The first rule about Birdsville is you don't talk about Birdsville
First published on September 10, 2007
In 2005, Nicholas Godfrey quit the rat race and a senior position at the Racing Post to chase racehorses in an amazing eight-month journey that took him three times round the globe. He chronicled his adventures in a book, On The Racing Road. In this extract, racing's answer to Bill Bryson recalls a visit to the Australian outback to join in the bacchanalia at Birdsville.
Hunter S Thompson described the Kentucky Derby as "decadent and depraved". It is probably just as well the legendary journalist never made it to Birdsville.
The tiny outback township lies near the dead centre of Australia, close to the edge of Queensland where that vast state almost becomes South Australia. For 363 days of the year, the population of this hot, dusty, unwelcoming place numbers no more than 100. There are significantly fewer during the summer months, which are hotter, dustier – and even less welcoming. For just one Friday and Saturday at the beginning of September, however, more than 5,000 people descend for two days of horseracing at a rudimentary track that is little more than a set of running rails planted round a big patch of desert next to a couple of tin shacks.
Only two of the 12 events are longer than a metric mile, and only two of them reach that 1,600-metre mark, including the highlight, the Birdsville Cup, a handicap first contested in 1882 and now worth A$25,000 (£10,400).
Yet this ostensibly nondescript meeting has assumed mythical status in the nation's culture where a visit to Birdsville, at least 1,000 miles from any coastal city, is regarded as a near-sacred pilgrimage, an Australian trip to Mecca. Such notoriety has nothing to do with the horseracing. Birdsville is infamous for monstrous doses of mayhem. Imagine the Oktoberfest held in the Wild West, and you might be getting the idea.
Birdsville felt the centrepiece of my trip down the racing road, the perfect place for a spot of fear and loathing, as trademarked by the late Hunter S. But first I had to get there.
For reasons best known to my financial adviser, who doubled as my photographer, I was booked on a coach rather than flying in on one of the light aircraft chartered for the occasion.
Disturbing intimations of the horror ahead of the scheduled 24-hour journey arrive as I ordered a drink in the pub attached to the off-course betting outlet of the Brisbane Transit Centre. The barman asked where I was going. When I said Birdsville, he gripped my arm, looked me straight in the eye, and said: "I feel I ought to warn you: it is pretty full-on out there. I'm not sure you're the type to survive."
The sense of foreboding wasn't eased by the ragged queue lining up beside the McCafferty's Greyhound Special. Seldom have I come across such a wanton-looking bunch as that which pushed and shoved its way up the steps on to the coach.
"Do you seriously expect me to get into a bus with this group of filthy degenerates?" I asked a man in a schoolboy's uniform, shirt, tie and shorts, who ticked my name off a list.
"No, sir, I don't," he replied. "This is the dry bus. I expect you to get into a bus with that group of filthy degenerates over there. That's the wet bus and you're on it."
The wet bus permitted alcohol, a liberty grasped double-handed by my earthy fellow travellers, who planted gigantic cooling boxes, known as 'eskies', up the aisle. The bus held about 40; most of them were already there, swigging away. Another ne'er-do-well climbed in, huge-gutted in a tight-fitting vest, downing a beer as he went. "Christ, I'm on a bus with a bunch of piss-pots," he said, as he dumped his esky next to the driver, who quickly alerted us to the limitations of his 'luxury' vehicle.
"We'll be stopping frequently," he said. "You probably won't want to use the toilet at the back there, as it gets a bit bumpy when the road gets dusty. If you do, I'd be grateful, gentlemen, if you'd treat it like a night at the opera and stay seated for the entire performance."
I asked Warren, a man in his early 40s with a Birdsville 2004 T-shirt, what to expect. "The first rule about Birdsville is you don't talk about Birdsville," he said, in all seriousness. "What goes on tour stays on tour."Further queries were plainly out of the question, although this was by no means the last I heard from Warren, who had two party pieces. The first was a country-tinged yeehaw song entitled The Boys From The Bush Are Back In Town. Its first line went "The boys from the bush are back in town" and it was the only line Warren knew. Soon, we all knew it as well as him - plus every word of his mock racecall involving Beau Zam, Rough Habit and Makybe Diva. Not too bad at first hearing, it palled a little by the 25th.
"My advice to you is to start drinking, heavily," suggested my photographer.
The evening progressed, via a service station at a godforsaken fleapit called Miles to a similar facility in the middle of the night at Morven, where it was hard to see outside owing to the thick blanket of moths and flies on the window. By now, the road was virtually single track, and the landscape bleak, scrubby bits of bush on a red rocky surface. Breakfast came at Quilpie, lunch at Windorah, and, an uncomfortable 140 miles away from our destination, a call of nature at Betoota, a ghost town where a dilapidated hotel stands forlorn in front of car wrecks.
After only a slight delay when a suicidal kangaroo bounced off the door, shattering a pane of glass, we arrived on Thursday night at dusk, ready to hole up at our campsite. Nearly everyone has to do this because the handful of rooms at the Birdsville Hotel, one of the most famous pubs in the country, were commandeered by staff and race officials.
A troubled, sleepless night ensued, broken by various noisome interludes from my malodorous companions, before a quick sortie around town in the morning revealed a few ramshackle houses, a bakery, two petrol stations, a police station, airstrip, flying doctor station, cafe, cricket pitch, small museum and community centre, the raceclub's base of operations over the weekend.
These permanent attractions were joined by a fish-and-chip van, pancake vendors, T-shirt stalls and the like, among them a tiny charity stand operated by a pony-tailed character who looked like a Hell's Angel and had a name to match. This was the comedian Dirty Pierre, a disgusting reprobate raising money for a nearby children's hospital in Mount Isa (that's nearby as in 350 miles away) by penning felt-tipped insults on souvenir T-shirts.
"Heat, dust and flies but the beer's worth it," read this year's official slogan. Any female visitor was told to "Party till your nipples tingle!"
"Get a dog up ya!" was Dirty Pierre's personal advice for me. I had absolutely no idea what he meant. Doubtless it was unspeakably vile.
Not before time, racing beckoned, so I walked the three miles out of town, via billabong and coolibar tree, to the place where someone has stuck rails and a winning post in an expanse of desert and called it a racecourse.
Facilities were scarce. The main enclosure was little more than a frame with a roof, an open-sided barn that housed the bookmakers and a few television screens showing races from elsewhere. Racegoers brought their own deckchairs to secure a slightly sheltered spot, although it provided scant respite from the heat and dust. A corrugated iron shed housed both weighing room and stewards' room behind three small rows of temporary seating.
This was back-to-basics racing, with runners and riders scrawled on a blackboard. There was no tote betting, and no need for starting prices, as there is no off-course betting either.
The small betting ring on course was heaving all day; in the first, an appalling maiden sprint over 800 metres, I took 5-2 about the second favourite, Little Lynx. He beat the odds-on favourite comfortably – but finished second to an outsider. I cannot offer a race description, as the only way to tell the contest has begun after the red light started flashing on the gate was by the duststorm that moved around the track, and the commentary stepping up a notch.
After racing, a wander back into town was punctuated by a detour down to the banks of the Diamantina River. A mile from the racetrack, a number of trainers made this their home for the weekend, setting up temporary bases – tent or caravan, like the rest of us.
Most of the racehorses tied to fences along a muddy riverbank were regulars on the country-racing circuit trained in some back-of-beyond township, a tiny spot in the empty middle of the map, although some travelled from much farther afield, like Victoria.
I chatted to trainer Craig Smith, third in the state premiership in numerical terms the previous season. Based in the town of Roma, about 700 miles towards Brisbane, the stocky Queenslander told me it cost around AEUR1,600 (£665) to bring a team of six horses to Birdsville, with feed, staff and their own generator for electricity.
"I came a couple of years ago and we had a few winners, and the owners were on at me to come again, so here we are," he said. "It's a bit different, isn't it? The horses don't like it much but at least it's a level playing field. All of mine have had their chances at the big tracks and failed."
All too soon, it was with a feeling of deep trepidation that I returned to the Birdsville Hotel, where the raucous main bar resembled the OK Corral after the gunfight. Neither this nor the external beer 'garden' were places for the faint-hearted, peopled as they were by everybody within a thousand miles capable of holding a glass.
I found myself chatting with a 24-year-old Brisbane builder named Brad. "What did you think of the racing?" I asked him, innocently enough.
"Racing?" he replied. "You must be the only bloke who's come here for that."
Nicholas Godfrey's new book, Postcards from the World of Horse Racing is available at racingpost.com/shop
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