Birdsville’s sun-scorched entrance sign informs visitors that the town has a population of 115 people – plus or less than 7,000.
The numerical confusion is due to the hordes who will be flocking to the remote town for its famous horse races this week.
Birdsville is a popular destination, but the logistical challenges of such a large influx in a remote area are immense. The petrol and diesel line will snake out of town, and the grocery shelves at the roadhouse will be stripped as if by a plague.
Birdsville is perched on top of The Great Artesian Basin – one of the world’s largest underground water resources.
Even locals flee during the scorching summer months.
To accommodate its many visitors, the town has adapted an ancient custom for modern times.
Birdsville Common is a large tract of land surrounding the town. A temporary village will be built of tents, swags and caravans.
This is not a rural pasture where the cows of the peasants graze. Here, emus trot on the martian-red rocks of the Gibber Plains. Willy-willys race through the salt pans. Coolibahs stretch their branches over the Diamantina River’s chalky water.
The commons of the Outback serve the same purposes as those codified by England in the Magna Carta and the Charter of the Forest eight centuries ago.
Don Rowlands recalls when goats, and not tourists, roamed around the 1,192-hectare common.
The Wangkangurru Yarluyandi Elder says, “This town was raised with goat milk and goat’s meat.” “All these small outback towns are. Bedourie, Windorah, Boulia, Birdsville.”
Before refrigerators and trucks, the traditional owners and frontierspeople of the Outback were forced to produce their perishables. They needed the land to do so. The cattle stations, which cover vast tracts of channel land the size of European countries, had no shortage of land. But the townspeople relied on the common for their protein.
Rowlands remembers that hundreds of goats from the town would gather in a large mob to graze on the common during the day. People in the village kept watch for a “ruckus,” which could indicate a dingo assault.
He says, “you’d go about your daily business but the goats were always in your peripheral vision.”
The goats then trotted back at night in smaller groups, seeking shelter from their homes.
Rowland remembers riding “poddy children” as a child.
He says that sometimes, for a little fun, they would have goat rodeos outside.
Locals still find the odd horse in its dunes.
Zara Burke and Tully Burk use the common in a more modern way. The Burke siblings, aged nine and six, live in the suburbs. The common for them is their sprawling backyard. You’ll see them on dirt bikes most weekends, riding around barrels and stakes set out in the saltbush. This suits their mum, Courtney Thomas.
She says, “At the moment the wildflowers on the town’s common are stunning. The sand dunes have poached eggs daisies and yellowtops.” It’s lovely to live on the edge of town.
Diamantina Shire Council is today ostensibly responsible for the management of the town common.
Miriam Williams, a senior lecturer in geography and planning at Macquarie University, says that the concept of commons is defined largely by how an area is used and the people who use it.
The commons can be created on land owned by either the private or public sector, including sports fields, old churches, and roadside verges. She says that the ancient idea is gaining traction today in the modern world.
“Because this is not about individual wealth. It is about our collective well-being and wealth. The benefit of a particular property is shared by our community.”
Tyson Yunkaporta is a senior lecturer in Indigenous Knowledge at Deakin University. He says that although European settlers created the Birdsville Common, its use today has some echoes from earlier lore.
The Aboriginal author and academic says, “We share common spaces for ceremonies and care for one another.”
Birdsville races can be seen as both a ceremony and a ritual.
Megan Kelleher’s PhD explores blockchain and Indigenous Knowledge Systems. She is quick to point out the differences.
The “totemically assigned responsibility” to care about the country is not what helped Indigenous people to avoid the tragedy of commons that European scholars would call it, nor the “deep knowledge of seasonality ” acquired over tens and thousands of years of continuous occupation.
“Give them a moment, they are evolving!” Yunkaporta replies. “They only have 200 years.”
Birdsville continues to evolve. The goat era is over. Don Rowlands’s mother-in-law had the last herd in the 1970s.
It’s best to be first on the scene for race weekend. Some people arrive weeks in advance for a prime riverside spot.
The council installs temporary rubbish skips, shower blocks, and an environmental levee on the race tickets to look after the common.
Once the crowd has left the desert, it is still possible to roam freely along the Diamantina’s banks and roll a swag.
Rowlands explains that anyone traveling through the area can stop here for a couple of days to rest before getting back on track.
It’s available to everyone.