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Birdsville Races – Australia


September 2006
The Grampians to Birdsville – Its sunrise in late August, the ground is covered in frost and Bob and I pull the little home built Jabiru plane from its hanger on Bob’s farm in the Grampians.

The plane’s battery complains about the cold, Bob backs up the ute, gives it a jump start, laying to rest any further discussions with the battery for the remainder of the trip. I asked Bob why it has ‘EXPERIMENTAL’ in big letters on the side, he mumbles something about CASA, and says it’s more a noun than an adjective anyway.

By 7.30 we’re bouncing down the grass runway. We dodge a couple of cockatoos, bob has a couple of stern words with gravity, we clear the fence, climb over the top of a few gum trees turn right and head north. The Grampians are mostly green with a few discernible scars from the January 2006 bush fires, and the Wimmera wheat belt patchwork is a bit drier than it should be for this time of year.

On over the Big Desert and Sunset Country, we spot Wentworth on the horizon, sitting at the junction of the Darling and Murray Rivers. We track the Darling River north for a bit, pick up the Silver City Highway and follow it all the way to Broken Hill.

Now, Broken Hill is a fabulous old mining town full of history and architecture. We land and park beside the Flying Doctor, hire a car and head to town. We have a bite to eat, wrestle with the internet at a local café, see the sights of Broken Hill and head out to Silverton.

A little way out of Broken Hill, Silverton is a bit of a ghost town, the iconic Pub regularly features in films and ads, as do the bleak Mundi Mundi Plains, also a classic setting for movies including Mad Max.

We have an ice cold beer and head back to Penrose Park to set up camp. After dining on ‘Slow Roasted Salt Bush Mutton’ and vegies accompanied by a glorious outback sunset, we head back to camp to find a couple of neighbours, and we are serenaded to sleep by the dulcet tones of Slim Dusty.

By the time we breakfast, break camp, stock up, have morning coffee, do some more sights, check the weather, load the plane and return the car the morning has tossed it in for the day. In the midday sun we bounce down the runway, clear the fence and scrub, circle the town and head northish.

We are near the border of NSW and SA, and we’re looking for a border fence which it’s clearly marked as a big blue line on the map. We spot the boundary, it’s not blue but it will do. We follow the fence up to Cameron Corner where NSW, SA, QLD meet, and in celebration break out the in-flight catering service of Subway and warm tea.

We cross over the border fence and head into the Strzelecki Desert of red scattered sand ridges, dotted salt bush and scrub, the occasional cattle station, mostly abandoned.

We’re scanning the horizon for the remote town of Innamincka, and eventually spot it by the side of Cooper Creek not far from the Burke and Wills Dig Tree. From Innamincka we track to Birdsville. I pull out the map and compass, try and catch the GPS napping, but of course it’s feeling pretty smug, and is down right conceited by the time we spot Birdsville by the Diamantina River exactly where the GPS said it would be.

We make our approach and bump down onto the runway in the afternoon sun. We refuel as a film crew greets us and the ground crew direct us to the parking lot for ‘camping under the wing’. We are the eighth light plane to come in, but by sunset there are already another 24 on the strip, by race day well over 250 planes from all over have arrived.

Birdsville – We set up camp under the wing, stroll through town and sample a cold beer at the Birdsville pub. The mobs have already assembled and empty cans cover the veranda, on past the boxing tent, then t-shirts, souvenirs, fast food and fairy floss. We queue at the phone box, call in our landing, and decide to take the afternoon off.

That night we dine on steak sandwiches, watch the crowds and are entertained by the spruiking from Fred Brophy who runs the world’s last great travelling boxing troupe. Tonight anyone feeling lucky can go up against ‘Goanna Kid’, ‘Cowboy’, ‘Pretty Boy’ or ‘Black Lizard’, they recruit five brave bushies and the match begins. Inside the tent its rough as guts, the bushies are well supported, but the beer that gave them the initial courage has now become a handicap. The crowd roars as Cowboy lands one on the nose of ‘Bobby from Broome’.

Fantastic sunrise, followed by an epicurean breakfast, our long life milk makes us a popular drop-in centre. Camaraderie is rife as pilots discuss craft, home port, destination, endurance, TAS and IAS, it’s pretty meaningless to me but I nod intelligently. After several cups of tea and several  discussions it’s  10.00 am by the time we clean up and that’s when our camp neighbour Laura drops in looking for Jeremy.

Laura and Jeremy are from Orange in NSW, they also landed in a Jabiru just after us yesterday, it seems they has a bit of a tiff last night, and Laura didn’t come back until late this morning, but Jeremy had already taken off at first light leaving Laura stranded in Birdsville with nothing but a handbag. So everybody chipped in and bought her a ticket back to civilisation on a tour bus.

In the morning we visit the Variety Club Camp, the Greyhound Bus Camp, and the Grey Nomads Camp, the 4x4s and offroad vans are parked wall to wall, we are glad to be staying at the strip. At the local bakery we have morning tea of vanilla slice and lamingtons, followed by a delicious camp lunch of Thai pumpkin soup and green chilli chicken and noodles.

We head to the track for the pre-main race day event, the commuter bus tours the camps, we miss the first pass, but catch it up at the edge of town, on the way to the track we see plenty of rough camping along the river banks and billabongs.

It’s a six card event, we see the last two, the track is a big dusty flat dry lake. A huge 50 m x 20 m open shed provides shade, a smaller shed with seats is the unofficial members stand.

The dusty track is about 2 miles around; but only the last half is used, the ambulance follows and is always a sure thing to come in last. After a hot tip we punt $20 on horse 4 race 5, we win and get back $25, we celebrate with 2 beers at $5.00 each.

The next morning at first light a classic silver 1930 ‘Electra’ twin prop takes off. Every one at the strip is mesmerized as the shimmering silver streak screams down the runway and into the sunrise. We breakfast with our neighbours who have been unlucky on the track and ‘sprinted too fast on the refreshments’ so they are out of funds, humour and luck and decide to head out this morning. They start up and cover us with dust, then the two blokes camping next to them also decide to pass up on the big race take off and we’re covered in dust again.

Thanks to the Apex Club of Gawler we lunch on steak sandwiches with egg and onions and head out for the big race. At the track the crowd is having fun but the punters are pacing themselves. Then its ‘Fashions on the Field’ time, the fillies and stallions are all dressed up and on parade, it’s a hoot with Arabs gowns, Hawaiians shirts, Surf Life Savers buggy smugglers, formal wear and glitter.

We think our betting will improve if we use a system, Bob uses numerology, I’m using names and colour schemes, and it seems to be working. The systems converge for the Cup, we both bet big on number 9, Vain Joe with a red diamond on green…. has to be a winner.

Down the final straight he is in the front pack but the dust makes it impossible to call. The dust settles and Vain Joe quietly trots past without a jockey, it seems he fell off a 100 metres up the track, Bob laconically comments ‘not enough Velcro’.

The races are over but the fun continues, larrikins take photos of each other at the finish post, and then a team runs their own drunken piggy back race with a photo finish. It’s a big day, some retire hurt and some retire exhausted, on the bus back to town the punters are quiet, we wash off the dust and take a late afternoon rest.

In the evening we are entertained by the charity auction of sporting memorabilia, a signed Bradman bat goes for $2,100, then spruiking from the boxing tent ramps up.

‘You aint seen it before, and you won’t see it again, and it’ll send shivers up your back like a Venetian Blind, it’s the boys from the bush and we’re back in town’.

We pass on the boxing and find the Big Red Café, and for outback it’s a pretty flash. An outdoor setting, eastern food, music, all served by slightly alternative staff with dregs and body piercing. It’s certainly a contrast to the pub, boxing tent and fast food in the main strip. We relax and dine on Kangaroo curry, carrot cake and green tea.

Birdsville to the Grampians -They start taxiing at first light, we are not in the air until after 8.00, we follow the Birdsville Track south, it’s dotted with the dust clouds as 4x4s play – follow the leader. As the track veers west we continue south with the Strzelecki Desert to our east and the Simpson Desert to our west.

Cooper Creek, sand ridges, salt lakes, occasional wash outs and water holes dot the horizon.  Land marks and geographical features vanish as we drone on. By the time we break out in-flight catering the tea is only lukewarm, and there is no attendant to complain to.

We spot the Northern Flinders on the horizon and we are soon over the Gammon Ranges. From featureless sand to a kaleidoscope of colour, hills, canyons, ravines, purples, reds, greys and browns dotted with the occasional green valley and a water hole oasis.

We circle Arkaroola and then push on to Rawnsley Park at Wilpena Pound in the Southern Flinders. It’s cold and windy but a local scenic flight pilot gives us a lift to the campground. We freshen up, take warm showers and rate the facilities 5 star compared with under the wing at Birdsville.

We set up camp and retire to the kitchen for a late lunch of noodle soup and a refreshing cuppa. We take a hike through the countryside. We spot colourful wild flowers, birds and grazing kangaroos that tilt their heads to us. As sun sets we watch the skyline light up providing a kaleidoscope of colour as it dances over the horizon.

It’s getting quite cold as we walk to the Woolshed Restaurant overlooking Rawnsley Bluff. We are surrounded by Grey Nomads enjoying happy hour as they wait for the starter’s gun for the smorgasbord handicap. We watch the sprint, and make our move just as the cook refreshes the kangaroo steaks. ‘Hmmmm Hmmm, it’s Skippy tonight’!

We chat to the owner who tells us about the open air Opera Night he runs for 300 guests on the Anzac Day weekend. After a top meal we walk back to the camp but in the dark, we take a wrong turn, so it’s an extra half an hour before we turn in.

We’re up early and break camp before the scenic flight pilot picks us up and delivers us to the strip for the last leg home via Renmark and Horsham to the Grampians.

We leave the Flinders Ranges and head into sand ridges and salt bush and onto scattered Mallee scrub. We spot the Barrier Highway, the scrub is getting denser and we drop down and skim across the tree tops, for a close up view of horizon to horizon of Mallee pine and Mallee scrub.

Scattered cloud comes in so we climb over it, in the distance we see Renmark on the Murray with green irrigated fields of crops, oranges and grapes. We cross into Victoria, the clouds get thicker so we find a hole and drop through.

On over Sunset Country with low sand ridges, back over the Wimmera, the Big Desert, the Little Desert. We drop into Horsham for fuel, then on to the Grampians and the home strip. We frighten a few sheep and scare a couple of ducks as we land back at the farm, and then push the little Jabiru plane back into the hanger.

Trip Notes:

The Itinerary

Wednesday: Grampians ( to Broken Hill.
Thursday: Broken Hill ( to Birdsville.
Friday & Saturday: Birdsville (
Sunday: Birdsville to Wilpena Pound (
Monday: Wipena Pound to the Grampians.

Building the Jabiru Plane

It was mid 2003 when Bob started to build the plane in a barn on their 1,550 acre farm ‘Jallukar’ in the Grampians.

His son Evan recounts ‘a load of boxes got dropped off at the barn by a courier truck, I asked dad what they were for and he just said it’s a Jabiru, son and ‘we’ just need to stick it together’. ( Hmmmm?

I asked his wife Olga about it and she said ‘every weekend Bob would go down to the barn and work on the plane, then one day he starts building a big new shed. It seems the old barn just wasn’t big enough to take the wings. Now wouldn’t you think he should have known that before he started to build it?’

In November 2005, two and a half years after delivery the Jabiru J400 had its successful maiden flight. Since it has also survived the Grampians bush fires of January 2006, Bob sees it as a very robust plane. He goes on….‘As a result of the fires we lost 1,200 sheep, 1 head of cattle, over 45 km of fencing, one and a bit farm sheds and several nights sleep, but the plane didn’t even get a scorch mark.’

Race History

Birdsville is some 1,700 kms west of Brisbane on the SA border. In the centre of town is the Birdsville pub, built in 1884, the pub is Queensland’s most remote parcel of ‘commercial real estate’. The Birdsville Races began in 1882 under the name of Diamantina Amateur Race Club, the current course has been in use since mid-1950s. The early races were based on the ‘district-bred’ stock horses. These days about 5,000 punters arrive for the weekend race, a decent number in light planes.


Technically planes fly in ‘feet’ and ‘nautical miles’, for the lay person we flew at about 190 kph at a height of about 1,000 metres, covered about 2,700 km in 4 hops of 3 to 4 hours each.