Driving in from Mount Isa, the first thing you notice as you arrive into Birdsville is the planes. There must have been hundreds parked at the airport of every size and dimension and from all parts of Australia.
The second noticeable thing is the steam rising outside the airport. It is from the artesian bore piping water up from the Great Artesian Basin. The bore was drilled in 1961 and has a water temperature of just below boiling point. A series of cooling tubes and a parallel plate heat exchanger brings the temperature down.
Situated on the eastern fringe of the Simpson Desert, the area around Birdsville was the home of the Wangkangurru-Yarluyandi people. The first Europeans came in 1844 when SA Survey-General and explorer Charles Sturt led expeditions to the area. Burke and Wills Camp 76 was also in the region on their return trek in 1860-1. The township of Birdsville grew out of the colonial need to create a customs post between South Australia and Queensland. Before motorised transport Afghan cameleers brought supplies up the Birdsville Track. But today was all about horses. The 135th running of the Birdsville Cup.
They came from all parts with the town of 200 swelling to 6500 for the weekend. I have been to Birdsville many times before (most recently to the 2017 Big Red Bash) but this was my first time here for the races. The main street was set up with market and food stalls.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has an association with Birdsville having visited twice since 2015 to check out the town’s internet and mobile capability. He wasn’t there today but a mechanical bull named in his honour was there.
The pub was the site of the Calcutta for the Birdsville Cup. A Calcutta is an open auction where each horse goes to the highest bidder. The practice originated with the Colonial British (of course) in Calcutta, India.
I’m always on the lookout for colourful costumes or groups so not surprisingly my eye was drawn to these guys. I asked them where they were from. “Orange,” they replied. “Of course,” I said and they laughed. “You serious?” I said, doubting them. But indeed, they came from Orange, NSW.
The Birdsville Bakery is a little bit away from the action across the town oval but always worth a visit for its camel pies. Permanently parked out the front is Onslo the VW Beetle. It was owned by author and journalist Kelly Theobald, who was killed in a car crash on the Birdsville Track in 2015, aged just 27.
As I headed back across the oval, a plane came in overhead with distinctive RAAF markings. I knew exactly who it was. Earlier I had bumped into the Diamantina Mayor Geoff Morton but he was in a rush and couldn’t stop to talk to me. When I picked up my media pass I was told why, the Governor General of Australia Peter Cosgrove was expected in town at 11am. And here a minute or two after 11 was his plane.
I walked back to the airport, conveniently located in the middle of town, opposite the pub and saw Cosgrove come off the plane with his wife to be greeted by Mayor Morton. They were quickly whisked away on a tour of town.
That tour probably included a pub visit at some stage. William Blair built the Birdsville Hotel in 1884 and its weathered sandstone walls have been there almost as long as the races. The hotel is heritage-listed as one of three surviving masonry buildings in Birdsville and is a rare surviving late 19th century outback hotel.
One of the other two (along with the courthouse) is the ruins of the 1883-vintage Royal Hotel. Though only a year older than the Birdsville Hotel, it has suffered more from the ravages of time. From 1923 to 1937, the building was leased by Rev John Flynn’s Presbyterian Australian Inland Mission as its first bush nursing home and Alfred Traeger installed one of his first bush pedal radio stations there. Afterwards it was used as a residence, then abandoned before it partially collapsed.
Continuing to find colourful groups, these three ladies were happy to have their photo taken, “Girls Trip in Progress”. Someone later told me the Birdsville Races was a “schoolies for the over 50s” and the evidence was everywhere.
Having completed my town tour, it was time to head to the races. The racecourse is a few kilometres south of the town across the Diamantina River, which is part of the endorheic Lake Eyre Basin. We’ve had hardly any rain for six months in western Queensland so I was surprised to see how much permanent water was still in the river. The river attracts the bird life and explains how the town got its name.
The set up was impressive for a bush race meeting and the 6500 punters were catered for with ease. Needless to say it was full of colourfully-dressed characters from all over Australia like these “Dust Angels” from Brisbane. Behind them is the “Black Tower”, the communications and media centre at the meet. The Black Tower is, in typical inverted Aussie bush style, white.
There was actual horse racing at the Birdsville Races. Two days of it on Friday and Saturday. I got there for the Saturday and this is Race 1 with Mount Isa jockey Dan Ballard storming home to win on Nuncius.
The Governor-General came along to watch the fashions and as he did so, he handed out a medal to a young girl. I asked him what that was about. He said it was the Governor General’s medal and it was a random decision to give it to that girl. He had never met her before but must have liked her smile.
I didn’t have any medals to hand out but these two ladies were my favourite: Christine the Angel and Peta the Devil, both from Melbourne. Like the GG it was a random choice, but it reminds me of this scene in Full Metal Jacket. “I think I was trying to say something about the duality of man, sir.”
The GG was on hand to present the gleaming gold trophy to winning Roma trainer Craig Smith. While they celebrated it was time for me to bid adieu to Birdsville for another year.