Tucked away in far south-west Queensland lies the legendary outback town of Birdsville.
Marking the northern end of the famous Birdsville Track, this remote outpost and the surrounding region are steeped in pioneering history, and encapsulate the very essence of the outback and those who call it home.
The Birdsville Track stretches for 514 kilometres from Maree in South Australia, through the Strzelecki Ranges, and up to Birdsville. Whether you’re coming from Maree in the south, Windorah to the east, or Mount Isa from the north, travelling to Birdsville is a road trip like no other. It will be via dusty corrugated and rutted roads, and although they’re suitable for most caravans, motor homes and vehicles, care must still be taken. Before embarking on a road trip to Birdsville, it’s imperative to check the road conditions, as it doesn’t take much rain to dramatically change the integrity of the road surfaces or make them impassable. The Birdsville police are a very good source of information, as are the staff at the Birdsville Caravan Park.
This is a town that captured our hearts. As for so many travellers, it’s been a bucket list destination for many years and we feel very fortunate to have been able to experience this part of the Australian outback. We loved the challenge of the rough roads, the isolation, the interesting history and culture, and the people we met.
The best time to visit Birdsville is between March and October when the weather is generally cooler. Here are ten of the best things to do in Birdsville and beyond.
On arrival in town, drop into the Wirrarri Visitor Information Centre just off the main drag. It’s a useful introduction to the region. The centre incorporates a small museum and gallery, and not only will you get your bearings, but you’ll learn something about local Indigenous cultural heritage. You may end up spending longer here than you anticipate; however, a cold beer awaits!
What better way to relax and recover after a dusty road trip, than with an ice-cold brew at the historic Birdsville Hotel. This low-rise pub with a wrap-around awning was built in 1884 from local sandstone, and over the past 130 years has welcomed travellers from all over the world with its ambience and character. The walls are lined with photos and stories as colourful as the characters you’ll meet at the bar.
We had always wanted to visit this pub. It was like a magnet, and now we can proudly claim to have ‘had a beer at the Birdsville Hotel’. It’s a place where travellers share their experiences, friendships are formed and everyone has a good time. There are no airs and graces, and travellers from all walks of life come together for a taste of the very best in outback hospitality.
The Birdsville Bakery has to be one of the best known bakehouses in the country, and you cannot come to Birdsville without paying it a pastry-crumb-covered visit. It was first opened in 2004 by self-taught baker Dusty Miller. Dusty continued tempting visitors’ taste buds with his unusual and tasty pies right up until 2017, when the bakery had its first change of ownership. It was recently acquired by the owners of the Birdsville Hotel, who carried out a refurb and are keen to continue baking to the recipes of the original owner. That includes Dusty’s famous curried camel pies!
Formed by the winds of time, Big Red is a mighty sand dune 35 kilometres west of Birdsville. It’s the gateway to the Simpson Desert and the first of 1,140 dunes that stretch across the arid landscape. Whether passing through on a journey into the Simpson Desert, or on a day trip from Birdsville, Big Red attracts thousands of 4WD enthusiasts each year looking to test their skill by driving to the peak of the 40-metre-high ridge of sand.
From the top, you get a sense of how vast this region is. It’s actually hard to describe this place. It needs to be visited to truly understand and appreciate the desolate but breathtaking beauty of a desert that stretches as far as the eye can see.
Big Red was long on our bucket list, and while it’s a popular spot, we were absolutely amazed the day we went that there were no other 4WDs out there. How could this be? It’s unheard of! We had Big Red all to ourselves and a fabulous time taking photos and enjoying the solitude. Who knows, you might also be lucky.
Each year Birdsville and Big Red host arguably Australia’s most remote music festival. The Big Red Bash is held over three days during the July school holidays, and showcases some of the country’s best-known and most talented singers. Soak up the atmosphere and parched beauty of the setting, sing and dance, mingle with friends and make new ones against the backdrop of the most famous sand dune in Oz.
The purchase price of Big Red Bash tickets includes a fee to camp out at the event. There’s no glamour here or star-rated accommodation, but festival goers get to sleep under millions of them.
The town’s tiny population also swells in September as visitors from all over Australia descend on the region for the Birdsville Races, which are held on the first weekend of the month. It’s a tradition that began back in 1882. And while this may be the outback, the two-day event has everything you would expect from any race meeting: fashions on the field, colourful marquees, and a festive atmosphere. When the racing is over, everyone heads back to the Birdsville Hotel to toast their wins or wash away the disappointment of their losses.
If a step back in time appeals, take a walk along Adelaide Street in Birdsville to see the heritage-listed remains of the Royal Hotel. The sandstone structure is believed to have been built around 1883 as a hotel, but was leased by the Australian Inland Mission from 1927 to 1937 to house the first bush nursing hospital/mission in the region.
There is a strong connection between the mission and the establishment of Australia’s famous Royal Flying Doctor Service (originally known simply as the Flying Doctor Service). The mission was headed by Reverend John Flynn, who saw the need for those in the outback to receive the same level of medical care as those living in major towns. In 1928, he succeeded in founding an aeromedical service based in Cloncurry — and a legend of the outback was born.
Travel 17 kilometres north from Birdsville along the Developmental Road to see a stand of rare waddi trees. I had read about these unusual trees while researching our Birdsville visit and was keen to learn more about them. Waddis are one of Australia’s rarest plant species, and only found in a few specific places along the fringe of the Simpson Desert and in central Australia. They have spikey needle-like leaves and bark so hard it’s almost impossible to cut through. The trees are very slow-growing and have somehow adapted to this harsh environment.
These particular waddis have an intriguing link with our pioneering past. When the possessions of deceased transcontinental explorers Burke and Wills were recovered near the Dig Tree on the Queensland/South Australia border in 1861, waddi seeds were found in John Wills’ travel diary — confirming that the expedition had passed through this area.
Just outside Birdsville, you’ll find another link to Burke and Wills and their epic journey across the country from Melbourne to the Gulf of Carpentaria. The Burke and Wills Tree by the Diamantina River marks one of the last sites Burke and Wills made camp before their ill-fated return to the Dig Tree on what is now Nappa Merrie Station.
With water so scarce in the outback, any billabong or river teems with life — and the Birdsville Billabong is no exception. Located on the edge of the town, it’s a great spot to relax, picnic with family or friends, enjoy a dip, toss in a line or take in an outback sunset. The billabong is a bird watcher’s haven, and hosts a huge variety of bird species including, pelicans, kingfishers, ibis, swamp hens and falcons to name a few.
There is no shortage of places to stay in Birdsville. The Birdsville Hotel has recently refurbished its guest rooms, and you can enjoy a comfy bed and a range of amenities.
For those wanting to camp, there’s a free camping site two kilometres out of town by the Diamantina River. There are water taps but no other facilities, so you must be self-sufficient.
If you prefer a powered caravan site, the Birdsville Caravan Park is clean, tidy, and centrally located. The staff are friendly and welcoming, and have up-to-date knowledge and information on the condition of the roads leading in and out of town. The service station directly across from the caravan park stocks all the essentials and you can get a really good coffee!
Do you have any suggestions to add to our list of the best things to do in Birdsville? We would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.
Cover image: Tourism and Events Queensland. Additional images: Bigstock
Shez Tedford’s love of photography began twenty years ago when she discovered her first high country hut in the Victorian Alps. She has since camped out in all weather conditions to find and photograph huts, and has written a book showcasing these pioneering structures. Shez and her husband now travel fulltime and love exploring remote parts of regional Australia. She is just as happy in the arid and dusty outback as she is high up in the huts.