A feature I wrote for Panorama, an in-flight magazine, about the Oodnadatta races and gymkhana. 

By Nick Place

On the endless dusty plains that make up the heart of Australia, 150 km is not considered an unreasonable distance to go for a cup of coffee, or to pick up some mail.

Signs nonchalantly point out that it’s 377 km to the next petrol station and station owners almost yawn as they mention that it’s 200 km from their homestead to the eastern boundary.

In this climate, you shouldn’t be surprised to find yourself talking to a bloke from Port Augusta (five hours’ drive south), then a woman from Mt Barker (nine hours) and then a guy from Gympie, Queensland (a ridiculous distance) as you stand in the Oodnadatta pub. This is the weekend of the annual Oodnadatta Races and, as Banjo Paterson once wrote: “All the cracks had gathered to the fray”.

I’m the alien from the city and I’ve got a bit to learn. The first culture shock is the drive from Coober Pedy to Oodna; 200 km north east on a dirt road featuring deep corrugations and puncture-inducing sharp flint rocks. Shells of cars lie here and there while the landscape is simply surreal. The aptly named Moon Plain is one of the few spots in the world where you can spin 360 degrees and not see a single physical feature, such as a hill on the horizon, or a gully. Films including “Mad Max III” and “Mission To Mars” were filmed here because it most resembles another planet or the Earth, post nuclear war.

On assignment in Oodnadatta. ... OK, near Oodnadatta, depp within the South Australian desert.
On assignment in Oodnadatta. … OK, at the Moon Plain, near Oodnadatta, deep within the South Australian desert.

You wouldn’t even consider tackling a road like this unless driving a genuine four wheel drive equipped with two spare tyres, 20 litres of water and a radio with a range of frequencies between the towns. As I accept a rental Toyota “troopie”(troop carrier) with all of these things, it occurs that this is the sort of road that people die on. It doesn’t help that Andrew, a school teacher who asks for a lift, needs the ride because he totaled a car, a cow and almost himself the previous Friday when he hit livestock at speed.

Because Oodnadatta has somehow so far escaped the attention of the Hyatt and Hilton chains, the only accommodation in town is at the Transcontinental Hotel, otherwise known as the Oodna Pub, and it’s a rough and wild place, especially on Friday and Saturday nights when pension cheques have been cashed and the locals cut loose. The pub has a milk truck full of beer (“I haven’t got around to painting it,” says the publican, Alan) and is surrounded by yelping, fighting dogs that are as much a part of life here as the sticky flies. Alan is pokerfaced as he gives me a line about kangaroos outside my room being partial to jumping on beds, and I have a laugh … until I open the door and find myself face to face with three grey roos.

The word “Oodnadatta” is apparently indigenous for “desert flower” and replaced the far less romantic original name for the settlement, “Warringa-Angle Pole Section”. The town was founded in 1889 when a change of South Australian Government decided not to extend the ambitious Transcontinental Railway (“The Ghan”), which had been painstakingly built south to north, intended to push all the way to Alice Springs. Suddenly Oodnadatta was the end of the line and flourished as the place where livestock was loaded onto the train, or passengers to Alice were introduced to the camels that would take them the rest of the way (now about four hours by car).

The Ghan has moved west (the last train leaving Oodna in 1981) and life has become tough, but the locals cheerfully battle on. The Oodnadatta Progress Association even has plans to improve the racetrack in time for next year’s official Year of the Outback meet, hoping to construct new buildings for food handling, mothers with babies, jockey dressing rooms and the like. At the moment, corrugated iron sheds lean in different directions and it’s probably lucky that Oodna is so far from anywhere that it is not even covered by a Council or Shire, let alone a race day spot-check on food-handling procedures by the Health Department.

Riding with the cowboys. Pic: Ron Place
Riding with the cowboys. Pic: Ron Place

Joined by perhaps 200 people, I sit in the metal grandstand or lounge against the fence to watch Saturday’s races and then Sunday’s gymkhana, held on the thick red dirt of the Oodnadatta racetrack (as against the thick red dirt of the wider landscape). A gymkhana is a day of novelty events that test the bush skills and riding skills of the locals, as well as, inexplicably, the abilities of the “ladies” to throw a recently severed oxtail – the final event of the weekend.

The race meet is a good one, with more than two dozen horses in town for the competition. I’m told that last year one horse dropped dead before the start, either from a heart attack or heat exhaustion, leaving three horses in a race, but there are no such dramas this time around. Sure, a jockey is thrown within 50 metres of the start of the first race of the day (big cloud of dust on impact!) and an over-confident station hand loses a motorbike mid-mono to the biggest cheer of the weekend, but nobody stops smiling.

In front of me are genuine, no frills Australian “cowboys” at home and in the saddle. It occurs just how far I am from the Royal Show. This is not a tourist event or an exhibition; just Outback sport. Everybody’s wearing the blue workshirts, RM Williams jeans and boots that are the standard uniform of the giant cattle stations that surround the town. The giant-brimmed sombrero Akubras are not for show but for practical purposes – the summer temperatures are known to top 50 on occasions.

At the Oodnadatta Ball on the Saturday night, I find myself holding up the bar alongside an 18-year-old who has been a Ringer since he was 12. This is a Ringer in the cattle station sense – a rider who rounds up cattle on the enormous stations, moving them between paddocks larger than some European countries, or herding them into trucks ultimately headed for a supermarket near you. He prefers horses to motorbikes because the cattle are calmer. “What I say is that when cattle were born, horses were born,” he shrugs.

This teen had spent the last two months sleeping in his genuine swag under the stars. A full moon to him was annoying because its light kept him awake. Mosquitoes could be a problem in summer too, as could running out of food on such a long camp. Eventually somebody killed a cow and everybody ate steak for breakfast, lunch and dinner – “These steaks would be selling for sixty dollars in Adelaide or Melbourne,” he laughs, spreading his hands to show how giant the slab of meat. I can’t believe people are still living that life. Clancy’s gone a drovin’ and we don’t know where he are. I go outside and stare at the kind of stars you only get in central Australia and I want to throw everything away and buy a swag that night.

While we’re talking, “Famous” McMahon staggers past. Famous has every right to be staggering because he’s put in a big day and earned a beer or seven. His real name’s Darren but: “When I was a kid, somebody said to me, ‘You’ll be famous one day’ and I said, ‘Yeah, I reckon I will’ and the name stuck.”

Famous rode 114 winners as an apprentice and then another 27 in Melbourne as a senior jockey but ended up riding bush meetings, largely for Streaky Bay trainer Johnny McGuiness, who has a few horses in town for the Oodna meet. Famous has made his living riding everywhere from Birdsville to Port Augusta. You could find him at the Maree meeting in June then at Coober Pedy in October. There is no official betting at this kind of picnic race meeting. The best a trainer and rider can do is share the prizemoney (ranging from $800 – and a cup – for the feature event to $150 for the hacks race) and maybe get a cut of the money raised in the Calcutta, where horses are auctioned to the crowd, pre-race. If you bid successfully for a horse that wins, you get 55 per cent of the pot.

Famous tells me that he’d actually retired earlier this year before the Oodna organizers rang, pleading with him to ride one more time. Financially, it’s probably worth the petrol money, as Famous guides home a trifecta on the day. He would have won a lot more except that there’s a new kid on the block. Justin Nunn, celebrating his 13th birthday on the day of the Oodna race meet, comes from Macumba Station, just 38 km north-east up the dirt road. The son of the Oodnadatta Race Club President and Secretary, Eddie and Gerry Nunn, Justin has ambitions to ride a Melbourne Cup winner.

Of everybody who’s shown up for the races and gymkhana, Justin has the biggest weekend – station hand alcoholic binges aside. I first spotted him on Saturday morning, trotting around on a Shetland pony laughingly called “Black Thunder”. But an hour or so later, having only guided a horse out of official starting gates for the first time last October, Justin coolly steers home the first winner of the day, Mulligan. He rides another two winners, taking the Oodnadatta Cup, one of the feature races, and the “hacks” race for horses that come from the stations and not actually trained to race.

Justin even reckons he should have won the last race of the day, the Consolation, but Famous, cruising in front, saw his challenge on the inside and veered to close the gap. “Protest! Stewards, protest!” yells Eddie, his dad, laughing. “Yeah, you cut me off, you cheating bastard!” says birthday boy Justin from the saddle, getting cocky after such a good day. Famous gives a bemused grin and takes the money.

At Sunday’s gymkhana, as Famous continued his adventures in beer-drinking and tested chat-up lines on nurses on training secondment to Oodna, Justin entered practically every event, from motorcycle obstacle courses to musical chairs on horseback and everything in between. I’m tipping he slept well on the way back to Port Augusta, where he is in boarding school, like most of the kids from the stations.

On the long drive back towards civilization, I wonder how a town like Oodna can survive, without becoming a theme park parody of itself? On the Oodna Road, which cuts through the stations, you dodge cattle worth $1000 per head, and consider the riches of these monstrous properties that have thousands of such roaming beasts. The largest cattle station in the world, Anna Creek, is not far away – in Outback terms – and measures 30,000 sq km in area. In other words, there had been millionaires mingling with drunken townfolk at the race meet and everybody was on first name terms.

That natural friendliness means tourists are welcome here and few Australians would not benefit out of seeing the nation’s red heart. But if the road to Oodnadatta was to be paved, maybe a line of fast food outlets installed, something very precious would be lost.

The locals know how ridiculously remote their community is and like it, despite themselves. They speak of being so close to nature, or about the great lifestyle for their children. There’s a certain romance to living at the end of a 200 km dirt road and it provides legends, like last year when Oodna was completely marooned, big rains swamping the roads out for more than six weeks. Both the town’s stores were down to their last tins on empty shelves and things were desperate, the army ready to do a food drop when the road was finally opened.

The first car through? Alan from the Transcontinental pub, on a beer run. Gotta love the Outback.