The Birdsville races are an iconic event held in the tiny outback town on the first weekend in September every year. The usual population of about 20 swells to over 8000 as people travel from all over the country on some of the worst roads in the country, all so they can get pissed and have a bet on the donkeys.
The following is a recount of a ride we did to the races, by my mate and virgin desert rider JB.
BIRDSVILLE BAPTISM OF FIRE:
The tale of a sand virgin newby, 2 mates and 3 deserts.
It seemed like a good idea at the time. Drive out to the edge of the desert, unload the bikes then take a couple of ‘road less travelled’ shortcuts to get to the races, misbehave, then drive another 14 hours back to start work a week later. Foolproof really.
But did I really think this through? Could the ‘fool’ in foolproof have been an early indicator I might have overlooked?
I now no longer wonder why there are so few adventure riders out there. Its because the first real adventure ride you get invited to, may well be your last. I suppose I should have known something was up when Buzz and Guy started tossing around words like ‘remote’ and talking about how many epurbs, spots and sat phones they’d be bringing. I’m not saying Buzz and Guy deliberately set out to bend me and my bike but they sure as hell were set on bending my head.
After borrowing Monty’s trailer and rebuilding the bloody thing again, we loaded up Sunday arvo. A tip for young players: a three bike trailer may easily accommodate 3 dirt bikes but not 3 adventure bikes, with pannier bags and 30 litre tanks. Its even worth considering chocking the axle to gain a bit more height under the guards as 3 fully loaded 3 adventure bikes weigh a tad more than 3 small bore enduros.
Tuesday night Guy rocks up at my place just before midnight after having picked up Buzz from night shift. We run the 14 hour red eye straight to Noccundra on the edge of the desert in South West QLD dodging the kangas in the dawn light. We roll in about 4 pm and are greeted by our hosts Don and Cassie. Don has the lease on the pub which itself is located on Nockatunga Station. Don is a top bloke with a dry sense of humour that you won’t see coming and doesn’t suffer idiots well but for some reason his pub attracts them in spades. I suppose it’s a tourist thing. Late in the arvo half a dozen other adventure riders arrive and of course we engage them in what I now refer to as ‘the adventure rider strut’. This is where you outbid each other in everything ‘adventure’ eg:
How many deserts are you crossing? Oh only 1, we’re crossing 3;
How much fuel can you carry? Oh only 20 litres, we’re carrying 30, I thought you were on adventure bikes;
How much sand do you expect to ride through? Oh none, we’re doing nothing but sand and gibbers; etc etc.
I got quite good at this rather quickly, not withstanding that I had yet to throw my leg over my recently acquired DR which itself, I was later to found out, jumped out of gears and may not go the distance. Crossing deserts on an unprepared bike is apparently both hardcore and stupid but I’m not sure that there is a clear line separating the two when it comes to ‘adventure’. I mean if things don’t go wrong then you don’t get to have an adventure do you: ‘No fun without drama’! I like to think I was supplying the random factor, my gearbox being the dice rolling on the roulette wheel.
So after bidding the softer riders farewell as they headed the soft way round to Birdsville with their tail between their legs we promptly headed north west straight into the desert. Now Im not sure how many adventure riders’ cherries the Strezelleki Desert has claimed but mine was certainly one of them. I’m a pretty competent rider. Think mid pack clubman … but I’d never ridden sand before. In hindsight I can tell you that it takes a good 3 days to get the hang of this and I wouldn’t have minded another couple of days to properly sort my technique, if I wasn’t so busy kissing the bitumen at the end of the third day. Riding sand, to describe it politely is ‘counter intuitive’ which means whatever you think you should do to stay alive, do the exact opposite and do it at speed. Evil Kenevil would have been a good sand rider.
The trick is to stand up, get your weight back, accelerate and when the back starts swapping through the front, drag a bit of rear brake. Nothing could be simpler… or madder. When Buzz and Guy rode past me standing I knew I was in trouble. I would have liked to have stood… I really would have.. except of course that my bar risers were too low and instead of getting my weight back when I stood, it hunched me forward and stoved the front end into the sand. Nice one JB – didn’t think it through. Sure Buzz and Guy had style and technique but I was taking the ‘harden the fk up’ adventure challenge …. duckwalking and foot paddling my way across the desert!
After half a day of hanging onto the bars with a white knuckle death grip, applying my peculiar but un-patentable ‘on and off again’ throttle (lack of) control, I was a wee bit exhausted but alive! as we pulled into Cameron’s Corner and a refuel. At $2 a litre. This is where I had my first adventure breakfast, which I now know to be a steakburger at lunch time with a pot if available … or its dinner. Breakfast is apparently 4 hours of eating your mates’ dust. Adventure Tip # 1: stash some ‘up and go’ liquid weetbix and milk poppers in your kit and chuck it down your throat when noone is watching. Mixes well with the dust as well.
Cameron’s Corner is where the 3 states meet. To me its where the deep sand stops. Not sure which 3 states meet there either but ‘altered’ is probably one of them. Its in the middle there somewhere. I had a map but I wasn’t sure that if I unfolded it I could actually refold it. Tricky buggas those maps and anyway Buzz and Guy hadn’t lost me yet so what’s the point in getting all strung out navigating when I was barely holding on for dear life. Adventure Tip # 2: Survival first, everything else second, starting with ensuring you know where your next beer is coming from.
The other adventure riders had made it this far already so sensing some more tail sniffing coming on, I quickly regathered myself, replying to their inquiries about ‘how hard the desert was’ responded with ‘what desert?’. This is the correct answer for almost every question put to you as an adventure rider and I couldn’t believe I’d jagged it so quickly. It was just like being a harley rider and refusing to return another rider’s nod, except without the obligatory sneer.
So having scoffed the burger and refueled we were out to the ‘yellow bus’ a notorious landmark and must do on our list. To my surprise there actually was a yellow bus parked up on the side of the road about 40 kms from the Corner. Some punter had driven it out and left it there four score and ten years ago. Not sure what he or she was thinking. Certainly Burke and Wills would have appreciated the emergency shelter if old mate had been thoughtful enough to park it on the other side of the desert next to the Dig Tree!
Back down the same road and we turned left (yeh yeh I know all adventure riders are supposed to talk points of the compass and navigate by the shadow reflected off their enormous appendages after burying themselves alive in sand to form a sextant or whatever, but I’m still new at this and so am strictly a left right up down kind of navigator) at Bollard’s Lagoon. This is bullshyte. Well it wasn't like Gilligan’s Island anyway. Lagoon my arse.
So we pay our $5 for our free map and of course there aren’t any left. Who needs it anyway. I cant read without glasses and we already know about my nav prowess. And in parts the track is conservatively a km or maybe 2 kms wide so a map was kind of irrelevant.
So we’re off on the ‘Bore Track or that might be Boar Track. Probably the latter since it was such a pig of a road. Now I’ve heard of the Wild Boar ride and I’m sure they use this on Stuey Mitchell’s run so I knew I was in knee deep now. Who cares I was an adventure rider now and could already feel the concrete running through my veins.
This is where I started to get the whole adventure rider ‘thing’. The vast clay pans that you charge across are absolutely mad. Words like ‘vast and ‘mad’ don’t do justice to the experience. There isn’t a track, its wide open like your throttle and it is never-ending. The nothingness just keeps going and going. And 5 kms ahead of you is your mate somewhere in all that empty dead windblown moonness. ‘Chasing the plume’ is how I remember it, trying to keep it tapped to the stops just to tag on to the end of Guy’s dust which I could still make out through the heat haze shimmering on the horizon. With absolutely no idea where I was or how I might get out if I had to (mental note to self - bugga the epurb pack flares instead). I was there with 2 of my best mates and I was completely and utterly alone. And the aloneness was on the inside. I know that doesn’t make sense but that’s how it was. Its like you get sucked out of yourself and turned inside out. The wind storming in your ears, the heat, the over-revving motor and its constant vibration (which to be honest I didn’t really notice with my stranglehold on the bars being what it was), the little surprises as you hit a random patch of sand, the invisible dips in the road and the launch ramps (whoever put them in very funny guys – I’ll pay that) all add up to an unraveling of the rope, of your sanity at the edges. You cease to be and just melt into the lunar landscape. Dead to yourself. But alive.
Then it tightens up and the deep sand returns and of course I have a lie down don’t I. Now putting it down without snapping your leg off under a pannier might be one thing but picking the pigster up fully loaded is quite another. After my first clean and jerk achieved absolutely zero results I knew I had to use the adrenalin coursing through me quickly before the ‘jelly legs’ effect hit. Amazingly I got it up, just. There is a god. 100 metres further on after the salt bushes clear is Guy waiting for me. He had a feeling I might put it down in that section. So of course it was his fault. Jinxed me didn’t he. Anyway no-one saw it so technically it didn’t count.
Then a miracle occurred. We popped out the back of this gap in the dunes and there was a road. Like a formed one. A real one. Like in the movies. And it wasn’t a mirage. With edges and graded and stuff. Just like I remember seeing what must have been about a week ago. I’m sure Id been riding the desert for at least that long. The first day’s ride ended as we quietly rolled into Innaminka.
Innaminka is a pub and a servo come general store and a town common. ‘Town’ is a very generous term to use when describing Innaminka. But it has a few things going for it. It has water, it has fuel and it has beer. Icy cold life restoring beer. At $7 a pint.
It was at the pub that I learnt ‘the Innaminka Question and Answer introduction’. Everyone opens with the same 3 questions: Where have you come from, what was the road like, where are you headed? Could this be the ‘bush telegraph’ I’d heard about. Better than the peak hour traffic report on 612 ABC radio every 10 minutes back in Brisvegas. More than that this was a 24 hour service .. well until the pub closed anyway.
I’m not sure how reliable it is though. I do remember telling a few sand-phobic’ GS1200 riders that there was no sand on the Strezelleki and they’d do it on their ear.
We camped that night on the banks of Cooper’s Creek which runs down from the gulf apparently. Water in the middle of a desert that’s run overland from the top end to the centre. I would have thought it might get soaked up before it got here, being that it was running through a desert and everything, but that makes too much common sense I suppose. Crazy. Like everything about this place.
We didn’t have a fire that night. Because there’s no bluddy wood. It’s a desert so nothing grows there. We did think about heating up some rocks on the Kovea stove but decided to save the gas for a morning cuppa (which of course we didn’t have being adventure riders who I now understand don’t eat until they’re starving to death). A takeaway 2 litre cask of dry red saw me in bed early with a free silver pillow for my added comfort. Thank you Mr Lindeman (Yalumba actually – not a bad drop and this from someone who hates red wine. I was quickly learning that ‘desperation’ is an interchangeable word for ‘adventure’).
As soon as we’d got our head own it rained. Rain in the fkn desert! I was getting a tick in every adventure box. How lucky could we get. Certainly not Buzz and Guy who had opted for swags instead of my trusty tent. Having said that, my tent is only trusty if I bother to peg the fly down which I didn’t because .. correct. I was too pissed. Thanks again Mr Lindeman. So it rained buckets who would have figured.
Certainly not the bloke who erected the ‘impassable when wet’ sign at the beginning of Walker’s Crossing which is exactly where we headed for that morning. Had we thought this through? Who cares. I already knew that adventure riders ‘don’t turn back’ and would rather take my chances with an impassable wet track than another deep sandy one again. It would later prove I was equally krappe at both kinds of riding but at least I didn’t chuck it away after a nice 20 metre tank slapper like the one Guy enjoyed. All good nothing broken except a mirror or two. It could have been worse since the mirror is also the clutch perch on the 640. Worth mounting after market mirrors or carrying a spare perch.
Walker’s Crossing is a shortcut to the Birdsville Track and it cuts across the Sturt Stony Desert. We weren’t alone, with locals racing to get to the races before last drinks. It’s an outback thing where I can confirm beer is a recognized breakfast food group. The biggest danger was getting run over after a lie down in the mud. I got off the track and rode the shoulder. Slow and steady wins the race and I was backmarking my way to hell.
We ran up a dune for the obligatory rear tyre buried in the dune setup shot where I learnt how to unbury a bike and then learnt how to ride down a dune – by keeping the gas on. I of course learnt this by doing the opposite trying to crawl my way down in the thick red stuff and promptly folded the front. We also got a tick in the sandstorm and duststorm box which we were actually quite relieved to outrun.
Toward the end of the Crossing we traversed another weird arse natural phenomenon: a ‘gibber’ desert. Rocks by any other name. Not sure how they got there. God misplaced his marble collection perhaps.
And we found a cattle grid to jump. This is where I learnt another valuable adventure lesson: tie your pannier bags up tight and high. Why? Because when your suspension bottoms out the bags scrape the ground. Mad but true.
I’m not sure when we hit the Birdsville Track. I didn’t wear a watch or answer my phone the whole week we were out there but it wasn’t late. We’d made good time with very minimal ‘lie down’ stops. We were a bit disappointed we couldn’t do the ‘Inside’ Birdsville Track but when it was explained to us that this was because it was ‘under water’, we decided not to beat up on ourselves and transported the hour and a half into Birdsville. Well almost. Guy ran out of fuel 30 metres across the border into Queensland. Stingy bastid was trying for the cheap Queensland fuel price which it turned out he secured .. from my bike free.
As we approached Birdsville either side of the road was lined with campers. Nothing organised about it. Park up where you like and every kilometre or so the local shire had provided a portaloo (which they had serviced regularly and were a far cry from what you might expect to find at a Big Day Out).
Rolling into town the first sight that hits you is the litter. The Hotel was literally a sea of cans chucked out onto the footpath and road. And that’s how they wanted it. Apparently its easier to bulldoze each night than empty bins. A bogan paradise.
We managed to talk our way into an overcrowded overfull caravan park and meet up with some other crew who had ridden from Brissy and Rocky. Kenny, Andrew, Oscar, Glenn, Sinkers and Thommo. A special mention has to go to Thommo here. He’d ridden the whole way from Rocky on a postie bike unsupported top speed 75 kmphr flat out moving around on the corrugations sand and dirt like a rattlesnake on heat. It certainly made my efforts pale into absolute insignificance. Legend mate all hail!
At ‘Camp Kenny’ we set about erecting our shelters when I noticed an old dog blanket, a kid’s security blanket and a winnee the pooh pillow. Meet Oscar. This was his total system which he’d picked up from an op shop on the way out. Adventure Tip #3: ‘Its not all about the preparation and preplanning – if you do that too well you won’t have an adventure .. but you may actually stay warm and dry at night’.
What can I tell you about Birdsville. They serve only midstrength at the races. Can you believe that! Talk about responsible. However back at the pub all bets are literally off and you’re paying $5.50 for a full strength beer or $9 for a can of bourbon and you’re purchasing tickets just like at a festival which I suppose it was. If by about now you’re getting the feeling that I navigate by where my next beer is coming from, you’d be spot on the money. Who needs a GPS when you have a reliable thirst.
What else stood out about Birdsville: camping on the dirty Diamentina River. The thing is only about 2 foot deep but its alive and we caught a good yield of yabbies each day. Big Red is worth a visit. Mayhem on the Simpson Desert dunes. Be aware that Little Red is not Big Red – go down the track to your right. Buzz and Guy got some nice nasa jumping dunes in the desert and I can confirm Guy used all his fork travel smacking the guard a beauty a couple of times. Drinking warm beer is also something I’d never been able to come at but am now ready for a trip to the UK. Adventure Tip # 4: ‘Do not judge beer - any beer is a good beer, no matter what its label or temperature’. The postie bike challenge was also a good laugh until one of them rode over his mate’s head. Not a good look but he walked away after lying down for a while. All piss and giggles till someone gets hurt. Adventure Tip # 5: ‘Getting there is one thing, getting home is quite another’. Guy and Buzz running the dunes on the way back into Bridsville until they hit a fence line which they then ran until they could go no more then instead of backtracking, triangulated (this is a big word they used which I think means ‘guessed’) their position and rode out blind across country till they hit the road. Fred Brophey’s Boxing Tent. Man what a laugh that was. Running out of fuel and having to blow in the tank to pressurise the tank so it would feed the last litre into the gravity fed carby which is actually above it at that point (if you’re running a DR 650 with a 30 litre tank you need to know this – fit a long hose to your filler cap with a 1 way valve in the end). Oh and the Races – yeh the races – one more vice I don’t need.
Of course all good things have to come to an end and it was with no regrets that we left Birdsville. I’m not sure what day it was. I simply didn’t care.
Down the Cordillo Downs Road we rode and out to the largest sheering shed in the southern hemisphere. This is conveniently located on a cattle station. Still figuring that one out. Maybe another desert thing. Not sure. I might google it later.
This track is sandy in parts and in other parts its very sandy and in still other parts its very very sandy and then there’s the rocks. One trailer went past us only to blow the whole tyre off his rig half a k up the track. Idiot was going too fast for the conditions and had chosen low profiles as well. Justice will be done to the stupid.
There’s a particularly memorable red sand section on this track that I have to acknowledge. Its 27 kms long and its deep and slow and windy. Now you’ll recall previously how I told you I had developed some competencies in the sand on day 1 and was now relatively confident of my abilities. Wrong. I’ve never been particularly religious but on this track I did indeed see god. Here I am praying and holding on for dear life, when Guy sidles up beside me and suggests we break for lunch under a tree. For fk sakes Im almost melting down and barely holding it together with some semblance of rhythm, using the whole road and sometimes more than that and he suggests a bluddy devonshire tea with scones complete with picnic blanket. I keep moving. They follow.
Can I also share with you a few desert hints:
The S Bend sign actually means S bend up ahead – who would’ve thought;
Floodway signs actually mean ‘ slow down’ deep sand ahead that will swallow you and your bike whole; and
Don’t change ruts in the floodway – you will end up facing the direction you came from.
At 2 pm we rolled into Innaminka. We sorted a camp and headed off back to the pub. Now as you read the above you’ll be getting the impression that I’ve manned up a bit through this experience and that I might have some ‘adventure’ potential. Rubbish. I can tell you categorically that I am not fit to wipe the visor of a true adventure rider and that is the rider that followed us in on his FJR 1300 with stock road tyres, top box and tank bag: Andrew. Truly an honour to have ridden with you brother. Setting a standard of hardness few can follow. Anyone can do this on a Dr or a 990 but few would cop it on a road tourer.
From Innaminka the next day we headed out to the Dig Tree where the explorer Wills met his untimely death. What was he thinking walking to the Gulf. Idiot. The irony is that his base camp moved out the same day he arrived back. Missed it by that much. You can get unlucky out there. Probably a desert thing.
Just before the turnoff I broke Adventure Rule # 468: Never leave your Adventure Brother on the side of the road. Sorry about that Oscar. Oscar is pretty random so when he didn’t come around the car we’d just overtaken I figured it was to stop and have a piss or something (this is a lie but the best excuse I could come up with). Buzz and Guy gave me a serve about leaving Oscar behind but it didn’t stop us dicking around at the tree for a good 15 minutes or so before retracing our steps back to Oscar. ‘Let him sweat’ is apparently part of the adventure rider etiquette. By the time we got there Andrew, Sinkers and Glenn had pulled up to laugh whoops I mean assist (the last we saw of Thommo was whited out being overtaken by the road train of camper trailers and 4 wheel drives leaving Birdsville). After rebuilding the thing twice we discovered dirt on the main jet. Luckily the carby design of the DR is based on technology that came out with the first fleet so we were able to fix it with a sapling, some 9 gauge fencing wire and a tin foil off a cigarette packet. Good work with the McGuyver ‘touch’ (now we know why you love him Sam).
Rebuilt and on the road again we moved out separating quickly into 2 packs: those with nobbies and those without. Out on the Adventure Way we were still cutting up camper trailers coming out of Birdsville and the whiteout overtaking factor was hairy in places but manageable. Some of this road is bitumen and some is dirt but when I’d been on tarmac for more than half an hour and had seen my third Thargaminda sign in a row I knew I had done it. I’d made it. That’s when the Landcruiser swung wide and almost rolled in front of Buzz, followed shortly thereafter by a road train which we gave up the whole road to, negotiating a drainage ditch as a preference to being steamrolled. Advenutr Tip #6: ‘Its not over till its over’.
We hit Nochundra about midday, loaded the bikes, had a quick shower, thanked Don and Cassie and drove off into the East whoops right.
Half an hour down the road we spy Andrew Glenn and Oscar on the side of the road again. Oscar obviously hasn’t been getting enough attention and now is low on fuel but not quite. He’s run into the pressurising the tank issue I had on the way back from Big Red but doesn’t have a hose long enough to breathe into. We give him 10 litres out of Buzz’s bike and the next stop is Thargaminda for lunch. The servo at Thargaminda is a gold field. The best breakdown store in the world. Everything you could imagine for the stranded rider. We’re obviously not the first bikers to traverse through. Last time we see the boys is at the Eulo pub and we hit Brislame at about 2am.
1777 kms on the bikes in 3 days across 3 deserts (well not the whole desert). 100% unassisted (with a special mention to the publicans I met along the way). Its adventure Jim but not as you know it not as you know it. I died a dozen times a day and was reborn each and every. Fear was around every corner and its only ‘where your head is at’ that brings you home. The only way to gain control is to let go of control and just go with the crash that more often than not does not happen.
Thanks Buzz and Guy. I salute you both for bringing my fresh fish arse back in one piece. Lesser men would have left me to rot.
Would I do it again. Hell yeh! Bring it on.