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.
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 seven-course 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 first-name 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.”
Click here to explore more of New South Wales.