The Birdsville Races

Photo: Steve de Vroom

The Diamantina Shire in the far west of Queensland has a total population of 322 people. That is right. The entire shire has a population that is less than the staff of some councils in the big cities. The best know town in the Diamantina Shire is Birdsville, with a population of 120.

That is, for 51 weeks of the year.

But as the beginning of September approaches, something unusual begins to happen out here in the desert. Like insects to a candle in the dark, thousands of cars, trucks, motorcycles, motor homes and caravans begin to rumble across the dusty plains heading for Birdsville. For the first Saturday in September is Birdsville Cup Day.

The airport, located across the road from the pub, receives planes and helicopters of every description. There are joyflights of course and a popular destination is Big Red, the large red sand dune about 30km south of town on the edge of the Simpson Desert. If you want to make a statement on race day, you can arrive at the track by helicopter for just $70 (one way).

This tiny town of 120 people has learned how to cater for about 6,000 visitors on this week in September each year. I am amazed at how they do it. Most places putting on an event of this size employ hundreds of staff to cope with the needs of the crowd, yet the highly organised folk of Birdsville not only cope, but put on an outstanding event that runs like clockwork and no one has any complaints about service. While vacant spaces in the town turn into tent suburbs, all along the banks of the Diamantina River, caravans and motohomes find their place in the sun or the shade.

This is Burke and Wills country and one of the Waddi trees (Acacia peuce) that were marked by these brave explorers is on the river bank just outside town.

Every street in town is transformed into a sideshow alley, with entertainment, food stalls and goods of every description on sale by traders who descend on the town from all over Australia.

The week of the Birdsville Cup is a carnival. The atmosphere is exciting and everyone has a great time.

Photo: Steve de Vroom

Affectionately know as the Melbourne Cup of the Outback, this race has been held here for the last 129 years with just one exception. In 2010 the races had to be cancelled due to the wet weather. Even so, the crowds hung around to enjoy the atmosphere for the duration.

This was my first Birdsville Cup. I hope it is not my last.

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