I wrote this piece for the book “World Party”, after a weekend at the races in 1993. Looking back, there are no photos of the races themselves, or even a horse. Oh well.
Come September, locals flee the dusty desert township of Birdsville, as a six-thousand-strong crowd descends for a weekend of hard drinking – and, if they sober up for long enough to work out the odds, the chance to win a packet on the ponies running in the Birdsville Races. This is the archetypal, good-natured Aussie piss-up, in a bizarre Outback setting. The racegoers are a mix of young cowpokes making the most of their one opportunity of the year to whoop it up and meet folks who they’re not related to, and townies who have just driven 1400km from the coast on atrocious roads to get here. Even by Australian standards, that’s a long way to go for a drink. So while you might see the odd fist-fight between drunken mates, the effort involved in reaching Birdsville means nobody has anything to prove by the time they arrive – there’s nothing for it but to down a slab of XXXX and party.
Founded in the 1880s as a customs post for collecting dues on cattle being driven interstate, Birdsville’s half a dozen streets is stuck way down in southwestern Queensland, within sight of the Simpson Desert’s mighty red sand dunes. The first race meeting was held in 1882 and was attended by just a few locals – a far cry from the crowd-pulling event it is now. With the droving days long gone, the town’s survival owes a lot to the bar at the Birdsville Hotel, a timber and adobe place built in 1884 and the only watering-hole for 400km in any direction – a lifeline for farmhands off nearby cattle stations, and the race weekend’s social focus.
Just about all Outback settlements have their own bulldozed gravel racetrack and host race meets, so why Birdsville’s has become such a big event is a bit of a mystery. It’s probably got a lot to do with sheer Aussie perversity: the place is so remote that simply getting here is half the fun – most people have a few bruises, headaches and tales to tell by the time they arrive on the Thursday or Friday. And they’ll have plenty more by the time Sunday morning rolls around.
The Birdsville Races (officially known as the XXXX Birdsville Cup Racing Carnival) kick off on Friday, though most people skip the trackside opening ceremonies in favour of spending the day easing themselves onto a liquid diet. After dark, the town fires up in fairground mode, with a host of outdated sideshow attractions – whip-cracking competitions, ringing the bell with a mallet, guess my weight, arm wrestling, you name it – setting up along the main street. A huge, mainly male crowd materializes at the fund-raising auction, impatiently watching all sorts of farm junk going under the hammer as they wait for the real attraction: the draw at the end to win a T-shirt off the back of a stripper (women can buy tickets for this event at half-price).
After the auction, and on the principle that sex and alcohol are nothing without a bit of violence thrown in, haul yourself over to Brophy’s Boxing Tent, where contenders from the crowd don gloves to slug it out with Brophy’s bruisers for small prize money. Stick to spectating: any drunken bravado will evaporate as you stand on oil drums at the back of the crowd watching a two-hundred-kilo farmhand being hammered unconscious in three seconds flat by a wiry lightweight.
If you haven’t made it out here already, Saturday is the day to hit the racetrack – a baking hot, shadeless pancake of dust and gravel 3km southeast of town. Ascot it’s not, but there’s a vague attempt to be noticed and a few women sport flamboyant headgear, though men stick to more practical Aussie Akubras. The Birdsville Cup, run over 1600m, is the big one. It usually starts around 3.49pm and, as the race approaches, crowds swarm around the touts, with last-minute betting slips and cash rapidly switching hands. It’s also worth catching a camel race or two, but here you can forget about favourites and carefully calculated odds – camels run in any direction they feel like going in, and dead-cert winners have been known to give up and sit down one metre from the finishing line.
The races end mid-afternoon, when everyone retires for a wash-and-brush-up before heading back to town to celebrate or drown their sorrows. After dark there’s usually a live band at the Shire Hall: you’ll need a clean kit – shoes, long trousers, shirt and tie – to get in, though you won’t be the first to make it through the door wearing a black sock dangling from your collar. Those whose dress sense falls short of the mark head to the hotel bar instead, where there’s a more raucous atmosphere and the action soon spills out onto the street. If you haven’t done so already, it’s around now that you’ll register the weekend’s ten-males-to-one-female ratio – women, single or not, will have no shortage of suitors.
Don’t plan much for Sunday as you’ll be in the minority if you surface before lunch. A few die-hards crawl back to the bar for hair of the dog, but the hotel’s best avoided on Sunday: the faces of the survivors propped up or passed out on the porch might put you off drink for life. Those with four-wheel-drives and a bit of stamina head west out to Big Red, the first of the desert dunes, and spend the afternoon driving up and down its powdery slopes; otherwise, it’s time to start packing up camp and planning your return route to civilization.