My admirers might have been sozzled but there was no doubt I was the hottest chip seller at the Birdsville races last year.
They called me the "outback darling" and "honey of the food stalls", although admittedly there was little competition from my co-workers whose average age was 50 years and counting. But I hadn't been able to say no when they asked for help, and now here I was in a cap and apron, spattered with oil.
Dealing with drunken cowboys at 2am wanting more than chips wasn't too flattering but it certainly was entertaining, particularly when two lads decided to promote "Jo's chips" to any passers-by met over the 100m drive up to the Birdsville Hotel.
Birdsville is one of Australia's most isolated towns and lies on the fringe of the Simpson Desert. A trickle of people travel through here each year but every September more than 5000 converge on this remote corner of the outback for the annual Birdsville Races.
The races are one of those quintessential, quirky, outback events involving horses in which the actual races are kind of incidental to the rest of the fun.
Travelling boxing tents, rodeos, booze, sun, sand dunes, rough roads, museums, galleries and friendly crowds help form the non-stop entertainment that starts well before and ends well after the last horse has left the turf.
Of course to enjoy the experience they all need chips - hence my current job - and beer. And stalls like this one travel to rodeos and events all year round.
Besides it's pretty amazing to travel 2000 kilometres into the middle of nowhere and find hot chips. On average that's the distance most people travel overland. While there are Canadians, Brits, New Zealanders and Americans who come from abroad, most of the spectators are your average Joe Bloggs Australians who load up their troop carriers, caravans or light planes each year to travel to the back of beyond. And some have done it for years.
Part of the fun is getting here and there's a camaraderie among the pilgrims in their shared experiences crossing the desert. The friendly nature of the bush strikes all and sundry; besides chatting is the best way to pass time while queuing for petrol, water, beer, chips, toilets, showers, kangaroo burgers, the ATM and all the necessities of life in Birdsville.
The official race programme is a two-day extravaganza that begins on the first Friday of September. Official entertainment includes evening gala events with famed pop or country and western stars. There are also bush poetry readings, a rodeo where the audience can wrestle steers themselves and auctions to sell off memorabilia from previous years. Or if you don't want organised events there's always plenty of action and empty beer cans to trip over at the iconic Birdsville Hotel, one of the remotest places in Australia to get a cold one.
One of the attractions that has become synonymous with the races is the Fred Brophy Boxing Troupe. Fred is the last boxing tent showman in the world and its worth driving into the desert just to see him. He begins the show by inviting all comers to take on his fighters and gives each a drum roll as they come on to the stage.
He matches them up with fighters named The Cowboy, Barramundi Kid, White Lightning and Crush and welcomes all non-Queenslanders to Australia. The show begins inside the tent once the crowd has surged in with beers in hand to jeer, taunt and urge on the fighters. It could only happen in outback Australia and not surprisingly is banned elsewhere.
The racecourse action begins midday on Friday with the feature event, the Birdsville Cup, on the Saturday. Most of the crowds here linger around the punters tables where wads of money exchange hands and only occasionally wander down to look at the horses being readied in open stalls.
Equal numbers line up for beer, play cricket, don hairnets or chill out in the stands and there's only a brief halt to goings-on when the race begins. The horses seem rather incidental. It could be the beer haze or simply that the horses and jockeys are almost indiscernible in the dirt as they churn down the home straight, but you can't help but wonder if some people even know who won the Cup.
The official race motto is "the dust never settles" and it does seems particularly fitting. Although to humour myself one day while waiting for camel pies in the Birdsville bakery I came up with a few more based on my experiences. They were "the petrol's never more expensive", "the line in the ladies showers never gets shorter", "you'll never eat more flies" or "the best place in 2000km to buy hot chips".
The motto actually embraces two more race meetings at the nearby towns of Bedourie and Betoota, which take place over other weekends in September. So if you haven't swallowed enough flies, beer or chips by the end of the Birdsville Races you can always follow the crowds to the next event.
Or you can wait until the fun begins next September.
Just make sure you call in to the food stalls for some hot chips. I might just be behind the counter.
Birdsville lies in Queensland on the border with South Australia and the Northern Territory. It can only be reached via rough, dirt roads and a 4WD is recommended. Petrol and basic supplies are available in town, however prices are high so it is better to bring whatever you can.
WHERE TO STAY:
Camping is permitted on paddocks outside the town common during the races. Toilets and bins are provided and you can shower in town for A$5. The Caravan Park costs A$15-$20 pp.
WHAT TO DO:
If you enjoy outback events you might like to coincide your trip to Birdsville with the Quilpie Opal Festival and Kangaranga Do Street Party that culminates on the Tuesday night prior to the races. On the Wednesday action moves to Windorah for the International Yabby Races leaving you enough time to drive to Birdsville the following day. Or if you're coming through Innamincka you could see their picnic races at the end of August.
There's plenty to do in Birdsville even when the races aren't on.
Make sure you get to the Birdsville Working Museum to marvel at John Menzies' amazing collection of stirrups, coaches, signs, telephones and potions.
The Blue Poles Gallery is a good way to get acquainted with resident artist Wolfgang John's fabulous works highlighting the local environment.
Stop into the bakery for some fine pizza, coffee or camel pies, or get a pint at the hotel.
You can also wander down to the Burke and Wills tree at the river where the famous Australian explorers carved their names or enjoy sunset atop the Simpson Desert's largest sand dune, Big Red (40km west).