'If there's one emu, there's two and maybe chicks', said Steve Harris as he set up the rented ute (utility vehicle) for our journey from Adelaide into the Australian interior. 'They're real mean and they'll attack if they feel threatened. Those desert kangaroos measure four meters nose to tail, but emus are more dangerous.' Was this an Aussie taking the piss out of a Pom? I smiled obligingly, but it seemed Steve was serious. While I adapted my mindset to killer emus, he asked if we'd like two spare wheels or one and a fridge. I chose option two. Time would tell that this was an emu victory.
The target for our ten day roadie was Birdsville on the Queensland-South Australia border. For 360 days a year, 109 citizens, a hotel, a cricket ground, an airstrip, two garages and a primary school for eight kids bake under fierce desert sun. For the remaining five, 7000 visitors camp under the coolabah trees for the XXXX Birdsville Gold Cup, highlight of a traditional bush racing programme that embraces the country.The Melbourne Cup of the Outback is the highlight of a two day meeting held annually over the first weekend in September (5-7, 2019) . On this occasion, the spectators would include Richard Dunwoody, former Grand National winning jockey turned photographer, Rebecca, an intrepid Aussie traveller, and me. Provided we got there.
19thcentury Birdsville was the focus of a lucrative cattle rearing industry, with Sidney Kidman, a boy of 13 when he headed north on a one-eyed horse in 1870, as its undisputed king. By 1910, he'd built a 3500km empire between the Gulf of Carpentaria and his native Kapunda, a prominent copper mining settlement in the Barossa Valley. He moved his cattle on the hoof, driving many of them down the Birdsville and Oodnadatta Tracks, established in the 1860s, to the railhead at Marree for onward transportation to beef-eating masses in faraway lands.
In territory where extreme distance boosts private plane sales, many spectators fly into Birdsville over thousands of alarmingly empty square miles, but that's no way as much fun as getting down and dusty on Kidman's gravel highways. Once we'd hired tents, filled the fridge and picked up Richard at Adelaide airport, we were ready to follow Kidman into the interior.
With a day to spare, we went via Coober Pedy, opal mining central in the back of beyond, represented in these parts by unremitting muted green sage bush. Our first emus scampered through it, but were denied the chance to charge as we hurtled down the ribbon of the Stuart Highway towards distant Darwin. 'Careful of the road trains', warned Rebecca. 'The verges are soft so don't swerve'. Steering without deviation at speeding monsters pulling two, three or four containers requires nerves of steel. We all wanted to take on the Big Four challenge but it was hard to deny that Richard, famously good at squeezing galloping race horses through tiny gaps, was the best qualified. Not his lucky day – facing down a Big Three was as good as he got.
As Coober Pedy has average summer temperatures of 55C, its 1700 citizens live, eat, drink and trade in a troglodyte town so it made sense to pick the Underground Restaurant for dinner. On the evidence of previous outback eating, I wan't optimistic, but George Koutsoumbos, who relocated from Adelaide with his wife Vicki, sprung a surprise. 'I have two French chefs at the moment. There's never a shortage of young Europeans intrigued by the outback, at least for a while. I never hire locally because it's always “I don't want to serve so and so because his son ran off with my girlfriend” or “his aunt never paid up after she ran into my car ”. '
When Euro-travellers fail, George takes up the skillet himself but the French couple provided us with mouth watering garlic prawns, salt and pepper squid and American T-Bone steaks, leaving him free to digress. 'At 55 degrees, dogs and cats chase each other at a walk', he said with a well practised crowd-pleaser's laugh. 'Plenty of snakes too. The king browns love the rubbish bins. I always tell my staff to shuffle their feet when they put out the bags'.
So far we'd rolled on tarmac, but with the Oodnadatta Track scheduled for the upcoming run to Marree, it was time to implement Steve Harris's four point gravel plan. Deflate tyres to avoid over heating, lock the front hub caps to avoid skidding, fill up the tank, eat a bacon and egg sandwich, but leave the coffee. Undrinkable or the best way to curtail comfort breaks in the wilderness? George's snakes curled into mind.
As we jolted off road, sage bush and mine workings gave way to flat yellow earth. We negotiated one of several crossings of the 5,400km dingo fence, a 2m wire barrier designed to safeguard South Australian sheep from Queensland wild dogs. Neither species showed, but a lone black inland taipan basked happily on the sun baked earth. The world's most lethal snake is a creature of sinister beauty, but one bite contains enough venom to kill 100 people; windows are best kept shut.
We made bets as to how many cars we'd see in an hour. Five, two, one? Still too high. In Warrior Creek, once a water source for Anna Ranch, a Sidney Kidman outpost the size of Israel or Wales, we met our first fellow racegoers, the O'Reillys from Bicester, over meat pies in the bar. 'We emigrated from the UK thirty years ago', said Jeremy. 'Absolutely no regrets because the outback still has the freedom we knew as kids. Birdsville races is a bit like Glastonbury, 1000s of people sharing a passion, but without the hype. It's an annual highlight for us'.
In Marree, where the Oodnadatta and Birdsville tracks meet, we grabbed the last rooms in the only hostelry. Phil Turner, a former corporate consultant from Canberra, and his wife Maz signed up for an increasingly popular bush pub dream when they bought the 1883 property in 2011. 'Absolutely a great decision', said Phil firmly. 'We were aiming high so we picked an iconic property, with a good tourist season for Lake Eyre. Wewanted a life as well as a salary so we consulted local pastoralists and businesses on how to make the hotel better for them. Five years on, our networking has paid off tenfold.. We're profitable year round and we've loved every minute.' Even those broiling summer months? Maz shrugged. 'We do the chores early, rack up the air con and go to ground'.
As we moved in, the tavern was gearing up for action. Rod Jones from Bathhurst has a halo of white hair, a scarlet shirt and a permanent kid in a chocolate factory smile. A veteran of London-Sydney rallies, he knows a lot about cars and even more about about bars. He and his five mates let chance dictate during Birdsville week, deploying their six numbered marbles to decide which horses their syndicate should back and who should pay for the drinks. In Marree, these were served in industrial quantities with conspicuous politesse by gap year students from Godalming and Stow-on-the-Wold. Phil's kitchen was manned by Old Etonians, adept at turning out gargantuan plates of booze-absorbing spag bol.
Tomorrow, the 517km dirt road through deserts and sandhills to Birdsville. Or not? At first light, the ignition key created an angry whirr, but no spark. Rod and friends lifted the bonnet to gaze blankly on a cowled engine. 'Could have handled it in the old days', he said unconvincingly. 'Can't see what's going on with all these computers'. Heads nodded sagely, bodies made space for Phil. Blocked fuel line, dodgy pump? Battery not yet flat but soon would be if we made more abortive attempts. Turner diagnosed gravity, the ute was pushed onto the only available slope and, miraculously, we were off.
70km beyond the lone roadhouse at Mungarannie, we had a blow out. Steve Harris had mentioned a tool kit but, in an era of run flats and foam canisters, city slickers don't know how to change tyres. We were still looking for the jack handle when Greg and Jed zoomed up, assembled their own equipment, stretched out on the dirt and did the job in ten minutes. Refusing payment in cash or cold beer, they checked the other wheels. 'You'll need to go steady on that', said Greg. To his credit, he looked concerned rather than contemptuous as he pointed to an ominous bulge. What use the fridge now?
For the next 285kms, Richard silently cursed the stupidity of women as he nursed the ute over ridges of jarring rocks. To the right, the Sturt Stony Desert, to the left, the infamous Simpson, where killer sands and extreme heat claim ill-prepared motorists every year. 200km ahead, Cooper's Creek, where time ran out for transcontinental explorers, Burke and Wills, in 1861. Even further ahead, the Queensland border. Too far? No point stopping to check the slow puncture: our fate was out of our hands now. And then we were limping into the Birdsville garage millimetres off the rim as the proprietor rolled the shutters down. 'Make most of my year's money this week', he said cheerfully, winching them back up. Easy to believe when we paid the bill.
Once you've picked your coolabah tree, erected tents and queued for pizza, it's time for Fred Brophy's all comers boxing challenge. Johnny Cash blasts out as the 67-year-old Queenslander, majestic in his scarlet shirt, bangs his drum outside his tent and invites likely lads and lasses to stand up and be counted in three one-minute bouts against members of his troupe. No shortage of wannabes: barefoot, but never bare knuckle, the chosen ones file inside to have their gloves fitted.
Introduced in England in the 1800s, travelling tent boxing spread rapidly through rural Australia, but health, and safety have now restricted it to Queensland. In the packed tent, we grabbed a ringside view of a dozen house boxers varying in size, age and gender, with the resident sheila big enough to take on most blokes. The challengers were committed and lively; some of them even won as the audience howled.
Fourth generation Fred Brophy first boxed competitively as a five year old, as good a qualification as any for close on 55 years years as a travelling showman, but his troupe, based in the centre of Queensland, is the last of the dinosaurs. 'Tented boxing was always part of gold field culture, but today's authorities want all pro boxing banned', he told me with a flare of Irish rage. 'No chance while I'm alive. Anyone can step up here. That's how champions are discovered. I'm not going to change for any politician or bureaucrat'. Freddie Junior works with his dad, but only the insanely optimistic would see the troupe surviving until he draws his pension. Great shame: it was brilliant fun.
Early on Gold Cup morning, we were at the oval race track 4km out of town to watch horses stretch their legs in the dawn cool. Jay Morris, an accidental trainer born and raised in the Queensland mining town of Mount Isa, is bush racing royalty, entitled to set up his horse camp nearest to the parade ring, but he's the first to admit he's only in the business because of his long standing friendship with Andrew Saunders.
'My granddad had horses and my dad enjoyed a punt', he explained, throwing thick bacon slices onto a smoking metal sheet. 'I loved horses enough to work as a strapper (groom) when I was 17, but carpentry was always my meal ticket. Andrew owns real estate, a cinema and a bookmaking business in Mount Isa. When he bought his first racehorses 12 years ago, he asked me to train them. Can't say why, but my place near the racetrack had a few stables so I said yes. I have 12 now, all his. It's hard graft on top of the day job – coming here for the weekend meant mixing and loading 40 horse feeds ahead of a 1400km round trip – but it's a great hobby'
His two runners in the Birdsville Golf Cup, The Gallows and Iron Meteorite, leaned out of their open stalls, ears pricked inquisitively, as Jay flipped the sizzling rashers. He watched them affectionately, but was non committal about their chances. 'The Gallows was runner up last year but he's drawn wide so that's a bit stick. We come to Birdsville because the money's good for the bush, but country meetings are real social highlights for hands on remote stations'. His wife passed him toasted doorsteps for the butties. Delicious. Chez Morris, sociability begins at home.
With the first race at 12.30, the crowds queued for the bus service from town. By choosing to drive, we gave hostile cops the chance to spot Rebecca sitting in the back without a seat belt. A £200 fine for her, a breathalyser for me. Luckily the delicious Roo and Broo pie I'd eaten at the Birdsville Bakery didn't take me over the limit. After that, it was a random driver breath test on most journeys between town and track: Australia doesn't top the world nanny state table for nothing.
By bush standards, Birdsville is sophisticated, but that doesn't make it Ascot.The dominant feature is high open sided corrugated roof that shades voluble bookies and ever more frenzied punters locked in bedlam level noise. For many, the dress code is formal shirt, tie and jacket over short shorts, but Gold Cup day offers prizes in various categories, ensuring a festive turn out of Priscilla Queens of the Desert and teams of matched skeletons. With no seating, many set up folding chairs and the wise have mesh covers - prominently displayed at the supermarket checkout – over their hats. The official photographer, Michael McNally, is a Victoria-based Birdsville virgin. 'Way better than the Melbourne Cup', he said decisively. 'You can't call yourself an Australian until you've done this one. A million flies can't be wrong'. Make that a billion and it's not even high season.
In the stewards room, David Brook, President of Birdsville Races, rules over disparate elements with the authority of a latter day Kidman. Like Jay Morris, he has a day job: his is rearing 40,000 white-faced Hereford cattle on eight million arid acres for onward transit as boxed beef to Asia and the US. 'I fly round my properties in a Cessna 210 or a helicopter, but I keep a few horses for old time's sake', he explained.
His great grandfather established ranches shortly after he arrived in Adelaide on HMS Steadfast in 1852, and with them the family's enduring passion for racing. 'When I was first appointed secretary 40 years ago, the runners in bush races were £30 stock horses. Today's thoroughbreds cost up to £130,000. Yet but the bush spirit lives on. I'm sure my great grandfather would feel equally at home today'.
In the changing room, the jockeys lounge on the concrete floor. As a seven times Gold Cup winner, veteran champion Aaron Spandau gets to sit in the faint breeze by the door. He too is an amateur, taking race days off from his job at Heritage Mining Machinery in Mount Isa 'Watching my weight is the hard part,' he said. 'Equal opportunities don't help: sheilas are lighter and I hate getting beat by them!'.
Brooke Richardson, young, glamorous and progressive, looked sideways at him, but he was saved by the bell. Heaving himself stiffly to his feet, he pulled on the orange and white Saunders silks for his ride top-weighted favourite, The Gallows. With Iron Meteorite's jockey, Cody Nestor, and 14 other rivals - all gratifyingly male - he walked out into the glare of the parade ring.
And on to post for the 1600m climax. A roar greeted the break from the stalls, then eerie silence as commentator and punters tried to identify the runners in all consuming dust. By the final bend, The Gallows was toast, but the decibels rose to a crescendo in the surge for the line. Ahead of the pack, lean dark Iron Meteorite gave everything to seize the crown. Andrew Saunders and Jay Morris leapt over the rails to greet their hero, cheeks flushed, eyes sparkling, no adequate words to express their joy as they raised the trophy and pocketed the £15,000 prize
No sleep that night as music blasted coolabah central, competing with the pop of tinnie tabs and the sizzle of tucker grilling on camp fires. As the right royal celebration ran down at dawn, the ute, still parked nose downhill as instructed by Marree's Phil Turner, coughed into life. For the last time, as it happened, but we were back on tarmac by the time it died. While waiting for a replacement, we camped among big roos and emus in the Flinders Range. No killer charge, but I'm still not sure who had the last laugh.
Photos by Richard Dunwoody.