THERE IS something intrinsically Australian about the outback. Just like eggs to a pav, stubbies to a six-pack, and thunder to a box, the outback goes to the core of what it means to be Australian.
There are plenty of Aussies who never venture too far inland these days, as their 4x4s serve out a sentence as school runabouts, doomed to the cleanliness of city streets, never to experience the remarkable redness of some of Australia’s truest landscapes.
The Australian outback is much more than masses of dirt, swarms of flies and endless nothingness, and to drape your 4WD in a thick layer of red dust is a badge of honour for every avid off-roader. But if you believe outback travel is just for the adventurers, then you’d be wrong. What if we told you we survived the outback in a soft-roader – a Land Rover Discover Sport – and collected plenty of dirt, while still packing a pair of stilettos?
Such is the juxtaposition of one of Australia’s greatest outback events, the Birdsville Races. Located 1200km north of Adelaide and 1600km east of Brisbane, the famous outback town of Birdsville is the gateway to the Simpson Desert. In September every year the tiny town sees its population swell from 115 people to more than 5000, as travellers from all over the country arrive for the only horse racing event run on red dirt.
However, the Birdsville Races is just the end reward for a cross-country journey that’ll leave you feeling so in touch with the land you’ll almost enjoy being covered by flies. Almost.
THE tinny-covered roads and footy-short-wearing crowds of the Birdsville Races are
part of the adventure, but it’s the roads leading to the character-filled town that will make you want to pack up and move to the land of gibber plains.
There’s the option to travel via light plane, but who are we kidding? You’re not reading this magazine because you prefer your head in the clouds. No matter which direction you’re coming from, or what route you choose, the road to Birdsville is one you’ll want to experience over and over again.
The most obvious path to take is the iconic 517km unsealed Birdsville Track, which links Birdsville to Marree in South Australia and crosses the Strzelecki Desert, Sturt Stony Desert and Tirari Desert. Locals will convince you the track is doable in a two-wheel drive – you’ll hear stories of men conquering the rutted-out track in a micro-car – and while we were able to traverse the 500-odd kilometres without so much as a flat in the Discovery Sport, we highly recommend preparing an equipped four-wheel drive. After all, if you’re going all the way, you may as well be prepared to tackle the sand dunes of the Simpson Desert.
However, if you want more serious off-roading, choose the paths less-travelled from Innaminka via Cordillo Downs Road, or the French Line which crosses the Simpson Desert. Alternatively, you could brave the Inside Birdsville Track originally used by the drovers. Make sure you carry a couple of spares and only attempt it during dry weather, because it runs through the Diamantina River’s flood plains and closes during the wet.
We’d take the safest route to the Birdsville Races, and then take a couple of days to recover before braving the harder tracks. The last thing you want is to waste time stuck in the desert waiting for a rescue party! Whichever path you brave, there’s plenty to see and do along the way.
FOLLOW OUR PATH
DAY ONE: Head west from Brisbane toward the garden city of Toowoomba, passing through Millmerran and stopping at Goondiwindi for lunch and fuel. From there, continue to the township of St George, which sits on the Balonne River, and stay the night at Begonia Farm Stay, a beautiful 14,000-acre beef cattle grazing property.
DAY TWO: Continue on to Cunnamulla, via Bollon. Cunnamulla is the largest of four towns in the Paroo Shire and is situated on the Warrego River. It’s the starting point of the Matilda Highway, a road that connects NSW to Far North Queensland. Stay the night at the Club Boutique Hotel.
DAY THREE: It’s time to see the outback sights and follow the footsteps of explorers Burke and Wills. Before reaching the famous Burke and Wills Dig Tree, refresh your skin at the Artesian Mud Baths in Eulo, hosted by the lovely Ian and Nan Pike of Palm Grove Date Farm and Winery. Continue on to the town that produced the first Australian electric streetlights, Thargomindah, before finally arriving at the Dig Tree, which memorialises the death of Burke and Wills. From here, cross the border to South Australia and spend a night in Innamincka.
DAY FOUR: It’s time to hit the Birdsville Track. You can choose to travel via Walker’s Crossing, or you can head to Cordillo Downs Road. You’ll pass Tiari Desert and Sturt Stony Desert in the south and Strzelecki Desert and Simpson Desert in the north. It’s easy to get lost out here, with roads leading to Santos gas- and oil-fields and private properties, so follow the correct signs. In good conditions, usually after the road has been graded, it can take around six hours to drive the length of the rutted track. However, with a lot of traffic during the races, be prepared for larger-than-usual ruts.
If you get time once you arrive in Birdsville, rush to Big Red to climb to the top before sunset. The road to Big Red is guttered and covered in sharp rocks, so be careful. We managed to get the Discovery Sport through the Birdsville Track without an issue, but burst a tyre on a rock about 100 metres from Big Red.
WHEN it comes to things to do, Birdsville packs a mean punch. Well, it does during race week. During times outside of the two-day event, you’d better have a real love of beer and camel pie.
First up is the all-season Birdsville Hotel. Built in 1884, this iconic pub is the town’s signature attraction. It’s a place for travellers to recharge their beer bellies while they refuel their 4x4s. If you’re not a beer drinker, prepare to become one, as locals make the amber liquid seem like a gift from the gods. For most of the year the hospitable community of the township will welcome you, but during peak-season (the week of the races) the hotel takes on a different tune, as travellers become part of the furniture.
Embrace your inner bogan by slapping down a tinny and throwing it to the curb – literally. The tradition of stomping your cans to the ground is one people take very seriously, so don’t even think about binning that aluminium treasure. And don’t stress if you’re precious about littering, a clean-up crew come through every night to collect the cans.
Big Red is another one to put on the to-do list. Avid 4x4ers will tackle the 30-metre sand dune, but, if you’re a novice off-roader, then Little Red is a slightly easier ride. If you
don’t have the time to do either, just go and have a look.
Another trip you can take is to Diamantina River. Here you can cool down after a day at the races and listen to other race-goers make plans for the evening’s festivities. For photographers, make sure you capture the sunrise of the Birdsville billabong before
You’ve heard of people eating crocodile, grubs and emu, but have you ever considered camel? Well, now’s your chance. The Birdsville Bakery is famous for its camel pie, so close your eyes and hope there aren’t any lumps, or should that be humps? Any vegetarians considering this trip should be prepared to live on a diet of white bread and potatoes.
If it’s a unique outback experience you’re after, follow the sound of the beating drum
to Fred Brophy’s boxing tent. This is the only remaining travelling boxing tent around and, whether you love or hate fighting, the stage behind the curtain will play to your curiosity, as professional boxers take on drunken punters.
SURVIVING RACE DAY
IF YOU think surviving the trip across the desert to Birdsville is enough to prepare you for the races, you’re wrong. As soon as you walk through the gates to the iconic red-dirt racetrack, you’re entering a world unlike any other. This is as Australian as you can get, and there are a few tips to prepare for the big day.
Eat a big breakfast. We mean a big, greasy, stomach-lining breakfast. Outback hospitality means beer instead of water, so you’ll want your belly nice and absorbent for the day ahead. It’s a drought zone after all and something has to quench your thirst.
Prepare to walk. Remember when we said we packed stilettos? We lied. Be prepared to walk, as the racecourse is 3km south of the township and there are limitations on driving cars to the track. A shuttle bus is available from the caravan park.
Cover yourself with insect repellent – the flies are enough to drive you insane. Drink beer responsibly. There are plenty of police around to keep things in order, for anyone concerned.
Place your bets early. The town sees more than 7000 people travel to the racecourse to watch horses pound the dirt. Expect it to be crowded and disorderly.
The best part about the outback races is the people. Everyone is there to have fun and you’ll meet some great people and hear some amazing stories.
Anything goes when it comes to the dress code – no one is there to judge. In fact, one of the races’ traditions is to pick your craziest costume, create a backstory and spend the day as someone else. There’s also a fashions of the field competition for the ladies (and gents) who want to slap on traditional race-wear. But don’t take it too seriously and don’t say we didn’t warn you. Our advice: if you’re not one to get into costume, swap out the fancy shoes and fascinators for boots and an Akubra.
Hi Ho Silver
MOST people would call us crazy for attempting the trip to Birdsville in a Land Rover Discovery Sport, but even though its stylish exterior is better suited to ferrying kids to weekend sport, it’s a lot tougher than you’d expect.
The Discovery Sport has the style of a Range Rover Evoque with the a Discovery badge. It’s packed with Land Rover’s Selec-Terrain system, wade sensors and a 360-degree-visibility surround camera system.
When I picked up my trusty silver steed for an all-girls trip to the races – led by our friend Dave Darmody from Australian Offroad Academy – I did wonder if the Disco would make it. The Birdsville Track has a reputation of shredding tyres, particularly after rains and around race week, so we were in trouble if we arrived just before it was due for grading. Luckily that wasn’t the case, and the Discovery kept up with the convoy with an ease and grace we didn’t expect.
As the landscape changed to gibber and sunburnt plains, though, so did the Discovery Sport’s comfort levels. We found leaving the Selec-Terrain system in Normal mode provided the nicest ride.
Fortunately, we made it to Birdsville without any trouble, and it was looking like I was going to return to the 4X4 office with bragging rights intact. That was until we blew a tyre not far from Big Red. I still made it to the top of Big Red, but I can’t say the same for ‘Hi Ho Silver’.