Anyone who’s met an Aussie will understand very quickly we like a good laugh, even better if it’s about ourselves. We’re also sports crazy. So it’s no wonder we have a penchant for combining two of our favourite activities – sports and humour – into an event that has now become a national icon.
The Henley-On Todd Regatta started back in 1962, when Reg Smith and his colleagues at the Alice Springs Meteorological Bureau suggested they hold a rowing race similar to the famous Henley-on-Thames Regatta (between Oxford and Cambridge Universities). The Rotary Club of Alice Springs jumped at the idea and weren’t perturbed that the largest body of water closest to them was 1500 kilometres away. So instead, they race on the dry Todd River riverbed.
These days, Alice Springs boasts a population of 26,000, which increases by 20,000 when the Henley-On Todd Regatta takes place every August. As Alice Springs is a two-day trip by car from Sydney, making the effort to attend the regatta is a serious investment of time and money from competitors and visitors alike.
Traditionally in August every year, the Todd River is dry which allows this race to run. The only time the race has been cancelled due to water on the riverbed was in 1995. Rain would spell disaster for the organisers and they now ensure their non-aquatic carnival against the river being wet.
Day one of the regatta sees a parade of entrants and their boats traipsing the streets to the Todd Mall, with the regatta itself starting at the northern end of the Todd riverbed a short time later. To get around not having any water on the river, competitors race with bottomless boats and hold onto them as they sprint down the riverbed towards the finish line.
Spectators line the west bank of the Todd River and cheer on the contestants kicking up sand as they race each other for the coveted title of Henley-On-Todd Regatta winner.
Aside from the races, there is the Surf-Ski Rescue where rail tracks are laid along the riverbed and damsels in distress wave their hands at the end of the tracks, waiting for their rescuers. The surf-ski rescue teams paddle their surf-skis along the rails, rescue the floundering females, then the rescuers and victims are hauled back by a safety line pulled by their beach-based assistants.
The Oxford Tubs is an event consisting of pairs sitting in a 44-gallon drum that has been cut in half. The tubs are placed on the rails and the participants paddle in the sand with small shovels to the finish line.
The other events are the eights, yachts, Head of the River, Bring Your Own Vessel, Hen’s Head of the River, High School Chick of the Todd and the Admiral’s Cup. All are team events that bring tears to spectators’ eyes and blisters to the participants’ feet and hands.
The rules are straightforward hold the vessels waist high and run like the clappers* along the course without tripping or collapsing from laughter or exhaustion. The heavy sand makes the going hard, and it’s only the strong athletes or those with iron wills that cross the finish line.
As well as boating races, the regatta includes the Henley Bathing Beauty Contest, the Iron Sandman, the Greasy-mast and sand shovelling. Though the highlight is the naval battle at the end of the regatta. Vessels armed with water cannons, flour bombs, and wanna-be pirates engage in mortal combat.
The Henley-On Todd attracts bankers, backpackers, mums, grandfathers, and everyone in between. Seemingly sane people turn crazy during this event and will stop at nothing to get across that finish line.
The event has grown so popular, that now people from all over the world travel to Alice Springs to witness or participate in one of Australia’s craziest sporting events. So if you happen to be near the centre of Australia in August, pack your togs** and shovel and head down to the Henley-On-Todd Regatta, Australia’s only boat race without water.
* clappers = go very fast
** togs = bathers, swimwear