The Iconic Birdsville Races
2 Feb 21 · 6 mins read
The Iconic Birdsville Races
Every year on the first weekend of September, crowds of 6,000 racegoers flock to the town of Birdsville for what has been dubbed the Melbourne Cup of the Outback. Usually home to a population of around only 100, the town’s locals are joined by visitors from across Australia and around the world to revel in two days of quality outback racing and entertainment.
Hundreds of four-wheel drives and campervans surround the town, while aircrafts fill the town’s airstrip. Located virtually in the middle of nowhere in outback Queensland, a vast 1,6000km inland from Brisbane, the trek here is not an easy one. But with horses from all over Australia competing for the coveted Birdsville Cup, combined with a range of non-stop festivities, this is one hell of an outback shindig you don’t want to miss.
This article provides information about the Birdsville Races to assist your tour of Birdsville. Odyssey Traveller spends two days in Birdsville as part of small group tour of Broken Hill and Back. This tour is for both the mature and senior traveller, as part of a couple or as a solo traveller.
The very first races run in Birdsville took place in 1882, set up for hack and stock horses and attended by 150 station owners, managers, stockmen and other employees, as well as a few locals.
Public subscription raised nearly 200 pounds, which were paid over to the winners.
After the event, a jockey club was formed consisting of forty-two members and the next race meeting fixed for the following year. This was the beginning of a dedicated annual event, which has since except for a period during WWII only been cancelled twice: in 2007 when a national outbreak of horse flu saw a complete ban on horse movement; and in 2020 because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Although there are dozens of Outback meetings, Birdsville rose to national prominence in 1978 when prime minister Malcolm Fraser paid a visit. Since then, thousands have continued to flock to the town each year. A particularly large crowd estimated at around 7,000 in 2009 even required 20 extra police to be temporarily posted to the small town.
The Birdsville Races are part of the 15-day Simpsons Desert Racing Carnival that incorporates events in Birdsville, Betoota and Bedourie. The Birdsville program includes 13 races with more than $200,000 prize money on offer. Special races include fundraisers for the Royal Flying Doctor Service and Birdsville Clinic, those for horses bred within 250 miles of Birdsville, and separate races for horses fed with corn and those fed on grass.
The highlight though is the famous Birdsville Cup. This is the showstopper race that everyone rocks up, highly acclaimed throughout the world. Held on the Saturday, Jockeys race along the 1600 metre track for the much sought after trophy and prize money of $25,000.
The Birdsville racecourse track itself is rudimentary, little more than a set of running rails planted around a patch of the Simpson Desert next to a couple of tin shacks. It is one of only four tracks in Queensland to run anti-clockwise. As horses round the bend an incredible dust cloud follows them across the finish line, a great spectacle to see.
A Carnival Atmosphere
The Birdsville Races isn’t just about the horses through. It’s the enthusiastic people who attend this famous event, and the vibrant carnival atmosphere they bring, which makes it so notorious. Each year characters of all walks of life fill the town, from 18 year old kids adventuring into the outback, to backpackers, to the grey nomad, to quirky outback characters, just to name a few. With them they bring monstrous dosses of mayhem for a weekend of entertaining off-track festivities.
Would-be fashionistas, colourfully dresses in Melbourne Cup cast-offs, walk the grounds competing for the best dressed at the Fashions on the Field competition. They’re accompanied by those in playful humorous costumes, usually reserved for Halloween, competing for the best dressed novelty prize. They mix in a sea of outback locals in check shirts, moleskin trousers and Akubras.
When not at the races, other entertainment includes live music, whip cracking demonstrations, the Fun Run, Cocktail Party, a giant auction, and the ever popular Fred Brophy’s boxing tent. This is the last boxing tent in the world where willing participants can punch on with a pro in the ring, and some of the hardest boxer in the country have been discovered in this tent.
Then, as the sun goes down the night-time shenanigans begin. Following the final race, the Birdsville Hotel pub at the centre of the town quickly becomes the main attraction, crowds flowing out under the awning of the hotel onto the street.
When you finish your can of beer, the custom here is to place it on the ground, crush it, and leave it in the gutter. Soon a metre wide river of cans flows down the street. Don’t worry though, there is a clean-up crew to recycle all of the empty cans at sunrise each morning.
What to Eat
Apart from being the party central during the night, the Birdsville Hotel also offers an assortment of traditional pub food meals served up as an authentic outback dining experience. Or for something more fancy, book a set in the OBE Pavilion to dine on the likes of 12-hour smoked organic beef short ribs.
A variety of food vendors are also on site serving up good Aussie tucker, burgers, pizzas, fish and chips, fried-rice, pancakes, barista-made coffee, and more. And fresh baked goods are also available from the Birdsville Bakery.
Where to Sleep
After a packed day and night of festivities, you’ll be craving a good night’s sleep. Luckily, there are plenty of options for places to rest up.
Tented accommodation is available to book in advance through Rent-a-Tent in what is known as Tent City, just a short walk from the centre of town. Here you can enjoy the comforts of a pre-pitched tents with a stretcher bed and mattress, hot shower facilities and bathrooms. By staying here, you join an instant community, easily meeting people in between the big race week events.
Otherwise campers can stake a claim wherever they can find a patch of ground at the free campsites. Many choose to pitch up camp under the wings of more than 200 planes that line the airstrip, others set up along the banks of the Diamantina River which is perfectly positioned between the racetrack and the pub. The Birdsville Caravan Park also offers fully serviced units and cabins (with or without an ensuite), as well as caravan and camping sites. Bookings in advances are essential.
Tour of Birdsville
Odyssey Traveller visits Birdsville as part of our tour of Broken Hill and the outback. Beginning and ending in the ‘Silver City’ of Broken Hill, New South Wales, our outback experience explores the mining history and artistic legacy of the capital of the outback, taking in the works of the ‘Brushmen of the Bush’ at the Broken Hill Regional Art Gallery and visiting the moving Lode Miners Memorial and elegant Broken Hill Courthouse.
Leaving Broken Hill, we head towards Birdsville, stopping off at the opal mining town of White Cliff and Menindee Lake National Park on the way. From Birdsville we head south to Marree on the legendary Birdsville Trail, before visiting the flora and fauna sanctuary of the Arkaroola Wilderness Sanctuary, on the northern edge of the Flinders Range. Leaving the Flinders, we head back to outback NSW, passing through the ‘corner country’, possibly the most remote area in Australia.
If you’re interested in exploring Australia, why not join an Odyssey outback tour? Our tours are designed especially for mature Australians, who seek to learn about the history and culture of their destinations. We are now offering a number of outback Australia small group tours, including:
- An odyssey through the outback roads of the Kimberley, taking you on a scenic flight over the rock formations of Purnululu National Park and to the ancient landscape of the Mitchell Plateau, where the red dirt meets the west coast.
- An outback adventure through outback Queensland, learning about the history of the cattle station in the outback town of Longreach and Aboriginal culture at the UNESCO World Heritage Listed Brewarrina Fish Traps.
- A tour of the Flinders Ranges, South Australia, taking in ancient Aboriginal art and quintessential arid Australian landscape in one of the most accessible areas of the golden outback.
Articles about Australia published by Odyssey Traveller:
You can read all the articles Odyssey Traveller has published for mature aged and senior travellers.
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