On track for the Birdsville Races

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Birdsville races

The prize was a good one: $5000 for winning Fashions on the Field at the annual Birdsville Races.

The outfits were no problem for the 11 of us, all dedicated followers of fashion. The issue was how to get the clothes – and us – to Birdsville without the entire delegation ending up stuck and covered in outback red dust.

That’s because we were going to drive the 1900 kilometres from Brisbane in six 4WDs, with a dearth of outback driving experience but also, fortunately, with Dave.

Dave Darmody, who operates the Australian Offroad Academy at Fraser Island, is going to get us gals to prove to ourselves that we can handle the essentials of outback driving, including big-grunt 4X4s and UHF radios.

As our Queensland tourism host Hannah puts it: “It’s all about demystifying long-distance road trips for women.”

At first it looks to be a breeze. The 550 kilometres to our first overnight stop, a cattle station stay outside St George, is all on bitumen. And night two is also a surprise, a luxurious boutique hotel stay in Cunnamulla.

Ladies are dressed in their outfits for the races

Conversation convoy

Social media types are unwinding as the lack of phone coverage cuts contact. We’re forced to revive real-time, face-to-face conversation.

And really, the epic visuals of this part of our continent, with its vast skies that “small” (i.e. 75,000 hectares) station owner Roly Hughes terms “the aerial ocean”, can’t be caught in a photograph but only in the soul. “It’s a really big feeling,” Roly says.

Day three to Innamincka, just into South Australia, is a 570-kilometre drive with only small stretches “on the red (dirt)”. Going via Eulo’s restorative artesian mud baths writes off a pleasant two hours soaking in 40-million-year-old clays.

Then there’s a loo stop at a drop-dunny that, apart from a huge crossroad sign, is the only man-made feature for hundreds of kilometres.

It’s late in the day but a not-to-be-missed stop is the Dig Tree, near Oontoo. Here, in 1861, the starving Burke and Wills failed to find the buried cache of food that might have sustained them for a little longer on their return journey from the north coast.

By Innamincka, it’s dark. As we pull up before the hotel, trail master Dave comes on the radio: “Well done, team. A trip that could have taken five hours has just taken 12 hours and 17 minutes.”

Yeah. Copy that. But we’re having a great time!

Mud bath at Eulo

Off off-road

Soon the real outback stuff starts. Dropping tyre pressure, we get into H4 mode and onto rutted Walker’s Crossing which will lead through sometimes Martian-stark red pebble landscapes – the Stony Pavements – to the legendary Birdsville Track. Yet this 190-kilometre section turns out to be a wide, graded highway of blond dust. Birdsville here we come.

For its annual race meeting, the town of usually 100 residents has ballooned to 8000, with a skewed demographic of 80 per cent men to 20 per cent women. And we’ve kept our fascinators dust-free for the event.

The rest of the story? Well, the newly warranted Women Road Warriors tidy up a treat and totter off to the track. 

What happens next in a one-pub town during its biggest annual festival will remain the stuff of stories to be retold over many a long lunch.

Photos: Reichlyn Aguilar. 

Racing this time

From its humble first meeting in 1882, the annual Birdsville Races now feature 13 races over two days, this year on 2-3 September. Most visitors stay in a tent city or camp out. Get all the details at birdsvilleraces.com


The writer and photographer travelled as guests of Tourism and Events Queensland.

Written by Jenny Brown
March 21, 2017