On many Aussie’s bucket lists, the Birdsville Races is not an event you want to miss. I do this trip every year to work on the famous Birdsville Races and the scenic drive gets better every year.
Camping along the way is a great way to make the most of the trip, however I am yet to do so as you will soon find out. I catch a short flight from Melbourne to Adelaide and pick up a four-wheel drive hire car. I do all my pickups of food and essentials in Adelaide and download any playlists I want to listen to before setting off on the 1,200km drive north. Take note, if you are buying cases of beer, make sure you buy cans, not glass…the road gets bumpy.
Departing Adelaide, most maps will take you up to Port Augusta, but take the scenic route through the Clare Valley, its only 1.5 hours north of Adelaide where you will find some good country bakeries and plenty of wineries. Continuing this route for a further 2.5 hours, will take you through the tiny towns of Jamestown, Quorn and Hawker where a Quandong Pie at the Quandong Bakery in Quorn should be a top your list.
The Outback Highway through the Flinders Ranges
From Quorn it’s 1.5 hours through the stunning salt bush covered Flinders Ranges that have a magical awe about them. You’ll soon find yourself at Parachilna for a night at the famous Prairie Hotel. If you have time however, take a 50 minute detour from Hawker out to Wilpena Pound, a natural amphitheatre of mountains where you can stay at the Wilpena Pound Resort, photo’s look insane but I’m yet to tick this one off.
Back to the Prairie Hotel though – there are all types of accommodation available, and the pub food is next level. Their ‘feral feast’ is definitely one for the tourists made up of emu, camel, goat and kangaroo tastings, but don’t go past the chargrilled kangaroo fillet with quandong jus, it’s an 11/10. The sunset here is one not to be missed behind the iron horse statue and be sure to check out the stars – amazing!
An early riser will see a stunning sun rise over the Flinders Ranges while you enjoy an egg and bacon damper roll from the Prairie, then a two hour drive up the Outback Highway to Marree. From here there’s limited or no phone service until you get to Birdsville so plan ahead. Be sure not to leave so early in the morning that it’s still dark, there’s no fences out here and a lot of wandering stock and wildlife that will dint your vehicle – speaking from experience.
The Parachilna Stockman sculpture outside the Prairie Hotel
Once arrived in Marree, make sure you check out the Marree Hotel for a chilled beverage and drive around the town to the local MCG (Marree Cricket Ground) – just look for the goal posts, it’s a classic. The homemade choc chip cookies from the servo aren’t bad either. If you have some spare time, I’d take a flight from here over Lake Eyre – there are hourly, half day or full day flights – again this is still on my bucket list to do.
Otherwise it’s straight onto the famous Birdsville Track from here – 500km of dirt road up to Birdsville driving through stations, and the road can get pretty rough. 4-wheel drives, a full tank of fuel, spare tyres and some good tunes are recommended.
About 60km’s up the track from Marree, are the Clayton Hot Springs on Clayton Station where you can also camp. A great stop for a hot bath in a cattle trough if it takes your fancy. If not, keep driving onto Mungeranie where fuel is available, a McDonalds sign out the front to fool you city folk and the Mungeranie Hotel – where peoples pony tails are stapled to the roof…strange I know. This is the last stop before the final 300km’s of dirt road to the SA/QLD border and Birdsville.
Thousands of campers camping along the road into Birdsville for the races
So, pick a good playlist and take in the outback – dust, bull dust, wildflowers, sheep, cattle, emu’s, donkeys, birds, dingos, horses and I’ve even seen an ostrich out there. I’d also take note of the cattle grids, you know how I said to buy cans and not stubbies…this is why. I’ve had air-born slabs of stubbies that don’t take the grids well, not one surviving stubbie, oops. The dust is also next level and overtaking road trains and caravans can be tricky.
Once you make it to the SA/QLD border, its only 15km’s onto Birdsville – past the racecourse on your right, over the Diamantina river and into town. If you’re driving in for the races pick a spot to camp anywhere between the racecourse and main street with thousands of other friendly travellers – plenty of room. There is accommodation available at the Caravan Park or Tent City in town but note it’s extremely limited and books up quickly.
Be sure to try a curried camel pie from the bakery, grab a cold beer from the pub and go and see one of Fred Brophy’s famous boxing shows where people can nominate to box in the ring against one of Fred’s amateur boxers. There are two great days of racing on both Friday and Saturday and plenty of other entertainment throughout the week.
Dusk atop the ‘Big Red’ sand dune in the Simpson Desert
A visit 40kms west out to ‘Big Red’ sand dune is something everyone should do, also home to the ‘Big Red Bash’ concert in July annually. It’s great to watch the sunset from so take an esky and a camera, or alternatively take a chopper ride out there and fly over the sand dunes – an amazing way to see how big the Simpson Desert really is. All I can say is be prepared for 30-degree days, lots of dust and a hell of a good time.
If you haven’t done this road trip, I would highly recommend it. It’s a great way to experience the Australian outback and you’re rewarded with an incredible event of horse racing at the end of it. For more information on the races click here or head to www.birdsvilleraces.com
Images by Salty Dingo Media and Tourism South Australia.