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Birdsville, QLD

Iconic outback town famous for the Birdsville Races

It is so far from the coast, and so intensely isolated, that Birdsville has become a byword for the Australian outback. It is a tiny township - really nothing more than a village - on the edge of the Simpson Desert on a road which effectively goes nowhere - apart from into the desert. Birdsville sits on the edge of the Simpson Desert and operates like some kind of mysterious magnet to people who want to go to the most isolated place on the continent. The current fascination with isolated places has meant that a regular stream of 4WD adventurers, all determined to travel the 500 km of the Birdsville track, pass through the town. This has been complemented by the Birdsville Races which attract over 8,000 people to the town for the two day race meeting.

Location

Located in Queensland near the borders with South Australia and the Northern Territory, Birdsville is on the edge of the Simpson Desert  over 1587 km west of Brisbane.

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Origin of Name

The first name for the town was Diamantina Crossing, a practical description of a place where travellers could cross the mighty Diamantina River. There are two possible explanations for the name: (1) it was named Birdsville because the owner of nearby Pandie Pandie Station was amazed by the diversity of birdlife attracted to the area when the river was in flood. It was not uncommon to see pelicans and seagulls in the region's salt lakes. (2) Percy Bird and George Field opened at store at the place and it became known as Birdsfield. In 1882 a consignment of goods was sent from Adelaide addressed, incorrectly, to Birdsville. The name stuck and became the accepted name for the tiny settlement.

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Things to See and Do

Wirrarri Visitor Information Centre
An ideal starting point with information and directions (all the buildings of significance are within walking distance) as well as a gallery, Aboriginal art, a library, internet access and local brochures. It is located at 29 Burt Street.

Australian Inland Mission Hospital
Located on Adelaide Street, the old Australian Inland Mission Hospital was established in the town in 1923. It was the first AIM Hospital in Queensland. At the time the AIM Hospital occupied a rough stone building which had been constructed in 1882 as the Royal Hotel, one of the town's first two pubs. It was bought by the AIM in 1923 and used as a hospital base for the Royal Flying Doctor. It was from this building that Birdsville's first pedal wireless broadcast occurred in 1929. The original building was replaced by a purpose-built, pre-fabricated hospital opened in 1937 on land purchased by the Presbyterian Church. The Queensland Heritage Register notes: "Located at the eastern end of the main street of Birdsville, Adelaide Street, the former Australian Inland Mission Hospital site comprises the hospital building, former Aboriginal ward, 'billiard room', water tanks, shed and new padre cottage. Of these, the hospital building, former Aboriginal ward and above ground corrugated iron tank and the in-ground concrete water tank are significant.
"The north-west facing hospital building is a rectangular structure with a gabled hip roof and is surrounded on three sides by enclosed verandahs. It is constructed on a steel frame with corrugated iron external walls, ripple iron verandah linings, Oregon pine joists and rafters, masonite and tilux internal walls, and caneite ceilings. The foundations and floors are concrete, with linoleum covering most internal floors.
"The hospital was designed especially for the inland. Ceilings are well insulated and low to afford maximum space between the ceiling and the iron roof, while air vents in the gables provide roof ventilation. Verandah ceilings have a gap at the eaves to permit air flow. The building is equipped with a cool storage cellar under the kitchen, an underground tank for rain (drinking) water and an above ground tank for town water, which was previously drawn from the Diamantina River and now from an artesian bore. On the roof at the rear of the building is a communications aerial." For more details refer to https://environment.ehp.qld.gov.au/heritage-register/detail/?id=602635.

Birdville Courthouse
Located in Adelaide Street, the Birdsville Court House "was erected between 1888-1890 and is part of a police and judiciary complex which continues in use to the present day, although other buildings on the reserve have been constructed and removed over time." The Heritage Register records the significance of the building. It "is rare as one of only three surviving masonry buildings in Birdsville, the others being the c1883 former Royal Hotel and the c1884 Birdsville Hotel. These contribute significantly to the historic character of the town." For more information check out https://environment.ehp.qld.gov.au/heritage-register/detail/?id=600460.

Royal Hotel
Located in Adelaide Street, the Royal Hotel was erected around 1883 and is an important link to the early development of the pastoral industry in Western Queensland. The Queensland Heritage Register notes: "The earliest section of the Royal Hotel is likely to have been constructed in 1883, as the first license for this hotel was issued to Alfred William Tucker in that year. In 1885 Tucker transferred the license to Johann H Groth, and on the official survey plan of 1885, the building is marked as Groth's hotel. On 25 January 1886, Groth secured his holding by the purchase of the allotment on which the hotel was located, for £260, and the unimproved allotment adjoining this to the south, for £10. Each block comprised 2 roods. Title to both blocks passed from Groth in 1898, but the building continued to function as an hotel under several proprietors and licensees until the early 1920s. Mrs Alice Maude Scott was the licensee and later owner from c. 1908 until at least 1920, when title passed to Harry Afford, station manager of Birdsville." From 1923-1937 it was the AIM Hospital. For more detailed information check out https://environment.ehp.qld.gov.au/heritage-register/detail/?id=600459.

Birdville Hotel
Birdsville's second pub, the Birdsville Hotel, was built in 1884-5. A simple, stone, single-storey building it is now listed by the National Trust. It has become something of a mandatory stopover point in the town. A symbol of the town. The Queensland Heritage Register notes: "The earliest section of the Birdsville Hotel is likely to have been constructed in 1883 [possibly from stone quarried at a site about 16 kilometres from the town], as the first license for this hotel was issued to William Blair in that year. On the official Birdsville town survey plan of mid-1885, the building is marked as Wm Blair's hotel. On 24 February 1886, Blair purchased from the Crown, for £206, the allotment at the corner of Adelaide and Burt streets which contained the hotel. A month earlier he had bought for £12 the allotment at the rear, which contained a fenced yard and had frontages to Burt & Graham streets; also an unimproved allotment adjacent to this, fronting Graham Street, for £8. Each block comprised 2 roods." and points out that "in 1905 a cyclone destroyed all of the structures on the site other than those constructed in stone. In 1964 the southeast corner of the building collapsed, also as a result of a cyclone. This section was reconstructed c1990-91, although not to original detail. A fire destroyed the front bar, also in 1964; this has been rebuilt. The major changes to the building have been the replacement of the front verandah, additions to the northern end, and reconstruction of the southeast section. Internally, no original finishes appear to exist as the floors have been laid in slate, walls plastered and painted, and ceilings altered. The building however retains its essential character." For more details check out https://environment.ehp.qld.gov.au/heritage-register/detail/?id=600461.

Birdsville Races
Each September crowds of up to 8000 people fly and drive into Birdsville for the annual Birdsville Races, which has been called 'the Melbourne Cup of the outback'. In the last 20 years it has become a legendary, outback event with a two day race meeting featuring up to 13 races. Historically the races were first held in 1882. There is an excellent website - http://www.birdsvilleraces.com - which points out that the racetrack is "Situated three kilometres to the South East of the town the track itself is on a claypan alongside the sand dunes. The track is 2000m in circumference with the longest race, 1600m Birdsville Cup starting in the back straight. All starts are on the course proper with the exception of the 1000m, which starts from a chute. Birdsville is one of four tracks in Queensland that run anti-clockwise." It also offers information about accommodation in the town at this very busy time. 

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Other Attractions in the Area

The Big Red Sand Dune
The Birdville Hotel website explains that "‘Big Red’ is the name given to a particular sand dune that marks the symbolic edge of the Simpson Desert. Situated approximately 35 kms east of Birdsville and on private property, Big Red (original name Nappanerica) stands well over 30 metres tall and is part of a series of around 1,140 parallel sand dunes stretching across the desert. The dune is red from rusting iron particles in the sand and provides a challenge for any 4WD enthusiast." It is seen as an essential experience for any 4WD owner who travels to Birdsville. The Simpson Desert is the world's largest area of parallel sand dunes and the top of Big Red is recognised as the best spot to watch the sunset over the desert. For more information check out https://birdsvillehotel.com.au/what-to-do/big-red-sand-dune-simpson-desert.

Simpson Desert Conservation Park and Regional Reserve
Located 65 km to the west of Birdsville the vast Simpson Desert Conservation Park covers approximately 690,000 hectares and is characterised by huge sand dunes which run parallel to each other and are separated by distances of anything from 200 to 600 metres. The average height of the dunes is 30 metres. Significantly there is no major river system in the park. This is classic arid desert terrain and vegetation. The dead heart of Australia. The National Parks South Australia website describes the desert as "Red dunes, salt-crusted lakes, vast stretches of grasslands, dense scrubland and tall stands of hakea and gidgee. Visit after the rains to see the spectacular colour show as the wildflowers bloom across the sand dunes." For more information check out https://www.environment.sa.gov.au/parks/find-a-park/Browse_by_region/flinders-ranges-outback/simpson-desert-conservation-park-regional-reserve.

Birdsville Track
There is no more famous outback road. Heading south from Birdsville the track covers 517 km to Marree in Western Australia and passes through the Simpson Desert and Sturts Stony Desert. It was developed in the 1880s as a stock route and has since become popular with 4WD enthusiasts, as it crosses some of the most arid and isolated territory in Australia. In recent times, with the rise of outback 4WD tourism, it has become popular in the winter months and the likelihood of being left in the harsh wilderness is now unlikely. Although about 100 km down the Track from Birdsville is a simple memorial to the Page family who in 1963, after their car had broken down on the road, tried to walk out. All five members of the family died. It is still not an area for risk taking and drivers should be well supplied.

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History

* Prior to the arrival of Europeans the area was sparsely populated by Aboriginal people from the Yarluyandi language group. The Simpson Desert was occupied by the Wangkangurru people.

* The first European explorer into the area was Charles Sturt (in 1845), after whom Sturt Stony Desert to the south-east of the town is named. Sturt described the area as a 'desperate region having no parallel on earth'. 

* The explorers Burke and Wills, with King and Gray, passed only a few kilometres from the present town site on their 1860 journey to the Gulf. Wills noted the large number of birds in the region.

* The Diamantina River was named in 1866 by the explorer William Landsborough who was honouring the wife of Queensland's first governor, Diamantina Roma Bowen.

* In 1876 a series of large stations - Pandie Pandie, Annandale, Glengyle and Roseberth were taken up.

* By 1877 Sandringham, Carcory and Haddon Downs were occupied.

* Dubbo Downs was occupied in 1878. 

* The Diamantina Shire was established in 1883.

* Birdsville became important in the 1880s when western Queensland property owners realised that moving cattle through the Channel country and down the Birdsville Track to the railhead at Marree, which had been opened in 1884, was the most efficient way to transport cattle to the coastal markets.

* The township of Birdsville was officially gazetted in 1885.

* By 1889 the town's population was 110 and the town had 2 general stores, 3 hotels, a police station, school, 2 blacksmith shops, 2 bakers, a cordial manufacturer, bootmaker, saddler, auctioneer & commission agent.

* By 1895 the town's population had reached 220.

* Pre-Federation Queensland established a customs collection point at Birdsville which was only 10 km from the border. 

* Birdsville's function as a border post disappeared with Federation in 1901 when interstate trade was removed. 

* In 1904 the old police station was destroyed by a violent storm.

* In 1923 the Presbyterian Australian Inland Mission leased the Royal Hotel and made it a bush nursing home.

* In August 1929 a pedal radio was installed at the AIM Hospital in the town.

* In 1930 the explorer Cecil Thomas Madigan named the Simpson Desert after Allen Simpson, president of the Royal Georgraphical Society of Australasia (South Australian branch).

* In 1936 the first successful crossing of Simpsons Desert was achieved with five camels.

* In 1937 a new AIM Hospital was opened in the town.

* In 1951 the AIM Hospital burnt down.

* In 1953 the headquarters for Diamantina Shire were moved from Birdsville to Bedourie.

* In 1962 the Simpson Desert Conservation Park was proclaimed as a national park.

* A new police residence was built in 1978.

* By 1982 the Birdsville Races were drawing crowds of over 5,000 people.

* A modern police station was opened in 1988.

* In 2005 the AIM Hospital closed.

* Birdsville currently has a population of about 100. 

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Visitor Information

Wirrarri Visitor Information Centre, 29 Burt Street, tel: (07) 4564 2000. Open from 8.30 am - 5.00 pm daily.

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Useful Websites

Queensland Tourism has a useful website. Check out https://www.queensland.com/en-us/destination%20information/birdsville.

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