Before Birdsville Fieldy and I attended the Camooweal drovers Festival. It was there we met a handful of our last drovers who individually but collectively along with those past walked hundreds of thousands of cattle from the Kimberly's, the NT and the Gulf country down to Dajarra from where they were loaded on rail trucks destined for southern Queensland fattening stations and eventually to the nations dinner plates of meat hungry Australians. Wonderful stories of tough times, of fights, of wild cattle, rough horses and shocking cooks flowed freely as the rum did its work. During the late sixties both Fieldy and I worked in separate stock camps on the well known Victoria River Downs before the introduction of helicopter mustering. Even in those years it was fairly tough going but was nearing the end of a special era that saw massive changes to the yet untamed cattle stations in the top end. We had worked with and met lots of the characters talked about during that week so felt very much part of the celebrations even though we'd taken no part in droving trips up there. I felt it wasn't the right time or place to take pictures of individual drovers without being able to give an accurate account of their achievements. Many of them have been encouraged to document stories of their droving lives and I spent several hundred dollars purchasing all those available, fantastic reading. We left Camooweal and headed off down south through Mt Isa, Dajarra, Bedourie and finally to the next venue, The Birdsville Races.
Arriving there over a week before the event started gave us the opportunity to savour Birdsville as it is most of the year without the massive crowd. To stand on the gravel pub veranda drinking rum as the sun sets over the sand hills to the west was indeed a special moment and one that will never fade from my memory.
Unfortunately but as expected the 4WD's, planes and coaches rolled in day after day. The pub as we knew it with all its character was stripped bare of all that could be pilfered by grog charged visitors and hidden in the back rooms of the hotel. Before the real action started we took a drive out into the so called desert to the famous sand hill on the Birdsville track called big red. The gibber plains as always had very little plant growth but wherever sand and top soil lay, an abundance of feed grew. Also between many sand hills were extensive lakes, quite the opposite of what one would see ninety nine years out of one hundred. Fieldy decided to hit the track and retain those memories of Birdsville as it was rather than what it was going to be. By this stage enough people had arrived for me to start trading so I set the shop up and traded for eight days straight. Rain was the issue this year and the forecasts were accurate to the hour. By Friday, the first race day, clouds gathered and after just three races it was called off due to rain which made racing out of the question.
My good friend and partner in crime Ray Kovac made a huge effort driving two thousand K's from Sydney bringing much needed stock of hand bags and his beloved Bobby out to the famous event. He arrived on the Thursday evening in time for a coldie at the pub then as the sun set disappeared to make camp. Next morning Ray arrived ready for a serious days selling but kept a close look at the sky every five or six minuets. Finally Ray made the important decision and that was to hit the track, all two hundred and eighty K's of dirt and try to get through before the rain made it impassable. Having spent a few years on the red and black soils of the western plains roo shooting Ray made the right decision and got through to Windorah without to many problems. As for the rest of us, we were stuck in Birdsville until the publican or somebody decided the roads were safe enough to drive on.
As it turned out all traffic had to go back to Bedourie then to Windorah which added two hundred K's of shocking road conditions then another three hundred and eighty of the same. What a wonderful experience. There is an old saying, that every cloud has a silver lining and for me that was very true. The clouds with their rain stopped the races so lots of money wasn't wasted on slow horses and the crowd was held at the event for three more days where all they could do was spend money on magnificent leather goods and beer.