Itinerary: Driving the Birdsville Track and back in 8 days
What do 11 ladies, six cars and 1900 kilometers have in common? They’re the essential ingredients to the ultimate girls trip to the Birdsville Races in Outback Queensland.
Under the guidance of the unflappable Dave from Australian Offroad Academy, we drove 11 birds along the Birdsville track for an unforgettable day at the races.
If you’ve been wanting to tick the tarmac (or lack thereof) from Brisbane to Birdsville off your bucket list, why not try our itinerary? There’re delicious pies, ice-cold beers and award-winning CWA slices guaranteed!
All you need is eight days, a few friends and a reliable car to make your Birdsville dream less of a mirage and more of a reality.
DAY 1: BRISBANE TO BEGONIA (710.6 KM)
6:30AM: Prepare to leave Brisbane
Thelma and Louise may have had a Ford Thunderbolt, but this ladies only road trip was taking a motley crew of wheels.
Packing the cars took the best part of the morning, and we prepared each car with a jerry can, two spare tyres and enough drinking water to get us through the week. If you’re going with a trail leader like Australian Offroad Academy, they’ll help you safely prepare your car, which leaves you with more time to fuel up with breakfast and coffee before putting rubber on the road.
9:30AM: Morning Tea in Toowoomba
Food is a recurring theme in this itinerary and if you like acai bowls, paleo muesli and bulletproof coffees, best to walk 124-kilometers back to Brisbane because things get a little bit carby from this point on (no complaints here!).
Morning tea in Toowoomba is a no brainer – this pretty city holds the record for the World’s Largest Lamington (a whopping 2631kg) – which is as good a credential as any when it comes to baked treats and morning tea. We chewed with a view at Picnic Point, reflecting on the calorie to kilometre ratio installed for this trip.
12PM: Lunch in Goondiwindi
More than just a fun name to say, Goondiwindi is home to a cotton industry, a legendary horse called Gunsynd and what I rate the best hot chips of our outback adventure.
We ate a burger lunch at the Goondiwindi Motel, with a tasty menu and even better home-made slice selection.
4PM: Pit-stop at the Nindigully Pub
With a few (hundred) kilometres on the odometer, we officially arrived in the outback with a visit to the Nindigully Pub. Grand, old, and quintessentially Queensland, the Nindigully Pub is the state’s oldest watering hole, dating back to 1864.
If you’re still hungry after lunch, you can tackle their Road Train Burger – a record-breaking meal in its own right, with a 1.2kg beef patty served in a burger bun. We opted out of the burger and played with the resident Shetland pony instead – this was a girls trip, after all!
5PM: Cruise into St George
With a catch cry “codfish bigger than your boat”, St George is more than just a pretty town centre. It’s a fishing paradise for those inclined to cast a line. But we didn’t come here to catch cod; we’re here to see some emu eggs, and no visit to St George is complete without visiting Stavros Margaritis’ Unique Egg.
This chatty Greek immigrant carves emu eggs, unearthing the different colours and layers in the shell through his handcrafted designs.
If these eggs are good enough for Australia to gift to Barack Obama on his recent visit down under, they’re good enough to pay $5 to go into the gallery and see ourselves. With over 150 carved, illuminated eggs, it’s easy to spend an hour in the gallery, especially once Stavros starts chatting. It’s quirky – and that’s what we loved about the experience.
After a full day driving, checking into the shearers quarters and tucking into a campfire roast at Begonia was everything I expected and more of outback hospitality. Our host, Anne Young, quickly became the pin-up girl for our road trip – an inspiration for girl power – running a 14,000 acre beef cattle station solo while also operating a successful farm stay on the side. Did someone say multitasker?
Anne’s apple crumble and custard was worth the drive from Brisbane. My only regret was taking just the one serve.
DAY TWO: BEGONIA TO CUNNAMULLA (371.4 KM)
10AM: Driving Begonia to Bollon
From St George to Bollon, the landscape really starts to change and our first “red dirt alert” came down the two-way radio when we pulled out from St George. Not long after, the first sighting of an echidna made the convoy pull over and we ticked this photogenic-native off our bucket list.
12PM: Lunch at Bollon
From echidnas to emus, there’s no shortage of native animals to play “spotto” with when driving into Bollon. We had a picnic lunch at the Walter Austin Memorial Park on the banks of the river.
If you don’t pack your own lunch, there’s a sandwich bar across the road where $10 will get you a sanga and a drink. How’s that for country prices?
A full day of dusty driving leads to Cunnamulla, the largest outback town in the Paroo Shire. With over 1200 residents, Cunnamulla feels like a big city compared to the rest of the itinerary.
We took a tour with a local, Peieta Mills, who points out that Cunnamulla is a town with many strings to its bow. There’s no shortage of activities to keep busy with – between kayaking down the Warrego, sandboarding the Cunnamulla sand dunes or watching the some 215 native birds who call this area home.
We chose to keep busy eating at the Cunnamulla Boutique Hotel, an outback gem, serving up meals that do justice to the fresh produce you see grazing in Outback Queensland. Make no mistake, the sticky date pudding is delicious and definitely worth saving room to enjoy.
Overnight: Cunnamulla Boutique Motel
More than just a restaurant, the Cunnamulla Boutique Hotel has nine rooms to accommodate your stay, each with a fresh feel and finished to an impeccable standard.
DAY THREE: EULO TO INNAMINCKA (595.5 KM)
This road trip wasn’t all about cars, kilometres and calories, it was also about having a muddy good time at Eulo. This tiny township that consists of a pub, general store and petrol station, just happens to home to a spa treatment like no other – the Eulo Artesian Mud Baths.
It’s well worth the stop in at Eulo, to soak in 40-million-year-old artesian mud, in a claw foot bath under the outback sun. Packed with minerals like magnesium, zinc and silica, this experience tightens and smooths skin. Ian Pike, spa owner, proudly claims his artesian mud supply is so good “it could take the corrugations out of iron.” Thanks to his sales pitch, we all took some mud home.
We left Eulo as happy as pigs in… well, mud.
Feeling refreshed, we pushed a few hundred clicks down the road into Thargomindah. We’re gifted with a bumper sticker that reads, London, Paris, Thargomindah. The sticker is no joke, this outback town with a population of just 240, was the third city in the world to adopt electric street lights in 1893, one day after London and Paris. It’s worth visiting Thargo (as they say in the outback) just for this piece of trivia.
We enjoyed lunch at Coffee on Dowling, a cute cafe with kangaroos in its backyard *squeal*, real coffee, and at least three salads on the menu. I had the salt & pepper squid salad, which is surprisingly good considering there’s 1000-kilometres between the salad and the nearest ocean.
4PM: The Dig Tree
Heading 275km west of Thargomindah, we crossed the state line into South Australia. This is the territory in which Burke and Wills met their end, and it’s easy to see why – the landscape is unimaginably dry and mirages play tricks on your eyes. Thankfully our only challenge is finding a shrub big enough to offer bathroom privacy after we pass a sign that reads “next amenities: 256km”.
We arrived at the Dig Tree for sunset – perfect timing to capture it in the afternoon glow. Unlike Burke and Wills who returned to the Dig Tree only to find their supplies depleted, we packed our own, enjoyed a cuppa and brushed up on Australian history with a visit to the display centre.
With a population of just 12 people, Innamincka is the smallest town in our outback adventure with less permanent residents than you’d need to fill a side of rugby league. We join the Innamincka dozen with an overnight stay in the Innamincka Hotel, the sister property to the Birdsville Hotel.
Its onsite restaurant, The Outamincka, serves up some of the best pub grub this side of Brisbane. My pick is the steak and mushroom pie. It’s quite inventive, topped with a hash brown rather than pastry. Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it. I was sceptical at first, but the potato top was a nice, textural touch.
DAY FOUR: INNAMINCKA TO BIRDSVILLE (417 KM)
9AM: Tick off the Birdsville Track
From Innamincka, there’s 226km of Birdsville Track to pound before you reach the racing epicentre. The Birdsville Track is Queensland’s offroad crème de la crème, sandwiched between four deserts: Tirari, Sturt Stony, Strzelecki and Simpson.
The track is covered with large pebbles, clouded by dust and dotted with dune crossings. Four-wheel-drive is necessary, desert flags recommended and you’ll want to drive with your lights on to see through the dust. It’s the most iconic dirt road in Australia and worth the detour into South Australia to experience, even if waving at a road train turns out to the highlight for most of the girls.
A cold XXXX at the Birdsville Hotel is a sweet prize for spending three days and 1900-kilometers in a car. Who knew driving was such thirsty work? During race week, downtown Birdsville is pumping, music blaring and people celebrating. Punters of all ages happily spill onto the main street excitedly and the atmosphere feels like a school fete, but ten thousand times bigger.
The town rolls out the red carpet for the races and brings in suppliers to cope with the influx of the some 10,000 punters who descend on the town, which any other weekend accommodates 115 people with its bakery, caravan park and two petrol stations.
For our first night, we tucked into Chinese takeaway (who would have thought?) and wood-fired pizzas. Coffee drinkers can rejoice too – there’s not a whiff of International Roast in sight – and I spied VitaSoy in the back of a truck.
Overnight: Tent City
In what has to be the best display of OzTrail outside a BCF store, Rent-a-Tent supplies a pop-up tent city for race goers. The set up is comfortable with stretchers, mattress and bed linen, and enough room in each tent to move, which is more than I can say of other camping experiences I’ve had. My suggestion is ear plugs, though, because a symphony of snoring occurs under the cover of darkness.
To combat electricity, Goal Zero hooks us up with a solar powered station which is strong enough to run three GHD hair straighteners and a hairdryer – outback essentials in anyone’s language.
DAY FIVE: A DAY AT THE BIRDSVILLE TRACK
Day: Birdsville Races
The Birdsville Cup is the pinnacle of outback racing calendar and the reason so many people make the 2000km pilgrimage to Queensland’s south-west. The track is dry, sun hot and beers cold, which is an award-winning trifecta, and that’s before you’ve even placed a bet.
A far cry from when the races started in 1882 with a few stock horses wandering down a track, the Birdsville Races are big business today, with over $200,000 in prize money up for grabs. Perhaps more fierce than the competition on the track, is the competition off it, with Fashions on the Field drawing as much attention as the main race.
Unlike other race meets, you’ll find more people entered in the novelty category than best-dressed, in a quirky display of kooky dressing. With $5000 up for grabs, dress ups are a big deal here. If you are thinking of entering, it’s worth consulting a previous winner for some tips.
I ended the day a few dollars down but I think that had more to do with my strategy of picking horses based on their names rather than their odds. Who could resist betting on Curly Grey?
DAY SIX: DOWNTOWN BIRDSVILLE
Day: Beyond Birdsville race track
If you over indulge in too many Great Northerns at the track, the Birdsville Bakery will cure what ails ya. Not kidding, I had four pies in two days and I didn’t even have a sore head to blame. Dusty the Birdsville baker stockpiles his pies for three months leading into race weekend and the revolving door of pies, pastries and slices going into hungry hands is a testament to just how good they are.
I can also vouch for the vanilla slice, which I comfort ate on the road back to Brisbane.
Beyond baked goods, there’s more to Birdsville than meets the eye – so take some time check out these attractions too.
Sunset: Big Red
For classic silhouette pictures against the Simpson Desert, you’ll want to make tracks up Big Red, the tallest sand dune in the Simpson. It’s about 30 kilometers out of Birdsville and a popular spot to catch sunset.
Don’t forget to pack some bubbles and cheese to accompany the view, the sun lingers for a long time in the sky in the west, so sit down and enjoy the solar show.
DAY SEVEN: BIRDSVILLE TO QUILPIE (625 KM)
8AM: Hit the road
In a race of their own to get to home, punters empty out of Birdsville as fast as they arrived. The town literally disappears in a puff of dust, shrinking back to its original population of just 115.
Join the exodus of commuters heading back to the coast via Windorah to see why they call this part of Australia channel country.
If you want to break the back of the drive, Quilpie is the best spot to overnight on the way home. This tiny town lays claim to the title of Australia’s largest dinosaur find.
We stayed in the Quilpie Heritage Inn – which has been recently renovated, while retaining its old-world charm. It’s also the booking spot for the Outback Mail Run. If you have time up your sleeve, make sure you join the outback postie as he delivers mail to the 10 properties on his 400-km run.
DAY EIGHT: QUILPIE TO BRISBANE (953 KM)
Day: Back to the city
Beating a track back from Quilpie, you’ll head through the Maranoa Shire and back into Brisbane. It’s a long drive, so best to break it up with a dip in downtown Mitchell, where you’ll find two pools of artesian water direct from the Great Artesian Basin. It’s guaranteed perfect swimming temperature all year round.