In the second part of our All Roads to Birdsville blog, we take you through our extended stay in the Outback town. When we woke on our first morning in Birdsville, we were blissfully unaware that some of the most testing times were yet to come for Team Quilly Park.
Day Four – Birdsville and Simpson Desert Party
Wednesday, August 31st
The team woke up excited and set about getting to know Birdsville. We felt really lucky that we’d made it after hearing the news that the lower section of the Birdsville track was closed so many teams were stuck in Maree.
A coffee and a famous camel pie in the iconic Birdsville Bakery was followed by a walk around town to check out who’d made it before the rain hit. All 3 Country Racing Victoria teams hadn’t been able to get onto the track. Imagine all that preparation and not being able to get there for the racing!
We started to chat with some of the vendors and were told by many that not only was racing in doubt, it was highly likely that we’d end up stuck in the town for days due to track closures.
The All Roads to Birdsville teams that had made it left town for a party in the Simpson desert.
Dave and Mark fulfilled one of their big trip ambitions – to get up the testing Big Red tracks in their vehicles.
It took several attempts to make it but their can-do attitude got both of them there in the end to cheers from the rest of the team.
We had a glass of wine, fulfilled some team challenges for the National Jockeys Trust and Royal Flying Doctors, watched the sun go down then made the trip back to town.
Originally we’d intended to have a team camp out sleeping in our swags under the stars but changed our minds based on the locals reports of the storms that could hit. As it turned out this was a very good decision.
Day Five – Washout in Birdsville
Thursday, September 1st
When we woke up, the rain that came in overnight had completely changed the picture. Our campsite was water logged. As what felt like a long day for the team wore on, more and more rain came and we were wading around in the stickiest mud you can imagine, some even lost their shoes. Mud got into and onto everything and made the day tough going.
We tried to imagine what would have happened had we have camped out at Big Red. It wouldn’t have been the magical experience that we had in mind. We’d have been soaked and getting home could have been treacherous.
The conditions of the roads changed as the day wore on – from 4WD only on most to closed and impassable across the board.
Despite the effects of the rain, Richard was thriving in the Tent City environment. This in itself is especially impressive given it was his first time camping since childhood.
Richard cooked up a storm in our camp kitchen and we were cheered up considerably by his special fried rice washed down with a cold beer. On previous days we’d enjoyed the tasty lamb and sausages we brought with us from Beltana Station – we were the envy of our fellow campers!
There had been updates throughout the day from the track that racing wouldn’t go ahead on Friday and probably not Saturday either. Word was they were looking at Sunday and Monday or a combined one-day card.
The Country Racing Victoria teams along with team Just One More walked into town at 10pm exhausted but jubilant after completing the Birdsville Track in its entirety in a day. Their drive was a very different story to ours which we now knew had been long but relatively easy going.
Before we went to bed we were told that 55mm of rain had fallen and warned that high winds were coming but had no idea what that would mean for us. We thought it couldn’t get much worse but we were wrong!
Day Six – The Day after the Storms
Friday, September 2nd
Suzanne and Marion woke in the night several times worried about their tent taking off. Pegs were missing from the back of the tent and it was impossible to re-peg in the circumstances. At 5am their tent succumbed to what we later discovered were 92km per hour winds. The tent poles snapped – a first for Rent-a-Tent apparently – and without support, the canvas crashed to the ground leaving the girls crawling through the entry flap on hands and knees to get out and find sanctuary in an unoccupied tent next door.
In the commotion Marion’s polite request to Dave and Mark for assistance made everyone giggle ‘Excuse me Dave, Mark, our tent has collapsed on us and we’re a little stuck. Please can you help me to get Suzanne out.’
As we surveyed the scene, it looked like a tornado had whipped through the campsite. Poles everywhere, some of the tents had been flattened by Rent-A-Tent purposely so that they posed less of a risk. Cookware was scattered around and people tried to make sense of what had happened.
The winds had been so strong that most reported being ‘slapped in the face repeatedly’ by their tent canvas. There was a slightly subdued air around the town and most reported not having slept out of worry and discomfort.
Reality hit – we were quite unlikely to see any racing this trip and may also be stuck. Heading out to see what effect the storm had had it became obvious that that those camping outside of Tent City had come off even worse. However, as we talked to people on our rounds they were incredibly cheerful in the face of the challenging weather.
The outback spirit came into play, people rallied to support each other and smiles returned to faces.
News started to come in that Birdsville Races and Diamantina Shire Council would do all they could to stage a race meeting at some point over the next few days. As we saw the graders and other vehicles start work we also began to believe that there was a chance for the race meeting.
The ground began to dry out quicker than we imagined possible and we even got to visit the horses as the dunes between the track and their camp area on the river became passable. When we got to the camp, the trainers and their families that had been bringing their horses for years were all adamant that the horses would race.
Day Seven – Birdsville Phantom Raceday
Saturday, September 3rd
The team rose early for a live cross with SBS due to take place at the Birdsville Hotel. It was disappointing that the broadcast couldn’t go ahead – the truck was still stuck at Bedourie with the creek impassable. However, the town still had a buzz about it as everyone drunk coffee and watched a team trying to get a Carlton Mid hot air balloon in the air.
Richard and Les joined George Tipping’s team for breakfast with the trainers and returned excited about the now confirmed plans for the day.
On what was to be Birdsville Cup day, the track was ready to open its gates for a crowd-pleasing phantom raceday with betting on the action from across Australia.
There was a buzz in the air as people dug out their novelty costumes in line with tradition on the first day of the iconic race meeting.
Team Quilly Park’s jockey had a very busy day after leaving Tent City where he was spotted in talks with Peter Moody, no doubt trying to arrange a ride for himself.
He starred in a feature race at the track, shimmied down the catwalk for Fashions on the Field and appeared in selfie after selfie with his fans. He even got himself into the International media with his photo featuring in prestigious titles from our own Courier Mail to the UK’s Daily Mirror!
While the phantom raceday got into full swing with a packed bookies ring, work on the track never stopped. The graders were on the go all day even as the sun set on the race track and most of the crowd had dispersed.
The mounds of overturned sand on the track the day before such a big raceday were like nothing we’d ever seen before.
The town was in full party mode, dancing to country tunes at the Birdsville Hotel continued into the night.
Then we hit the sack content in the knowledge that it was highly likely the track would be ready for racing in the morning.
Day Eight – Super Sunday
Sunday, September 4th
When we woke in the morning, the sun was shining and against the odds, Birdsville Races was ready to stage ‘Super Sunday’, a condensed programme of 11 races.
‘The Melbourne Cup of the Outback’ was going to run on the biggest Thoroughbred race day Australia had seen and excitement levels were high.
While we had breakfast in our camp, we saw plane after plane leaving the town. These were the pre-scheduled charter planes that had been booked when it was assumed that both days of racing would be over.
Even Peter Moody left before the racing started. We had no choice but to stay with the flights full up and vehicles to get home, the upside of this being that we’d get to see what we came for – racing on the not-so-dusty Birdsville race track.
On our arrival at the track the piles of dirt that had been scooped up and dumped in the middle of the track lay as evidence of the work that reportedly hadn’t stopped until shortly before the gates opened. The main gate still lay under water and a temporary gate had been set up on higher ground.
The Birdsville Cup was hotly contested by 10 horses with a female duo taking the prize for the first time in 134 years. Jockey Kayla Cross and trainer Heather Lehmann made history with Moore Alpha in front of a delighted crowd.
The day’s action didn’t stop at the race track. Richard and Les managed to secure a fantastic lot for the town’s annual post-racing auction. The Gold Coast’s top jockey Daniel Griffin donated his saddle and breeches as an additional auction item in aid of our charity, the National Jockeys Trust.
With the help of boxing troupe legend Fred Brophy, Daniel held the items high in front of an enormous crowd and raised a whopping $1,550 for the NJT. The prize went to the highest bidder, a delighted fan and NJT supporter Matthew Hilton.
Team Quilly Park concluded our week of entertainment with a visit to Fred Brophy’s boxing tent. Entertainment at its best saw competitors from the crowd battle it out against Fred’s troupe. What a finale to a fantastic day!
Day Nine – The Great Escape
Monday, September 5th
With the thrilling race day behind us, we woke in eager anticipation of the Police announcement that would let us know our fate. Would we be stuck in Birdsville for a week, or would the roads open up for us?
We heard tales of people trying to leave before dawn and being turned back by the police who were on guard at each exit point.
There are hefty fines for people found on the Outback tracks when officially closed to vehicles which make sense given the risk to life and the cost plus risk to recovery teams should a vehicle get into trouble out there.
There was a huge crowd gathered around the Information Centre as the announcement was made that at 1pm the Windorah road would open and the first vehicles could start to leave in priority order.
We made our way to the barrier and managed to get pole position ready to tackle a different, much longer route home.
After arising from his roadside nap, Richard noticed that cars were queued all the way back to the town centre and, despite us being right at the front, other vehicles were being brought forward in priority order.
A police car led a convoy of buses, a horse float and a couple of cars – officially the first vehicles out of Birdsville. On seeing the police car return, Richard flagged it down and told a little white one – the horse float that had just left was ours so we needed to follow them. The policeman granted permission to leave and both vehicles jumped the queue. Thanks to Richard’s negotiation skills, team Quilly Park got a three-hour head start on almost everyone.
The scene on the track was reminiscent of Wacky Races. We cleared Brown’s Creek crossing in good time and without issue. Others weren’t as lucky and some got stuck. We heard later that day that the crossing had been closed again as the river had broken its banks and with rising water levels and fast currents it had once again become too dangerous.
Team Quilly Park were lucky to arrive home late on Tuesday evening. Several of the All Roads to Birdsville teams had to take an even longer route that saw them heading another 1,000km out of their way to the north. They didn’t get back to Melbourne until the end of the week.
When we got home, we heard that the amount of rainfall the Birdsville area received in around 48 hours was closer to 75mm. In a normal year, September is the driest month and the average annual rainfall for the town is 160mm which puts what happened this year into the category of ‘freak weather’!
Another report told us that when the Diamantina river floods severely it can span several kilometres and in those circumstances the routes in and out can be closed for 3 weeks.
Would we recommend a bucket list trip to Birdsville? Yes, but don’t enter into it lightly. The sheer distance covered and the constant threat of the elements made for an extreme experience. It’s an undertaking that’s made us stronger, we’ve made friends and memories that we’ll never forget.
Team Quilly Park’s Fundraising for the National Jockey’s Trust
We are proud to have been raising funds for the National Jockey’s Trust on our trip. During our trip, it really hit home how amazing the jockeys are to travel to Birdsville to ride at the remote race track, many of them also ride on the Diamantina Shire circuit too. It means a lot to us to be able to support those jockeys that have had the misfortune to encounter life-changing and often career-ending injuries.
You challenged us – we responded! Our team members have plucked a feather from an emu’s bottom, skipped in the desert, kissed winning jockeys and Outback sheilas, completed handstands with goannas and risen to a long list of your challenges. To date, we’ve raised over $2,700 and donations are still coming in.
If you missed part 1 of our Birdsville adventure, click here to read about our 2,000km road trip from Pearcedale, Victoria through South Australia and up the Birdsville Track into Queensland to Birdsville.