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The red dust pilgrimage to Birdsville

Debbie answers the phone at the outback Mungerannie Hotel, laughs and says: “It’s madness”.

The road house sits on the flat red earth next to the Birdsville Track in remote South Australia, a speck on the map between Lake Eyre and the Simpson Desert.

Inside, the walls are plastered with beer coasters and photographs. Hanging from the roof are rows of former workers’ Akubras that have seen too much dust and sun.

On the roadside, a sign with handpainted golden arches cheekily proclaims that a local McDonald’s is coming soon.

The hotel is entering its busiest period of the year, as revellers drive the famed track 300km further north to Birdsville, Queensland, for the Big Red Bash, billed as the world’s most remote music festival.

Owner Phil Gregurke says he expects to make 200 meals a day, compared to the usual 40 on a good night.

He’s ready to sell 60,000 litres of fuel, go through 800 bread rolls and 90 loaves of bread in the week before and after the sold out Bash, which starts on July 5.

“A lot of people do it as a pilgrimage every year,” Mr Gregurke tells AAP.

“They’re mostly city dwellers going to a concert in the middle of nowhere.”

With artists like Jimmy Barnes, Missy Higgins, Kasey Chambers, Richard Clapton, Tex Perkins, Tim Rogers and Sarah McLeod playing on the red dunes, the festival exudes Australian nostalgia.

McLeod, the frontwoman of The Superjesus, and a solo artist, first played the Bash last year.

“There’s nothing out there, that’s the beauty of it,” she tells AAP.

“At night when the stage lights come on and everyone’s a little bit drunker, the party kicks in.

“Then the stars come out. It’s a very spiritual experience coupled with rock and roll.”

The vast landscape makes the music hit harder, she says.

“The sound just takes off into the ether.”

Months of planning go into the festival, as 10,000 people set up camp in the town with a usual population of 140.

The only pub there, the Birdsville Hotel, has strict ticketing measures to control parched party-goers, who will eat up to 400 meals each night over the three-day event.

“To put things into perspective, the population increase in Birdsville would be the same as increasing Brisbane’s population of 2.4 million up to 240 million using the existing infrastructure and resources,” the hotel says on its Facebook page.

Music and arts, including outback festivals like the Bash, are a valuable part of Queensland’s economy. The state government says before the pandemic, the sector raked in $8.5 billion every year.

Big Red Bash founder, Outback Music Festival Group director, Greg Donovan, estimates the festival brings in $15 million to Birdsville and surrounds.

On average, people travel more than 4000 kilometres there and back, equating to millions of kilometres through several states, he says.

“They come from every corner of Australia for a great time and camaraderie.”

A road train hauling generators from Melbourne arrives two weeks out and water, food and communications are all trucked in.

“What we’re trying to do is build a little town.

“When people arrive the setting is incredible. They walk up on the big red dune, which is 40 metres high, like a 13-storey building, and look out across the desert.

“It is a quintessentially Australian experience.”

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