Road to Birdsville

Sydney to Birdsville and The Big Red Bash

Driving to The Big Red Bash, a huge music festival, set in outback Queensland is also an excuse for a road trip from Sydney to Birdsville. After our first real road trip from Sydney to Broken Hill a year or so ago, I needed little encouragement when friends asked us to join them at The Big Red Bash.

We buy tickets, talk to friends about borrowing camping gear, prepare the car and book accommodation. This, our second road trip to the outback in as many years is going to be much more of a challenge than the first one.

Big Red Bash Campground
Scene of The Camground from Big Red

The roads are unpredictable and facilities at the campground are limited. Each year, thousands descend on Big Red, a large red sand dune about 35km from the town of Birdsville for The Big Red Bash, a concert at the edge of the Simpson desert.

Planning for The Big Red Bash

Good preparation is the key to an enjoyable “Bash”

Itinerary from Sydney

I plan our itinerary according to the number of days we have available, allowing time to explore towns and places of interest. While we’ll camp at the Bash (that’s the only accommodation), we plan to stay in motels along the way.

After pouring over maps, I work out a route that will take five days from Sydney to Birdsville and on to Big Red. Each day will be a comfortable 5-6 hours of driving with rest stops.

Australian Outback Driving
Red Earth

We plan to meet our friends at Windorah before driving the 380km to Birdsville as a group the next morning. In Birdsville, we’ll refuel, collect our wrist bands and any last-minute supplies and then drive on to the festival campsite together.

If you want to camp as a group, you need to arrive at Big Red with your group.  

Sydney to Birdsville and The Big Red Bash: An Outback Road Trip

Sydney to The Big Red Bash

  1. Sydney to Boggabri (470km)
  2. Boggabri to St George (398km)
  3. St George to Charleville (388km)
  4. Charleville to Windorah (458km)
  5. Windorah to Birdsville (379km) and The Big Red Bash (35km)

Days 6 and 7 at the Big Red Bash

The Big Red Bash and Birdsville to Sydney

  1. The Big Red Bash to Birdsville (35km)
  2. Birdsville to Windorah (397km)
  3. Windorah to Quilpie (and then Toompine)
  4. Toompine to Bourke (480km)
  5. Bourke to Narrabri (415km)
  6. Narrabri to Sydney (524km)

Total distance:

4303km (2128km Sydney to Birdsville and 2175km Birdsville to Sydney)

Preparing the Car for an Outback Trip

Warnings about punctures and cracked windscreens when traveling in the outback are everywhere. Just to be sure, we service the car before we leave. We buy a second spare tyre to take as well as the ‘donut’ spare. We buy large water containers so that we have plenty of spare water – in case of a breakdown and for the Bash itself.

Cattle in Australia
Out in the Country

Being aware of fuel levels is important. Petrol stations in the outback are few and far between and it’s not always possible to buy premium fuel. Something else to remember.

Accommodation between Sydney and Birdsville

Although I’ve camped in my time and very much enjoyed it, these days I prefer a bed and a private bathroom if at all possible. Knowing this and knowing that we’ll be camping without facilities at The Big Bash itself, we choose not to camp on our way to Birdsville.

Unsure of how many other ‘Bashers’ will want motel accommodation, and knowing that the small outback towns only have limited accommodation, I pre-book motels for our stops before and after the festival.

Apart from Birdsville on the way out that is. All accommodation and almost all the campsites are already booked up when I make my enquiries. So, I settle (and pay in advance) for an unpowered site.  

Preparing for Camping at The Big Red Bash

Once, a very long time ago in an obsessional moment, I prepared a list of what to take on a camping holiday (contact me if you would like me to share this list with you). This comprehensive list helps me decide what to take given the limited space available in the back of our Nissan X Trail. 

Having disposed of much of our camping gear a long time ago, we need to borrow a tent, an air mattress and a pump. I gather together kitchen and other essentials which will make our camping experience more comfortable.

We practice putting up the tent and ensure the mattress doesn’t have any leaks. With no electricity at The Bash, we buy inexpensive battery-operated lighting.

Camping at the Big Red Bash
Practice Didn’t Make Perfect

No water on site means bringing all our own water – to drink, wash and for emergencies. I add large water containers to the list.

All grey water must be disposed of in the tanks provided and all rubbish removed from the site when we leave.  We’ll use a bucket with a handle to collect and dispose of our grey water.

Food and Drink for The Big Red Bash

The internet is a great source of information for suitable easy to cook meals, given that we have to take everything with us and there’s only the esky for refrigeration. I settle for pasta and rice dishes with wraps for lunch and cereals for breakfast.

Long life milk and a cheddar type cheese will last the distance.

If we want beer or wine, we must take it with us as there’s no alcohol sold at The Bash. For simplicity, we take a few bottles of wine and some cans of G&T. Of course, we make sure there’s plenty of drinking water. The days can be very hot, even if the nights are cold. 

Clothing and Bedding for The Big Red Bash

With daytime temperatures expected to be in the mid to high twenties and night time temperatures possibly below five degrees Celsius, packing clothing means taking layers and jackets. And gloves and beanies. 

Camping right at the back The Big Red Bash
Camping in the Bush

Warm sleeping bags are essential. A blanket under the air bed and another between the airbed and the sleeping bag will help to keep the cold out.

Sydney to Boggabri (470km)

Living on the Hawkesbury River means that our journey starts in a commuter boat across the river to Brooklyn where our packed car awaits.

Once on the M1, the plan to drive via Newcastle changes when a “Scenic Route” sign prompts us to venture off the motorway along Peats Ridge Rd. Spontaneity on a road trip is all part of the fun.  

A calm descends on us both as the number of vehicles on the road reduces to almost none, and the road meanders through the countryside.

Breakfast at Kulnura Motors
Kulnura Motors

Signs outside small holdings offer “Double Strength Chook Poo” for sale. Fruit stalls display oranges, apples and other fresh produce. Early morning sunlight filters through the trees as horses and sheep graze in paddocks.

We pass sheep and hundreds of free-range chickens scratching happily in the dirt in a large enclosure. Views across the bush extend to the horizon.

Breakfast at Kulnura

Jerry’s Gourmet kitchen at Kulnura Motors is the perfect place for breakfast. It’s a quirky location – a collection of old motorbikes stands between dusty bowsers and a chair rests above head height on a tree stump.

We sit outside enjoying our coffee and ham and cheese croissants. A friendly spotty dog bounds across for a pat.

Our route takes us through the hamlet of Bucketty where there’s a Rural Fire Service base and not much more. We pass uniquely designed letter boxes – a pig, a cow and a Ned kelly.

Small towns on the way to the Big Red Bash from Sydney
Small Towns

Winding down into the valley, we slow down at the sharp bends. A road sign warns bikers to “plan your corners”. The bushy terrain is interspersed with rocky outcrops on either side of the road.

Thompson’s bridge and another bridge whose name I miss, forms part of the Great North Road. They were built by convicts. A rusty full-sized rhinoceros seems out of place in the Australian bush. The mob of kangaroos hopping off across an open field are more familiar.

Roadkill

A sign featuring a wombat and the words “She also wants to get home” indicates that wombats cross this road at their peril. Soon afterwards, we pass two dead wombats on the roadside.

More road kill, this time kangaroos are a salient reminder not to drive at dawn or dusk when the animals are more active on the road. I’ve read that a painted dead female kangaroo (roadkill) alerts others that she’s been checked for joeys.

Writing up this trip only now, I’m only too aware that the thick smoke outside comes from bush fires in the area we drove through. The scene will be very different from what I describe for many months if not years to come. 

Bulga Mine Site
Mining Activity
Denman NSW
Boarded Up

Wollombi Valley Road winds through Broke and past the Bulga Mine site, a blight on the countryside. On the Golden Highway, white mine vehicles pass at speed, their orange light flashing.

We are driving through the horse country of Jerrys Plains where locals protest with signs reading “Don’t undermine us” and “Wrong place wrong mine”.

Villages and Painted Silos

Denman is a pretty little village. We take a walk down the main street past the old bakery and produce store and stop for a coffee reviver.

Silo Art in Merriwa
Merriwa Silo Art

Another spontaneous decision takes us to Merriwa where something colourful in the distance causes us to drive closer. Having read much about painted grain silos, I’ve never actually seen one. Painted by David Lee Pereira, the artwork depicts sheep in red socks reflecting the annual Merriwa Festival of the Fleeces.

After stopping briefly at Coolah for yet another walk down the main street, we continue on along Black Stump Way towards Gunnedah.

A flock of pink and grey Galahs fly up in front of the car. On the approach to Mullaley a herd of cows blocks our path while dogs in the back of a buggy bark madly to encourage them to cross the road.

Coolah Heritage
Coolah Post Office
Coolah Street Art
Tea in Coolah

Approaching Gunnedah, the traffic increases and here the sign encourages us to slow down for Koalas. The sun is low in the sky now as we take the Kamilaroi Hwy. A large bird of prey (a falcon or perhaps a hawk?) stands tall on a wooden fence post. I wish I had my bird book with me.

At the end of a very pleasant day of driving we pull in to our accommodation in Boggabri. Dinner is Chinese at the local RSL. Being Friday night it’s the Super Draw, and the RSL is busy, a real community gathering place.

Cattle and cotton country
Cattle on the Road
Heritage buildings Boggabri
Old Wares in Boggabri

Locals chat and catch up over a beer or a meal. Interestingly we are the only ones using chopsticks for our Chinese.

  • Accommodation: Nestle Inn, Boggabri
  • Dinner: Chinese at the local RSL

Boggabri to St George (398km)

Soon after leaving Boggabri we see a sign pointing to Gin’s Leap and pull over to find out more. A large rock face towers over the parking area. There’s also a family vault where the Grover Family who operated an inn on the site are buried.

Gin's Leap
Gin’s Leap outside Boggabri

The story behind the name ‘Gin’s Leap’ is a sad one. It refers to two young aboriginal lovers who ran away. They leapt to their deaths from the cliff above us because the girl was promised to someone else.

In Baan Baa village the welcoming looking Railway Pub offers donga accommodation. The weathered cottages (some abandoned) in this isolated place have plenty of character.

Cotton Country

After passing a turn off to Gun Club Road (only in country Australia!), we take the Newell Hwy to Narrabri. There, we buy wood for The Big Bash and a fly net from the Information Centre. If the flies in Birdsville are as plentiful as I’ve been led to believe, I’ll need the net.

Cotton Farming in Australia
Cotton Farm Dam Wall

We’re in cotton country now and the fields alongside the long straight flat road are being prepared for planting. At the Information Centre a display outlines the stages of cotton farming from soil preparation to harvest. I still have doubts about whether we should be farming cotton in a dry country like Australia.

We’ve passed sandy river beds with the occasional pool of water. Now we drive through little settlements with quaint names like Belatta (seemingly deserted) and Gurley where closed up buildings line the street opposite a grain silo. Only the Royal Hotel looks as if it may occasionally open.

Country NSW Towns
Abandoned
House in Country Australia
Someone Lives Here

Water Shortage

Three emus run away from the road as we continue on through Ashley, Garah and Boomi. Tumbleweed piles up against fences. Very few cars pass this way. As I drink the last of my bottled water, I realise that there’s no phone signal here.

We have packed our large water containers, but for some reason didn’t fill them. This attempt to keep weight down in the car was a silly decision. With no more water, I mentally run through our supplies. At a push, the 2litres of milk will do in an emergency.

Strong winds whistling through the trees blow up a dust storm. We are now in Queensland and stop at Talwood for a stretch, an ice-cream and to replenish our water at the General Store.

Thallon Painted Grain Silos
Silos at Thallon

Another spontaneous decision, to find the painted silo at Thallon, turns into a 23km diversion. Being the weekend, there’s no one around but a big sign warns tourists not to venture too close as the area is a “working area”. I ignore the sign.

Outside the Nindigully Pub in Thallon, there’s a great offer:

“Free Beer Yesterday”.

  • Accommodation: Balonne River Motor Inn
  • Dinner: Local Pub

St George to Charleville (388km)

After a toasted sandwich from The Bakery, we take a secondary road to Mitchell. Many dead kangaroos lie stiffly on the roadside. Those that have avoided the road graze unworried in the fields.

Here, the cattle look healthy.  Again, there’s no phone signal. The road is long and boring.

A Long Straight Road

Thank goodness we ate breakfast. The places I thought were towns – little yellow named squares on the map are actually homesteads. The little white circles indicate a population of less than 200 with no facilities.

We pass a car every ten minutes or so, the drivers greeting each other by raising the index finger from the steering wheel.

Isolated home in Country Australia
Still to be Lived In
Wind and Dust in Country Australia
Dust Storm

An emu almost steps in front of the car, before turning back to safety. Kangaroos bounce across the road.  A red and parrot flies past. The soil is also red.

Birds of prey hang in the air. Cattle graze in the heavy heat. Dunkeld offers a Golf course, School and Tennis courts but nothing else. No sign of life.  

We pass four or five goshawks. And a farmer wearing a flannelette shirt and floppy blue hat leaning on a stick, his quad bike nearby. Then more cows and a letterbox in the form of a cow.

General Store in Talwood
Shop in Talwood
Hotels in Outback Australia
Talwood Hotel

Someone has killed a dingo and hung it’s carcass by the back legs from a tree. This is the second one I’ve seen strung up like this.

In Mitchell, we find more than one pub. Two are for sale. In the main street, mosaics of birds, insects and farm references decorate the pavement. I buy some nice fudge for the car.

Mosiac in Mitchell
Main Street of Mitchell

Folk come to the Big Red Bash from all over Australia. The traffic to Birdsville is steadily increasing. I try to guess which vehicles are on their way to The Bash.  

Morven, a small outback town on Warrego Way has a population of less than 300. There, in a park is a hut made from flattened kerosene tins. It’s a tribute to the folk of the 1930s Great Depression, who improvised with what they had.   

Driving Outback Australia
Isolation
Thallon Motors

Whitewashed foundations outside Charleville form a heritage site. In 1866 there was a meatworks on this site. Later it was converted to a wool scour. The windmill over the road clunks rhythmically as the sails rotate round and round.

The water tower in Charleville forms the backdrop for another artwork, This time in shades of black and white. You can read all about the Great Artesian Basin here.

Heritage Site outside Charleville
Charleville Heritage
Artesian Basin and Water Tower Charleville
Painted Water Tower Charleville
  • Accommodation: Warrego Motel
  • Dinner: Local RSL

Charleville to Windorah (485km)

Ice on the windscreen this morning doesn’t bode well for camping. I hope we’ve brought sufficient warm bedding.

Indicators on the side of the road announce “Road Subject to Flooding”. It’s hard to imagine this area under water. In flood, roads are often closed.

Driving in the outback means taking precautions, including not driving between sunset and sunrise when time kangaroos are most active.

Large Stations in the Australian Outback few towns
No Town
Rusty cars in the Australian Outback make for target practice
Target Practice

While I’m pleasantly surprised at how little litter there is, we do pass rusted out cars. And this time a live dingo. I think that’s the first dingo I’ve ever seen in the wild.

Fox Trap Roadhouse

The Fox Trap Roadhouse at Coolaadi is a pleasant place to stop. The woman behind the counter explains the name. Mr Fox used to own the roadhouse. He served beer etc to the shearers on a Friday night and all through the weekend. Wives berated him for “trapping the shearers”.

Our toasted sandwich and coffee hit the spot. When I tell the proprietor about the dingo she asks where we saw is as she would have “got her gun”. Dingos are in plague proportions.

Cooladi Roadhouse
Fox Trap Roadhouse
Kerosene Cottage from The Depression years 1930s
Kerosene Cottage

Tusks and horns from wild pigs and goats line the walls. When I say that we haven’t seen road kill since Charleville and she explains that there aren’t any `roos because of the drought.

On the road again, we pass more galahs and many birds of prey, some eating the carrion on the side of the road.

Quilpie is a quiet town with wide streets. At the pop-up market, in what was once the Drapery and Haberdashery General Store, women have set up tables of wares – second hand goods, crafts and home-made goodies. I buy some pumpkin bread (a sweet bread).

Here, we stand out as “city folk”. The way we dress and carry ourselves is different. But locals are friendly and welcome visitors. They are suffering in the drought, and any income from tourism is warmly welcomed.

Quilpie Opals
Opals in Quilpie
Old Stores of Quilpie
Haberdashery in Quilpie

One question that passes through my mind is “What is the definition of the outback?”. Here, there’s red soil and dirt with no growth under the bushes, and yet looking out across the tops of the bush, it’s green as far as the eye can see. Then the landscape changes again.

Fifty kilometres from Windorah signs indicate that the road is also an emergency airstrip. There’s no parking on either side of the road, but there is an overtaking opportunity.

  • Another sign – “No shooting on Town Common”.

Stopping for a break at Coopers Creek where there’s plenty of water, I take time to watch the water birds and pelicans. A few people “free camp”. There’s even a house boat.

Picnic spot Morven
Picnic Spot (not Coopers Creek)
Free Camping At Coopers Creek
Coopers Creek

Then the whining sound of a drone upsets the peace. The birds disperse, frightened by the sound.

At the entrance to Windorah, there’s a solar farm with five big dishes. Opened in 2008, the plant was supposed to produce 180kw of electricity for about 10 months of the year. My husband comments that they are pointing in the wrong direction.

Windorah Pub
Opposite the Pub in Windorah

Now, I’m sitting outside the Windorah Pub, having a drink with our friends who have just arrived. The moon is nearly full and as the sun sets, the sky is a palette of pastel pinks and blues in the east and oranges behind the bare branches of a dead tree in the west.

  • Accommodation Windorah Pub
  • Dinner: Windorah Pub

Windorah to Birdsville and Big Red (379km + 35km)

We wake before sunrise, expecting the drive to Birdsville to take about five hours. The town comes alive, campervans already lining up for fuel. It will be a busy run in to Birdsville.

Wanting to camp at the Big Red Bash as a group, we must arrive at Big Red together. Our convoy of four cars sets off, the soft sky gradually lightening.

Water lies around in pools in the surrounding countryside. We pass a field of yellow flowers (Canola?). Birdsville was cut off by floodwaters not too long ago and we’re seeing wildflowers and the remains of the flooding.

Cattle spread out grazing in the open plain, a calf feeding. The beautiful soft light makes me wonder why we don’t leave at this time every day.

On the Way to Birdsville
Road to the Big Red Bash
Beware of Stones

We overtake a heavy 4×4 white truck with tough wheels and high clearance. It’s the Outback Mail Run. How I’d like to be in that truck, delivering mail to far flung stations, meeting the people who live in such isolation.  

The Road to Birdsville

Finally, we’re on the road to Birdsville. The countryside is flat now, with low hills in distance. There’s unexpected greenery from the recent rains. Soon we’ll hit the dirt road.

No traffic comes towards us, everyone is going to Birdsville. The weird haze on horizon is the start of the dirt road. The road is stony but wide. We rumble and jostle, bump, shudder and shake along at a much slower pace.

Past the Innaminka turn off the road briefly becomes smooth black bitumen.  A palpable silence descends on us. The reason for the bitumen soon becomes clear. This section of the road is an emergency airstrip.

Deon’s Lookout
Betoota Hotel
Betoota

Soon we’re back on the rough road, with the accompanying noise. Dust from the stream of vehicles ahead reduces visibility considerably.  Graders and a water tank spray water on the road to keep the dust down.

Two galahs fly off. Cattle, spread out in this barren stony landscape, nibble at tufts of new grass. At Deon’s Lookout, we have a quick break to take in the view of the long road ahead. The cold wind keeps our stop short.  

Another diversion takes us past Betoota (Population 0). The hotel (all that’s there) isn’t open for business. Something about a license not granted in time for the Big Bash. But campers did spend the night here last night.

Back on the ‘main’ road, we pass a rainbow serpent, but there’s no time for a proper look as we’re meeting others in Birdsville. A better description for this dirt road, would be a stony road.

Wheels and Dust

Queensland Drilling Services has an exploratory (I think) drilling operation here in the middle of nowhere. We pass a tow truck hauling a pop-up caravan onto its tray. The van has lost a wheel. That’s a horrible start to the Big Bash.

Rainbow Serpent
Dust on the road to Birdsville and The Big Red Bash
So Much Dust

Walking back to their dusty car parked on the side of the road, a man and woman swat repeatedly at flies. It looks like my new fly net will come in handy.

The stream of vehicles throws up a cloud of dust ahead of us. The landscape changes again. We’re coming into sand dune country. The road crests over small red dunes dotted with green scrub.

Oh dear. Our friends just ahead of us pull off the road. They have a puncture. The other two cars are ahead and haven’t realised. We can’t contact them as again there’s no phone service out here.

Puncture mended, we drive on, the landscape changing yet again. Mostly a flat floodplain the earth is rocky now over red earth. Then suddenly plains of greenery appear.

Avoid the Queues in Birdsville for the Big Red Bash
No More Queues in Birdsville

Arriving at Birdsville at around midday of the first day of the Big Red Bash is painless. The expected crowds have left for the bash already. There are no queues. Yesterday there were queues for petrol, queues to pick up tickets and queues for last minute supplies.

We grab a coffee, get our wristbands and full up with petrol. All easy as. Missing a little of the first day of the Big Red Bash (including the successful record attempt for the biggest Nutbush Dance) is worth it in my mind. This is so easy.

Our convoy snakes out of Birdsville towards Big Red, a huge red sand dune 38km outside of Birdsville. A mirage ahead tricks me. With all the water around, I thought it was real.

Setting up Camp at The Big Red Bash

As we’ve arrived late and are in a big group, we’re directed to set up camp out the back. This year the crowd is bigger than anticipated. We’re outside the allocated camping area and far from the toilets and other facilities.

This is in fact it a blessing in disguise. We’re less crowded than other campers and look out onto the expanse of the outback. Having set up camp, we carry our chairs to the music area to enjoy what’s left of the day’s program.

Seating at The Big Red Bash
A Trolley Would be Useful

Sitting near the back and towards the side means we can find our group more easily, and yet we can still enjoy the music. Regulars have learnt – many pull trolleys loaded with chairs and eskies.   

The Big Red Bash

Apart from enjoying great music out in the open and miles from nowhere, there’s plenty to do at the Big Red Bash. There’s the walk up the sandy slope of Big Red for a bit of exercise, and birds eye view of the campsite and across the outback to the horizon. There are camel and helicopter rides if you like that sort of thing.

There’s camaraderie and friendship. It’s a family crowd, everyone smiles and I don’t see any animosity or agro. There are amazing sunrises and sunsets, a fashion show, an air guitar competition and plenty more. All out in the open under the ‘shadow’ of Big Red.

Up at the top of Big Red, those who can’t manage without technology for a few days find a semblance of a signal, talk to family, get active on social media and take selfies.

Big Red a sand dune in outback Queensland
One Bar on the top of Big Red

Preferring to stay tech free for a few days, I walk further, happy to find wildflowers and tiny tracks made by creatures who manage to live in this hostile environment.

The Drag Race

The Big Red Bash Drag Race raises money for the Royal Flying Doctor’s Service. Men dress up in drag, then ‘drag’ themselves to the top of Big Red and on the starter’s, gun run down the dune to the finish line. Some take it seriously, but for most it’s a time for fun and to give back to an essential and valuable service.

The Big Red Bash Drag Race
Walking To The Start

Today is hot and I hope none of these obviously unfit men, trudging up the slope dressed up in their finery has a heart attack and needs the service for which they are raising funds.

Sunrise at The Bash

When I wake up after a snug night in the tent, crowds of people have already climbed Big Red waiting for the sunrise, their stick insect like figures standing out against the lightening sky. Like the Drag Race, this (and early morning yoga on Big Red) I discover is a ritual, one I’m too late to join.

This morning there’s a partial eclipse of the moon I walk into the ‘paddock ‘ behind our tents to watch the light show around me. As the sun rises in the east the sky pales while in the west, the colours change from pastel blues, then rich pinks and mauve fading to blues.

Leaving The Big Red Bash Early
Early Morning at The Big Red Bash

In the west, the full moon is a globe of light, its intensity fading as the sky brightens and the pinks fade away. Opposite in the east the fiery sun rises slowly above the horizon and the 7:30am helicopter ride breaks the peace.

The Temperature at The Big Red Bash

While the nights are crisp and cold, the days are hot (for winter) with the temperature rising to at least the Mid 20s. There’s no shade. I wear a Texan hat that I recently won and don’t look out of place amongst the other broad brimmed hats, many well-loved and shaped from years of use.  

Watching and listening to music here, in the Australian Outback is a very special experience. The music is great, but being one of the huge crowd of people attending the Big Red Bash is something else entirely.

First Timer’s Thoughts on The Big Red Bash

Many volunteers work hard to make this event run as smoothly as it does. It’s very well organised and there’s a role for everyone, from the folk who direct traffic to the dunny angels who make sure the facilities are clean and always supplied with paper and hand sanitiser.

The Australian Anthem from the top of Big Red. Also sung in indigenous language
Preparing for the Anthem
Big Red above the smoky campsite
Big Red

With thousands of people all camped in a relatively small space, finding your campsite can be difficult, during the day as well as in the dark. A torch is essential for getting back to your campsite at night.

A high-flying flag makes a good campsite marker. As Australian Flags are everywhere, something more unusual may be a better idea.

Food trucks provide a change from the provisions that we’ve brought with us as well as cold drinks which prove very refreshing in the hot sun. 

The dust is something I didn’t expect. There’s everywhere. It gets in my eyes, in my nose and down my throat. The buffs have sold out, and I regret leaving mine at home. I wrap my scarf around my face for some protection.

Food at Big Red Bash
Food Trucks

My shoes are runners with mesh uppers. They act like a sieve and the sand pours in. Walking boots would have been better. During the day I wear T-shirts and plenty of sunscreen. Next time, I’ll bring long sleeved shirts for sun protection. At night I wear multiple layers and beanies.

Big Red to Birdsville (35km)

As we’ve an unpowered site booked at Birdsville Caravan Park, we’re in no rush to join the stream of cars leaving the campsite. I walk to the top of a nearby dune to watch the cars slowly exit. Between 700 and 900 leave each hour.

Wildflowers in the outback
Wildflowers
Insects in the outback
Insect Trails

By around 10am, we’ve packed up the tent and loaded the car and after farewelling our friends, join the queue which moves slowly but steadily towards the exit. The run to Birdsville is easy and after setting up camp, we have our first delicious shower in four days.

Reminiscing with other Bashers

Over a beer and steak sandwich at the Birdsville Pub, we chat with two volunteers from The Bash. When passing through Birdsville on a road trip, they heard about The Big Red Bash and quickly changed plans and signed up as volunteers.

One volunteered with the merchandising side of things while the other helped out with marshalling. Bursting to share their stories, we chat for some time.

They tell us that the Royal Flying Doctor Service had four call outs. Three were heart attacks and the fourth a chap who drank a homebrew and was in a critical condition.  

Birdsville fills up after the Big Red Bash
Streaming into Birdsville
Birdsville Hotel
After the Big Red Bash

There is a positive buzz in the air, with so many people having experienced something rather special together. We walk through Birdsville and along the river where debris from the flood is trapped in branches above our heads. It’s difficult to imagine that only recently water flooded this area.

While having dinner at the Birdsville Hotel, we hear stories of flat tires, broken windscreens and a 4×4 pulling a caravan rolling. Driving a 4×4 on these roads needs preparation and skill. Apparently, there are 4×4 driving courses. We should do one before our next outback road trip.

Plenty of Water in Birdsville
(for now)
Birdsville Caravan Park
Camping by the River

Back at our tent, the night sky is beautiful and clear. The milky way stands out like I have never seen it before. I recognise the “Dark Emu” (the dark cloud between the stars) as described in the book by Bruce Pascoe.

  • Accommodation: Birdsville Caravan Park
  • Dinner: Birdsville Hotel

Birdsville to Windorah (397km)

Striking camp and packing the car is getting easier now. Everything has a place and it’s easy to remember where things are. Some things we won’t bring again, and next time we’ll use firm boxes for storage.

Staying a night in Birdsville doesn’t really avoid the traffic. While half the Bash folk left yesterday, the other half are leaving today. As we turn onto the road to Windorah a cloud of dust greets us from the stream of vehicles ahead, many towing caravans.

Busy Road to Windorah
Driving to Windorah

Accepting that it will be a slow drive to Windorah we settle in. It’s too dangerous to go much more than 75km/hr especially as we’re also driving into the sun. It feels as if the corrugations in the road are shaking my teeth out.

This drive is completely different the one a few days ago. The dust is dreadful. A man overtakes dangerously.  Then we pass a stopped vehicle, the driver changing a tyre. I am glad we have a couple of spares.

Fortunately, we arrive in Windorah with no punctures. After a 20-minute wait for petrol we check into our room. There’s time before dinner for a walk around the town and visit to the local museum.

  • Accommodation: Windorah Pub
  • Dinner: At the Pub

Windorah to Quilpie (246km) then Toompine (78km)

Leaving Windorah, a sculpture depicting a family of emus bids us goodbye. Many people had the same idea as us and spent the first night after the Bash in Birdsville and the next in Windorah. The road is busy.

At least the tarred surface means that there’s no dust.

Corellas, pink underwing fly up in front of the car as we slow down to allow faster vehicles to pass. The friendliness of the Big Red Bash is waning as people head home. Few motorists thank you or even acknowledge that we pulled over for them.

Getting Petrol at Windorah
Refueling at Windorah

Ahead, what I think is a rusted car wreck turns out to be a big bloated and very dead cow. We drive on. Somehow, it’s more shocking than the hundreds of dead kangaroos we’ve seen on the roadside. 

The long straight road encourages my thoughts to wander about country life, about life on the land and how different our lives are.  

We stop to observe two brolgas in the distance. By the time I’ve focused my binoculars, they’ve walked away down the slope to the water.

A Change of Plans

Looking at the map and the distances we’re travelling each day, I suggest cancelling our booking in Quilpie and take a different route. It will cut 110km off tomorrow’s drive.  

I call the Toompine Hotel to check if they have a vacancy. The man on the other end of the phone isn’t sure if he has room. When I say there are only two of us, he finds us a room with an outside shower and toilet.

In Quilpie, we stop for coffee and a late breakfast and stroll through the town. A sign in the Information Centre window advertises a polocrosse event in Toompine. All the more reason to go there.

Baldy Top Lookout Rainbow Serpent
Leading to Baldy Top
The Outback views from Baldy Top near Quilpie
View from Baldy Top

Baldy Top Lookout outside of Quilpie provides panoramic views to the horizon. This land is so vast. It would be easy to get lost out here.

Polocrosse at Toompine

Vehicles pulling horse floats pass us, going in the opposite direction. We wonder if the polocrosse competition is over. It isn’t. The final match between Toompine and Charleville is in progress as we pull up, and we make a beeline for the pitch.

Even though we have no understanding of the game, it’s easy to see that the players have excellent horsemanship and skill with their racquets.

Polocrosse championship at Toompine
Toompine vs Charleville
Polocross championship at Toompine
Polocrosse at Toompine

The reporter from the local rag spots us a mile away as outsiders. The pink feather (from the Drag Race) in my Texan hat gives us away as having come from The Bash. We answer his questions to “help pad his story out”. 

Toompine: A Pub without a Town

Toompine is known as a “pub without a town”. Rocket, the Licensee gives us the keys to our room. We’re staying in the Toompine Terraces, a simple donga with an outdoor (literally – there’s no roof) shower and loo.

I’m not sure what Rocket meant when he said he’d check if he was full. There’s no one else staying the night.

Pub without a Town Toompine
Toompine Terraces
Pub in Toompine
Toompine Hotel

After the polocrosse, we walk to the cemetery. The misspelled sign points to the “Cemery” where a few people are buried including two children aged 2 and 4 and a camel driver.

I have since read that the sister of one of the children carved the sign to the Cemetery and misspelled it.

The generous dinner at Toompine is a choice between a nice T- bone (my husband) and grilled fish (me). Afterwards we sit at the bar over a few nightcaps hearing stories from Rocket about how he ended up in this Pub without a Town.

Cemery or Cemetery in Toompine
The ‘Cemery’
  • Accommodation: Toompine Hotel
  • Dinner: Toompine Hotel

Toompine to Bourke (480km)

We have a long drive today and are up and ready at 7. Rocket is nowhere to be seen. The backpacker is sweeping inside behind a locked door. No one else is up yet to make us our promised coffee. We give her our keys and leave.

A hand painted sign on the side of the road warns of “black cattle on road”. With the roads unfenced, black cattle can’t be easily seen against the black bitumen.  

Eulo

Outside Eulo, we stop at the Mud Springs. A herd of wild goats run off. Interpretive signs explain more about the area. The river gum is in flower attracting bees. We’ve seen a paddock of bee hives on the side of the road.

Mudsprings outside Eulo
Mud Springs
Outback Bees for honey from Eulo
Bees in the Outback

After a quick look around in Eulo, we drive on to Cunnamulla. Bullet holes riddle road signs. Cars line up for fuel. We find a different petrol station. The water tower opposite the station is painted in a similar manner to that in Charleville.

A sign on the counter tells customers not to ask for a tab or a book. The proprietor says too many people aren’t paying for their petrol these days. Times are tough.

On the way to Bourke, we help a couple from Mittagong change a tyre. They’ve also been to the Big Bash. Flies swarm around me, getting into my nose, ears and mouth. I retreat to the car.

Flowers in the Outback
Field of Flowers

At Barringun Roadhouse we enjoy some apple pie and ice cream with the cup of tea that we serve ourselves from the urn. A three-day old orphaned lamb clambers at the door wanting to get in.

Barringun Roadhouse
Fuel at Barringun
Fuel Too

In the last few days, I’ve become lulled into the more relaxed country way of life. Now the flashing lights of a school zone jolt me back to my reality.  

Bourke

Bourke, bigger than Cunnamulla, has some beautiful old buildings in the town centre.

A paddy wagon circles the town. A man yells out in the street. Shutters are down over shop windows. Metal cages protect other shop windows.

Acting on a suggestion to attend the Kidman Campfire Sessions, we settle into our motel room in Bourke and then make the short drive out of town to the Kidman Campground. It’s dusk and we drive slowly, on the lookout for kangaroos.

Heritage Hotel
Bourke Post Office

Chloe and Jason entertain us with bush poetry and song, and feed us a nice slow cooked meal. The show is a highlight of our trip, and a great way to spend an evening under the stars.

  • Accommodation: Darling River Motel
  • Dinner: Kidman Campfire Sessions

Bourke to Narrabri (415km)

The outback is changing. Last night Jason mentioned how Bourke is a shadow of what it was 20 years ago. That got me thinking – how tourism is important and yet brings problems with it.  

I have heard that “people are loving the outback to death”. Apparently, visitors (especially campers) don’t realise the impact they have when they compact the soil around trees or when they camp near an animal’s water source.

A large group of emus run away at the sound of our car. Dry balls of tumbleweed pile up against fences. We’re back in cotton growing country and sheep farming country.

Brewarrina

For the first time there’s litter on the roadside. The sun glints off glass bottles and numerous plastic drink bottles are strewn across the ground from about 20km outside of Brewarrina.

Having read “Dark Emu” by Bruce Pascoe, I’m keen to see the fish traps in Brewarrina. The Aboriginal Cultural Centre runs the tours. Our guide explains that “the river is like our blood. It flows”,

Aboriginal Community of Brewarrina
Aboriginal Artwork in Brewarrina
Need a tour to understand the Brewarrina Fish Traps
A Tour of the Fish Traps

He goes on to explain that the river was dry three weeks ago. Today there’s some water in the river because it was let out upstream recently.

The fish traps are fascinating and yet as with all things, local politics intervened, allowing a weir to be built affecting the water flow.

There’s a large Aboriginal Community here. The Aboriginal people we meet in the street greet us readily and say “G’day”. Our guide mentions that ice is a problem. The shops are boarded up.

Walgett

Next, we stop in Walgett where the windows of Cafe 64 are covered in sheets of plywood. It’s a café run by “people of all abilities” and we go there to support the initiative. I buy an Aboriginal print to remind me of this road trip.

Stone’s Throw, the other café and gift shop in Brewarrina has almost tripled in size since we were here 3 years ago. It’s like any gift shop and café that you’ll find on Sydney’s North Shore.

Fish and Chips in Walgett
In Walgett
Cafe 64 All abilities cafe in Walgett
Cafe 64

We take a slow drive through Burren Junction. Nearby about 40 caravans have settled in at the bore baths. Out in the open with little shade, and only a smallish pool filled with warm artesian water it doesn’t appeal to me at all

After a quick drive through Wee Waa we soon drive into Narrabri.

  • Accommodation: Crossroads Motel
  • Dinner: The Motel

Narrabri to Sydney (524km)

On the home run now, we’re retracing our route out of Sydney. This time, we won’t take the back roads. Since yesterday the traffic has been gradually increasing as we return to more populated areas. It feels strange – after hardly seeing a car for days, now there are many.

A Long Way from the Outback now

Towns are closer together and there are more buildings and obvious signs of habitation. Farms are smaller now. Instead of huge stations with single large letter boxes alongside a long driveway (the homestead not visible), now lanes on side roads have numerous letterboxes in a row.

Where once we drove through sandy fields or plains with sparse vegetation, now there’s golden grass, some greenery and ploughed fields. There’s less roadkill and wide lane marked roads.

On approaching Gunnedah, a sign tells us that to drive carefully as Koalas are killed by vehicles here. These deaths, while sad, are miniscule compared to the huge numbers of koalas and other animals that died in the recent devastating fires.

Coal and Gas Mining

After stopping at Gunnedah for coffee and breakfast we drive on. Cockatoos and Galahs feed on the roadside. As we wait at a rail crossing for a freight train, I count the wagons filled with coal. There are 83 being pulled by 3 engines.

Poignantly, we pass protest signs on fences and in front yards saying “No Gas”. One in large letters states “OMG MINE YOUR FOOD BOWL”. People here are angry at the mining activity.

On the way home from The Big Red Bash
Fences and Greenery

In the distance, the Great Dividing Range comes into view. Dust swirls behind a moving tractor. It’s a slow drive through quaint Quirindi nestled in the foothills. We see horses, alpacas, sheep, cattle and windmills.

No Stopping on the Home Run

We pass through Willow Tree with its cafe’s and then begin the climb and descent over the Great Dividing Range. Murrundi, in the Upper Hunter, looks like a lovely little town. What a pity we’re fast getting into “city” mode and don’t have the time to stop.

Blandford is not much more than a few country homes and a fuel station /workshop doubling up as a general store and in Wingen, we stop hoping for a cuppa at the Wingen Tea Rooms, but they are closed.

Instead, we mosey around the Burning Mountain Antiques store. Collectables from large pieces of second hand furniture to the smallest items of cutlery fill a number of rooms.

Letterboxes on a Road Trip in Australian
Population Density Increases as we Drive

In Parkville we do manage a nice hot pot of tea with scones and jam and cream. Now the road is really busy with lots of trucks. I’ve noticed a few small rectangular buildings beside the railway line, each one with various birds painted on the brick wall.

Red parrots decorated one, and an eagle graced another.

We pass a Cheese Factory on the outskirts of Muswellbrook without stopping. My driver is on a roll, wanting to get home.  

Final Thoughts on a Sydney to Birdsville Roadtrip

This road trip from Sydney to Birdsville and the Big Red Bash has been a real adventure, one that will live on in my memory for a long time. I have so much respect for the folk who make (eke out) their living in the outback. Through this road trip I could do something to support the towns we passed through and those where stayed the night. 

Comments

  1. Just fabulous account of your trip Joanne! Your story greeted me when I woke up and I so enjoyed your adventures as I drank my early morning cup of tea. What an adventure it was! And I agree with you …. as well as seeing and experiencing the outback it is giving something to the people and towns out there. I spent last year travelling ( by train and coach) to country towns in NSW and so enjoyed it . Hope to do more this year . Keep up your travels it is a joy to read about them!

    1. Author

      Thank you, Patricia. I’m hooked on road trips now, and plan to visit fire affected towns later in the year.

  2. Thanks for your efforts with this trip. You made me feel like I’d gone along for the ride with you!

  3. i really enjoyed this one jo. brings back many memories of camping in the outback. not sure i will ever do it again though! xxx

    1. Author

      Hi Lynda, Glad you enjoyed it. I love it when my travels bring back memories for my readers. And while you may not camp again, there are plenty of places to stay on a road trip to the outback. Some more basic than others. The Big Red Bash was such fun and the camping actually not too bad. Three nights enough though.

  4. Joanne, I only recently read an article about dingoes hanging in trees. So I went looking. This may interest you: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-09-03/dead-dogs-why-are-they-being-strung-up-on-trees/8867584

    I was also pondering your comment about campers packing down the ground. It reminded me of our recent road trip around Longreach/Winton (we flew up) where it was pointed out that more and more campers are ‘free camping’. They have all their facilities in their van or motor home and do not need to be at a camp site. This not only does not contribute as much to local communities, it does not contribute to the local businesses who are running camp sites. Though I know many become very crowded. It’s a double edged sword in my opinion. Don’t use the facilities, they become run down for lack of patronage, use the facilities they become jam packed full at certain times of the year.

    1. Author

      Thank you, Valerie, that’s an interesting article. And your comment about the double edged sword is so true. Folk I know free camp and spend very little in the communities they pass through apart from buying petrol and occasional supermarket shopping. But then, they are pensioners and have little spare cash.

  5. A really interesting read, what an epic adventure. I really must get out west a bit from here, even just to Brewarrina to see the fish traps.

    1. Author

      Thanks Seana. The fish traps at Brewarrina are interesting, but anywhere out west is worth visiting.

  6. What an amazing road trip. So interesting to see the farms, small towns, wildlife and magnificent scenery from desert to mud springs and fields of flowers. The Big Red Bash looks like it was loads of fun. Would love to do such a trip. Thanks for your great writing and photographs Jo.

    1. Author

      It was a fun road trip, Bernadette. If this post encourages you and others to get in the car and take a drive, making the trip the journey, not the destination, then I have achieved my goal.

  7. Hi Jo
    Really enjoyed your outback trip and reminded me so much of our caravaning in outback OZ and often the swarms of flies when trying to eat. You definitely need to do a lot of walking to walk off all the devonshire teas and big meals that are served when visiting the pubs and clubs but usually very good food. Keep tripping Jo particularly around Australia it is a big country.
    Wally and Meg

    1. Author

      Thanks Wally and Meg, you’re right about the need to walk off the big meals. And who can go past a lovely country Devonshire Tea? I’m already planning two more road trips this year – a short break to fire affected areas and then a longer road trip to Victoria. Should be fun.

Leave a Comment