Birdsville, Queensland. Saturday 29th April.
It’s a strange little town, is Birdsville. The welcome sign paints the picture quite well. There aren’t many permanent residents but two events during the year swell the population by up to sixtyfold. The busiest of these is the long standing Birdsville Races. First held in 1882, for local stockmen to show their skills, it now attracts entries from all over Australia and crowds of over 6,000, with many flying their own planes in. It’s held over the first weekend in September and is a huge event. http://www.birdsvilleraces.com
The second is the more recently introduced Rock Festival, aptly named The Big Red Bash. Attracting over 3,000 people last year it’s held 35kms outside Birdsville, on the edge of the Simpson Desert, over the first weekend of July. This usefully coincides with school holidays so it is a family event for many. Big Red is a huge sand dune and it becomes the backdrop for three days of rock, country music and desert madness. While the big stars play in front of the dune the bigger stars look down from the firmament, probably wondering what it’s all about. Many people turn their journey into an outback challenge by driving long distances from the major cities. Read about it here.
But as the headline date tells you, I wasn’t there for either of those and yet there was an air of excitement about the place. Not exactly a breathless rushing about among the townfolk, but there was certainly an air of anticipation among a couple of motorcyclists I met. It seemed that Stuart Ball was in town! Or rather, he wasn’t but would be back soon. Let me explain.
Aussie bikers are just as madcap as any bikers anywhere and with such a vast country to play in they do love to set records wherever they can. In this case Stuart had his sights on the one for crossing the infamous Simpson Desert, from Birdsville to Mount Dare, and back again. It stands at 23 hours 38 minutes and Stuart had left at 9pm the previous evening. Therefore his return was eagerly anticipated. But chatting to his KTM riding friend later on I learned that he hadn’t made it. In fact he hadn’t even got close. He’d decided to sleep out on the dunes, about 200kms away. He was exhausted. It wasn’t so much the distance which did for him, it’s only around 880 kms, as the sand, which comes in all the forms that a desert can manage. Deep; loose; dunes big and small; but mostly just too much of it. And then there’s the thick clay on the salt flats. He’d fallen off over twenty five times. I hate sand. He has all my sympathy. But the thing that grabbed my attention was that he was riding a CCM, the same model as mine. This ties in with something that happened back in Tibooburra. I’d been out, and when I came in Tracey told me someone had seen my bike and had stopped to ask after the rider. It was Stuart on his journey north to Birdsville, with his bike on the back of a Ute. So now I felt a kinship and also felt his disappointment at not breaking the record. Stuart was doing this ride for a SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome) charity, which is well supported by the Aussie biking community.
At the camp site I bumped into various other bikers too. A couple of old codgers (my age) who were heading south to Innamincka. A male/female couple on His’n’Hers Suzuki DR650s. Four guys on various bikes who were about to tackle the Simpson but had the good sense to be accompanied by a 4WD, which would carry their luggage. All of them out to have fun on the tracks of SW Queensland and South Australia. I felt in good company. But I couldn’t help thinking that it must be an interesting life for the residents of Birdsville. Two very busy events to cope with each year, then fill the rest of the time waiting for various nutcases to turn up and amuse you. And for them to help keep your camp site, servo, shop or hotel ticking over, of course.
So what else is there to see in Birdsville? Not a great deal, is the answer, although I suppose it depends on your expectation levels. Even so, I enjoyed my walk around. The iconic Birdsville Bakery was worth a visit. It sells pies filled with beef, sheep, camel, pig or kangaroo. Supplied with all kinds of flavouring cooked in. All of those are local fauna. Sorry vegetarians, nothing grows out in these parts to put in a pie, so it’s all meat. I promised the owner I’d be back later, deadline 4pm.
The Birdsville Hotel is a nice old building, in the typical outback style, filled with typical outback people. I did like the way that when a customer ‘hangs up his hat’ for the last time, the pub will then hang up his/her hat, literally.
The bore outlet, which supplies the town with water, delivers a near boiling point supply which has to be cooled before being piped to the populace. It comes up from the Great Artesian Basin. More about that in a later blog post.
Afghan Cameleers helped open up central Australia by providing transport to places where horses simply couldn’t go. Too much heat and not enough water. There is a nice series of sculptures to honour them. Another set of sculptures reflects the annual races. In both cases the medium used is corrugated iron. It’s surprisingly effective and is very apt, given that this was, and still is, the most common building material used in these parts. Cheap, efficient, but, most importantly, easy to transport out to this treeless region.
I walked out to Two Boys Dreaming, which isn’t a couple of youngsters taking a siesta but is a trail which snakes its way through an area that used to be used for Aboriginal ceremonies. The serpent is probably the creature that features most often in the Dreamtime stories, which Aboriginals use to explain the world. The trail finished up at a billabong. Plenty of water but no swagmen or jumbucks.
Tribute to the Afghan Cameleers. And to the Birdsville racers.
OK, time for a ride out to have a look at the famous Big Red, located about 35kms out to the west. But as I rode past the hotel I saw a CCM, propped against the wall. Stuart was obviously back in town. “Very casual parking”, I thought, until I noticed that the side stand was missing; clearly a casualty of the trip. I parked my bike nearby and was just taking some photos when Stuart, and his girlfriend Sarah, came out of the pub. He’d heard my engine and told me he’d seen my bike in Tibooburra. So he told me all about his ride and I expressed both sympathy and admiration. He’d borrowed the importer’s demonstration bike and said he loves it, perfect for his record attempt. We chatted for a while but I had a date with a dune and told him I’d see him later.
The road west goes over Little Red as it heads out into the Simpson Desert. I turned off just before it and made my way to Big Red. Does it live up to the hype? Well yes, as far as Aussie dunes go. This is the highest in Australia, is definitely red, and once I’d struggled up it I could see why people liked it. A great place for playing in your 4WD or on your dirt bike, as the tracks all round the top clearly showed. I stood there looking around and imagining how it would be on a cold desert night in July, with bands playing and people boogieing under the stars. I could easily see the attraction. As I stood there I thought about the rainy, muddy hell of Glastonbury and knew which venue I’d rather be at.
As I said I would, I called in to the bakery on the way back but it had just closed. I was too late. But the owner was still inside and when he saw me, he opened the door. I apologised for being late, he was in the process of emptying out the pie warmer and told me what was left. I chose lamb and curried camel. He said “Take them, compliments of the house” I suspect they’d have been thrown away anyway but I thanked him and rode slowly back to the camp site, where I gratefully polished them off.
Over to the pub next, where Stuart and Sarah eventually came down. We were joined by several others and had a great night chatting about bikes and broken bones. Sarah is a paramedic and has dealt with a few. I’d broken quite a few, so we had a lot in common. Stuart is British and came out here twenty one years ago with five mates. Two of the group didn’t go home again. He spends his working life involved with bikes and is constantly looking for new challenges. He loves his Aussie life and I don’t blame him. He’s even got the Aussie beard!
By the time I left Birdsville I was definitely glad that I’d come. It was worth all the effort, even though there isn’t a huge amount to see. I think the town’s involvement in peoples’ ‘grand journey’ is what gives it its aura. It’s the gateway to some tough travelling. With the exception of the two annual events, most people come just to get supplies, gather their strength and then move on. And that is what I did too.