If you saw images of 5000 people dancing the Nutbush in the middle of the desert, had a massive case of FOMO, and wondered why you weren’t partying at the Big Red Bash, I get it! I felt exactly the same when I first discovered what was going on in a far-flung corner of Queensland. The Big Red Bash, staged every year on the edge of the Simpson Desert, just outside Birdsville, is billed as the most remote music festival on the planet. But it is so much more than that. Part eighties rock concert, part family fun fair, part world-record busting dance-off, part fancy dress party. And when the rain comes down, you’d be forgiven for
thinking you’d arrived on the set of a Mad Max film. As the iconic Aussie festival celebrated its 10th birthday, we joined the convoy west for an unforgettable adventure. Travelling from Brisbane, we drove 1600km via Roma, Charleville, Quilpie, Windorah, Betoota and Birdsville, trying, unsuccessfully, to beat a massive rainstorm that was sweeping across the country and threatening to swamp the festival. Was it worth the drive, the rain, the mud, the flat tyre and the composting toilets to do a line-dance and see a bunch of ageing rockers strut their stuff? You bet! Loved every minute of it. There’s nothing like a bit of adversity to make the highlights so much brighter. But to make the most of the Big Red Bash, you need to do more than learn a few dance steps. Here are a few things you should know before you
rummage through your dress-up box for a Tina Turner wig and hit the highway.
WHAT’S IT ALL ABOUT?
The Big Red Bash has been going for 10 years. It started out as an add-on to an extreme marathon on the edge of the Simpson Desert, organised by Greg Donovan, to raise money for juvenile diabetes. Now, it is an Aussie outback institution. This year we were among 10,000 people who made the long trek to the three-day festival to see eighties legends Icehouse, the Hoodoo Gurus, the Angels and others do their thing. A massive unseasonal rainstorm presented real challenges for organisers and campers – turning the entire site to sticky mud. But thankfully the rain stopped in time for the festival to kick off, and when the skies cleared, the dankness underfoot was forgotten.
HOW DO YOU GET THERE?
Here’s the thing. You can fly to Birdsville and take a charter bus out to the festival site at Bashville (the bands and media do), and you might be able to secure one of the Rent-a-Tents. But you’d be missing out on a very big part of the experience. This is a remote festival. Birdsville is 1600km from Brisbane, 1200km from Adelaide (if the Birdsville Track is open) and 1900km from Sydney. It’s a really, really long way from anywhere, so the journey is half the fun! Driving through outback towns, stopping off at iconic pubs, spotting wedge-tailed eagles, emus and wallabies from the car is all part of the adventure. Officially you can get to the Big Red Bash in a 2WD, but a 4WD is the way to go. This is channel country. Even if there’s a light shower of rain, the dirt track to Birdsville gets very slippery. A bit more rain and the channels start to run. That means it gets flooded very quickly. It’s easy to get bogged and blow a tyre even in a study vehicle. You can also get stranded if the roads are too slushy to use. Travel with other vehicles and use a two-way radio to stay in contact. Your mobile phone will be useless outside town.
We headed for the Big Red Bash with three other couples, and had a great trip until we got to Betoota – found the camping site around the pub was already a slush fest – and decided to push on another two hours to Birdsville. We arrived in the dark, had a quick meal in the pub, and then started looking for a camp site among the thousands already packed into the caravan park and spread around the common. We ended up parked just off the highway for the night. The morning brought more rain, a flat tyre and mutterings of a Plan B. The road to the festival had been closed and it looked like the Big Red Bash would be a wash out. After a full day holed up in the Birdsville pub, the sun finally started to peak through. The next morning, the clouds were still hanging around like a damp blanket, but we managed to get into the festival site. It was muddy, yes, but once we had a fire going, put on our blue wigs for our first world-record attempt, things were back on track. Others weren’t so lucky. Road closures meant they were stranded hours away from the festival. Some eventually got through. Others didn’t make it at all.
SOUNDS PRETTY HARD CORE.
It is! Be prepared. Spare tyres, spare fuel, tools, food, water, etc. If you’ve never done an outback drive, get advice from experts. You also need to be very well-prepared for camping at the Big Red Bash. Most people tow some kind of caravan or camper trailer, and set up like they are ready for the apocalypse. Fire cauldrons, tarps, awnings, solar panels, spare batteries, lights, and flags! Prep meals and freeze them ahead of time, and pack a jaffle iron and savoury mince just like your Mum did when you went camping as a kid. A dozen food vans offer a good range of options in the main festival area. Queues can be long and you’ll need cash, as some have no EPTPOS facility. You can buy ice and wood on site, but make sure you pre-order as it runs out quickly. As for WIFI, you can purchase a daily package, but it
will only work in a small area in the plaza.
WILL MY CAMPSITE BE NEAR THE STAGE?
The Big Red Bash is organised with military precision. You’ll be allocated a campsite (solo or in a group of four vehicles) on arrival. The later you arrive, the further you will be from the stage. We were among the last to roll in and camped about 800 metres from the main plaza. It was a long walk to see the bands, to cart picnic food (no glass in the plaza area), and chairs, but it also meant less passing traffic, which I really liked. If you want to be close to the front, pay for an early entry pass.
HOW ABOUT THE LOOS?
There are plenty of temporary toilets set up around the camping section and the stage area. But a word of warning: these are composting toilets. Sawdust is your friend here. The good news: they don’t smell. The bad news: they don’t get emptied. Nuff said. If you’re fussy about where you do your business, bring a chemical toilet.
WHAT ABOUT MY HAIR?
Showers and power are not provided. You are off the grid here. Forget the hairdryer and straightener. A cowboy hat and a range of wigs are definitely the way to go because every day is dress-up day at the Big Red Bash. Most campervans have basic shower options, but water is precious out here, and you might not get much time under the nozzle.
WHAT’S THE MUSIC LIKE?
Even though you are at a concert on the edge of the desert, the production is first class. The lighting, the sound, the stage – everything is super professional. The music is a good mix of eighties and nineties legends, country and rock singers and cover bands. (The line-up included Icehouse, The Hoodoo Gurus, Pete Murray, Human Nature and John Williamson.) But it’s the setting that really makes it special. The stage is framed by Big Red, a 30m high sand dune – the first of more than 1000 that run across the Simpson desert. When the sun sets behind the dune, turning the clouds a welcome shade of gold, while a band you haven’t seen since uni days belts out another classic, you would’t want to be anywhere else. In terms of wow factor, I can’t image another music festival coming anywhere near the Big Red Bash.
WHAT ELSE CAN YOU DO?
In some ways the music is just the background track to a three-day party. There are drag races, more world record attempts than you can poke a stick at, yoga, painting competitions, camel rides, kids sliding down Big Red on toboggans, and plenty of time to just sit around the campfire with friends. One of the most moving moments for me was sitting on top of Big Red, along with hundreds of other early birds, listening to a guy play Waltzing Matilda on the bagpipes as the sun rose behind the vast campsite. Just magical.
HOW WAS THE TRIP HOME?
Like I said, the journey is a big part of the adventure. And for us, the trip home was definitely one of the highlights of the entire week. Because of the earlier rain, the desert had turned a stunning green. We happened upon Deons lookout – between Birdsville and Betoota just in time for sunset. My hubby put up the drone and captured the most incredible pics as the sun went down over this remote and beautiful landscape.
Tickets to the Big Red Bash sell out. Follow them on social media so you know when tickets are released. Join Travelling to the Big Red Bash FB group for tips on how to get there and what to avoid. Outback towns like Windorah, Betoota and Birdsville offer free camping wherever they can fit you in. Fuel queues in Windorah can be long, but the pub and neighbouring café serve great steak sangas and coffee. Skip the beer. Police operate random breath tests here. We opted for an early exit pass to avoid the big crowds going home. That meant we missed the final night, but we nailed the Nutbush before our departure and were happy with our decision.
OK, ONE VERY LAST THING
The Big Red Bash takes its world record attempts seriously. If you’re thinking about doing the mass Nutbush, get in some practice beforehand. Monitors will be watching. You don’t want to get hauled out of line for mucking up the dance!
VERDICT ON THE BIG RED BASH
Julie Fison is a Brisbane author and travel lover. Her debut novel for adults, One Punch, is a compelling contemporary drama that tells the story of two mothers facing impossible decisions after one life-changing night. Julie has also written books for children and young adults, including the Hazard River series, stories in the Choose Your Own Ever After series, and a play for high schools, As the Crow Flies. When not at her desk, you can find Julie hiking a bush trail with her energetic border collie, exploring the outback, or chasing the perfect sunset. She is a committed traveller and enjoys sharing tips for midlife adventure. www.juliefison.com
Images by: John Fison