The Weekend Read: BMW to Birdsville

I’VE PLUNGED headlong into the amber-fuelled effervescence at Flemington on Melbourne Cup Days, and endured the whopper Wednesday hangovers to prove it.

So, when I heard about the Birdsville Races, I wanted to see how the denizens of the desert bring their unique character and humour to their quintessentially Australian Outback version. I figured on bringing a little city-slicker style to the Simpson Desert soiree, with a dungaree twist.

For the car, I had the perfect solution. BMW launched a diesel 7 Series earlier in the year priced at $198,800. The 730d’s 3.0-litre turbo-diesel engine’s 180kW and V8-rivalling 540Nm would be adequate, and its claimed 7.2L/100km would give it the legs, we figured, to leap long outback distances.

The 7 Series is also long on luxury: electrically adjustable leather seats (with massage function), tri-zone climate control, integrated entertainment system with TV and sat-nav, iPod connectivity and an abundance of top-notch speakers.

Weaknesses? Grip and ground clearance. The rocky conditions could be tricky, and the Simpson is full of sand, apparently. But the Birdsville Track is graded semi-regularly so the BMW should be fine. Even so, I roped in an Audi Q5 3.0TDI – both for support and as a pack-horse to take some of the burden off the nearly two-tonne 730d. Wheels regular and ex-Queenslander Stu Orford jumped behind the wheel and had my partner Jenny as co-driver.

Like many BMWs, ours wears run-flat tyres, and BMW says they can be driven deflated for up to 200km. But where we’re headed, there’s often nothing but sand and loneliness for
200 clicks, let alone a servo with replacement run-flats for a city limo. So we’ve packed a
full-size spare for both cars.

The plan was to drive long and hard and break the back of the journey on the first day. So, the cars packed with swags, clothes, camping gear, food and people, we leave Melbourne early Wednesday morning and hit Ballarat for fuel and breakfast. The BMW has just about run dry after covering 1050km on one tank since I’d collected it in Sydney earlier in the week and driven it to Melbourne.

With people and cars refuelled, it’s west towards the Grampians town of Horsham before pointing northwest to Dimboola and the Vic/SA border-town of… Bordertown. Then north, through Pinnaroo to the Murray River at Cadell. Trees disappear from the surrounding landscape as sandy, hummock grass-covered hills take over.

It’s easy to settle into big-drive mode in the 7. Its supple ride isolates you from the road’s roughness and the body does the same to outside noises. Wind noise is barely present at freeway speeds, and the robust diesel is a silent force at 1600rpm in sixth.

Our weary convoy eventually pulls into Peterborough, happy because we’ve put 1000km under our wheels while managing to dodge the Playstation nightmare of kangaroos, emus and (most of the) rabbits we’d encountered from dusk onwards. The grand buildings and murals give us a glimpse of the town’s boom-time, where it grew fat off the railway from Silverton and Broken Hill and once boasted the Southern Hemisphere’s largest railway roundhouse. Now it looks worn-out and sleepy, just like us.

We gather in the bar of the Railway Hotel and look over the map while chowing down on microwave chicken parma and chips. We’re halfway to Birdsville and 420km short of the Birdsville Track. The bitumen will run out in 300km, at Lyndhurst. Tomorrow is Thursday, the day before the races. I still have hopes of covering the 940km to Birdsville in a day. Unrealistic? Oh, ye of little faith…

Next morning we awake before Peterborough does and leave. As we drive towards Hawker we watch the Flinders Ranges, South Australia’s biggest mountain range, grow from the earth alongside us, its folded and canted layers of sedimentary rock gleaming red in the morning sun.

There’s an old pub where the Flinders Ranges road returns to the highway at Parachilna. It’s been almost a decade since my last visit, and I’m looking forward to what could be my last home-cooked meal for a week. My companions’ faces remind me of the roos caught in our headlights the night before. I can only assume I have the same effect on them. The food, however, is great. Brunelli’s Roadkill Burger is big and juicy, my Coat-of-Arms pizza has plenty of roo and emu on a crispy base, and Stu’s T-bone barely fits on the plate.

Back on the road, the Flinders fall behind and the flatlands return, punctuated by mining slag heaps. Stubby trees and saltbush dot the plains, hiding the hot sand and stone that carpets the terrain. We hit the smooth dirt at Lyndhurst, and the 730d lopes along comfortably towards the dust-covered, old railhead town of Marree.

Until now (after 1400km and one-and-a-half days’ driving) our Birdsville Races goal has been an abstract concept: words and lines on a map. But it’s now starting to feel real. My mind races ahead to that first beer at the Birdsville Pub, but part of me knows that’s still a long way off, and the real journey has only just begun.

The first 20km out of Marree is hard-packed dirt so I dial up 90km/h and watch the scenery change. Imagine a landscape as desolate as Mars covered in fist-sized red rocks baking under the hot sun. Now imagine a track about four dozer blades wide, discernible only by the slight build-up of rocks into a verge on either side. This is our tenuous lifeline to civilisation.

Our pace slows to about 40km/h as I adapt to the new terrain. The speedo creeps up as I get better at picking lines around and across the rubble but never tops 80km/h. The smooth ride is gone, replaced by a constant jitter as the rocks tax the BMW’s once-supple suspension. We won’t make Birdsville this day. If we slow much more we may not make the second – and last – day either.

The BMW soldiers on stoically, loping across the easier stretches, scrabbling and slewing – gracefully, of course – over the stonier sections. At times the wheel ruts deepen and we ride the crests to increase ground clearance. The pings and clangs of stones hitting the underbody make me cringe and I lift myself in the seat as if somehow the whole car will rise with me.

With the sun nearing the horizon, we make camp next to a dry creek bed. Walking back to camp with an armload of wood, the scene strikes me as surreal. BMW’s finest sits in the middle of an uninhabited wasteland, its metallic paint glowing in the soft desert sunset, surrounded by canvas swags and a tent, and with Stu determinedly building a campfire nearby.

I doubt any of the seven billion other people on earth have ever seen such a sight.
Looking over the map later that night we discover that our bone-dry creek bed is the Cooper Creek of Burke and Wills fame. In 1861 Burke, Wills, King and co hit Cooper Creek about 250km northeast, near the Dig Tree before forging on alone to the Gulf of Carpentaria. The staging party was told to wait 13 weeks before returning to Melbourne. They waited 18 and left … just nine hours before the exhausted Burke, Wills and King returned. In the end both Burke and Wills perished out here. And here we are, swanning around in a luxury sedan. It seems disrespectful.

We still have almost 400km to cover tomorrow before Birdsville and, based on our average speed today, I figure we’ll arrive in time for sundowners at the Birdsville Pub, and hit the track for Day Two. Plan forged, I bank the campfire and crawl into my swag under the desert stars.

About 90km up the track next day we hit Mungerannie Homestead, where there’s accommodation and a pub run by a true outback Aussie, Phil. His dusty boots and stubbies, stained hat and faded singlet look as old as him. His unkempt grey beard jiggles and his piercing blue eyes light up when he talks. Most days Phil pulls the beers, fixes flat tyres, fills your car, and flips burgers. Today he’s also handing out free character assessments.

While I’m wandering around the bar looking at the dozens of hats stapled to the ceiling, Phil is discussing road conditions with Stu, whom he doesn’t realise is part of our crew. “Well, [the Audi is] not exactly a good car for the conditions out here,” he says, “but at least you’re better off than whichever dickheads are driving that BMW.”

Unperturbed, we mount up and rejoin the track. By now I’m feeling pretty chuffed. We’ve covered over half the Birdsville Track, traversed rocky sections, even waded impromptu streams. Then I have a Dick Johnson moment and meet my rock.

It happens so quickly. We’re approaching a dip and I instinctively hit the brakes. The dip looks harmless so I lift off and guide the BMW through at about 60km/h. As usual, the suspension compresses as the downhill slope transitions to the ascent out. Just then there’s a loud bang like a bull kicking a cattle truck and the whole car shudders. Then the flat-tyre warning goes off.

I look in the rear-view mirror to see a baseball-sized rock bounding down the road after us. I stop at the top of a small rise. The run-flats look fine, so I drop to the road and peer under the car. Liquid is running from a hole where the transmission sits. I jump back in, to move the car off the track, but the electronic auto won’t play ball. Every time I move it from Park to Drive it moves back to Park. So I kill the engine.

Just like that, after two and a half days and 1600km, the dream is over, the BMW mortally wounded. All I want to do is rewind time five minutes and have another go. This time I’d dodge the rock, or slow down more, or carry the bloody car over the dip.

The desert’s smothering menace steps up a notch, and depression sets in. The nearest homestead is 90km south, three days’ walk. Birdsville is 210km north. We hadn’t passed a car all morning because the smart people are already in Birdsville.

What now? Abandon the BMW and continue to Birdsville in the Q5? Ditch the 7 Series and head back to Mungerannie Phil’s smug smile? I can’t leave such a valuable corpse to desert scavengers, so I stay with the broken BMW as the Audi disappears into the shimmering desert towards Mungerannie. When Stu returns three long hours later, he says Phil has leapt to our aid and arranged a retrieval vehicle from Birdsville. Four hours later a flat-bed truck rescues the BMW.

We don’t follow the truck into town. Instead, we set up camp and spend our second night in the desert. It’s a sombre mood around the campfire but Stu says it could be worse. We could be walking like Burke and Wills.

The next morning we head for Birdsville. After about 80km, the track loses its rocky venom and we ride on firmly-packed sand. If the 730d hadn’t met that one rock, it surely would have got us there.

When we get into Birdsville we find the BMW in a shipping yard out the back of town. It sits forlornly on an earthen loading ramp among graders, slag heaps and unhitched trailers. We tow it to the Birdsville Pub and, in a suit jacket and stubbies, push it into position for the photo to prove the BMW 730d made it to Birdsville.

Then we hit the races. And, since I have nothing to drive on the way home, I set out to enjoy myself.

Birdsville doesn’t believe in half measures. The whole town goes into party mode as tent hotels take over town commons, fast-food caravans set up on the roadside and every available patch of dirt along the Diamantina River becomes a campsite for 8000 revellers. The bakery will sell 7000 pies and sausage rolls on race weekend, and the two petrol stations will pump 200,000 litres of fuel practically non-stop into 3000 thirsty 4WDs.

Speaking of thirsty, Birdsville Pub publican John Hanna says his staff of 20 will open a can for a swilling patron every three seconds on the busiest day, Saturday. Most of the empties are simply dropped where they’re drained, and the street outside becomes a sea of crushed aluminium as revellers see who can build the highest mound at their feet.

Next to the pub sits Birdsville’s airstrip, which usually sees a handful of flights a week. During race week more than 100 planes will park on the apron, including two impressive Lear jets, their passengers rolling out swags and tents under the wings.

Opposite the pub is carnival city. Fred Brophy’s travelling troupe of boxers will take on all comers, and there’s no shortage of men – and women – keen to test their drunken mettle against boxers like ‘the Fulla from Cunnamulla’. The biggest cheer goes up for a little bloke who weighs 60kg dripping wet. He’s the jockey who rode the favourite to an inglorious 6th, and it sounds like much of the crowd lost money on him.

There’s usually one cop in Birdsville; Neale McShane. During race week another 20 come from all over Queensland. This year’s crowd was well-behaved, the only mischief was a young Quilpie man who streaked through the pub late on Saturday night. Apparently police gave him a full 15 minutes grace before begrudgingly laying charges.

The Birdsville Racetrack is a dormant dust bowl for 363 days of the year. Then come September more than 60 horses come in from across the country, all vying for the $150K prize money spread over two six-race days. More than triple that amount will flow through the dozen bookies at the track as punters seek their fortunes.

For half the crowd, it seems the horse racing is superfluous to a good time. Diamantina Shire councillor Brian Mooney tells me that in 2007, when equine flu cancelled racing for only the second time since it began in 1882 (the other time was WWII) 4500 people still came to party. It’s here that I have an epiphany. I realise that I only have two hands, and they can either be holding a notebook and pen, or a couple of cans of XXXX. Well, when in Rome…

Next morning, the hordes begin to leave. We enjoy cream-topped coffee from a roadside vendor and reminisce. We’re convinced the 730d could have made the journey under its own power, and make a pact to prove it. But somehow I doubt that BMW will stump up a second car, which is a shame because when we got to Birdsville, word had spread about the crazy journalists who’d driven the Track in a BMW limousine. Cops, campers, passers-by, even the race-caller had heard of us.

We’d just added our own tiny chapter to the legend of the Birdsville Track.

Have you bought our media-rich iPad edition yet? Take a break before Birdsville was originally published in January, 2010.

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