It’s hard to imagine a quainter, more Australian event than this.
There are people paddling canoes with sand shovels, pirates brandishing water pistols, and flour bombs being launched in the outback. The Henley on Todd Regatta is, quite possibly, the world’s craziest sporting event.
The regatta has been held for 58 years on the dry riverbed of the Todd River in Alice Springs. It’s testament to the Australian sense of humour. Word has it that it began as a joke at the expense of the original British settlers, poking fun at the stuffy atmosphere of the traditional English river races.
Instead of nibbling cucumber sandwiches and gracefully gliding across a rippling lake, participants in the Henley on Todd compete in ‘boat’ races in the style of the Flintstones: holding a metal frame and dashing for the finish line across the dry red sand of the riverbed. Some jokester has hung “no fishing” signs about the place. The commentator describes it as “almost as dirty as the Yarra”.
It is the only regatta ever cancelled because unusually wet weather in 1993 meant there was actually water in the river. Despite the event being cancelled, two groups put their boat entry into the water and completed the course under protest of the track officials.
Along with the traditional “boat” races the event delivers sand shovelling competitions, a foot race where you can only wear budgie smugglers, waterskiing comps, people being dragged on boogie boards (while wearing a mask and snorkel to keep the sand out of their noses) and surf lifesaving races where people paddle surf skis on rails using a sand shovel. All this happens while a band of troublesome pirates drench everyone with water pistols.
In the nippers foot race, the kids wear floaties “for safety”.
This is the perfect antidote to winter in Australia. While much of the country battles the cold it’s 31 degrees in Alice and while the sun warms your skin, the attendees warm your frostbitten heart.
The opening street parade down Todd Mall is lead by young members of the local Drum Atweme music group. This initiative offers kids from the town camps drumming lessons in return for good attendance at school.
A procession of weird and wonderful outback vehicles bring up the rear. There’s a camel themed car that spits water at onlookers. “Are there any backpackers out there?” asks the co-driver through a megaphone, as bewildered foreigners are drenched with water.
This year’s “BYO boat” race is won by a dad who runs in a makeshift barrel with two of his young children strapped to him. They are dressed as the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker. The toddler at the rear wears a baker’s hat, while the baby at the front has a candle unceremoniously stuck atop his head.
They win the race. The crowd goes wild.
Children everywhere are having the best day of their lives, making the most of free face painting, fruit and rides.
Footage of the regatta — arguably one of the most remote sporting events in the world — is broadcast all over the globe, with international commentators marvelling at “those crazy Aussies”.
It’s clear this event is the highlight of the Central Australia’s social calendar. On the eve of the regatta cover band Gold Chisel has the grey nomads jiving in the dust. Race teams are made up of nurses from the Alice Springs hospital, members of the Army and Navy and local mums.
There is a strong American contingent in the crowd, here to support their compatriots in one of the day’s main events: The America’s Cup (the Aussie boat in this race is called the Wedgie 1).
The regatta is run by Rotary and this year they raised over $5,000 for the McGrath Foundation to support breast cancer nurses around the country. Since its inception the regatta has raised over $1.75m for charity.
“The beauty of this event is that it is created and delivered by volunteers,” explains this year’s commodore, Anjali Palmer.
“The funds raised go to good causes … by participating in the regatta people contribute to the community.”
As the sun dips kids take part in sandcastle building competitions and frenetic lolly scrambles, kicking up more dust than a passing road train.
The finale of the day is a raucous battle between three huge motorised “boats”. They pelt each other with flour bombs, confetti and water cannons until the crowd can scream no more.
While the regatta is a testament to the Australian sense of humour, it’s also a testament to the resourcefulness of this community. As one attendee was heard saying as he left at the end of the day “they’ve taken a dry riverbed and turned it into an event seen all over the world … that’s f*cking something”.