2017 marks the 135th anniversary of the Birdsville Races, an outback bucket-list experience that transforms one of Australia’s most remote townships into a tourism and culture mecca – earmarked by travel enthusiasts the country and the world over.
Kicking off on the first weekend of September each year (September 1 & 2, 2017), the event sees Birdsville’s population swell from 115 to more than 7,000, with many visitors flocking from early August to experience the region’s yabby races, street parties and various other unique events that lead into the big Friday and Saturday race days.
The yearly influx of visitors has seen the Races become a staple of Queensland’s tourism calendar, which has grown in recent times to be worth more than $600 million annually.
While the Races have put Birdsville on the map, the town and surrounding region also offer travellers an array of other well-known attractions including the famous camel pie, the legendary Birdsville Hotel, a 40 metre sand dune named ‘Big Red’, the Diamantina River, Burke and Wills campsite and Australia’s largest patch of Waddi Trees - one of only three such spots in the world.
Located more than 1,000 kilometres from any major Australian city, the trip to ‘The Melbourne Cup of the Outback’ on the edge of the Simpson Desert requires significant planning.
And while the actual Melbourne Cup stops the nation for just three minutes, the journey to the Birdsville Races signifies a once-in-a-lifetime road trip adventure like no other – offering up an unrivalled opportunity to take in the striking red desert terrain, remote townships, distinct outback flora, unique characters and rich tapestry of inland Australia.
Bus tours to the Birdsville Races also operate from capital cities, as well as limited flights on Rex Airlines from Brisbane and Mount Isa – with additional flights often added for the Races. For those keen on flying privately, charter flights from capital cities and regional areas offer a direct flight route into Birdsville.
The Races are just one of more than 100 of Australia’s top live events staged in the best destinations, as showcased on the It’s Live! In Queensland calendar: www.queensland.com/events
Today, Birdsville Races Vice President Gary Brook shares his top recommendations for travelling to the 2017 event.
THE ROADTRIP ADVENTURE
Driving from Melbourne“Melbournians loves a good horse race. And with the Birdsville Races known to many as the “Melbourne Cup of the Outback”, a strong contingent from the Victorian capital makes the annual journey to Birdsville,” says Gary. “Located more than 2,000 kilometres from Melbourne, the driving trip usually takes around 32 hours all up.”
Starting the trip“You’re off and driving with a long trip ahead, so it’s worth staying on the road for a few hours at least,” says Gary.
“Around two-and-a-half hours into the drive, you’ll reach Shepparton, which is definitely worth a visit. Shepparton is the biggest town within the Goulbourn Valley – famous for its juices!
“The town has a great local museum, a longstanding art gallery and little lookout tower offering spectacular views if you can manage the 160-step ascent. There’s also Belstack Strawberry Farm situated just south of Shepparton, which offers farm tours, an orchard and some serene river walks.”
“Five hours along the road from Melbourne is Griffith, which is a popular stopover point with some great local wineries, museums and cultural spots,” adds Gary.
“If you have limited travel time, another four hours’ drive from Griffith will bring you to the historical town of Cobar.”
“Another popular stopover on the journey is the well-known town of Barringun,” says Gary. “Situated right on the border of NSW and QLD, this town has a usual population of just four, but their 140 year-old pub is a must-see in the region.”
Reaching the border
“By the time you reach the border, you’ll have travelled through several outback towns, with Quilpie – 6.5 hours from Bourke – another favourite of visitors making the long haul.
“With several museums, Quilpie has a long history and is famous for its opal industry, which showcases some of Australia’s finest gems. It’s definitely a top spot to rest for the night before the final trek into Birdsville.”
Reaching Birdsville“From Quilpie, there’s around 10 hours of driving left, which can either be done in one long day or with another overnight stop at Windorah, home to the renowned Western Star Hotel,” says Gary. “Voted Best Outback Pub in Australia, the Western Star is loved for its big, hearty meals.
“From Windorah, it’s just under 400 kilometres to Birdsville, which can be driven in an easy day.”
Driving from Adelaide“One of the top spots on the way from Adelaide to Birdsville is Clare,” says Gary. “Just two hours from the city, Clare is lauded as one of Australia’s best wine regions.
“Another hour’s drive from Clare is Orroroo, popular for both its name and quaint small-town vibe. It’s also home to the Orroroo Kangaroo store, which stocks an abundance of different Kangaroo products.”
“The famed Ikara-Flinders Range National Park is another 2.5 hours’ drive and is renowned for its indigenous rock art sites and well-preserved cultural heritage,” adds Gary.
“The national park is a great spot to set up camp for the night or, alternatively, you can find accommodation nearby in Hawker.”
Reaching the Outback“The next day will bring travellers to Parachilna, a picturesque town that was used as a filming location for parts of Rabbit Proof Fence,” says Gary. “Showcasing bush tucker and the infamous daily 161 wagon-carrying coal train, Parachilna is a worthy and unique stopover point.
“Another 3 hours’ drive from Parachilna is Marree, the last town before Birdsville,” adds Gary.
“A town bustling with history, Marree is home to Australia’s first ever mosque. Known by locals as “where the Outback begins”, it’s a great little destination for a stopover, camping or bunking at the Marree Hotel.”
The final stretch“Beyond Marree is the famous Birdsville track, a 517 kilometre dirt-road that leads straight into Birdsville,” says Gary.
“There is only one fuel stop once you leave Marree, which is at Mungarannie, a 200km drive from Marree. Mungerannie also has a hotel for those wishing to break the trip up, as well as facilities to camp.
“Once you get to Mungerannie, you’re only 315 kilometres from Birdsville.”
Driving from Sydney“Birdsville is located just under 2,000 kilometres from Sydney, with several driving routes in between,” says Gary.
“As with the trip from Melbourne, you’re looking at around 30 hours’ total driving time.”
Hitting the road“The most popular route to Birdsville from Sydney cuts through the picturesque Blue Mountains and then the historic city of Lithgow,” says Gary. “Lithgow is home to the spectacular Hassan’s Wall lookout, the scenic Zig Zag Railway and the Lithgow State Mine Heritage Park.”
“Continuing inland, you’ll find the popular tourist destination of Dubbo, which is renowned for the Taronga Western Planes Zoo, the Old Dubbo Gaol and the Shoyoen Japanese Garden. Dubbo is also one of the bigger stopover points on route to Birdsville and, as such, has one of the larger accommodation selections.
“Nearly two hours on from Dubbo is the historic town of Nyngan, one of the main wool-growing and agriculture regions in Australia. Nyngan has a self-guided heritage trail, the Mid-State Shearing Shed Museum and affordable motel and farm-stay options.”
“The next hot-spot on the journey for NSW travellers is the popular town of Barringun, which is also a common intersection for those driving from Adelaide,” says Gary.
Reaching the Outback
“From Barringun, an hour-and-a-half drive takes you to Cunnamulla, a town of 1,500 people situated on the banks of the Warrego River. Cunnamulla has loads of Aboriginal art and artefacts, as well as a Bicentennial Museum and various historic sites.
“Cunnamulla is home to Robber’s Tree, which was named after Queensland’s very own Ned Kelly, Joseph Wells, who held up the National Bank in 1880.
“From Cunnamulla, there’s an opportunity to stop off at one of Australia’s most famous opal mining towns, Yowah, before driving another 193 kilometres to Quilpie, where you’ll find a number of accommodation options and spectacular natural attractions – namely the Bulloo River and Baldy Top and Table Top lookouts.”
Reaching Birdsville“From Quilpie, you’ll have around 10hours’ drive-time left to Birdsville, which you can knock out in a long day or break up with an overnight stop in Windorah,” says Gary.
“Windorah’s pub was not only voted Best Outback Pub in Australia, but it also boasts a huge 19 kilometre waterhole, some breathtaking red sand hills and a number of picturesque ruins and historical sites – well worth a look if you have a bit of time up your sleeve.”
Driving from Brisbane“While Birdsville is located in Queensland, it’s still a solid 1,581 kilometres from the state’s capital, Brisbane,” says Gary.
“As with other states, there are several ways to make the trip depending on time-constraints and travel preferences.
“Several companies offer coach services and package deals to the event, with Kangaroo Bus Lines, Birdsville Race Tours and Sunshine Travel among the options.
“Alternatively, self-driving the 23 hours opens up opportunities to take additional time and explore more of the smaller towns dotting inland Australia along the trip to Birdsville.”
Beginning the trip“Leaving from Brisbane, the first major city is on the driving route is Toowoomba – a city in the Darling Downs with loads of history, natural attractions and free things to do,” says Gary. “The Crows Nest National Park is a must-visit and the Queen Mary Falls forms part of the Gondwana Rainforests of Australia World Heritage Area.
“The views from Table Top Mountain are also spectacular, and you can’t visit Toowoomba without checking out the beloved Rudd's Pub in Nobby.”
“From Toowoomba, Goondiwindi is an easy drive for lunch – or you can keep trekking on to the Nindigully Pub, which holds the title of Queensland’s oldest pub.
“Keep driving on to St George, which offers good overnight stopover options and, from there, it’s only a 100 kilometre drive west to Bollon, a quaint township famous for its abundant wildlife including koalas, emus, echidnas and at least 110 known species of bird.”
Reaching the Outback“Another 300 kilometre drive takes you to Cunnamulla which – with a population of 1,200 – is one of the biggest towns in the region,” says Gary.
“With a library, public pool, racecourse, two museums and plenty more, Cunnamulla offers loads to do and several accommodation options, as well as camping.
“Next up is Thargomindah, just 200 kilometres away. This small town has a big claim to fame as the third place in the world to adopt hydroelectric street lights behind London and Paris.
“Another 142 kilometres along the route is the Noccundra Hotel. First opened in 1882 and the only surviving building in the tiny township, the hotel remains a popular rest stop for travellers, offering a variety of room options, as well as a free camping area on the lawns of the Hotel grounds.”
“Next stop on the track is Eromanga, which is famous for being the most land-locked town in Australia,” says Gary.
“Alongside its lack of ocean proximity, Eromanga has been a hotbed for palaeontologists, with Australia’s largest dinosaur bones discovered in the town. These historic fossils remain on display in Eromanga’s Natural History Museum.
“From Eromanga, a 278 kilometre drive brings you to Windorah, which offers overnight accommodation options – and from Windorah, it’s just under 400 kilometres to Birdsville, which can be driven in an easy day.”
“Brisbane is the only capital city that offers a commercial flight into Birdsville via Rex Airlines,” says Gary. “Flight availability is limited to particular days and numbers, but Rex does sometimes offer additional flights around race time, so it’s worth checking regularly and keeping an eye out.”
FLYING FROM NSW, VICTORIA, SA AND QLD
“This means that all travellers wanting to fly commercially from NSW, Victoria or South Australia will need to fly into Brisbane first.
“If you’re up for chartering a plane – which some adventurers are – there are a number of private carriers that fly direct from Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne and Adelaide, as well as various regional airports in all states.
“Several of these carriers also have Birdsville Races packages that include entry to the races. Companies of this type include Kirkhope Aviation, Vortex Air and Australian Air Holidays, among others – and accommodation is available in Birdsville’s pop-up tent city.”
What: Birdsville Races
Where: Birdsville, Queensland
When: Friday 1st & Saturday 2nd September 2017
How much: Two day packages start from AU$62.75
More info: www.birdsvilleraces.com
Road trip video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YgPYvu7_ZfA