Outback Picnic Races are great fun for all the family

It is easy to meet new friends among the friendly and relaxed people at the Picnic Races conducted by small communities in the Australian outback.

Seems a long time since we have been to Outback Picnic Races, but when our children were little, we lived at Townsville, in North Queensland. At that time we were friendly with some graziers who lived on properties over 'The Great Divide', on the black soil plains out west. From time to time our friends invited us out to visit them at the time of the Annual Picnic Races. The picnic race meeting was a very big social event in their district and one which people travelled hundreds of miles to attend. My memory might be a bit weak, but I think the races were held over a long weekend in August.

The race track and small collection of permanent buildings were set up on land that had been gifted by one of the local graziers, many years before, for the formation of the Picnic Race Club. The main building was the Hall, where balls, dances, games and functions were held. Opposite that was the long dining hall, a corrugated iron sheeted building with wide windows and doorways, a dirt floor, on which stood long communal dining tables with bench seating. At the end of the dining hall, outside, was the Bar, a very popular meeting and greeting place, which faced across to the Race Track.

It was always a great adventure for us townies and our city bred kids to pack up our car and head out into the vast, open country of western Queensland. It wasn't long before we left the bitumen and after that we would be rattling and shuddering over corrugated dirt roads, followed by a long cloud of dust that caught up in a thick, choking fog whenever you pulled up.

Picnic Races

Picnic Races

After travelling like this for what seemed like hours we would reach our destination, a collection of wooden farm buildings and machinery sheds with corrugated iron roofs and a large, wooden, Queenslander style Homestead, with wide verandahs on three sides, that became sleep-outs in hot weather.

We usually spent a couple of days with our friends at their Homestead before packing up all the tents and camping gear we needed for our long weekend at the picnic races. The gear piled onto the 4 wheel drive Toyota Ute, our small convoy set off for the Picnic Race Club, which was an hour or more's drive over a bush track.

At the camping site at the race track, there would be a lot of activity as the different family groups set up their campsites. Some would simply be a couple of tents for one family, while others would set up something like a small tent village, with several tents forming a square, with a central courtyard, where family members and friends might gather for drinks, or more drinks, or maybe even a cup of tea and home made scones or cakes.

The Picnic Races are great family get-togethers, where people who might not see each other more than once or twice a year, get together and party. Friends come from far and wide, and as well as a variety of motor vehicles, a few light aircraft land on the other side of the track with friends from far away.

Picnic Races

The races, themselves, are taken very seriously by the horse owners. Only locally owned, grass-fed horses can race for the honour of winning prizes, such as the Lady's Bracelet, or the Gold Bangle. It is very competitive and it is an honour to win. There was no prize money. The horses, in those times, were few in number and some races would start with only two or three horses. Four or more horses was a main event. Betting was conducted by a Tote system, rather than Bookies, so the money bet on a particular race was divided between those who bet on the winning horses in a certain proportion. Very little is won or lost, but it is all great fun.

Picnic Races

Picnic Races

The Dining Room, as I said, has long tables with bench seats, on a dirt floor. At one end of the Dining Room is a large kitchen, with, I think, large wood or coke fired stoves. Professional caterers come out from the city with a staff of casual workers to prepare, cook and serve the racegoers. Meals are all plain, roasts, grills, fries, stews and curries; nothing fussy here, but the best beef, lamb or pork, and no-one goes away hungry.When you arrive at the table you simply sit at the next available place, and soon you are meeting and chatting with people you may have not met before. Meals, like everything else at the Picnic Races, are very informal sociable affairs.

There is one formal, well, semi-formal, Grand Ball during the Races, where everyone gets dressed in their best for the occasion. In those days, Campaign Ribbons would not have been out of place.

Picnic Races

I was talking to an old friend of ours from North Queensland recently about the fun we and our kids used to have at the Picnic Races. She was telling me that recently she took her two grand-daughters, city girls from Brisbane, out to some Picnic Races that she had attended when she was a girl. Her eldest grand-daughter, a young teenager, and her little sister turned up in their best gear and designer jeans with matching attitudes for the trip. They immediately turned up their noses at the communal style living, and especially at the horse dung they noticed lying around on the ground.

While Granny went to say hello to some old friends, the sweet sophisticates went to have a look around. Some time later, when the girls had not returned, Granny set out to look for them. She found them down at the creek with all the other kids, designer jeans up to the knees in sticky mud, having water fights and races with a couple of floating pontoons, that had been placed in the creek for just such a purpose.

The Kids had 'The Best' time of their lives at the Picnic Races, and, on the way home, the youngest one confided to her Grandmother, "Guess what ... Susie's got a Boyfriend."

I was pleased to learn that Picnic Races have not changed very much, since the days when we used to take our kids out to experience a little bit of social life in country Queensland, and that still, a great time is had by all.

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