Outback 2: iconic Outback town
With the possible exception of Broken Hill, Birdsville is the most famous Outback town in the land. I wouldn't include large mining centres such as Mount Isa or Kalgoorlie in my top 10; even Longreach might not make it, on 'too buzzy' grounds. Birsdville is up there because of its annual horse races in early September, and its pub. I wasn't going to drive 1500 kilometres, however, to see the town at its most atypical, party town packed to the gunnels with racegoers. And you can't stay in the Hotel at race time, which for me was a must. Birdsville's position, however, on the edge of both civilisation and the most spectacularly impressive landscape, should be enough of an incentive to visit before you die.
The races began in 1882 and have only been cancelled three times since then. In 2010, it was due to flooding, but there were still good times. The town's population swells by thousands at race time, and preparations were well underway when we were there. I suspected some of the campers arriving were there for the duration. Below is the racecourse: there's little shade for punters in the heat of the desert.
Anyone who is anyone knows of the Birdsville Hotel. In some ways, it was almost bound not to live up to expectations. There were great characters on the public side of the bar, but the young staff on the other side didn't seem to care much about service, which was perfunctory at best. After our scenic flight, we got back for breakfast just before 9, which was the cut-off. We were staying at the Hotel for three nights and ate every evening in the restaurant. But there was no breakfast for us at 4 minutes to 9… and no apology (of course).
I liked our room, however, with its IKEA furnishings. It was perhaps a tad pricey, but this was the Birdsville Hotel. The bar had a great atmosphere. I would have loved one night to be able to choose what to eat rather than having pizza, barbie or roast night decided for me, but that may be a function of deliveries at intervals to make a spoilt Southeast Queenslander shudder. I am not really complaining: I thoroughly enjoyed my stay in Birdsville. I definitely got the impression people don't usually stay as long as we did: they pass through or spend one night. Many people fly into town, which is why buildings in this region have signage on their roofs rather than at ground level.
Beer delivery day was particularly noteworthy.
The Royal Hotel was constructed in 1883, the same year as the Birdsville Hotel. Little timber was available for building so the walls were constructed from dehydrated gypsum mixed with sand and water to bond the stonework so it faired better in the extreme temperatures. The Royal was a hotel for 40 years before being leased in 1923 by the Inland Mission for use as a clinic. Materials needed for the conversion were brought in on 75 camels. In 1937 the property became a private residence. It's in a pretty sorry state now, although there have been plans for its restoration.
Our first day in Birdsville was a chillin' day. Much of the morning was spent in the Visitor Centre which is large and modern and packed with all sorts of information. The helpful staff are the source of all knowledge about road conditions. And we had to take note. The massive bad weather system that had plagued the east for days was having repercussions for roads we planned to take in four days' time. It wasn't looking good. But conditions change suddenly – as we'd seen earlier that morning; and, as we learned last year, advisors tend to err on the side of caution. Were bad weather and closed roads going to force us to change our plans again?
And there were other things to think about…
Birdsville is on the Diamantina River. It also has a billabong, fed by an artesian bore drain. It was mighty chilly by the billabong on a gusty grey August afternoon, but it looked very different the next morning from the air.
Birdsville has a geothermal power station, another claim to fame. I was interested in this, the only one of its kind operating in Australia. I'm always enthusiastic about alternative power generation. (I'm an ABC – anything but coal – kind of person. Anything but fossil fuels, in fact.) This is how it works…
And this is a brilliantly simple explanation of artesian water sources.
Then there is the Birdsville Bakery, which we'd been told to visit by John, in Boulia. He told us to say hi to Dusty. Which we did; and ate breakfast there every morning, and sometimes afternoon tea. Dusty makes award-winning pies. I tried a spicy chook pie and a wattle seed custard tart and I can see why. I'm not normally a pie person, but the fillings and the names are enough to spike your interest if not your tastebuds: ale and (kangaroo) tail; kangaroo and claret; curried camel; peppered chunky beef; lamb shank; and rabbit. (There is a vegetarian pasty, never fear.) The cake cabinet includes berri quondong tart, apple and Woolgoolga lilli pilli pie and many other, rather more familiar favourites.
I tell you, having struggled to find croissants not filled with cheese and ham or decent cakes for ten days, the Birdsville Bakery was truly an oasis in a desert of patisserie ordinaire.
The morning of our departure from Birdsville, we were invited to watch pies in production: Dusty was aware I'd been making notes about them the previous day. This was day 155 of continuous pie-making as the Bakery prepared to feed 12,000 hungry racegoers. It was the turn of kangaroo and claret. The ingredients? Roo, obviously; caramelised onion; mixed herbs; bacon bits (to reduce the gameyness); and Camp RC46 SH Shiraz.
The name of the wine refers to Return Camp 46, where Australia's most celebrated explorers, Robert O'Hara Burke and William John Wills, camped on 3 April 1861. That day, they'd walked 25 kilometres across the Bilpa Morea Claypan, 120 kilometres northeast of Birdsville, although their precise route at this stage of the expedition is still a matter of conjecture. What is fairly certain is that the explorers were not in good shape: there were few provisions left and their camels were exhausted. They had to jettison equipment, including Wills's astronomical instruments. Some remnants of what are believed to be those instruments have been found, but the search continues for Wills's sextant. There are Burke and Wills obsessives, just as there are Leichhardt addicts, who will forever search.
And the SH? Sh*t hot… I was told.
On day 1 in Birdsville I chatted with a couple from Ballarat who last visited the town in 1981. We struck up a conversation while I was photographing the Hotel. The best angle happened to be from the middle of the road, where they joined me. We formed a traffic island for at least 20 minutes while they described big changes they'd observed over 30 years, and every now and again a car glided to either side of us.
Birdsville seemed quiet to me. There were the occasional 4WD, ute, motorbikes and small convoy; the odd camper or two. Perhaps it was the calm before the storm. It's spread-out and spacious and largely empty, except for evenings in the Hotel, which were buzzing. I'm not sure where everybody materialised from.
It was time to leave this small town with a big reputation and head down the Birdsville Track. This is what would have been sent to rescue us had we been unable to dig ourselves out of trouble in the desert.
This post was last edited on 6 November 2016