I have to be honest. When I was asked to drive 636 kilometres on a dirt road to the middle of nowhere with, gasp, no phone service, I was hesitant. But after coming to the realisation I had never been to outback Australia before, I simply had to say yes. After all, a break from emails and social media might actually do me some good.
The destination? The most famous horse race on dirt, the Birdsville Races, and the drive to get there was along one of Australia’s most most famous dirt roads, the Birdsville Track.
One flight from Melbourne to Adelaide, and then a smaller plane to Leigh Creek later, the cars that are to take us on the journey, the 2017 Mazda BT-50, greet us, with the Mazda team proudly standing alongside.
Not much has changed for the BT-50 this year, apart from the Alpine satellite navigation, which will, hopefully, guide us to our destination. The choice of Mazda BT-50 for this trip is the range-topping GT pickup that currently starts from $49,990 before on-road costs.
Powering all four wheels is a 3.2-litre turbo diesel matched with a six-speed automatic transmission. Independent suspension is bolted on the front, and the rear, a rigid live axle setup. Wrapped around the 17-inch rims are 265/65 Dunlops, with tyre pressures lowered from 35 to 28 psi to deal with the rough roads that lie ahead of us.
For those in need of a quick geography lesson, Birdsville is in Queensland on the border of the Northern Territory and South Australia. The closest populated area is Mt Isa, a lengthy 720km away. The Birdsville Track itself begins at Maree, ends at Birdsville, and can take 24-hours non-stop to drive. However, we are being sensible and are doing the trip with a couple of overnight stops.
It takes just two kilometres before we see our first wildlife – two emus sauntering across the road. The sealed road is surprisingly smooth, and safe to say that it is better than most capital city roads!
After a 70km drive from Leigh Creek, with lots of roadkill kangaroos lining the road, we arrive at Maree Pub for lunch.
Established in 1883, the pub has many rooms to explore. It is filled with the history of the region, with the Tom Kruse museum (not the guy you think he is), to photos of the Ghan derailment and newspapers from 1896 plastered on the walls.
Fifty-five kilometres down the track, we stop at our first night’s accommodation, Clayton Station. We are literally in the middle of nowhere. The land is flat, the dirt red, and the trees are just tall enough to offer some shade and protection from the 26-degree heat.
We are happy to see flushing toilets and a warm-ish shower in a tin shed, and what sounds like a nice feature – hot springs. On closer inspection, the hot spring doesn’t quite live up to expectations; more of a water tank that’s been cut in half, with bore water filling it. Needless to say, the ‘hot spring’ remains unused during our stay.
The night ends with cooked marshmallows on sticks by the fire, and a word of warning from Mazda’s Tony Harris – keep your shoes inside the tent, otherwise dingoes could steal them.
No word of a lie.
My alarm sounds at 5.45am. An item on my bucket list has always been to see an outback sunrise, so I brave the cold and go for a drive with the camera crew. The temperature starts to climb as the blinding sun begins to rise, and the horizon turns blue, pink and purple. All I can hear is cows and the occasional crow. Other than that, it is eerily beautiful.
We hit the road at around 9am for a big day of driving, some 400km, ending at our destination in Birdsville.
The BT-50s are happy gliding over the dirt road at 110km/h, with cattle grids and some floodways slowing us down at times. Some creep up on us a bit too quickly though, resulting in the utes getting some air.
The halfway point brings us to the Old Mulka Ruins, where apart from a faded signpost, you wouldn’t even know it was there. The store was built in the late 1890s as a stop for cattle musters.
Remarkably, it was the only shop within 181,000 square kilometres during its day! It’s hard to fathom how the young Aiston family made money with only two or three customers per week. There’s not much left of the building now, with a window frame and chimney the only remnants of a lonely place in the outback.
A group of road signs is a rare sight, and we slow down to take a look to see signs for a petrol station at Murrangindi pub. We continue.
Fifty-kilometres down the road, another BT-50 waves us down to tell us we were supposed to turn at that intersection. Whoops. They had been trying to contact us on the CB radio, but little did we realise, our radio was not turned on. And with no phone service, poor Anthony and Jonelle had the job of chasing us down.
The BT-50 had 260km of range in the petrol tank, and Birdsville was still 300km away, so if we hadn’t have stopped, Mick Taylor may have stumbled upon us!
Walking into the Murrangindi pub is an experience. Hats, notes, and even hair, cover the ceiling and walls. Outside, wrecks of old rusty trucks litter the desolate landscape.
With 200km to go, the roads get real rough, and we slow the BT-50 down to 70km/h. In some areas, red flags on the side of the road warn us of extremely rough roads, and we have to use the entire road to navigate our way through.
There’s less and less wildlife as the trees begin to disappear from the landscape, except for nine dead dingoes hanging from a small tree. Maybe they ate too many shoes?
Lunch is taken on the side of the road under a few trees that we are lucky to find. Tasty wraps put together by chef extraordinaire, Billy Dohnt, go down nicely. The boxed hire trailer is opened to reveal everything covered in red dust and many things upended from the rough ride. The CB radio cable in our BT-50 didn’t survive either after it was accidentally disconnected when my bag fell on it. Me and CB radios just don’t seem to mix.
At 4.30pm, we pull into Birdsville outside the giant town sign. Directly across the road, the last horse race at the track is wrapping up, and we get stuck in ‘heavy’ traffic while Queensland Police breathalyse every driver on the way into town.
Our campsite is tent city which is on the other side of town, so we soak up all that is Birdsville. On the outskirts are hundreds of caravans and campers in paddocks, which most race goers walk to the track from camp.
There’s not a lot to see or do at Birdsville. Just 115 people call it home outside of race week. It has the absolute essentials – a hospital, bakery, general store, police station, not to mention the essential of every Aussie outback town, the pub. An incongruous and slightly un-nerving sight is a sign post indicating that the town’s cemetery and garbage dump are down the same road. Hmm.
A 45-minute drive east of Birdsville are the Big Red dunes. With tyre pressures down to 18 psi and a steep sandy hill staring straight back at me, my nerves start to get the better of me. It’s the first time I’ve done anything like this.
With the differential lock in place and 4-low selected, I take the advice to go at it with consistent speed. With a large audience cheering on, the BT-50 revs hard as the hill starts to get steeper. I put the throttle down a little more, with a look of concentration plastered all over my face. The ute has no problems reaching the top, and I want to simply turn around and do it all over again.
The 38km trip back home is a slow one in the dark with the risk of kangaroos, but the huge spotlights on the bullbar help.
After dinner, some of us take a two-minute walk to the Birdsville pub. As far as the eye can see are cowboy hats, Cuban heels, and beer. So. Much. Beer. And the cans are scattered all over the ground outside.
We step inside the pub and my eyes are instantly drawn to the ceiling where hats of past Birdsville locals are on display with their name. Other bizarre items include a Plucka-Duck soft toy and a sign saying baseball caps worn backward incur a fine.
A man dressed in a white ’70s suit and cowboy hat, with a beer in hand, dances to Stayin’ Alive. The choice of music is baffling as Nelly Furtado starts playing. Outside is better, with live music, and a man dressed in a floral shirt, an afro rainbow wig and Elton John-esque glasses has a chat, with photos ensuing.
Across the road is Fred Brophy’s Boxing Troupe which encourages the public to box against professionals in a ring under a large tent. Tickets sell out quickly, so we sadly miss watching that spectacle.
We have the morning free to wander the mini side show, souvenir and market stalls on the main street, so I buy a cowboy hat to blend in with the crowd. I also buy a Birdsville Races stubby holder and nearly bought one that reads “fu*k work, I went to the Birdsville Races.”
The wind is blowing an absolute gale and kicking up so much dust that my sunglasses need a wipe every half an hour and the dorky pull cord on the hat needs to be used!
Just a couple of kilometres out of town, we arrive at the racetrack. The venue isn’t as big as I thought it would be and you can easily walk the entire place in under 10 minutes.
We make our way to the marquee and are seated at a table with a perfect view of the track. This cute little town brings some big names out, with Pauline Hanson paying a visit yesterday, and today, Governor General Peter Cosgrove, Sam Mac from Sunrise and actor Lincoln Lewis.
But, the biggest celebrity is undoubtedly the mayor of Birdsville, Geoff Morton. As soon as he walks in, he is swamped by people wanting to take selfies. A few metres away, Peter Cosgrove is quietly ordering from the bar.
I brave the shoulder-to-shoulder crowd and wander the paddock, seeing some amazing sights. Race-goers get into the spirit of dressing up, with the most common theme being men cross-dressing. There is even one man in a dress with a ball and chain attached to his ankle. A group of people dressed as beer have their own race down the track straight.
I place a bet on the last race, on a horse called Power Button, only because I like the name. It came second last in a field of 11. Sometimes that method of picking a winner doesn’t work very well.
With the temperature reaching 32-degrees as the day wraps up, an air-conditioned BT-50 awaits us at the pick up area. Once back at camp, bags are packed, (with added dirt), as the plane awaits us for a direct flight back to Melbourne.
What an incredible journey we have completed. The Mazda BT-50 has always been an underdog amongst the Toyota HiLux and Ford Ranger, but the ute was so comfortable and reliable on the nearly 700km adventure, never once did I think it wasn’t capable of doing the job asked of it.
Outback Australia is something everyone needs to experience at least once in their life, and I can heartily recommend a trip to the Birdsville Races.