Travel

The annual Birdsville Races draw thousands to the remote outback town, for a gathering of self-described ‘real Australians’. By Drew Rooke.

The Birdsville Races and Fred Brophy’s famous boxing tent

Punters at the Birdsville Races.
Credit: © LOOK DIE BILDAGENTUR DER FOTOGRAFEN GMBH / ALAMY

The Birdsville Track stretches 500 kilometres from Marree, South Australia, to the frontier town of Birdsville, just over the Queensland border. Just under the halfway mark is the Mungerannie Hotel. The walls are covered with messages written on dollar bills by passers-by and stickers shouting slogans such as, “The only true wilderness is between a greenie’s ears.”

I order a beer and get chatting with the owner, Phil. He’s a burly bloke with a scruffy beard down to his chest, skin that’s tanned and weathered from many years spent under the outback sun, and calloused hands the size of a wrestler’s. His voice is deep and husky. On his head is a torn Akubra, with three half-smoked cigarettes tucked into the leather band.

I ask if he’s heading up to Birdsville for the races in the coming days.

“Not a chance,” he answers. “I’ve only been once, in 1999, and it was the most uneasy I’ve felt in my life, even with six mates.”

“Why uneasy?” I ask, surprised.

“There was just a feeling that a riot could start at any minute. It was just full of young guys charged with beer and as much testosterone, and if you looked at ’em the wrong way, they’d turn around and knock your teeth out.” He finishes his can of whiskey and cola, crushes it in his hands and tosses it in the bin. “Mind you, that was 16 years ago.”

 

The visitors’ centre in Birdsville has a sign on the wall that says the races are an official Queensland icon, alongside the Great Barrier Reef. In the official program a message from the state minister for tourism, Kate Jones, says the races allow people to “Live Australia’s Story”. 

By mid-afternoon, the Birdsville Hotel is filling, strangers befriending one another and shouting each other a drink. The pub is an attraction on a par with the horse races themselves, which aren’t set to start for another two days. Inside has been stripped of all tables and chairs to make space for the 6000-plus revellers who will be attending this weekend. 

The first Birdsville race meeting was held in September 1882. For a few thousand years before then, the Wangkangurru–Yarluyandi lived on the land here. Just out of town is a site marked for an important Dreamtime story for these first people – Thutirla Pula.

At the pub’s beer garden, the live music starts early in the evening. Guitarists take to the stage, belting out American country classics such as “Ring of Fire” and “The Gambler”. Many of the songs are repeated, no one in the crowd seeming to notice or care. They sing along, holding their tinnies high in the air in salutation. A few dance arm in arm.

“That’s how they dance in New South Wales,” says the bloke to my right, gesturing to the two men dancing together.

His name is Ashley. He asks where we’re from and I tell him Sydney.

“Shithole,” he says, authoritatively.

“It’s not so bad,” I say.

“Nah, mate – shithole.”

I give up trying to persuade him otherwise and ask him why he hates it so much.

“There’s bloody ching-chongs everywhere. There are signs that have English and then below it have the bloody ching-chong name. I’ve got nothin’ against nobody but that’s a joke.”

Behind him are six of his mates, equally large and equally drunk. I take a sip of beer and pretend to enjoy the band for a spell. 

Friday, race day. The smell of bacon and eggs wafts around the campground as people prepare their stomachs and livers. At the gates people queue not to enter but for a photo beneath the Birdsville Race Club sign. Some are dressed as if for a cocktail party; men in suits and ladies wearing dresses and elaborate fascinators. Others are in shorts, sneakers and T-shirts with slogans on the back such as “Birdsville Races: Only Fools and Horses”. A few more still are in full-body chicken suits or Superman outfits.

Through the gates and people huddle under the few areas of trackside shade or check the odds for the first race due to start in an hour. Beside a skip in front of the bar stands a group of young men playing the “Cheer Whenever Someone Tosses a Piece of Rubbish into the Bin” game. They’re swaying and incoherent but seem to be having a lot of fun.

The crowd makes its way to the track railing as the first horses head to the barricades. When the pack comes around the bend into the final straight, the thoroughbreds’ hooves whip up a cloud of orange dust. Hands go up in the air in celebration or on heads in despair as the pack crosses the finish line. Then everyone returns to their seat, runs to the toilet or heads to the bar.

There’s commotion not far behind my girlfriend, Chloe. When I turn around there are people jumping from their seats for a photo with a red-haired woman wearing royal blue studs in her ears, expensive black sunglasses and a forced smile. I assume it’s an actor or country musician. When I get a little closer, I realise it’s Pauline Hanson.

I tell her I’m writing a story about the races and she’s happy to stop and talk. She speaks in the methodical, rigid manner of all politicians giving an unplanned interview, careful to only say safe niceties that’ll make people smile when they read them in the paper the next day. She’s here in Birdsville, she tells me, because it’s an iconic Aussie experience. Small towns across Australia are shutting up shop and were it not for events such as the Birdsville Races, well, the towns would just be forgotten; they’d go unacknowledged. “Everyone here is getting back to the basics – in tents, caravans and in the outdoors,” she says. “This is Australia.”

By late afternoon the sun is low in the sky and casts a golden sheen over the racetrack. Winners queue at the bookies for their returns and those with BYO camp chairs pack up and head for their four-wheel-drives. There’s still a long line at the bar as shuttle buses begin ferrying the crowd into town. Around the garbage bins are mounds of cans and burger boxes. The view west from camp is soothing. The sky changes from a soft orange to a deep indigo and the only sounds are the birds singing up from the river.

 

It’s a lot quieter in town than last night. “Everybody’s fucked from the races,” a man laughs. “Probably passed out somewhere.” The scene is the same at the pub as every other night – the same country music, the same drunken singing from the crowd. Across the road is a ring of people gathered around Fred Brophy’s Famous Boxing Troupe tent. 

Brophy walks up to the ring, to whistles and claps. His white-grey hair is slicked down; his shirt a loose-fit red satin and his blue jeans running into sneakers. He takes hold of the microphone, his drawly voice distorted in the crackly speakers. He’s clearly a people’s man and stands before the crowd as if he’s Shakespeare’s Caesar delivering a rallying oration.  

“I know it’s a hard go to get here, and a hard go to get back,” Brophy continues after the cheering stops. “But you won’t regret it – it’s the only town you can come to have a good time without taking any clothes off. That’s why all the sheilas come out here.” The crowd laughs. 

At Brophy’s feet is a huge drum that booms and rattles when he plays it. It’s an ominous beat, accompanied by an iron bell being played by the only female boxer in the troupe, Brettlyn “The Beaver” Neal. The beat, Brophy says, is the Birdsville national anthem – for the 37 years he’s been coming here, the sound hasn’t changed.

“Anyone who’s game enough to get up that ladder,” Brophy continues, “and fight one of my fighters who come from all parts of Australia – that’s what you call a fair-dinkum Australian. ’Cos this is where Australians start. And that’s the Australian way. Whether you win or lose is irrelevant – you’re a fair-dinkum Aussie.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 17, 2015 as "Thoroughbred centre". Subscribe here.

Drew Rooke
is a Sydney-based freelance journalist.

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