Birdsville is a small town in south-western Queensland. It is almost 1600 km from the Queensland capital, Brisbane, and over 700 km south of the mining city of Mt. Isa. The population is just 115.
It is located in the Channel Country of Queenslands outback (the Channel Country is an area of Queensland, the Northern Territory and South Australia, which is an arid landscape cross by numerous small streams). It is also located on the Simpson Desert, a massive region of dry, red sandy plain and dunes.
Birdsville is built beside the Diamantina River.
The Birdsville Track
It is at the northern end of the Birdsville Track, a road which extends for 517 km down to Maree, Western Australia via the Tirari Desert, the Stony Sturt Desert and the Strezelecki Desert. It was established in the 1860s as a route to bring cattle from Queensland and the Northern Territory to the nearest railway stations at Maree and Port Augusta, South Australia (a route that was 1000 km than the route to Brisbane). Artesian bores were sunk at 40 km intervals, providing water for the stock.
Until 1963, the Birdsville Track was also the site of the most isolated mail run in Australia. From 1936 to 1953 the mailman was the celebrated Tom Kruse, who, as well as delivering mail, delivered general stores, fuel and medicine to the outback farms. A documentary film, The Back of Beyond, was made in 1954 about this outback legend.
Until the 1930s only stock and camel trains used the Birdsville Track. Then travelers began to drive high clearance, four-wheel drive trucks long the route. At this time the Birdsville Track was of very poor quality and, being so isolated and in such an extreme climate, was quite dangerous to traverse for the inexperienced, who could be subjected to breakdowns, getting bogged in sand dunes, and getting blocked by flooded rivers or creeks. Driving the route would take many days and breaking down would often mean waiting beside ones vehicle till another vehicle arrived some days later.
Today the Track has been greatly upgraded to a high quality dirt road and it is attracting quite of lot of tourist adventurers as well as stock trucks carrying stock.
However, the area the Track traverses has lost none of its dry, hot and isolated nature, and even today the route is subject to flash flooding (especially after rain) and drifting sand. So all drivers must carry supplies of water, fuel, spare parts and food, and advise the local police before setting out.
A Little History
In the 19th century, the Birdsville area was visited by a number of British explorers, including Captain Charles Stuart and Robert OHara Burke and William John Wills (the Burke and Wills expedition). In the 1930s, the Australian explorer and geologist, Cecil Madigan, made numerous aerial surveys of the "trackless areas" of central Australia, including the Simpson Desert (which he named) and in 1939 he led a ground expedition across the Simpson Desert.
Formerly known as Diamantina Crossing, Birdsville was long a border post on the border between Queensland and South Australia, where tolls were collected from drovers leading their cattle interstate. As such, in 1900, it had a population of 300 and numerous businesses, including three hotels.
However, with the creation of the Commonwealth of Australia in 1901, interstate tolls were abolished and the customs post was closed down, and as a result the town decreased in size to a low of 50 people living there in the 1950s.
These days the main industries in the area are cattle (livestock) and tourism.
Up to 50,000 tourists now pass through Birdsville every year. Increasing numbers of tourists are crossing the Simpson Desert and visit Birdsville as part of their trek. In the past few years a number of companies (including Birdsville Air Charters and Central Eagle Aviation) have been operating aerial scenic tours over Lake Eyre, with the flights departing from Birdsville.
Today Birdsville has a 80 kW geothermal power station. Almost boiling water (98 degrees centigrade) is taken from the Great Artesian Basin (a massive aquifer, or water supply, located underground in central Australia) and used to create electricity using a Rankine Cycle engine. The power thus produced supplies one third of Birdsvilles electricity needs and the water, once cooled, becomes the towns water supply.
Every September the population of Birdsville increases hugely (from 150 to around 6000) as it hosts the world-famous two day horse racing event, the Birdsville Races.
As Birdsville is so remote, many of the visitors arrive by air and hundreds of small aircraft land on the towns 1,700 meters (1,879 yards) airstrip which is located right next to the Birdsville Hotel.
Most of those hundreds of intrepid people who opt to come to Birdsville by road come from the eastern seaboard of Queensland via the southwest Queensland town of Quilpie, which takes advantage of this and hosts its own event celebrating the Birdsville Races. Quilpie cordons off the main street and hosts a street party for these visitors who passing through and using Quilpie as a halfway stopover place on their way to Birdsville (Quilpie is 10 hours drive from Brisbane and many hours again to Birdsville).
Recently the Birdsville Races have featured twelve horse races with prize money of more than $Aust. 110,000. Funds raised from the Birdsville Races go to support the Royal Flying Doctor Service and the Birdsville Clinic. But racing is not the only order of the day. The two days include sideshows, concerts (with singers such as Angry Anderson), a boxing tent, dances, balls, and in general just a great get-together with lots of partying in a truly amazing part of the world.
In 2010 the races were cancelled due to heavy rain and flooding; but this did not get in the way of the fun for many visitors who partied on and bet on "phantom" races.