A winter of North West Queensland festivals

Winter is by the far the best time of year in North West Queensland. The weather is glorious and there is a never-ending catalogue of great events to get to. This is my record of travelling around the region over nine weekends of the winter of 2018 in our part of the world.winter1

First up was the 2018 Birdsville Big Red Bash. Named for the Big Red sand dune where I took this photo, the festival brings 6000 people to the middle of the Simpson Desert for a three-day party with a host of musical talents all enjoying playing in a vastly different environment to normal. John Farnham topped this year’s bill but I was more interested in seeing the likes of The Angels, the Hoodoo Gurus, the Black Sorrows and Kate Ceberano.


Among the fun to be had apart from listening to the music was this 2000-strong world record attempt on the Nutbush City Limits dance. Needing to get 90% success rate through the five-minute dance, this extraordinary dust raising phenomenon was judged by a Guinness Book of Records rep and easily beat the previous best by around 1500 people.


A couple of days later at least 1500 of the Bash revellers joined me 200km up the road for the Bedourie Camel Races, the first of three weekends of camel racing in western Queensland.


It being Bedourie, it wasn’t just about camels. There were all sorts of competitions: damper-making, mini golf, running, Bedourie camp oven-throwing and wood chop – where the sparks were flying and the sunglasses proved to be handy personal protective equipment.


The following weekend the camel action moved on to Boulia, 200km north of Bedourie, 300km south of Mount Isa. This is acknowledged as the biggest of the camel weekends and while the other events satisfy themselves with 400m races, Boulia sends the camels on a 1500m trek.


Like Bedourie, Boulia has its own fun events between races. In its case it is the camel tagging. People enter the arena, attempt to put a tag onto the camel, race back to the start line then race back to untag the camel, all against the clock. It is as chaotic and as funny as it sounds.


While on the following weekend the festival of the camel moved to Winton, I decided it was time for another sport and went to Quamby, 50km north of Cloncurry for its annual rodeo. Quamby is an old-style traditional rodeo which makes it very popular with locals who will camp there overnight.


Quamby has an anything-goes mentality which has a tendency to infuriate sensitive souls in the city who pontificate from 2000km away about how terrible it is to animals. The reality is that humans usually come out the worse in most Quamby confrontations, much to the delight of the crowd.


Another weekend, another rodeo. This one in Cloncurry is much more professional – the annual Merry Muster is the third biggest rodeo in Australia after Mount Isa and Warwick. Always held the first weekend in August, it is a great lead-up to Isa’s own rodeo week.


Isa’s rodeo is now a five-day festival starting with the street parade and markets on the Wednesday night which attracts thousands into the street. Then on the Thursday is the Mailman Express named for local legend Wally Mailman where non-thoroughbred horses race against the clock, while thousands more pack the race track.


The highlight is the three-day rodeo at Buchanan Park with action starting on Friday morning and going through until Sunday afternoon in front of packed crowds at every session. The open bull ride is the classic event where riders try to last eight seconds aboard a thousand kilograms of mean beast. The 60th anniversary rodeo finished up Sunday night with a concert in the main arena.


Another weekend later, another rodeo and another concert. This was the Gulf Frontier Days festival at Gregory, 350km north-west of Mount Isa. The weekend features Australia’s only Indigenous rodeo and then some of the country’s best Aboriginal acts and artists feature in concert such as Yothu Yindi, Shellie Morris and the incomparable Archie Roach (pictured).


By now we are up to the last weekend in August and it is the border town of Camooweal’s turn to have a festival, the Drover’s Festival. The festival celebrates the dying art of droving cattle across the land by horse, a skill mostly lost to the trucking industry. The first night of the festival features a parade on the main street as well as the chaotic Mailman race (pictured) where teams of four race around town carrying out tasks including carrying the mail and drinking a beer at the pub. On Saturday the action moves to the Drovers Camp for bronco branding and a concert and the day also features Camooweal’s annual race meet.


In September and the action moves back to Birdsville for the annual two-day Birdsville Races with 6000 people in attendance in the middle of the Simpson Desert. The running of the Cup on Saturday is worth $40,000, the richest race in rural Queensland, attracting the best regional jockeys from across the state. I wrote about my experience there last year here.


The ninth and final weekend of events is in Cloncurry. Called Beat the Heat it is a new festival designed to take place in the off-year of Winton’s biennial Outback Festival. It takes advantage of existing events such as the Cloncurry Spring Races and adds a few new touches to bring in the crowd. Friday night held a street party with a free concert headlined by Kasey Chambers. A highlight was the mine cart race, a bit like Camooweal’s Mailman with teams dragging a cart around a course taking on challenges along the way such as eating plates of hot curry. Curry beat the heat indeed, and a lot of laughs to end a fun weekend in a fun winter in the North West.


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