Not the Birdsville Races: Tourists and beer flood outback town
The dust has settled on the Birdsville racetrack.
Some 6,000 outback adventurers are departing the annual race day weekend that had descended on the fabled town of only 120 people.
The $30,000 Birdsville Gold Cup has been run and won, and 130 thoroughbreds are making their way back to their home stables. Most of the 80,000 beer cans, imported especially for the event, have been drunk.
The "Not the Birdsville Races" -- whose patrons race wooden horses, drawn by reel and string, down the main road -- has been won. And for the record, the Birdsville Gold Cup was taken out by the Mount Isa, Jay Morris-trained six-year-old gelding, Just a Touch.
In a tradition that started in 1882, racing enthusiasts, four-wheel drivers, motor-homers and campers journey to the outback town to bring in spring.
There are big gaps out there, 1,590-kilometers west of Brisbane and 40 kilometers east of "Big Red," the largest sand dune in the Simpson Desert.
Those traveling from the south, along the famed Birdsville Track, found the town hard to reach as Cooper's Creek was flooded due to heavy rains from last season.
“The only service there is a single-service punt, or ferry you might call it,” David Brook, Birdsville Race Club President, told ABC Radio National. “But it only carries one car at a time -- about 100 a day.”
“A lot of people (took) an extra 24 hours to make that trip, which (was) a bit of a nuisance for them,” he said. “It’s one of the things that has been the same for 50 or 60 years.”
He’d know. His family has been there since the 1880s.
The folklore of The Birdsville Track
The town etched itself into Australian folklore as the end of the Birdsville Track: a 517-kilometer passage from the South Australian outback town of Maree.
Just over the Queensland border, Birdsville became a customs point for cattle, droved by hard men through semi-discovered Australia.
Settled in the 1880s, its boom time of three hotels and 300 people disappeared with federation (and the abolition of customs) in 1901, and the town's poulation dwindled to 50.
While a ghost town threatened, the continued popularity of the track for farmers and tourists, and the Birdsville Races, has seen the population swell to about 120.
In the middle of nowhere, that’s a lot of people to find in one place.
Tourism is now as much an industry in the town as cattle.
These days, the Birdsville Track itself now even has a gas station at Mungeranie, an outback town with a population of three.
What happens in Birdsville, stays in Birdsville
But apart from being perceived as behind the times, the town prides itself on its legal efficiency. The local magistrate makes the 720-kilometer journey south from Mount Isa to hold court during the racing weekend, if needs be.
Local copper, Neil McShane, reckons it’s a peaceful day at the races, but with so many people and so much beer, you just don’t know what those rowdy out-of-towners will get up to.
So he says a court’s set up that is probably the only one in Australia that sits on a weekend, twice a year. Did someone say kangaroo court? Maybe not.
“If they play up a little they can get dealt justice straightaway and get on with their lives,” David Brook explained to ABC Radio National. “Rather than face court in six months' time (because) it’s a long journey.”
His son, Gary Brook, said a handful of revelers faced the makeshift court after the races.
After all, with big gaps, dirt tracks, occasional gas stations, flooding rivers and a whole lot of empty beer cans at the end of your journey, getting to an adjourned hearing would be punishment enough.