Christmas in Corner Country

Many travellers visit Birdsville and the Corner Country during the cooler months. But Christmas can reveal the outback’s true character, as Kelly Theobald discovered while living on the land she adopted as her home.

WORDS & PHOTOS KELLY THEOBALD

The cowboy lowers himself onto the 900kg heaving mass of bull inside the tiny chute, his legs bashing against the steel rails. He pulls his rope over his gloved hand, tying himself to the animal bucking below him. He breathes deeply, grits his teeth and nods determinedly, signalling the opening of the chute gate.

The bull lurches for the light, bucking, kicking, jumping and spiralling in fury, trying to throw the bloke off his back. The bloke thrusts his spurs into the bull’s shoulders, gaining control and defying gravity. The crowd erupts as the eight-second bell rings.

It’s New Year’s Eve and this is how the outback celebrates.

The Tibooburra New Year’s Rodeo has been held in the tiny north-western New South Wales town for the past 30 or so years and is attended by hundreds of people, including travellers keen to experience the outback the way the locals do. For that reason, despite the heat, the festive season is one of the best times to head bush.

A meandering festive itinerary begins in Bedourie, South West Queensland. The community’s 140 people participate in a Christmas lights competition, brightening the desert oasis into a jolly glow of light on the otherwise empty horizon. The competition is judged the week before Christmas, but the lights still twinkle on the majority of houses right up until the big day.

“While summer is the best time to experience the real outback, it’s also the most dangerous”

For a more iconic dose of Christmas spirit, head to Bedourie’s sister town, Birdsville, 186km south of Bedourie, on Christmas Eve.

The Birdsville State School’s P&C holds a Christmas raffle with donated prizes worth thousands of dollars, the proceeds of which help send the school’s five students to school camp, which is distant and expensive.

A Christmas Eve at the Birdsville Hotel is like no other, says local Jody Barr. “Santa will often shout the bar for a few hours, meaning that every local in town will be there,” Jody says. “Unlike most of the year in Birdsville, the number of locals will outnumber the visitors, meaning that you can experience the town as we know it, rather than as a traveller’s hot-spot. You can even order your Christmas Day grog delivery and the pub will deliver direct to your room or campsite, which is the only day of the year they’ll deliver.”

The best part about Christmas in Birdsville, though, is a legendary Birdsville Bakery Christmas lunch. Generally closed over the summer months, Dusty and Teresa open the bakery doors for one scrumptious meal on Christmas Day. “One year they served up an amazing sevencourse degustation-like lunch, which was served around a fireworks display and Santa arriving on a team of camels,” Jody says. “Some years, if there are fewer locals spending Christmas in town, the lunch may be a quieter affair, but everyone who has ever attended says it’s a cracker of a day in one of the outback’s most iconic and unique establishments.”

Recover from the feast like the locals do and cool down at Pelican Point, the beautiful beach on the Birdsville billabong’s peninsula. Or, if you’re lucky enough that the Diamantina River is running, head down to the old crossing and join the locals catching yabbies and

huge yellowbelly with their bare hands.

Once you know most of the locals in Birdsville on a firstname basis, which won’t take long, you can head to Tibooburra.

Whichever route you choose, make sure you’re prepared.

“While summer is the best time to experience the real outback, it’s also the most dangerous,” Birdsville mechanic Peter Barnes says. “Extreme heat and long, deserted roads mean that it’s essential, as always, to carry plenty of food and water and know the golden rule of remaining with your vehicle if anything does happen.”

When you reach Tibooburra, your first stop should be the Family Hotel to check out its amazing interior. The whole building is a collection of murals – some rather lewd – painted by famous Australian artists, including Pro Hart. Get the goss on the New Year rodeo schedule from pub owners Melissa and Burt before checking out local attractions, including historic gold mine sites, national parks and scenic lookouts.

Then, at the horse and bike gymkhana that precedes the rodeo, watch experienced stockmen and women compete in obstacle races and events testing their skill and expertise on a motorbike or horse. The main-event rodeo kicks off late in the afternoon and is a display of guts and determination as much as skill and experience. The world’s most dangerous sport, an outback Australian rodeo is a legacy unto itself, and the 15-minute fireworks display that heralds the arrival of the new year rivals the best city pyrotechnic displays.

Mildura carpenter Josh travelled to Tibooburra specifically

to watch the rodeo. “I’ve been to a couple of bush rodeos and I thought I’d head here for New Year’s Eve as I’ve heard this is a great event,” he says. “I try and get outback every summer for a few reasons. Mainly, it’s because work is pretty quiet so I can take more time off, but also because it’s a great time of year to see what I think is the ‘real’ outback. I love being able to meet locals, especially station workers, because their lives are pretty interesting and they’re happy to let me in on the best fishing spots.”

To top off a brilliant summer break, join revellers in the main street of Tibooburra on New Year’s Day as they wander across the road between the town’s two pubs. How two pubs can thrive in a town of only 150 people remains a mystery, but both put on fabulous New Year’s Day “recovery” entertainment. The aforementioned Family Hotel sets up a swimming pool made of hay bales and plastic tarps in front of the hotel. Meanwhile, the Tibooburra Hotel, affectionately known by most as “the two-story”, brings in a mechanical bull and gets karaoke pumping to keep the crowds entertained.

Lining up for the mechanical bull, carpenter Josh says that this summer break in the outback is one of his best yet. “I’ve had the best time here,” he says. “Why anyone would want to bring in the New Year in Sydney or New York beats me.”

Vale Kelly Theobald

ON OCTOBER 2, 2015, Kelly Theobald, regular 4X4 Australia contributor and author of this feature, died in a singlevehicle accident on the Birdsville singlevehicle accident on the Birdsville Track, not far from Pandie Pandie Station where she had been mustering cattle. While mustering in one of Australia’s harshest environments is not the first place you’d expect to find a girl from Melbourne, it was just one of the many ways Kelly sought to experience the land she’d grown to love.

An avid traveller, Kelly moved to Birdsville some four years ago and worked in the Visitor Information Centre. During her time in Birdsville, she wrote and photographed numerous features for 4X4 Australia magazine and displayed a knack for seeking out and capturing the bush and its people. Kelly also produced a children’s book called Onslo. The book was about a blue VW Beetle who dreamt of crossing the Simpson Desert like all the big 4x4s that passed through town. Most vistors to Birdsville would have seen the real-life Onslo, who crossed the Simpson in 2012, parked outside the Birdsville Bakery.

With her vibrant and outgoing personality, Kelly developed a kinship with many people in Birdsville and was a muchloved part of the community. She will be dearly missed by those folk and by the many people she met in her travels, including the team at 4X4 Australia.