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Desert comes alive for Birdsville Races

 

There's no red carpet, champagne or caviar when you arrive in Birdsville for the Races.

The town's busiest annual event, which takes place on the first Saturday of September, is more about red dust, beer and a camel pie.

It's a bizarre experience - one moment you're overwhelmed by the isolation of the country's vast interior; the next you're swept up in the frivolities of people in animal costumes.

Some men are dressed as women, others sport African safari suits. Some are disguised as beer cans to compete for a year's supply of the sponsor's product. An endless amount of colour has splashed onto an otherwise arid part of Queensland's remote southwest.

While having fun in the desert is essential, it's hard not to have an appreciation for the pioneers who opened this new frontier in the 1880s - nor for the 110 people who now call Birdsville their home.

There are few landscapes that can match the Simpson Desert for its harsh and unforgiving nature, yet it stands alongside another expanse vital to Australia's cattle industry.

Stockmen like Sidney Kidman made their fortune in the barren land that turns into fertile ground for raising cattle when the rain arrives and flows into rivers like the Diamantina.

The Simpson, which covers overs 176,000 square kilometres, is home to the largest sand dunes in the world and the most impressive of all is 35km out of Birdsville. Nappanerica, or Big Red as it is known, is more than 30m high.

Who would imagine than on the most eastern fringe of these harsh and spectacular surroundings is one of the remotest horse racing meetings in the world?

A lot of racegoers drive to Birdsville but getting there isn't easy. It will take days if you are setting off from Sydney or Brisbane. As you - finally - near town, you'll join a convoy of four-wheel drives.

When you arrive it will be time for a well-earned sunset beer at the iconic Birdsville Hotel or a camel pie from the local bakery, one of 12,000 sold during Cup week.

Many also fly in on charters, with hundreds of light aircraft parked on the dirt alongside a handful of private jets like a Phenom 300, made in Brazil and believed to be the only one of its kind in Australia.

The jet's obvious luxury and comfort was the envy of three knockout mates who paid $280 an hour to charter a six-hour flight from the Gold Coast in their four-seater.

In the best Birdsville tradition they slept in swags underneath their plane's wings.

"I'd give anything for a mattress right now," one of them said as dawn broke on Cup day.

But sleeping under stars is part of the Birdsville experience.

A tent city provides temporary accommodation, while racehorse trainers set up camp on the banks of the Diamantina, reminiscent of the stockmen who once mustered on horseback.

The event's horses and the jockeys who ride them can match their pioneer forebears for commitment under saddle in the dust that is served up on a racetrack built on a claypan.

In this part of Australia, Birdsville Cup winners have been revered since the first race meeting in 1882.

This year's winner Fast Fella completed a journey to Birdsville that started a few years ago among the glitz and glamour of the annual Gold Coast yearling sales.

He bought decent money but was let go from a Melbourne stable and ended up in Brisbane before being sent west to find bush fame for another trainer.

Melbourne businessman Adam Adamczyk, a runner in the Cup, says the attraction is obvious.

"It's not the Melbourne Cup but for the average person it's still aspirational," he said.

Fred Brophy has been trying to win the Birdsville Cup for 30 years.

As living evidence of the outback of yesteryear, the gravel-voiced Brophy may be the last of the old-time Australian showmen and he does well out of Birdsville, despite not winning the Cup.

His boxing shows where fighters, including the only woman in the troupe Brettlyn "Beaver" Neal, take on challengers from the audience, drawing huge crowds underneath a big tent.

"A horse of mine ran third one year. I had the favourite in the Cup in 2010 but the races were called off because of the weather and I'll keep trying," Brophy says.

Brophy's troupe is banned in NSW and Victoria but he's a much-loved figure in the Queensland bush.

Where else could you hear someone who would dare to say: "We need a sheila to fight The Beaver. Who wants to fight The Beaver?"

And this about Pauline Hanson: "We love you in the outback. You are a fair dinkum Australian."

Brophy and Birdsville have stood the test of time and it's a sure bet many racegoers will return next year even if they didn't back the Cup winner.

They may be lighter in the pocket but at the end of two days of desert racing they will be enriched by an experience that is quintessentially Australian.

IF YOU GO

GETTING THERE: Many choose to charter planes to Birdsville for the Races, but others claim the journey out there by the car adds to the experience. The drive from Sydney is almost 2000km and will take you almost 30 hours; from Brisbane the journey is not much shorter at around 25 hours.

STAYING THERE: Most people opt to stay in a tent; some swag it on the sand. For general information on the event, including details on accommodation and tickets, visit www.birdsvilleraces.com

* The writer travelled and stayed in Birdsville as a guest of the Birdsville Race Club.