By CAITLIN CROWLEY
HURTLING down the dusty, dirt road towards Burrandowan always stirs in me a thrilling mix of anticipation and nostalgia.
I’m not just heading into the bush for some racing action; I’m almost travelling back to a simpler time, where country communities learned to make their own fun. And I’m not the only one who feels this way.
“Even the drive there is exciting,” says Damien Martoo, president of the Kingaroy Chamber of Commerce.
“The countryside, the history and the anticipation of who will you see… It is an event that simply brings multiple communities together and has become tradition amongst so many friendship groups.”
This weekend Burrandowan Picnic Races celebrates 100 years of country racing. No mean feat for a tiny but tenacious club, which has endured a world war, state government changes to racing funding and most recently, a pandemic.
Race club spokesperson Georgie Somerset believes community is at the heart of the event’s longevity.
“The district pitches in to make the event the success it is and we have multiple generations of families involved,” she says.
“The other magic element is the crowd – people who return year after year, alongside those there for the first time.”
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly how this niche event achieved legendary status, but life-long racegoer Kathy Duff believes it’s all about the atmosphere.
“It’s just a great family atmosphere, out in the bush in the middle of nowhere. Particularly city people love to get away. It’s just a wonderful country day,” Kathy says.
Kathy’s family has strong ties to Burrandowan going back to the very first meet in 1922.
Her grandfather, John Patrick Duff, trained and rode a winner that day, nominating the horse ‘Buckshee’ in the Ladies Bracelet Race on behalf of a special young woman named Dorothea Mortimer Evans.
Not only did he win a gold watch for his efforts, he married Dorothea four years later!
The Duff family will have a horse in the field again this year to mark the centenary.
‘Muwarrad’ will proudly be ridden by John Patrick Duff’s great grand daughter Hannah English, in the family’s colours.
I’m the fourth generation of my family to make the races an annual affair and grew up listening to my mother, Virginia Holding, tell her particularly wild memories from the 1980s.
“My best stories are people behaving badly,” Mum smirks.
“People used to do terrible things, like bus surfing. When the buses were leaving, they’d be getting dragged behind the buses!
Kathy Duff can remember a year when a car ended up being burnt in a fire pit.
Thankfully they’re activities long-since outlawed, along with racing utes down the track after the last horse crossed the finish line.
Back in the 1930s there was a trackside boxing and wrestling tent. In 1956 the clay pigeon shoot was added to the program and is still popular today.
“Going as a kid with my uncle and aunt who trained racehorses, we weren’t allowed up with the humans, we had to hang out down with the horses,” Mum says.
Things improved significantly for her when she started attending with her best friend from boarding school. Sally Maunder (nee Downes) lived just up the road on the property “Strathmore”, and her father Graham Downes was the event’s proud patron for many years.
A central feature of their Burrandowan experience, and my own, is the fashion.
The painstaking selection of the perfect race day outfit can be half the fun. Planning often starts months in advance, particularly if a Fashions on the Field entry is on the cards.
“It was a running gag with Sal and I to say, the morning after the races, oh god what am I going to wear to Burrandowan next year!?” Mum laughs.
Burrandowan has to be one of the few places where you can rock up in stubbies and a singlet, or a three piece suit, and either is completely appropriate.
But for most racegoers, Burrandowan offers a rare chance to dress up and embrace Autumn racing fashion with gusto.
Fashions on the Field veteran Emma Clarke travels thousands of kilometres to contest at race days nationwide, but Burrandowan has a special place in her heart.
“The best race days are at the end of a dirt road!” Emma says.
“I always feel welcome as an out-of-towner. At Burrandownan, everyone’s a local. If you have a camp chair and a wine glass you’ll fit in.”
That’s something Emma proved last year when she attended the event alone. Walking in, sky high heels on and a camp chair under her arm, it wasn’t long before she found a table of welcoming racegoers to join.
“In that moment, that’s when I realised, that’s what we do this for; to make those kinds of connections,” she says.
She also relishes the creative process of putting together a winning ensemble and believes that’s why so many people now enjoy competing in Fashions on the Field.
“It’s kind of a nice challenge to have to comply with the criteria. It challenges us to think in different ways,” she says.
Even if that means getting up at 4am to start hair and makeup and putting the finishing touches on your outfit, on the side of a road somewhere.
When you’re out here, you’re off the grid. Mobile phone signal is almost non-existent, and that’s just the way I like it.
If you become separated from your mates you’ll have to find them the old fashioned way. Hot tip – they’re probably out in the carpark unwinding at someone’s camp site.
One year I didn’t see my husband for five hours. Usually I’d be worried but I knew he’d come looking for food at the barbecue pits eventually.
You can’t get a more authentic Burrandowan experience than cooking your own steak over red hot coals.
Community is key; if you didn’t come prepared with at least some long-handled tongs, don’t be afraid to ask the person next to you. We’ve saved many a first-timer from leaving with one arm.
“Sally melted the back of her skirt one time,” Mum laughs.
Sally Maunder admits “it was definitely a bit close for comfort!”
Southern Queensland Country CEO Peter Homan says Burrandowan is exactly the kind of authentic bush experience that’s luring an increasing number of city tourists to rural areas.
“People are fascinated by what people do on the land and in remote communities,” Peter says.
“They’re mesmerised and enchanted by how people live in remote areas.”
He’s expecting a record crowd for Burrandowan’s centenary this Saturday, May 7.
“It’s all about the authenticity,” Peter says. “They’re not trying to do anything more than be the Burrandowan races. They’re doing what they’ve done for the last 100 years.”
South Burnett mayor Brett Otto is also expecting to see caravans and camper trailers rolling into the region well before race day.
“We’re expecting a huge crowd; we see all our motels and caravan parks booked up. It puts us on the map,” he says.
My sister will be among this year’s campers. She’s making the epic trek from Nebo, west of Mackay, to the South Burnett.
But no matter where you come from, I promise it will be worth the trip.
As Emma Clarke says, “the further away the race day is, the better it is.”