Birdsville – few names better evoke the farthest reaches of Australia’s arid outback. Nudging the Simpson Desert in Queensland’s southwest corner, the remote outpost lies in a vast ochre-dirt ocean of saltbush and dry saltpan lakes – flat all the way to the horizon.
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.