Tim Robbins | July 2017
The Birdsville Big Red Bash is a relatively new music festival that’s held in the shadow of Big Red, one of Australia’s longest sand dunes – and the desert throws up its characters.
As Team Amarok sets up a base station to show off the V6 Ultimate to 6000 potential converts, it’s fascinating to watch the world of the Bash pass by our central spot. Kids in Blundstones and Crocs run around in the grey-brown, talcum like dust that carpets the camping site laying tag, before mum poses them for a pic. Older couples, weighed down with the most high-tech folding chairs in creation, trudge the length of the huge venue, while their dogs amble obediently beside them. Some dogs don’t have to walk at all; a small collie is carried, royal litter style, between her owners in a dusty blue Ikea shopping bag. A man in a short red sparkly number, complete with feather boa, comes the opposite way, his family leading the way and his little boy clutching a prize – the result of dad’s derring-do in dashing up a dune in drag.
Similarly, a volunteer in a fetching red wig and ballet skirt makes his rounds on a mountain bike. A big, burly bloke and his equally big, burly Rottweiler stroll past, his Australiana tattoos, blue singlet and battered Akubra neatly offset by a bright pink plastic drinking container that dangles from his Bundy Rum can cooler. In stark contrast, a tribe of earnest youngsters in ripped tight jeans, crew tees and impossibly cool sunnies populate a Bohemian tent city housing a production crew that is on site for two weeks assembling a television commercial for a fast food franchise. Their showers and toilets are first class. Best not to ask how I know that.
The crowds, though, are heading for ground zero, a large natural amphitheatre that will play host to some of Australia’s most well known singers and songwriters from across the rock and country world – but the Big Red Bash is more than just a music festival.
Given that it’s some 1500km from Brisbane, 3000km from Sydney and as remote as a place can get, it can’t help but be different.
People waited in the queue to get into the gate (and to the best camping spots) for up to four hours – “Long enough to make memories,” one fella drawled good-naturedly – and the 4x4s, most with camper trailers attached were queued up almost all the way back into Birdsville at one point.
It genuinely doesn’t seem to bother any of them, though. It’s an audience filled with folks who love the journey as much as – if not more than – the destination, and if you’re not a people person, you soon will be. Conversations start easily and drift widely, beers been cracked and shared in a true exhibition of country hospitality.
It’s winter here in Birdsville, and the mercury has fallen all the way to 26 degrees C on the first day of the festival. The punters are arriving, and in their droves. The first day of the festival has brought with it a nasty little southerly that takes the edge off that, and fills the air with a tang of desert dust that gets absolutely into everything, but it’s not stopping anyone. Last night, though, was all about the dune, and the utterly mesmerising light show that results from the sun dropping below the horizon. It takes its sweet time, allowing the crowds to build and gather along the dune’s edge, while kids – and kids at heart – throw themselves headlong down the steep, soft pumpkin-orange sand slopes that challenge everyone who sets out to hike them. Once you’re up there, though, you don’t want to leave.
Shaped and shifted by winds that have blown through the Simpson Desert for eons. The soft, rolling sand dunes that stretch almost to the other side of Australia catch the afternoon light, casting it in stark contrast to the impossibly blue and wide desert sky. Couples young and old pause, arms around each other’s waists, and just take a moment to enjoy the sight, and each other’s company; an increasingly rare occurrence in our blitzkrieg world. As the sun takes its final bow and dips below the dunes, phones rise and camera shutters whir to record a moment that’s been going on for millions of years – but it’s not over yet.
The utterly vast stretches of central sky softly illuminates from corner to corner in a symphony of soft pinks and pastel blues, as night gradually – and much more slowly than we’re used to in town – comes to the Big Red Bash.
It’s the opening night, and there’s just one act on the bill – Melbourne’s Missy Higgins has emerged from a long hiatus to put on a show for a captive audience that, in truth, is probably not made up of her biggest fan base.
Unassuming in a big jumper, jeans and high tops, Missy starts off steadily, but her crowd’s not quite there yet. She slowly but surely brings them along for the ride, though, singing her heart out on a still, mild desert night that carries her voice for kilometres.
Missy even sings us – just us, because she’s never recorded it – a lullaby she wrote for her baby boy. The song, accompanied only by Missy’s ukulele, is sweet and beautiful and poignant, and so, so personal that it’s absolutely impossible not to be moved to tears.
It might not be Missy’s crowd, but this crowd of pragmatic, unflappable Aussies respond to her honesty and joy with genuine affection and warmth, in this most intimate of arenas in the centre of the biggest country on earth.
The music will continue through the week, with day-into-night shows across Wednesday and Thursday. But as the last band takes its final bows, this temporary city of itinerant individuals will, in their own sweet time, slowly disperse, and this phalanx of still-seekers will meander their way, in their own sweet time, to their next outback adventure.