The man at the hostel’s front desk is adamant that today of all days is the best in Alice Springs all year round. It’s the day of the Henley-on-Todd regatta.
The Henley Royal Regatta is on the River Thames, London, was established in 1839 and the Queen is the patron. It is an exclusive event for high society, with rules of dress, decorum and being posh. The River Todd is in Australia’s Red Centre, has no water in it for 364 days of the year and can be home for people with nowhere else to go.
The man who imagined such a regatta knew well about the lack of water being a meteorologist but in 1962, Reg Smith and a few mates of the Rotary Club of Alice Springs decided, after a few beers, that a regatta without water would make a for a great community day out. Doubtful friends asked if they would tow or push the boats, but the inspired response was neither; “we cut the bottoms out and carry them!”
Whilst the Henley regatta refused participation to people who were manual labourers, a definition which included policemen and such scoundrels as a future Olympic champion who was also the father of Grace Kelly, I could pay something like five extra dollars to have a chance at glory. After a couple of beers, my courage rose and I heard them calling over the tannoy for runners in the budgie smuggler race.
Budgie smugglers are slang for swimming trunks of the Speedo variety and this race was in honour of then Prime Minister Tony Abbott who was surprisingly keen for cameras to catch him in his budgie smugglers coming out of the water. There was no doubt that this race had potential for embarrassment, but I was more confident in my ability to run than in the other events which seemed to require some particular Australian skills. Plus, I could always hide behind my Tony Abbot mask.
I got undressed and limbered up for my heat. I stood there looking up the line of competitors trying not to look down but aware that next to this pasty, skinny Scot was a pacific islander whose arm was the size of my thigh. The final was little different with an American military guy in dark wrap around shades on my inside who kept at least a bollock hair ahead throughout.
Still, I was happy to sit with my medal and watch people ski on sand, paddle their way through the dunes, drink beer, eat food and revel in a day where the whole community joined in the reverie. The climax was a battle of trucks decked out as boats and armed with water cannons, fireworks and flour bombs. The start was stalled by a lack of petrol in one, which was quickly remedied with a jerry can, but was not even paused when one of the “boats” caught fire.
Having been here longer now, I think the Henley-on-Todd regatta captures part of the Australian relationship to Britain; they take something that they once knew, discard the pomp and ceremony and turn it into something that any group of mates could enjoy. I’ve never been to Henley but I would rush back to the Todd.