TRAVEL: Tiny town comes to life for annual Birdsville Races
RETIRED policeman Ken Murphy has finally arrived at the race "where the dust never settles" after a week negotiating mud and rain on the road to Birdsville.
The Maroochydore resident and his wife Diane have joined thousands of visitors to the remote western Queensland town for the annual Birdsville Races.
Heavy rain caused road closures that blew out their planned 1642km journey and forced them to double-back in their mobile home and find new routes to make it in time.
The notoriously arid town threw a spanner in the works on their arrival, with rain forcing organisers to delay the first day's races until Sunday.
But that is the beauty of being a grey nomad - travel plans are more flexible when there is no work on Monday.
"We were going to take a shortcut via Cunnamulla but the road was closed," Ken said.
"We got there but couldn't get to Quilpie so we had to go back to Charleville and try from the other way.
"That put an extra 400km on the trip, but that's nothing out here."
Ken and Diane are volunteering at the event, which raises money for the Royal Flying Doctor Service.
At 71, Ken is the second oldest volunteer at this year's races.
They have already helped out in the fun run, keeping record of the 104 runners (and dawdlers) as they sputtered over the finishing line.
The promise of a hard-earned beer after a day's graft made standing in the sun far more palatable.
"It's a bit dusty out here," Ken chuckled before the showers set in. "You've got to get the dust down somehow."
The Birdsville Races are now in their 134th year, having started back when the town was still known as Diamantina Crossing.
The once bustling town, which was used to collect tolls from cattle drives crossing the Queensland-South Australia border, now only has 115 residents. This weekend its population will blow out to more than 7000. The two-day event consists of a 13-race program with a $200,000 prize pool.
"People are in good spirits - they're all sitting behind me at the pub, and the spirits are particularly good there," Ken said.
"We're just happy to be here and amongst the atmosphere and aura of the place."
The former police officer is no stranger to the outback. During his 38-year career he spent a long time stationed at Emerald, back when "you were lucky to see another car go past".
"We had plenty of happy times in Emerald and it's good to get back out in the bush," he said.
Gary Lapham, 62, also made the trek to the isolated town to volunteer. It was his first time at the races, and the first time he had visited Birdsville in about 25 years.
"There are caravans and campers everywhere," he said.
"It's got a great feel to it. The camp next to me has little kids - there are all sorts of people here.
"We'd already made the decision to come, then I saw the ad for volunteering and thought it would be a nice way to get another angle to it.
"Otherwise, it's just good to be here. It's like a big carnival - they have boxing tents, concerts and entertainment."
Birdsville Race Club vice president Gary Brook said the celebration was shaping up to be a success despite the rain.
"There is no other race meet like the Birdsville Cup anywhere in the world. It really is a bucket list experience.
"We are remote, but that's part of the appeal of the races.
"People start arriving in town from the beginning of August, and make a real trip out of it camping in the region and enjoying the yabby races, street parties and other events in surrounding towns that lead into the big attraction - the Friday and Saturday race days in Birdsville.
"The winter rain has meant the desert wildflowers are in bloom, and the countryside is beautiful."