brisbane.
Half the fun is the effort it takes to attend. There’s a kind of poetry in simply being here. The very act is somehow an expression of Australia’s vastness which, in Birdsville, forever stares you in the face.
At first glance it doesn’t look much like cattle country. But saltbush is high-protein grazing and Birdsville began as a crossing of the Diamantina River for 19th century drovers taking fatted herds from western Queensland to market in South Australia. The Birdsville Track traces the 518 kilometres of this desert stock route between Birdsville and Marree, South Australia, where a rail link to Port Augusta opened in 1884.
The name is a mystery. It might be a corruption of Burtsville, from a store established here in about 1880 by pioneering grazier Percy Burt. Others say it honours the surprising wealth of birdlife – even seagulls, 750 kilometres from the nearest coast. Of course, both tales could be true if a pun on Burt’s name was involved.
Either way, the name was in place by 1882, when the Birdsville Races began. Over 150 people, mostly stockmen, came from various stations that September to see a dozen starts over a three-day carnival. Afterwards in Burt’s Store, interested parties formed the club which still runs the races today, with proceeds now benefiting the Royal Flying Doctor Service.
Back then townsfolk outnumbered visiting racegoers. Some 300 people called Birdsville home during its first two decades, almost triple today’s permanent population. It wasn’t just the flourishing cattle trade. Just 11 kilometres from the Queensland-South Australian border, Birdsville was a vital customs point in an era when colonies charged each other duties on goods and tolls on stock movement.
After Federation abolished such charges in 1901, Birdsville withered to about 20 people by the mid-20th century, but the overlanding to Marree and the annual races endured.
So did the Birdsville Hotel, the town’s beating heart since 1884. A modest single-storey stone building overlooking the airfield in the middle of town, it now ranks among the outback’s most iconic pubs.
If you want to take a photo inside – almost everyone does – it’s customary to first toss a coin or two into a container set high on the wall, a donation to the Royal Flying Doctor Service. All those hats nailed to the ceiling are another outback tradition.
In July 1939, the hotel was geologist-explorer Cecil Madigan’s well-chosen end point for his historic scientific expedition across the Simpson Desert by camel. This trek, which also took in the massive dry saltpan of Lake Eyre, boosted the idea that the region was Australia’s ‘dead heart’, nothing but desolate wasteland.
Yet it was home to a handful of hardy souls, such as the mailman Tom Kruse, whose tough working life on the Birdsville Track was immortalised in the acclaimed documentary The Back Of Beyond (1954). Setting out from Marree fortnightly, Kruse battled sand-boggings, broken axles, flooded creeks and flat tyres while trucking mail and goods in the middle of searingly hot nowhere.
Captured on film, Kruse’s story fixed the Birdsville Track in the public mind as the ultimate outback challenge. And as outback tourism slowly gathered pace, the Birdsville Races became emblematic of the town itself. To drive the rough gravel-road track and see the far-flung races was to celebrate some essential quality of Australia.
Clearly it still is, even if the thoroughbreds, bookies and ladies sporting fascinators are now just one aspect of that celebration. The Birdsville Hotel is a non-stop party race weekend. The gutter outside fills with beer cans glinting in the late afternoon sun. A whip-cracking display takes up half the street outside. Sunset brings on the bands in the beer garden, with no shortage of Aussie rock classics pumping out across the desert.