Birdsville Races, Queensland: The outback's wildest party

As we bump along the rutted dirt track into the tiny outback town of Birdsville, population 115, Elvis starts trotting beside our vehicle clutching a can of beer and encouraging us to toot.

Just behind him, two bearded men in green skirts, riding boots and little else are arm-in-arm, following a crowd of people streaming towards the centre of town.

"This is not going to be a beauty contest, I tell you," my friend says as we coast past the Birdsville Pub, its wraparound verandah heaving with swaggering punters in the late afternoon sun, just 10 kilometres from the South Australian border and on the edge of the Simpson Desert. It's the kind of place where the small petrol station doubles as a post office, and where you can count on one hand the number of children enrolled in the public school.

But this was not just any weekend. During the first week of September travellers swarm here like blowflies to a freshly barbecued snag, eager to experience the spectacle that is the Melbourne Cup of the outback, the Birdsville Races

"It's like schoolies for the over 50s," says Senior Constable Neale McShane, the town's lone police officer who has presided over this dust-blown patch for the past decade.

"You've still got the dust, and the flies and the heat, but everyone's having a really good time. Next week, though, you might see a tumbleweed blowing up the main street."

The population explodes to more than 7000 for the two-day racing carnival, held at the claypan racing track on the outskirts of town. This is certainly no Flemington or Randwick racecourse, mind you. Any horse unfortunate enough to be at the back of the pack towards the end of the 2000-metre track might be swallowed by a dust cloud as the leaders thunder down the straight.

Fashions on the field are a sight to behold. Soon after entering the gates I encounter one man who has shunned the traditional cork hat in favour of his own invention – a dozen or so ocky straps tied to the brim of his hat. "They wanted 20 bucks for one of those hats. I made this in five minutes," he proudly says.

There's a couple dressed as the Queen and Prince Philip; a group of Santas in thongs and sunglasses; and a bunch of New Zealanders who constructed an enormous Akubra out of a Clark Rubber mat. Their costume has the added benefit that, as soon as they all squish under the wide brim and make their way towards the drinks line, the crowd miraculously parts and gives them a clear run to the bar.

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Two words crop up repeatedly when I ask racegoers why they made the considerable journey here: "Bucket list".

"There's acres and acres of nothing, and then just this ridiculousness in the middle of nowhere," says John, a sunburned punter in his 60s from Newcastle.

"I've got no ambition to go overseas, I can't see the bloody point in that. This is everybody just having fun. Considering there's 115 locals, all the rest of us, we're just like flies, blowing in. Everyone's coming here the same reason I am, just to tick it off the bucket list."

The punters stay everywhere and anywhere: in tents and swags at the local caravan park; on the banks of the Diamantina River; or in a specially erected city of tents a short stroll from the pub. Some even camp on the airstrip, under the wings of light planes that fly in from all over Australia for the event.

Given the sheer number of people in town, you might expect a bit of rough and tumble, but Senior Constable Macshane attributes the lack of bust-ups in part to Fred Brophy and his boxing troupe, who roll into town and set up a huge tent in the centre of town.

Brophy and his troupe, said to be the last of its type in the world, travel all over Queensland challenging those in the crowd to step up and try their luck against the boxers. Each night, throngs gather outside the tent to witness the spectacle, some bravely climbing up onto the stage to try to convince Brophy that they're fit enough and sober enough to fight.

One older man tries his luck, announcing to Brophy and the crowd that he's from "Goulburn mate, the big potato. I don't need a good boxer."

Brophy, eyeing him up and down, says: "No, you've had enough. Get down."

There are cheers and jeers from a crowd, before a handful of spectators are chosen as challengers.

Inside the tent a short time later, politician Pauline Hanson, who is in town for the races, acts as a ring card girl, sauntering around holding a card high to indicate the start of the first fight. The bell clangs and the crowd goes wild as a woman earlier selected from the crowd bangs her gloves together, hitches up her long dress and starts belting into one of Brophy's female boxers. "Give it to the sheila!" roars a man sitting nearby. The outback already felt foreign. In Brophy's tent we could well be on another planet.

David Brooks has seen it all before. The organic cattle farmer was born in Birdsville and has lived here most his life, is half-owner in the pub and is the president of the Birdsville Race Club. His grandparents settled here in the early 1880s.

Mr Brooks said the remoteness of Birdsville was exactly what drew people to the town for the races.

"Birdsville historically has been a place people come to because of its remoteness, because they think 'It's a challenge to get there, we should try to do it one day'," Mr Brooks said.

There's also something special about a good old-fashioned bush racing meet too, he said.

"I guess it's the dirt track. The dust flying up. A lot of the people that are here, half the crowd would have been before. They just can't get it out of their system, it's like a drug."

Megan Levy was a guest of Tourism and Events Queensland.

See also: Queensland - it's not just bogans

See also: Australia's 10 weirdest outback experiences

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

birdsvilleraces.comqueensland.com

GETTING THERE

Half of the fun is getting there. It's at least a 1500-kilometre drive from Brisbane to Birdsville. The Australian Offroad Academy offers escorted tours; see australianoffroadacademy.com.au

STAYING THERE

The Birdsville Caravan Park offers powered and unpowered sites. There are no bookings for race week – sites are available on a first-come, first-served basis.

Free campsites are available on the banks of the Diamantina River. Rent A Tent (rentatent.com.au) also constructs a tent city for race week. A two-person tent with camp stretchers cost $490 for a four-night stay in 2015. The price includes hot showers, toilets and basic camp kitchen facilities.

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