- Short Facts about Finke Desert Race
- The Ultimate Outback Test
- The people of Finke Desert Race
- Finke Desert Race 2022 volunteering applications
- Yes, I would do it again!
- More about Tatts Finke Desert Race
I volunteered at Finke Desert Race at the remote Finish-Start point soon after I moved to Alice Springs in 2018. The race proved to be the ultimate Outback Test; for me as a woman and a volunteer but also for the hundreds of bikes, cars, buggies and quad riders, men and women, coming each year from all over the world to compete for the title King of the Desert. (There is still yet a Queen to be seen winning the race.)
‘Go to Finke’, my future father-in-law said, ‘it is an extraordinary experience. You will never forget it!’
Going through an experience like that, you appear on the other side as a changed person. The conditions are so tough that you inevitably become more adaptable but humble. You start to understand the challenges people living in the desert face; gain respect for the competitors coming from far away to compete in these extreme conditions. In my eyes, everyone who makes it to the Finish Point is a winner. Because as Jesse Owens said, “the battles that count aren’t the ones for gold medals. The struggles within yourself, the invisible, inevitable battles inside all of us, that’s where it’s at.”
Short Facts about Finke Desert Race
Tatts Finke Desert Race has the fame to be one of the toughest off road races in the Southern Hemisphere. It started in 1976 when a group of motorbike riders from Alice Springs organised themselves a weekend competition. Since then, the number of riders had grown (to over 900 in 2019) and it attracts a local and international mix of professionals and amateurs. The organisers cancelled the 2020 race due to the local COVID restrictions. The 2021 race is just about to start at the time I’m posting this article.
The track starts in Alice Springs and in total is 460 km long. It crosses the oldest river in the world – Finke River, and at some sections runs along the Old Ghan Railway tracks. The landscape is mesmerising with its colours but arduous. Red dirt, spinifex grass, mulga and desert oak trees all make the sceneries of iconic Australia’s Outback.
The Finish-Start Point at the remote Aputula Aboriginal community (known previously as Finke Township) is where the riders arrive the first day and where they begin their drive back on the second day of the race. It was also my volunteering post.
The drive to the remote Finke Aboriginal community was the easiest part of the weekend. Mostly because I wasn’t driving.
From the Kulgera Road House, we turned onto the dirt track and after driving for two hours, red dust trying to catch up with us all the way to the Finke Point, my future husband and I arrived at Finke in the early afternoon. My future father-in-law was already setting the camp.
Jumping out the 80 Series Toyota Land Cruiser with a childlike curiosity, I saw a flat horizon, red dusty land, few trees, some bushes. In the distance, a little settlement with houses like plants planted in the dust, an old, crumbling service station, a football field that was just an empty space.
Across all that was the Finke Point – my workstation for two days. A tin shack on polls, most of it been used for the tribune. That tribune was everything. It’s where we recorded the rider’s times, where the Manager wished them luck on the second day before they head back to Alice Springs.
A few hundred metres from the camp, there was an AFL game going on. Serious stuff. There was a silence around the dust field and the families surrounding it intently watched their players compete. I snugged in between two groups of women and children.
I knew that Aboriginal people are not easy to communicate with strangers. So, I didn’t talk to them, just stood there and tried to understand their world. I wondered if they will be curious enough to talk to me. Nah. Stayed there for a while, they all successfully ignored me and I felt comfortably invisible among all these people with different skin colour, language and beliefs from mine.
The Ultimate Outback Test
I was an Outback virgin before volunteering at Finke Desert Race. Despite my trip to Central Australia, when I slept in a swag on the dirt ground and got friendly with the dust and the flies, I wasn’t prepared.
The conditions at our Finke Point were poor. Showers were a fiction. The toilet was overflowing and had a short timber door that wasn’t hiding much. Raised in Bulgaria where ‘Turkish toilet’ was still a countryside commodity in my childhood years, I wasn’t fussed.
The Red Centre is a tough land with a few shrubs and even fewer rain and people. It also has one other substance. Dust. The fine blood orange powder covering the ground that lifts with the whiff in the air and lands on everything around. It is in your hair, covers your eyelashes, becomes your second skin, and turns your lips into a fine sanding paper.
I squinted my eyes while trying to record the numbers on the arriving bikes and cars. It was hard to see through the dust and felt mystic at the same time. Despite of the conditions, or indeed because of them, the human figures popping out from the dust showed personality and character.
The people of Finke Desert Race
“Finke is a unique event in that it enables people of all walks of life to become involved.” (source)
Two other women and I had been given the Manual Scoring Duties. They were older than me and ‘Finke Race royalties’. Either they or members of their families had competed in the race or had been volunteers for many years. Most of the people helping with the organisation of the race are ‘centralians’. Outback Aussies living in the Red Centre. Tough people. I was an outsider and an amateur, so the two ladies treated me as such. (In 2014, The Northern Territory had six riders in the top 10.)
The mood around the camp was uplifting, despite the pitiful conditions. Smiles and jokes joined the friendly orders. On the first evening, we were all like teenagers on a camp trip the day before they meet the Grizzly bear in the woods. It was a cheerful evening around the fire – with beers, sandwiches and volunteer stories from previous years.
Everything seemed like a weekend trip to me. All of a sudden, when I saw who our camping neighbours are, I realised how gigantesque the effort all riders put in is and how courageous they must be to take part in this race.
It was the priest from Alice Springs with his family – wife and three children; the youngest still wasn’t walking. Their tent was the most ‘luxurious’ and had ‘rooms’. Later someone told me that the family often needs to visit the remote communities spread across Central Australia. The tent is their home for those times. I watched the older children, a boy and a girl, pumping the water out from the old pump, walking bare feet, roaming and chatting with everyone. They were little sun shines among all the seriousness of that weekend.
The reason the priest was here, just like every year, is that sometimes people die during the race. Like every race, it is a dangerous endeavor. People lose friends, witness terrible crashes and in an instant the world can collapse around them. For those moments, the priest, who had very calm and reassuring energy, was there. In 2018 we were lucky – no one lost a loved one.
The Beauty of Fear
The morning of the second day will always stay in my memory. I was working on one of the several desks registering the riders and giving them their start numbers. One after another, I looked up and saw faces, all different in their beauty, but all serious and scared. I have never seen such a large group of men so pure in their facial expressions, not being able to hide their emotions.
Decisive and fearful at the same time. That mix of strength and grace – that was so enchanting. They knew how vulnerable they are, the failure or even a fatal crash could be just around the corner. Yet, they would do it, again, anyway. Dusty beards, messy hairs, tanned faces, men of all ages were challenging their fear. Some have done it for years. Several are five – six years’ champions. Others continue to compete even if their age doesn’t give them the chance of winning. The riders’ age varies from 16 to 60+. Finke Race is as much physical as a spiritual experience.
Among all these colourful riding suits, the women’s presence wasn’t evident. When finally I would see a woman’s face, strangely, it showed less fear. Maybe we are just better at hiding it.
“This is our teacher!”
On that second day, during the start, which seemed to take hours, I had the time to walk around and take photos up close. An Aboriginal family with their children looked so excited. The woman looked at me, the girl with the camera, and pointed towards the car which dust trail was still visible. “This is our teacher!” she exclaimed. I do believe the rider was a woman. There was a pride in her eyes and voice.
Motorsport Women at Finke Desert Race
There were three female riders in the 2014 competition (source). In 2018, they were about 16 including an all-female team. However, the number might not be exact. I couldn’t find official stats and took it from the list with the names of the riders registered for the competition that year.
The same year, the organisers introduced the Fastest Females Category. The top three female finishers across all classes will receive the award. The category bears the name of Kay Wharton, a veteran at Finke that started as a Race Doctor first before trying her chance as a rider. The aim of this award is to show how inclusive the race is and to celebrate the substantial contribution women have had during all forty-five years of its existence.
Yet, I did feel that the Finke Desert Race is still a very macho-culture-driven event. Just look at their Ambassadors. If you check the Application Form for the position, you will read “Please try to include at least one headshot and one full body image.” Sexual appeal has been the main marketing weapon in Western culture for too long. I think it is time to stop objectifying women.
Instead of models, what if the ambassadors are people from all genders and ages. They, of course, need to have great people skills, knowledge about and passion for the race. This way, the ambassadors might be able to connect with the public and the competitors not in a superficial but a deeper, lasting way.
I wish I could see on the posters the faces of the women riders competing side by side with the men instead of the cute faces of the ‘cheerleaders’!
Meeting the King of the Desert
Do you know who Toby Price is? The fact that I didn’t says all about how novice I was! That year (2018) he not only already had the title King of the Desert; he attempted to become the King in both categories – bike and buggy, at the same time! I believe that was his second try.
During the registration, he approached my table to get his number while there were dozens of others queued. I looked up annoyed and said ‘Name?’ His cool and collected reaction made me respect him so much more after one of the ‘Finke royalties’ ladies hissed at me ‘Do you know who that was?!’ Mind you, that wasn’t a question but a verdict. I had committed a crime.
Since then, I am a big fan of Toby Price. Learned a lot about his passion for the drive and his story. A small-town boy who had become the first Australian to win in any category at Dakar Rally. Here’s an article about his performance that year.
Finke Desert Race 2022 volunteering applications
If you want to experience Tatts Finke Race from up close and contribute to its organisation, you can apply to volunteer. Here is the link with the information where you can also register. Keep in mind that the expression of interests opens early in the year – usually in February – and the positions fill quickly.
Yes, I would do it again!
The Finke Finish – Start Point doesn’t have the glamour of the Start – Finish Point in Alice Springs. Instead of dust-free cars and bikes, cheerful sexy ambassadors, official media cameras, champagne and all the other attributes of a typical motorsport race, it has authenticity. It is real life in its purest form. No make-up or hairdos, no microphones and speakers. Only the bunch of dust-covered volunteers, quiet groups of local Aboriginal people, rough bikers who have travelled from afar to see their heroes from up close, the Police four-by-fours and the St John’s emergency workers across the tribune.
The reason why I will always remember this experience is that rare trueness that is the epitome of life in the Territory. It is a hard and simple life. A very beautiful life too. I would volunteer at Finke Race again – with a great passion. Keep the dust coming, folks!
More about Tatts Finke Desert Race
2018 Tatts Finke Desert Race | RD2 Wrap Up – video
How a picnic in Palm Valley evolved into the world’s fastest desert race – article
Director Dylan River turns Desert Race obsession into new film – article
More about the Northern Territory and Alice Springs read here.
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