Adventure, dust and partying at Australia outback horse races

Glenda KWEK
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During the annual races, now in their 136th year, the Queensland town of Birdsville hosts more than 6,000 racegoers who travel days and weeks to watch the "Melbourne Cup of the outback"

A small desert town in Australia's remote outback was transformed into a non-stop two-day carnival as thousands of people travelled across the vast continent to watch the Birdsville Races.

Lonely Birdsville, on the edge of the Simpson Desert in Queensland state, some 1,900 kilometres (1,180 miles) north-west of Australia's largest city Sydney, boasts a resident population of just over 100 people.

But during the annual races -- now in their 136th year -- the isolated town hosts more than 6,000 racegoers who travel days and weeks on bumpy dirt roads or fly in on small, private planes to watch what has been dubbed the "Melbourne Cup of the outback."

"It took us eight days to get here. We camped out every night in camper trailers," said Wendy Cooper, who travelled 3,800 kilometres from Western Australia state across the harsh Nullarbor Plain desert with family and friends.

"Fantastic adventure. Rough roads but it's all just worth it," she told AFP.

Despite the heat, dust and flies, many racegoers dressed up for the occasion, with the watching crowds decked out in striking summer dresses, cowboy hats and boots and matching shirts.

With just one hotel in Birdsville, the vast majority of visitors sleep in caravans, or pitch tents outside the centre of town.

Some even set up camp underneath the wings of their aircraft parked at the local airport.

Birdsville Race Club president David Brook, who also owns the hotel, told AFP visiting his town had become a must-do on Australians' bucket list, with having a sense of adventure a key requirement.

"We're 1,600 kilometres from our capital city (Brisbane). It's unique in that it's very hard to get to," Brook said.

From early morning to late at night the usually quiet main street turns into a hive of activity, with throngs of revellers gathering outside the heritage-listed Birdsville Hotel, which doubles as the sole pub.

After sundown, revellers keen to see some more sport pack out a large tent, where audience members can challenge the members of a travelling boxing troupe to a fight in front of cheering spectators.

The travelling show, billed as the last of its kind and run by veteran boxer Fred Brophy, visits Birdsville annually during the races and is one of the main attractions.

This year's races have taken on special significance amid a severe drought plaguing the eastern states of Queensland and New South Wales, and half of the bets placed on the races were to be donated to stricken farmers and communities.

It was also the first time all the races were broadcast live on TV racing channels, while spectators got a chance to take photos with the Melbourne Cup trophy, one of the world's most well-known races held in the southern city in November.